By Jim Phillips, Senior Editor – Classic Wrestling
Hello once again, wrestling brethren, as we examine the beginnings of some of our favorite Superstars from the heyday of wrestling, and introduce you to a few names you may not be familiar with as of yet. I’ve had alot of fun doing this series and getting to hear the backstories behind the legends. This week we’re going to take a look at a man that has seen the gambit of the wresting business, the ups, the downs, and finally reaching a personal salvation that has allowed him to come to terms with his past in search of a brighter future.
Michael Smith was born in Texas, back in October, 1963. He was raised around the business by his father Aurelian “Grizzly” Smith, who had made a name for himself in the NWA days of the Fifties. Now for those of you that have any wrestling knowledge, you will know that the Smith family was prolific in the business. Michael’s half brother Aurelian Jr., better known as wrestling psychology mastermind Jake “The Snake” Roberts, made a huge name for himself, but it is lesser known that his sister also worked her career in the WWF as well under the ring-name Rockin’ Robin. While not as well known as some family legacies, the Smiths were wrestling through and through. Michael told me about his childhood years around the business:
“When I knew I was going to wrestle, I was in the second grade. That when I first started knocking around the ring. I was at the matches every night I could be there. My Dad was one half of The Kentuckians, so I was running around the back, the whole nine yards. So my friends growing up weren’t, Alan down the block or Joe that lived around the corner. My friends were Danny Hodge and Dick Murdoch, the guys that were in the dressing room. Those were my buddies, you know.”
At a young age Michael attended a wrestling camp at Catholic High School in Baton Rouge, and it was obvious that he was a natural to the workings of the mat. At his insistence, his father let him begin to work out with the older boys on the wrestling team. They showed him no mercy, and working so far out of his weight range made him work harder and find the grit to battle on against his bigger opponents.
When Grizzly and his second wife divorced, Michael opted to go on the road with his Dad. He went undefeated during his high school years, but due to the constant movement from one territory to the next, he was never able to complete a full year at any one school. It made life a little tougher as a teenager, but it was this early exposure to the road that would prepare him for his career in the wrestling business.
It was during his Junior year in high school that he came down with an infection in his throat, and the doctors decided to remove his tonsils, which was a common surgery for children of all ages in those days. Like many things that were done without a second thought back then, have now been deemed as bad practices. This type of surgery is actually quite dangerous in the possible complications that can develop post-op. Michael told me how a slip in the operating room almost cost him his life:
“My surgery was set for April 2nd, so on April Fool’s Day I was checking into the hospital. *chuckles* The next morning when they went to take my tonsils out, the anesthesiologist messed up during the surgery and filled my chest cavity with gas. During that whole ordeal, I lost my life for two minutes, and died on that table. I woke up the next morning and Bill Watts is on the tv saying ‘Grizzly Smith is not here because he is with his son right now, who is fighting for his life and not expected to live.’ I look over at my Dad and he said to me, ‘Son that was taped Wednesday night, It’s Saturday now. You’re ok.’ So, I came out of it alive, with two scars on my neck, one sixteen and the other eighteen inches from the emergency surgery that had to be done to save my life.”
The open wounds on his neck left him unable to eat solid food for nearly six months. He lost ninety pounds and eight inches around his waist during his recovery that summer. The atrophy had began to wick him away to near nothing, which tested his mind and his spirit. He found ways to try and cope, with some ways being better than others:
“I made some attempts at breaking out of there when I couldn’t take it anymore. My sister would visit and when we’d walk out of the room she would be pushing me in the wheelchair, then when we got in the clear, she’d get in the wheelchair and I’d push her, you know, to try and build my strength.”
After a long recovery time, he was finally able, and way past willing, to get back to his training. His father called and talked to Dusty Rhodes, who was doing a show in New Orleans at the time. Grizzly had given Dusty a break years earlier, and he told Dusty that there was money to be made with his son. The youngster picked up everything and headed to Florida to get his first real taste of the business on his own.
Michael walked into the office in Tampa, Florida to talk to Dusty, and when he walked back out, he was renamed Sam Houston from Texas, baby, from Waco, Texas…in my best Dusty lisp. He had his very first match in front of a crowd the next night against Charlie Cooke, who he knew from his father’s booking days in Louisiana. CWF is one of my favorite promotions, and I had to get Sam to tell me a story from those days, and he more than obliged me with this classic:
“I remember the night I tore my knee out. It was in Ft. Lauderdale, and Dusty was wrestling Abdullah in the main. Now, in Ft. Lauderdale the ring was set up on a stage and below that on one side was an orchestra pit, the other three sides faced out to the crowd. I had wrestled my match and was all cleaned up for the night when Bill Alfonso runs into the dressing room door covered in blood, and it wasn’t his. Fonzi asked for help in separating the two gladiators, and a few of the boys run down to the ring with him. Now, here’s where wisdom comes in. The older guys, they sat back in the dressing room and waited while us young guys run to the ring and get their heads thumped. Buy you just wanna be “Johnny on the spot” right, so we hit the ring, and as soon as I did Dusty elbowed Abby, who came crashing into my right knee, and really buckled it. All of a sudden Dusty snatched the back of my head and said, ‘I’m saving ya baby, get out tha way!’, and he tossed me out of the ring, but it was the side of the ring with the pit and I fell all the way down, twelve feet into that. The boys tried to leave me down there as a rib.”
He left CWF, and pursued the road to new territories like most workers, and made his way to Mid-Atlantic, where the Crocketts put him to work against their top heels at that time, He feuded with the Horsemen, once they found out he was one of Dusty’s friends, as well as Krusher Khruschev, whom he beat for the NWA Mid-Atlantic Heavyweight Championship on January 11, 1986 in Atlanta. He held that title for two months.
