The decade of the 1980s was the one which, more than any other previous time, allowed women to go back to work after having children. But to Nickla Roberts, being a mother was more important than furthering her career — even if that career was in the dream-world of professional wrestling, and she was perhaps its biggest female star.
Roberts, of course, was Baby Doll, the voluptuous valet of (at various times) Tully Blanchard, Ric Flair, and Larry Zbyszko, who abruptly left Jim Crockett Promotions in 1988 in the midst of the one of the most well-remembered angles in the history of that territory. Only in 2005, with both her daughters teenagers, did she return to the business in any form, appearing at independent shows, conventions, and autograph signings.
“It was really hard to walk away from the business,” Roberts admitted to SLAM! Wrestling. “People would see you around, and they’d go ‘Hey, why aren’t you on TV anymore?’ I used to say that I couldn’t be a mother, and be in wrestling, too. For me, it was either having kids or being on the road, and I decided to stay at home with my girls. They never spent a single day in day-care, I never had babysitters, and it was only when they went to school that I thought about working outside of my house. And once they were old enough to look after themselves, it was too late for me to have any really big opportunity again in the business.”
Roberts was the daughter of former wrestler and Lubbock, Texas promoter Nick Roberts, and female wrestler Lorraine Johnson, meaning that she was around the business from the moment her mother first held her in her arms. Her early memories of wrestling revolve around her father’s shows, which took place every Wednesday, and also of some of the future legends of the business who passed through Lubbock, either to wrestle or to visit their parents on the road.
“I can remember being about three or four years old, or maybe even younger than that, and having to be with the babysitter while my Mom and Dad went out to work at the show,” recalled Roberts. “I remember my Mom getting dressed up pretty to sell the tickets, and I remember we’d get phone calls to reserve tickets for the upcoming shows. Wrestling was a really big thing to us, and it was great to see Dad on TV every Saturday afternoon, when the showed aired. Some kids liked wrestling and some didn’t, so you’d kinda have to defend your parents’ honour a few times, and straighten some people out, but it was a fun time, because who else had their Dad on TV every week?
“We would have people like the Harts and the Von Erichs around the house all the time,” she added. “The Harts would have come in first: Bruce, Keith, and Bret, although Bret was very young, and hadn’t even begun wrestling yet. They came down for a couple of summers when I was a really young teenager. I remember Keith gave me a Calgary hockey shirt, which was really cool. I had a huge crush on Bruce, and I remember that I’d even take pictures of the television when he was on, just so I could have a picture of him. The Harts were just the nicest kids.
“Meeting up with the Von Erichs, how could you not love those boys? They were just the sweetest guys. It was actually Kerry who showed me how to throw the discus, to where I broke my high-school record. Their Dad worshiped them, and just couldn’t tell them no. When you look at the whole thing about that family, Fritz wanted nothing but the best for them — he just didn’t know how to say no, and he didn’t know that the things that he was doing for them were bad. If he had known how it would turn out, he would never have done it that way. He loved them so much.
“We’d have two or three shows while the boys stayed over, so I’d take them to the gym, and we’d play racquetball. I would just beat them shamelessly at that, especially Kevin, because neither he nor Kerry wore shoes when they were playing. I didn’t want to smarten him up on that in case he beat me (laughs). When I met him again at an autograph show about seven years ago, Kevin gave me the best compliment when he told my girls, ‘You know, your Mom is one of the best athletes I’ve ever gone against in my whole life.’ I thought it so was so cool that he would put me over like that.”
Interestingly, while her father still seemed to enjoy the business, and was popular with the wrestlers, her mother hated to be involved with it. To this day, she won’t talk about her career as a wrestler, working alongside the likes of late Penny Banner and Kay Noble, a fact which Roberts speculates could be down to the fact that it was such a hard life for a woman wrestler of that time.
“Once my Mom got out of the business, she stayed out,” Roberts noted. “Penny Banner would call and write asking her to go to the Cauliflower Alley Club, but my Mom wasn’t interested at all. For me, I wanted to know all of the stories, and what it was like as a wrestler for my Mom, because people like her and Penny were pioneers in the sport; they could travel, they had a glamorous lifestyle, and they were on TV, but she won’t talk about it. It’s a weird situation, but I did find out that when I was in the business, she would sneak over to the drugstore which had all of the wrestling magazines, and she would look through them and see if she could find any pictures of me.
