Sam Houston has seen the gamut of the wrestling business and life from battling demons and doing hard time in prison. He now seeks personal salvation, something that will allow him to come to terms with his past.
Jim Phillips, author of this article and one of the great wrestling historians here at Pro Wrestling Stories, is in the challenge of his life after being paralyzed on January 21st, 2023. Learn his story and how you can help him reach his goal of taking his first steps again!
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 ’50s. The Smith family was prolific in the business. Michael’s half-brother Aurelian Jr. is better known as wrestling psychology mastermind Jake "The Snake" Roberts — someone who has made a considerable name for himself in the business of professional wrestling. His sister is also someone of note in the business, having worked her career in the WWF under the ring name of Rockin’ Robin. The Smiths were wrestling through and through, and 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’s when I first started knocking around the ring.”
Houston continued, “I was at the matches every night I could be there. My dad was one half of The Kentuckians, so I ran 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 evident that he was a natural to the workings of the mat. His father let him begin to work out with the older boys on the wrestling team at his insistence. They showed him no mercy. Working so far out of his weight range made him work harder and find the grit to battle 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 could never complete a full year at any one school. It made life difficult as a teenager, but this early exposure to the road would prepare him for his wrestling business career.
Dying For Two Minutes on the Operating Table
During his junior year in high school, Michael came down with an infection in his throat. Doctors decided to remove his tonsils, which was a common procedure for young people in those days. But what might not be as known is that this type of surgery is quite dangerous. Many complications can develop post-op. He 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,” Houston says with a chuckle.
“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 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 okay.’ 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 begun to wick him away to near nothing, which tested his mind and spirit. He found ways to try and cope, with some methods 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. 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."
Breaking Into Wrestling and Becoming Sam Houston
After a long recovery, Michael Smith 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. When he walked back out, he was renamed Sam Houston from Texas, baby, from Waco, Texas (in my best Dusty lisp). He had his 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 was more than happy to oblige.
"I remember the night I tore my knee out. It was in Ft. Lauderdale, and Dusty was wrestling Abdullah The Butcher 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 while 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 ran 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 we young guys ran to the ring and got our heads thumped. But 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."
Working The Territories
Sam Houston would leave the CWF, pursuing the road to new territories like most workers. He made his way to Mid-Atlantic, where the Crocketts put him to work against their top heels at that time. Houston would feud with the Four Horsemen once they found out that he was one of Dusty’s friends and Krusher Khruschev, whom he beat for the NWA Mid-Atlantic Heavyweight Championship on January 11th, 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.
Sam Houston – Marrying Baby Doll and Getting a Shot in the WWF
Sam Houston married Nickla Roberts, better known as the valet Baby Doll to wrestling fans, in 1986. A year later, he got his shot at the WWF in St. Louis, against Sika. From there, his career was off and running.
His half-brother Jake was already making waves in WWF at that time, and it wasn’t long after he debuted that his sister hit the scene as Rockin’ Robin in the fall of ’87. By the turn of the decade, all the wrestling Smiths were plying their trade for Vince McMahon and finding success along the way.
He worked his way through the mid-card ranks for the next several years, leaving 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 become a full-time mom until the girls were old enough for her to go back to work. Sam stayed working the roads. Due to irreconcilable differences, they would separate and subsequently divorce in 1995, with Sam’s road life being cited as a leading cause.
Sam 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 co-captained by the team of Brutus Beefcake and The Ultimate Warrior in the 1988 Survivor Series. He also was the number one contender for the Intercontinental Title before WrestleMania V but never got the opportunity to capture the title. His last match for the WWF was in 1991.
Sam Houston on His Life Slipping Out of Control and Doing Time in Jail
Sam Houston spent the next ten years going back and forth between WCW and the indies, where he let 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 his time in jail and how he 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 as a security risk and put me on Murder’s Row in prison with thirty-nine of the baddest bad guys that I’ve ever met. Animals are 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 had just passed, and my two girls that I’d never let my life get to that point again."
Since then, Sam Houston has focused his life on helping others and trying to give back to his family and fans and 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 found in the Smith DNA, she has all the makings of a future 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 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 and veterans and wounded warriors here in the States.
Rising Back Up After Hitting Rock Bottom
I’ve talked with many wrestlers over the years, long before I ever started this little writing foray. I sat and spoke 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 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.
As always, I want to take the time 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.
You can follow Sam Houston at Sam Houston Fan Nation on Facebook.
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