On March 3rd it was announced by Jake Shannon of www.scientificwrestling.com that Billy Robinson had passed away. Even though I never met him or interacted with him, his passing has hit me kind of hard for so many reasons. While obviously the death of any person is a sad event, with Billy it just feels like so much has been lost and possibly it has been lost forever. So much history. So much knowledge and wisdom. With all the work he had already done to preserve the sweet science, it still feels like he had so much more to give. More than it is possible for any person to share in a life time. And I personally will always regret that I never attended one of his seminars.
Running a couple of pages in tribute to the history of wrestling myself, the name Billy Robinson has come up frequently over the course of my time doing this and it became apparent from the things said that many people were not aware of the great work Billy had been doing since his retirement from in-ring competition. They fondly remembered his days in the AWA or wherever else they had been privileged enough to see him, but that was it.
So, while this piece is about remembering the legacy of one of, if not the greatest English wrestler of all time, I also would like to recommend that people check out Jake Shannon’s website which I linked above. For several years Billy had acted as the head coach for Shannon’s Catch-as-Catch-Can training camps. The two were good friends and Jake even helped compose Billy’s biography. From the amount of media I have seen since the announcement of Billy’s death, I think it’s kind of ironic, or may-be it is simply fitting, that his beloved form of legitimate wrestling will have a whole new level of awareness going forth and I have to believe that would have made him very happy from the amount of time he has spent training new generations in the scientific art.
When you look at his professional wrestling career on paper you wouldn’t realize what a star he truly was. Sure he picked up some gold here and there and was in or around the main event scene in the AWA during his time in the Minneapolis based promotion, but, he never needed a title or a character for that matter. No, Billy was not an expert talker or a flamboyant personality either. When he stepped into a room or an arena though, people knew he was someone special. Someone legitimately tough. He had that presence. Then on top of that he put on some of the most beautifully executed, scientific wrestling matches that fans in America had ever seen.
A science that had been taught to him back in his native country of England where he had been born in 1939. In a city called Manchester. In a town, not too far away from his birth place, by the name of Wigan at a gym known as the Snake Pit, Billy learned how to wrestle. In his book, Physical Chess, he talks about how the town had become one of the most dominant wrestling ‘meccas’ on the planet, via Britain’s troops across the world controlling the Empire brought back different styles of hand-to-hand combat and they were all merged together to make on dangerous style. That form of wrestling went on to be called Catch-as-Catch-Can.
Trained by Billy Riley and the other veterans who called the Snake Pit their home, Robinson could not have asked for a better start. Karl Gotch, who many people consider the only man that could have gone toe-to-toe with Robinson in a legitimate contest, had trained at the Snake Pit too after once being defeated by another great British wrestler, Bert Assirati, and realizing he could never be a top wrestler without learning the deadliest tricks in the game from the little gym in Wigan, England.
Once Billy had proved himself on the British circuit he moved on to Canada just before the close of the 1960’s. Like many Brits he first stopped off in Calgary and from there his career lasted through-out the 1970’s across North America. Some people say it was due to Billy’s reputation as a tough guy who could really hurt you that stopped him from ever being a really successful pro-wrestler. I think that most would agree though, Billy just didn’t care enough about being ‘the man’ in a sport that was predetermined, especially when he was making good money without being a world heavyweight champion.
Of course a man with Robinson’s skills traveled over to Japan as well and it was there he really found his professional wrestling home. The Japanese fans ate up the scientific wrestling and embraced the Englishman with wide-open arms. It was Japan where Billy would stay after stepping away from wrestling in North America following the 1980’s boom period when things were dramatically evolving away from his preferred style.
Much like Karl Gotch, Robinson worked as a trainer over in the Land of the Rising Sun with his in-ring career wound down and would go on to be a major part of the UWFi promotion of the 1990’s that drew so much attention with the pseudo-MMA style of action it presented. Finding that he was an extremely good teacher, Robinson would end up in a project alongside the aforementioned Jake Shannon. Together they have put many camps on and have helped out with training MMA stars like Josh Barnett.
Although no longer as limber and agile as he once was, Billy Robinson would still get onto the mats to show hopeful wrestlers how to apply holds and the best way to hold your grip. When he was unable to show a particular sequence due to the limitations that came with being 70+ years old in his last days as a trainer, he shouted instructions to the wrestlers practicing and from what I have heard every single one of them will have the words, “DO IT AGAIN!” etched into their minds reminding them that only those with the passion to eat, sleep and breathe Catch-as-Catch-Can wrestling will reach the top of the ladder.
If you’ve never seen Billy wrestle, I can not urge you enough to go and watch a few videos by him. They can be found on YouTube and there are DVD sets out there available of his work if you look. Through wrestling guys that were blown away by his technical prowess and MMA guys that are realizing more and more each day that Catch-as-Catch-Can truly is one of the premiere fighting arts out there, Billy Robinson’s legacy will never be forgotten and his name will always be synonymous with scientific wrestling.