“I think my Mom went through the same thing I did. Once you get out, people are wondering where you’ve gone. I think that maybe she thought she didn’t have to answer those questions, and maybe she didn’t want to be in the PTA meeting with everyone knowing she was a wrestler. Wrestling had a very different stigma to it back then. And you know, my Mom was part of the troop that worked for Billy Wolfe, and I’ve heard that he was not a very nice man at all.”
Despite seeing the disdain that her mother had for wrestling, there was never any doubt in Roberts’ mind that she wanted into the business. That desire only grew in her teens, and as a 22-year-old it became too much for the woman who had been training to become an EMT, and when she saw her first opportunity to find a place in wrestling, she grabbed it.
“Even in Junior high, when you had to write a theme paper, I always wrote about wrestling. It was always the top of my list for everything — I even wore my Terry and Dory Funk or my Giant Baba t-shirt to school. Plus, being as tall as I am, and athletic, it seemed like it was meant to be. I remember one time when my brother got to referee a match with Michael Hayes. It was a double-shot, and the guys were late getting to the show, and my brother got to referee, even though it was me who really wanted to do it, much more than him. I was like: ‘That is not fair!’
“It wasn’t until I heard my Mom talking about Gino Hernandez, and the cards and the angles that they were gonna do, and the different things that the Dallas office was building up, that I did something about it. I’d also heard my Dad talking about how they’d thought of getting maybe a black girl as a bodyguard for Gino, so I got to thinking: ‘Wow, I could do that!’ I had the biggest crush ever on Gino, and melted every time I saw him, so I snuck away my Dad’s little black book that kept all the wrestling phone-numbers, and I called the Sportatorium from a boyfriend’s phone.
“I had no idea what I was doing, but thank goodness David Manning picked up. I said: ‘David, this is Nickla Roberts. I heard my Mom & Dad say that you were looking for a girl for Gino. Well, you might wanna think about me. I’m smart, and I could really do whatever you wanted me to.’ He was just about to go up to a meeting with Fritz, and he asked if I’d be at this number for a little while. I said I would, and he called back something like 15 or 20 minutes later, in that excited way David would talk, saying that Fritz loved the idea, and that I was just what they were looking for, because they wouldn’t have to smarten up an outsider.
“But he said: ‘The only problem is, who’s going to tell your Dad?!’ When I said that I should probably be a big girl and tell him, he said: ‘Well I’m glad, because I didn’t want to be the one to tell him!’ That evening, I sat Mom and Dad down and told them what I was going to do. After that, lots of things started falling into place for my wrestling career.”
The start of that wrestling career wasn’t as rough as it would have been for complete outsiders. Despite the fact that she was not, in fact, smart to how wrestling matches were performed — “When they first gave me a finish in the dressing room, I was bouncing around saying to myself ‘That’s how they do it! That’s how they do it!'” — everyone in Dallas believed that she was, from her family connections. That, along with the fact that she treated herself and others with respect, saw that reciprocated by everyone in the dressing room.
“My Dad would always have a case of beer for the babyfaces and the heels back in the dressing room in Lubbock, and he’d have everything set up so working was easy for them, and I think the good feelings for my Dad helped me, too.
“In Lubbock, they ‘rode a bicycle,’ as the phrase was back then, because Sunday was Albuquerque, Monday was Wichita Falls, Tuesday was Odessa, Wednesday was Lubbock, Thursday was Amarillo, Friday was El Paso, and all of those trips were only 250 miles at the most. It was just a great time for everyone.
“What also helped me was having some respect for myself, because I wasn’t just one of the girls that was really just a girlfriend being brought in, and I guess also being so unique, because there weren’t so many girls doing what I was doing at the time. Anyway, what were the guys going to do — beat up a girl? Besides, it wasn’t until North Carolina that I really started to get physically involved in the matches, and by that time, I’d already got myself into the business in Dallas.”