Bob Geigel’s Central States and Bill Watts’s UWF were next on his list of stops, as he continued to polish his cowboy gimmick and in ring skills in both of these pressure cookers of wrestling excellence. It’s no secret how I feel about some of the early territories, and Sam worked for every powerhouse East of the Rockies in his early years.
He married Nickla Roberts, better known as the valet Baby Doll to wrestling fans, in 1986, and a year later he got his shot at the WWF in St. Louis, against Sika, and after that he was off and running. His half brother Jake was already making waves there at that time, and it wasn’t long after he debuted that his sister his the scene as Rockin Robin in the Fall of 1987. By the turn of the decade all the wrestling Smiths were plying their trade for Vince McMahon, and finding success along the way. For the next several years he worked his way through the mid-card ranks, leaving the fans remembering his fast paced style and two-stepping entrance. He and Nickla had two daughters during this time, Mikka in 1991, and Mikayla the following year. After having her daughters, Nickla opted to stay home and be a full-time mom until the girls were old enough for her to go back to work. Sam stayed working the roads and they two separated and subsequently divorced in 1995, due to irreconcilable differences, with Sam’s roadlife being cited as a leading cause.
Houston racked up many memorable moments during his WWF tenure including, participating in the first Royal Rumble, working the battle royal at Wrestlemania V, and was on the team co-captained by Brutus Beefcake and The Ultimate Warrior in the 1988 Survivor Series. His last match for the WWF was in 1991. He also was the number one contender for the Intercontinental Title prior to Wrestlemania V, but never got the opportunity to capture the title.
Sam spent the next ten years going back and forth between WCW and the indies, and letting his life slip a little more out of control with each drink. He made five trips to Japan, and had a tour of Australia and New Guinea that left him and some fellow wrestlers pursued by cannibals when they got lost looking for the venue. The long road of craziness came to an end for Sam, when in 2005, he was sentenced to ten years in prison for DUI offenses. He talked very candidly with me about the time he spent in prison and how finally came to terms with his depression and drinking problems:
“I was drinking three fifths of whiskey a day sometimes. I had been in and out of the twenty eight day rehabs and that didn’t work for me. It was the prison rehab that worked for me. After I was taken to jail they knew I was a professional wrestler so they viewed me a security risk and put me on Murder’s Row in the prison with thirty nine of the baddest bad guys that I’ve met….animals is all that you can call them. After a time that I couldn’t take it anymore, I made a noose with my bedsheets, and tied two knots in it. I said to myself, ‘God, only you can stop this now.’. I jumped off my bunk, both knots broke, and I hit the ground. I dropped to my knees and promised God, my mother who has just passed, and my two girls that I’d never let my life get to that point again.”
Since then Sam has focused his life on helping others and trying to give back to not only his family and fans, but everyone in need that he can help. He started the God’s Got a Hold on Me organization as a non-profit group to help those in need, as well as the newly launched Sam Houston New Life Horse Rescue, which saves horses from some very horrible situations and nurses them back to health and relocates them to good homes. He also has a music video out on his YouTube channel, called Salvation, documenting the night he was saved and accepted Jesus back into his life.
Houston still wrestles now and again, and is very proud of the career his daughter, Mikayla, is making for herself in the burgeoning world of women’s wrestling. With her Mother’s good looks, and the natural ring abilities known to be found in the Smiths’, she has all the makings of a future WWE superstar, and Women’s Champion.
You can see Sam Houston work at the All Pro Wrestling League in Texas. He has got behind the non-profit organization, and 100% of the box office ticket sales will go to local families in need, and survivors of flood disaster. Both Sam and his sister Robin lost their homes during the Katrina Disaster, and relocated to other parts of Louisiana. He also works with a program that sends gift boxes to soldiers as well as Veterans and Wounded Warriors here in the States.
I’ve talked with many wrestlers over the years, long before I ever started this little writing foray. I sat and talked with Axl Rotten at an event in South Carolina for almost an hour before the show one afternoon, and he told me about his struggles in the business and less than a year later he was gone. Sam’s story really rang out to me, because he is one of those that managed to make it out the other end of the dark side of the business that has taken so many talents away from us too soon. Everyone gets knocked down in life, and if you don’t, then you’re not out there taking any risks, or rolling the dice. The difference between success and failure is whether or not you pick yourself back up and try again. While many people may thumb their noses at the stories of addiction that the Brothers Smith have been through, only those that have been there, walked that road, and can relate, will understand the rise back up after hitting rock bottom.
People often ask me why I choose to cover classic wrestling, or why I don’t talk more about the current product. That answer is quite simple friends. Without understanding the sacrifices and stories of those that came before us, how can we ever hope to achieve a better future in this business. As in all things, you can never really appreciate where you are, if you don’t understand the struggles of how you got there. I remember very well watching little reel to reel movies in the Sunday School at our little Shiloh Christian Church, in the backwoods of Williamson County, that always had the tag line, “Parables are Earthly stories with Heavenly meanings.”. I only hope that these little parables from our Church of Wrestling also carry a deeper meaning to those that take the time to read them.
I wanna take the time, as always, to thank Sam for taking moments out of his busy schedule to talk to me and share his story. He is truly one of a kind.
Well that wraps it up for another week over here at Breaking In. We hope you all come back her next week to join me as I sit down for a conversation with Jimmy Hart’s musical right hand man, and one of the architects of not only the Piledriver album, but the theme music of some of our favorite WWF stars of the Eighties and Nineties; John Maguire.
I will see you then, and always remember…. Bruthas, Sistas, Marks, and Maniacs…..no matter what you do to get your foot in the door, when you’re given the opportunity, break it down!! Peace.