Roberts remembers her first appearance in Dallas vividly — “It was a sell-out at the Freeman Coliseum, which shows you how hot Dallas was when I got in there. My first payoff was $350, which when I think of a lot of indy wrestlers today, makes me realize how much I was blessed.” — but she was only a few months into her career when the opportunities there began to dry up. Thankfully, she knew many of the influential players of the time through her father, and also knew perhaps the biggest vice that one of them had.
“I had two shows left in Dallas, Christmas Day 1984 and the day after, in Miami and Tampa, and that was it. I had only been in the business for a couple of months, but that was just enough to really, really like it, and not want it to end. But Sunshine had just come back and had lost a lot of weight, and she looked just fabulous, and they were going to go with her in the main female role because she was already established, and so the time for me was up. I wanted to keep going, so I decided to visit Michael Hayes, who was booking Tampa at the time.
“So I got off the plane, got in a rental car, and drove to the first liquor store I could find. I bought the biggest bottle of Jack Daniels I could find; I mean, this was a ridiculously big bottle — it was almost clown-sized (laughs). So I went over there and asked Michael if he could use me, but they were getting ready to close the territory for the season. But then he said: ‘Dusty Rhodes is in the next dressing room, and he’s getting ready to blow North Carolina up. If you want to stay in this business, Tully is in there with him, and I know you know Tully, so go in and speak to him.’ After passing me on to Dusty, I was wondering if I’d get my bottle of Jack Daniels back, but he was already off down the hall with it (laughs).
“So I went into the next dressing room and Dusty is sitting down, and Tully was standing there, and I went over and introduced myself, gave them my spiel, and you could see them look at each other as if to say ‘Where did she come from?’ Then Dusty turned to me and said ‘Baby, you might be just what we’re looking for’. When I went to the ring that night, I remember looking back, and Dusty and Tully were standing there watching, and when I looked back at the end of the match, they were still there. I knew that because they had stayed and watched that whole match, that they were pleased with what they saw.
“When I got back to the dressing room, they told me that they were looking for a girl for Tully, that I was exactly what they were looking for, and that they wanted me to start at the end of February. But then, the end of February became the first week of February, then the middle of January, until I got a call saying ‘Can you come in right now? This thing is about ready to go!’, so I got in my car and drove across the country. I remember it was on a Sunday that we filmed the piece where I stepped off the jet, and that aired the following Tuesday. It all went crazy from there.”
Roberts instantly became Tully Blanchard’s “Perfect 10” — a pretty valet who was athletic enough to get involved in his matches, which Roberts did liberally. Blanchard was known as someone difficult to get on with, both inside and outside of the ring, but the newly-named Baby Doll couldn’t have asked for anyone better to be associated with.
“Tully always treated me like gold. A lot of times it was very hard, because Tully is Tully, and he is to this day. But we clicked, and we had this great relationship. At the last fan fest we did together, I said to him ‘Do you realize we’ve never said a foul word to each other?’ We really clicked, and we even lived together for the first couple of months we worked together. He had his bedroom and I had mine, but he had so many girls in and out of the place (laughs, with just a hint of disgust). I lived the gimmick in some ways, because I cooked for him, I did his laundry, I made all the reservations, I drove, I looked after his gear — I did everything.”
Dusty Rhodes and Magnum T.A. would be Blanchard and Baby Doll’s main rivals throughout 1985, and after Blanchard lost the World Television Title to Rhodes at the Great American Bash in Charlotte, the stipulation stated that Baby Doll was Rhodes’ property for 30 days, during which time the “American Dream” took it upon himself to teach her “how to be a lady.” Despite that on-screen intention, however, in reality Roberts had to be as tough as any of the male wrestlers just to get through what was a horrible month.
“That time with Dusty was brutal. The fans beat the crap out of me, they really did. Back then, there were no guardrails, and we didn’t have the security that they have now. You literally had to fight your way through the crowd, and often at the end of the matches, Dusty would put the bullrope around my neck and drag me to the back, while I’d be kicking and screaming. And while Dusty was pulling me to the back, the fans would be kicking and punching me, spitting on me, and pulling my hair.
“It’s funny looking at it now because I live here, but Fayetteville was one of the worst places for all of that. One time here Dusty was pulling me to the back in one direction, and someone else had grabbed a handful of my hair and was pulling the other way, and they had grabbed so much of it that I couldn’t break loose.
“So with my fist I’m kinda swinging backwards to try and free myself from this hand in my hair, and out of the corner of my eye I can see this person standing on a chair. Just as my fist was heading right for them, I was able to turn sideways and see them properly, and I realized it was a pregnant woman. It was like one of those cartoon moments where you screech to a halt, but I can remember just barely tapping her, and I was able to pull free. She got a chunk of my hair, but I always think ‘My God, I almost hit a pregnant lady.'”
After losing the title to Rhodes, Blanchard turned his attention to Magnum — the U.S. Heavyweight champion at the time. On July 12, 1985, Roberts came to ringside incognito as a security guard, handing Blanchard the foreign object with which he was able to strike his opponent, and take the title. The switch ignited an incredibly intense rivalry between the two men in the ring both in the ring and in the dressing room, as they battled to outwork the other, and for the greater respect of their peers. Eventually, the feud led to an incredible angle in which Magnum kissed Baby Doll, and ripped her shirt, prompting one of the fiercest backstage brawls in wrestling history.
“Oh lord, Tully and Magnum beat the crap out of each other,” said Roberts of the angle, and the feud. “What’s funny is that I’ve seen some guys recently really rehearse what they are going say and do, and when we did that angle, Magnum really kissed me — I mean, tongue down the throat and everything. I was standing there thinking ‘Oh my God, Magnum’s kissing me! Magnum is kissing me!'”
“When I then slapped him and he ripped my shirt, that’s when Tully came down and you can actually hear those guys hitting each other on the tape. Back then, they were like two bulls in a stable; they were two big boys in the dressing room and for the office, so there was a lot of rivalry, which is really strange now because Magnum is actually married to Tully’s ex-wife, so that real-life rivalry has continued.”
After Blanchard’s loss at Starrcade, it became clear that Baby Doll’s future might lie with someone other than him. But after plans fell apart for her to manage a new heel, and for him to take the NWA World Title for the first time, she miraculously found herself as a babyface, managing Dusty Rhodes, after he saved her from an attack by Blanchard, who had just fired her and appointed JJ Dillon in her place.
“There was one point that I was supposed to go with Buddy Landel, and they were actually going to put the NWA Title on Buddy for a short time. But on the Saturday morning that they were going to do the switch, Landel went missing for five or six days, and I don’t think anyone knows where he went. That’s why I went with Dusty, because that night instead of going with Landel, I ended up going with Dusty.
“Helping Dusty against the Four Horseman was fun, and it was odd because I wasn’t a true babyface — I still tried to get away with interfering from ringside. I always did like being the heel, because that way I could do more than just be a cheerleader.”
The stint as manager of “The American Dream” led to perhaps the pinnacle of Roberts’ career, even if the angle she is asked most about actually came a couple of years later. Having gained the trust of the fans, and the “son of a plumber,” Baby Doll was at ringside for Rhodes’ NWA title shot at Ric Flair in August 1986. With no previous suggestion of a change of allegiance, with Flair on the verge of being beaten, Roberts reached under the bottom rope, and put Flair’s foot atop of it, saving him from being pinned. Later, she then tried to attack Rhodes with a chair, and when the challenger realized the full extent of what had happened, he went berserk with the same chair and was disqualified, meaning that Flair retained the title.
“If not the best moment, that was one of the top few moments in my career,” Roberts admitted. “There were 20,000 people in the arena on a Sunday afternoon in Charlotte, and it was one of those things that when I put the foot on the rope, you could hear that whole crowd gasp. We fooled them — they had no idea that that was coming. When I heard that quick silence, I thought ‘Oh lord, they’re going to kill me.'”
“All of a sudden they went from being happy that Dusty was going to keep the title, to realizing that they were being screwed. At the time, that was so ingenious, because to take that many people and completely manipulate their entire process of thinking was incredible. I was so scared, and at the end, Tully had to come down and help get Flair and I to the back, because they were really going to kill us. But it’s so cool to go back and look at that now, thinking about how bad it could have been!”
For a short period following the match, Roberts managed Flair as he “styled and profiled” his way around the country. It was an experience to behold for the young “girly girl,” as she refers to herself, as she saw the NWA World Champion live up to virtually every story that’s been told about him. Despite that, however, the two only ever had one real falling out.
“What you see on TV — that’s Flair. From 5 a.m. one morning to 5 a.m. the next, that is him. Ric knew everyone by name: the hotel help, the girl who checks you in at the hotel, the guy driving us to the airport, the ticket agent, the pilot — he knew them all by name. It was amazing to be around this guy, with the energy he had. And you know, the only thing I ever saw him do to keep the energy up was to drink a lot of coffee, a couple of beers, and he loved the kamikazes, and that was it. At 5 a.m. you’d see him with a cup of black coffee and a tuna fish sandwich, and you’d better be ready to go, because you could bet that he was.”
“Nickla Roberts is a wonderful girl, and she was great at what she did,” Flair told SLAM! Wrestling, laughing out loud when told of Roberts’ memories of him. “When she came in and managed Tully, it was at the perfect time, and she had the perfect temperament for that role. The other thing is that she loved the business, and she worked hard when she was in it. She was tremendous.”
“Here’s a story that will tell you what he was like to be around,” added Roberts. “He liked to go shopping, and sure enough he’d invite Tully or Magnum or whomever, and they’d say: ‘Oh Baby Doll, this is going to be bad. It’s gonna cost me thousands of dollars even just to keep up with Flair a little bit.’ (laughs) Tully went with him one time, and Flair was buying socks at $75 a pair — for a pair of socks (laughs)! That’s him, and he didn’t just buy one pair, he bought five or six. You can just imagine what went on after that.
“He lived the life, and there had never been anything like him, and there never will be anything like him. People say to me, ‘Don’t you think it’s time that Flair retired?’ and I tell them that it would kill him. If you told Ric Flair that he could never step into a wrestling ring again, it would kill him.
“There was only one time that we had a real falling out, and when we did, he made me feel about two inches tall. You have to imagine, the worst thing that anyone could have possibly asked me was ‘What’s my husband really like on the road? Is he cheating on me?’, but thank goodness, no-one ever did ask that. I knew everything that went on, and I wouldn’t have said anything, but I never wanted to be in that position.
“But Flair had been seeing a girl, I think she was Miss Nebraska, and was flying her all over and buying her all these beautiful dresses. One day at TV he cornered me and started screaming at me for about 20 minutes, about how dare I tell his wife, Beth, about his life on the road, how dare I let other people know about our business, and how dare I not be one of the boys.
“Everyone was looking at me wondering what I was going to say, but I just kept quiet and tried my best not to cry. A couple of days later he came up to me and apologized, because he found out that it was his Mom that had spoken to Beth, and had told her that something serious was going on that she might need to take care of. I never did say anything, and the only reason I’m telling you is because it’s 25 years later, and they aren’t married anymore. Marriage is the one normal thing that Flair tries to do, but he sucks at it.”
Coming off such a hot angle, and managing the NWA World Champion, it seemed like life couldn’t get any more successful for Roberts. Added to that was the fact that in her personal life, she had found love with Michael Smith — the brother of Jake “The Snake” Roberts and son of Grizzly Smith — who wrestled as Sam Houston. But the higher-ups at Jim Crockett Promotions weren’t exactly enthralled with the workplace relationship, and when Houston was to be transferred to the satellite Kansas City territory, Roberts’ devotion to her husband-to-be saw her first stint with Crockett come to an end.
“I gave them an ultimatum, I did, I did,” said Roberts, with more than a hint of disbelief at the boldness of her actions. “It was at a TV taping at TBS studios, and Sam and I were just about to get married. I pulled Dusty to the side because I knew that they had just bought into Kansas City, and that they were going to send a satellite crew to work there. It was almost like a developmental kind of thing, and they were going to send Sam out there, and Barbarian and Warlord, and a bunch of other guys. Crockett had so many guys that he couldn’t use them, but he didn’t want them to get picked up by anybody else.
“So anyway, I pulled Dusty to the side and said that if Sam was going to Kansas City, that I wanted to go too, and Dusty just got a look on his face that said, ‘Oh no, Doll, not this.’ But we were getting married and we wanted to be together, and you don’t think that things are ever going to end. But they showed us (laughs)…
“At least when I left, it was really when I was at the very top. I couldn’t have been more on top than where I was, because I was working with Flair, and selling out everywhere. But I guess if there was a time to leave, that was the time, because when I look back at it, a lot of the guys and girls that I travelled with then, aren’t around anymore. Who knows, if I had stuck around for too much longer, I may not have been around for much longer either, and I wouldn’t have had my girls and the life that I had. It’s odd to wonder what would’ve happened had I stayed in Charlotte and not gone to Kansas City, but I wouldn’t change the decision I made.
After the career high of being aligned with the NWA World Heavyweight Champion, Roberts’ time in Kansas City was predictably uneventful. After three months, therefore, both she and Sam hit Bill Watts’ UWF promotion, where his father was a road agent. The work would seem to have been more a favour to Smith than a sign that Watts was prepared to push either husband or wife, and so, one year after leaving, it was somewhat of a relief, professionally at least, that Roberts found herself back in Jim Crockett Promotions.
“I really didn’t work that much for the UWF,” Roberts admitted. “It was more Sam than me. I guess someone got the idea of a catfight between Missy Hyatt, Dark Journey, Sunshine, and myself, and we had about 12 or 13 of those matches throughout the summer, but they weren’t really up to much. Watts didn’t like the girls that much, even though they made him a lot of money. He just didn’t see the value of the women.
“I hadn’t really left on bad terms so much with Crockett; it was just that it was a job, and you are supposed to do what you’re told. I was very privileged to have the spot that I had, and when someone is paying you your cheque, you don’t tell them what to do, and I did kinda make demands to them. I was a young kid, and bull-headed, and they showed me.
“But when I did get a chance to go back, I loved it, although there was a different feeling to the place the second time around — the business was becoming more business-like. Before, wrestling was all about camaraderie between the boys, but the tide was turning to where guys were worried about their spots, and their jobs. It was a complete 180 from when I was there previously.”
Even though the heel turn on Dusty Rhodes may be looked at as the pinnacle of Roberts’ career, it is her second stint with the company that brings up the most questions at autograph signings and conventions. That is all due to the now-infamous “envelope angle,” which ended without a conclusion when Roberts’ marriage stifled her career a second time. The storyline of 1988 saw Baby Doll, now managing Larry Zbyszko, claim that she would destroy Dusty Rhodes’ life with the contents of that envelope. And while Roberts herself can’t be absolutely sure where the angle was going, she, like many other wrestling fans of the time, has her theories.
“There were so many stories going around about what we were going to do, and it’s been 25 years now, and we still don’t know. The way I think it was supposed to go was that I had hired a private detective to follow Dusty, and that he had caught Dusty with a woman who wasn’t his wife. We were going to show the pictures of their hotel room door slightly ajar, two pairs of legs intertwined, and clothes strewn on the floor. There was also the idea that I would give Dusty the kiss of death — like in the movies — that would signal his downfall.
“You know, it really is fantastic that people remember,” she said of the storyline. “It’s funny, because looking back at it now, it seems like the best angle ever, even though if we’d finished the angle back then, people probably wouldn’t care. The best bit about it is that the last time that I moved house, I found the original envelope that we used. Maybe one day I’ll show it to the world (laughs).”
One theory with regard to the angle being dropped so quickly is that Sam was legitimately angry about the plan for Baby Doll to kiss Rhodes, even if was the “kiss of death”, as she described it. But even though Sam may not have been entirely happy with the previous angle that saw Magnum kiss her, that’s a suggestion that the lady herself isn’t convinced about.
“I really don’t know how much truth there is in that about Sam,” she said questioningly. “When we did the angle with Magnum, Sam was on the other side of the stage watching, and this was at the time when we had just let everyone know that we were together. I don’t think Sam was particularly happy about that, but I don’t actually think he knew that we were thinking of me kissing Dusty what it came to this one.
“What I do know is that Crockett wasn’t happy with me being where I was, with them, as Sam was in the WWF. On my days off, I would go to their shows to see him, and that bothered them enough not to use me anymore, and even to get Dark Journey — that really hurt my feelings, because she was the most clueless girl they could have used — manage the Horsemen.”
After leaving Crockett for the second time, and having seen territories such as Watts’ UWF fold, it was clear to Roberts that there was really only one option for her if she wanted to remain in wrestling, and that was to go to the WWF, where she could also be alongside her husband. Knowing that the company were keen on reviving a women’s division that had been stagnant since 1985, Roberts trained with Nelson Royal to work on her in-ring skills, before presenting herself at the WWF offices. Once again, however, her chances were hampered by family, this time sister-in-law Robin “Rockin’ Robin” Smith, although ironically, that then enabled her to start a family of her own.
“Robin and I went through the training with Nelson Royal at the same time. Sam, Jake, and Grizz were all up in the WWF already, and Robin and I went up there with our promotional packages on the same day. We had a tryout with Leilani Kai and Judy Martin, but they chose Robin over me. My feelings were kinda hurt because I wanted to keep working, but now when I look back on it, it was cool because every member of that family that wanted to work, actually got to. It’s like a complete circle, and I’m glad, because Robin did an awesome job up there.”
In the knowledge that her near future wasn’t to be in wrestling, Roberts focused her attention on her marriage, and in 1991, gave birth to her first daughter Mikka Tyler Smith, followed a year later by Mikala Joy Smith. But what should have been a happy time for the new family was brought crashing down by Sam’s substance abuse problems, which may have factored into what he told Roberts just after she found out she was pregnant with Mikala.
“We were living down in New Orleans at the time, and Mikka would have just turned a year old. Basically, Sam just came out and told me that he didn’t want to be married anymore, and he handed me a plane ticket worth $100, and that was it. It wasn’t until Mikka was about 12 years old that we saw him again, and it was so, so hard. But in some ways I guess I was blessed, because I didn’t have to worry about what weekends he was going to have with them, what he was going to do with them, if he was going to be sober, or even if he was going to bring them back.
“When I got home, my Dad was insistent that I speak to someone, to realize that I wasn’t the problem. I needed to realize that no matter how much I loved him, no matter how many kids I gave him, and no matter what we did, that Sam had to cure himself. You know, my Dad was an alcoholic who only sobered up when I was about three or four years old. He went to the meetings, did the 12-step program, all of that. He helped a lot of people with their problems after that, so he understood better than anyone.”
The challenge for Roberts was to raise her girls on her own. “I did a lot of different jobs — I get bored of doing the same things — and I like to move around a lot, so I worked for US Air, AT&T, Cox Cable, and I’ve even done plastic injection molding,” she said with a laugh.
Strikingly in the circumstances, Roberts feels more sadness than anger about what happened with her marriage, and her husband. She never allowed her children to believe that their father was anything but a good man, who had a problem that he couldn’t solve. To prove that to Mikka and Mikala, Roberts took the step of asking former World Class referee James Beard, who knew Sam well, to write her daughters a letter about their father, letting them know what type of man he really was. Beard was honoured by the request, and duly obliged.
“When I wrote that letter, I didn’t want to lie about Sam, or sugar-coat his problems,” Beard told SLAM! Wrestling. “I wanted the girls to know that Sam was a genuinely sweet person inside, with good intentions. He just had some problems he couldn’t or didn’t control. I also wanted them to know that their father loved them, even though he didn’t always act responsibly where they were concerned.
“I also wanted them to know they should respect their mother for what she had done for them. I know I have a lot of respect for Nickla, because it was hard for her to deal with Sam and his problems, and also advance her own career in the business. But she did that successfully for a while, and when the time came that she felt she needed to be with her kids more, she gave up pursuing a full-time role to be with them. If you know how most personalities in wrestling are, and how addictive being in the business can be, you know how unselfish that kind of decision was.”
“I have no idea how they took what I wrote, and I don’t even recall word-for-word how I wrote it, but I do know my intentions were to help them see their father as someone who may have failed himself, lost many opportunities to capitalize on his great talents, and he may not have been there when they wanted him to or needed him, but regardless, he truly loved them and thought of them often. I hope it did some good or had some positive effect.”
“I was watching some tapes of Sam, and he was someone who had no idea how good he was,” said Roberts when reminded of the letter, tears evident in her voice. “Everyone used to ask me what I saw in Sam, but what I saw was a lot of potential. If he has just put a little more effort into the talent he was given, he could have been phenomenal. He would go to the gym with his protein drink, but instead of working out he’d spend his time walking around and chatting to everybody, because he loved to do that.
“He was a really great person, and people loved to be around him. It’s just that he had demons inside him, just like (his brother) Jake does. It’s so sad, because if you start drinking when you’re 11 or 12 years old, that’s where your development stops. Sam just never grew up, and to this day, he still hasn’t. But with that letter, I just wanted my girls to know what a really great guy he was, and still is, from someone other than Mom. It’s just that he’s in a really bad place. It could have been so great for him, but it turned out so bad.”
Eighteen years on from that separation must now seem like a lifetime ago, but perhaps a better way of looking at it is that it is merely a generation ago. That is because Mikala Smith is currently finishing her studies with a view to following in her mother and father’s. Typically modest, Roberts envisages her daughter being even more successful than she was.
“It’s going to be different for Mikala, because she’s more athletic than I was. She’s 5 foot, 6 inches, and she’s the captain of her soccer team. If she wants to wrestle, she could do that. She’s got one more year in high school, but pretty soon we’re going to speak to Johnny Ace to see if there’s any interest in her from WWE. So she has about a year left before she can consider doing anything, but after that, we might even do something like allowing her to learn in FCW. She’s pretty, smart, and athletic, and I think she could have a great career.”
That said, don’t count out “Mom” just yet. While Roberts doesn’t, at 48 years of age, have any desire to work for Vince McMahon or Dixie Carter, she does get a little giddy at the mention of the WWE Hall of Fame, now traditionally held the night before WrestleMania.
“You know, I’d love that more than anything. It would be so awesome, especially because WrestleMania is going to be in Atlanta this year, but I don’t think it’s going to happen because I never worked for them. I was just never the type of girl that Vince wanted in the WWF; he had Miss Elizabeth, Sherri, and Wendi Richter, and I was nothing like them. I don’t blame him at all; it’s his company and those type of girls seemed to be his preference, but since I’ve never been paid anything for all of their DVDs that I’m on, getting into the Hall of Fame would be a nice trade-off (laughs).”
Though that would be a fitting tribute to a career that is very fondly remembered, Roberts is hardly sitting on her hands, waiting for that phone call. Instead, having been encouraged back onto the scene in 2005, she continues to work independent shows and autograph sessions, where the stories she hears from fans about their memories of her and the wrestling of that time are worth more than any booking fee she receives.
“The way people remember what we did … it’s amazing, it really is. One of the best parts is seeing the look on people’s faces when we meet, and hearing the stories of how they sat on the living room floor, with their kids, or their parents, or their grandparents, yelling at the TV screen, being mad at Nikita Koloff or Tully Blanchard while they cheered Dusty or Magnum. People tell me about how when they were young they would cry when the show went off the air, not knowing what was going to happen. Just to hear those stories is great, and to see programs and VHS tapes that people have kept for 25 years is amazing. It’s fantastic to know that that little piece of me has been a part of their life for so long.
“I’ve got to tell you this even though it’s going to make me cry,” said Roberts, pausing for a moment to compose herself. “I got a message from someone on Facebook who I’d met at a show in Orlando. He told me how he’d had a magazine for me to sign, but that security wouldn’t let him through, and it was only when I waved him through that they let him approach me.
“He said: ‘For you to do that for me, and let me stand and chat with you for a couple of matches, that just made me feel really special.’ He told me that he’d never forgotten that, and that just recently, he’d been diagnosed with cancer of the pituitary gland. He said he’d been going through his things, deciding what he was going to keep and kinda reassessing his life, and he found that magazine, and now he takes it with him to look at while he gets his treatment (breaks down in tears momentarily).
“That kind of thing is priceless, and to know that I’m a part of that in any way is just incredible, because it was a magical time for not just the wrestlers or people like myself, but the fans too. I have a lot of young people tell me that looking at the clips on YouTube for the first time, wrestling then was so intense and so memorable, and that they wish they’d been around to see it when it actually happened. It’s so flattering.
“You know, I knew it was special, but when I look back on it, I realize that it really, really was.”