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The Snake Pit: Karl Gotch, Billy Robinson, Catch Wrestling and Puroresu

1 year ago

The Snake Pit: Karl Gotch, Billy Robinson, Catch Wrestling and Puroresu

By: Steven Bell

I was recently introduced to the elegant Peter Thornley — who wrestled iconically as mysterious Japanese samurai Kendo Nagasaki for decades. Smart and suited Roy Wood sat at the head table, garnering the genuine respect of everyone that walked past him like Marlon Brando at his daughter’s wedding in The Godfather. As the combatants were introduced for their matches, it was clear that Catch wrestling just built up part of their combat sport repertoire, with many of them also active in sports such as Judo, Jiu-jitsu, MMA and, of course, pro-wrestling.

Every eye in the hall was glued to the square yellow mat when the gripping action got underway. The contests would all begin chess-like, each man tentatively trying to gain leverage without gifting his opponent an opening. Beads of sweat would begin to form within seconds; within minutes, the combatants would inevitably be down on the ground, the perspiration now dripping from nose and chin, pooling and smearing on the mat. Unlike other ancient wrestling disciplines, the movement would rarely stop; offense and defense, attack and counterattack, all seemingly happening simultaneously. Bouts would end via pin (the moment the shoulder blades both touched the mat — rather than the dramatized three-count), or submission (the ‘face- bar’ being the most successfully applied winning hold — which resulted in blackened eyes and bloody noses).

Should a match reach its ten- minute time-limit, the judges would make the decision based on which wrestler had used the most eye- catching offense — of which the suplex was the most crowd-pleasing, with several high-impact belly-to-back throws igniting the sort of ‘pop’ I had previously thought only a worked dynamic could create. These were, of course, what is known in pro- wrestling as the ‘German’ suplex.

Historically speaking, one of the great tragedies for many men living in the rolling hills and boundless woodland that creates the north of England, is that they would spend so much of their lives buried deep beneath that beautiful surface. They were coal miners. They left school early, with brawn a more valuable commodity than brain. They were hearty men, who loved to provide for their families and, with their hands still blackened with coal dust, wrestle each other into the ground.

Out of this, in the 19th century, evolved the Lancashire Catch-as- Catch-Can style of wrestling. Its techniques and training methods would become indelibly linked with the other local sport, Rugby League. The benefits of succeeding in one vastly enhances the skill set required to excel at the other. ‘Catch Wrestling’ became part of the male life, the basics even being taught to boys at school.

In 1910, a 14-year-old from the town of Wigan made his professional debut. Showing much potential, he honed his skills by seeking coaching from the finest trainers around. His ability, tenacity and determination soon saw him defeating seasoned veterans and by the 1920s, Billy Riley was already a legendary and seemingly unbeatable figure. The techniques he developed would evolve Catch Wrestling from a regional pastime into a global art form.

‘All-In’ wrestling was introduced to the UK in 1930 as all of its regional styles were brought under one umbrella, combined with the new phenomenon that was American pro- wrestling. With a wider variety of opponents and audiences alike, Riley’s legend continued to grow. He toured the USA and Africa, being crowned the British Empire Middleweight champion in Johannesburg. He was already garnering a reputation as a stellar coach, always enthusiastic to pass on his knowledge and techniques. The transition from champion wrestler to coaching guru would slowly take place throughout the desperate years in the north of England during World War Two. In 1948, at the beginning of a bleak post- war era, Riley bought a patch of land in his hometown. With the help of his dutiful students, he built what appeared to be little more than a large wooden hut — but this was to be Riley’s gym; his dojo. Like moths to a flame, in addition to the local youngsters, men would travel from far and wide for Riley’s tough and disciplined classes, which taught the fundamentals of Catch wrestling first and foremost, but also how to apply those techniques in Freestyle wrestling and pro-wrestling. Bert Assirati — already an expert wrestler, strongman and exhibitionist — traveled from London to add Billy’s Catch techniques to his repertoire and became the most sought-after heavyweight wrestler in the world.

However, the two young men that would knock on the corrugated metal exterior of what would become known as ‘The Snake Pit’ seeking Riley’s tuition, would be Belgian grappler Karl Charles Istaz and local lad William Robinson.

Istaz was born in 1924 in Antwerp, Belgium, to a Hungarian mother and a German father. He learned Greco-Roman skills and subsequently became an excellent amateur wrestler, even competing in the 1948 Olympic Games — representing Belgium. Istaz made the trip to the otherwise gloomy industrial town of Wigan after turning to the professional ranks in the early ‘50s. Then he left for Canada, and finally the U.S. in 1960. He was given the name Karl Gotch by Ohio promoter Al Haft.

Karl Gotch had heard rumors of a revolutionary new dojo whilst competing in France from a fellow wrestler from Manchester, England, in Alf Robinson.

“In the Snake Pit was where I learned most of what I know today,” Gotch would go on to say, “from Billy Riley and his boys, and if I could take the time, I’d go back there right now, because there’s lots left to learn.”

Armed with the ultimate shoot- skills added to his arsenal, Gotch would spend the 1960s touring the world and earning himself the reputation of not only one of pro wrestling’s finest technical exponents, but also one of its most fearsome tough guys. Known as someone who didn’t suffer fools, Gotch, whilst universally respected, managed to nurture more bad relationships in the business than he did positive ones. Amongst other clashes, an infamous locker-room altercation in 1962 with then NWA heavyweight champion ‘Nature Boy’ Buddy Rogers would permanently dent Karl’s chances of top tier stardom in the U.S. A byproduct of that, however, would mean that he would spend more time in Japan, where he would become a true superstar. For most of his career, Gotch was billed as being from Hamburg, Germany. He would popularize the Catch technique of the belly-to-back throw into pro- wrestling, and in his honor, it would become the ‘German Suplex’.

William ‘Billy’ Robinson — nephew of the aforementioned Alf — was from a family of local professional boxers, wrestlers, and bare-knuckle fighters. When Billy told his father hewanted to be a wrestler, he was told, ‘Look, if you’re going to learn to wrestle, learn the best style that there is; the best form of combat fighting there is, which is Catch-as-Catch-Can wrestling — and the greatest gym in the world is in Wigan, run by a man called Billy Riley.’ With champion amateur credentials, young Robinson was innately tough and displayed fantastic
athleticism. He would take the techniques, especially in their application to pro-wrestling, to whole new levels, and become a star all around the world – with the Japanese audience showing him particular adoration. Professional wrestling had been decades later in reaching the shores of Japan than most of the rest of the world. Chicago grappler Bobby Burns led a breakthrough tour there whilst the country was under US occupation in the wake of the Second World War.

The early exponents of puroresu were those skilled in native combat sports, and it so happened that the lightning quick technical skills of Gotch, Robinson and other Catch-trained gaijin married perfectly with the Judo style of Japan’s homegrown stars. Fans and pundits alike soon became desperate to know where the style of these foreign invaders originated. They began to hear the name of the humble town of ‘Wigan’. Antonio Inoki actually went to Gotch and asked for his help when he started New Japan Pro-Wrestling, and Inoki became a student. Karl had previously taught him how to do a German Suplex and Octopus Hold in 1968 at the JWA dojo – Inoki used these two moves as a finish for decades, until introducing the Enzuigiri. Their bond, both professionally and as friends, had been formed in earlier years, and it would pay dividends as their techniques would be passed onto a list of puroresu stars in later years.

Gotch actually took up residency in Japan for two years in the late ‘60s, as his influence in the sport, which was a mainstream phenomenon and national TV sensation, continued to grow. He would soon achieve a deity- like status and would become a head coach in New Japan’s Tokyo dojo, earning himself the sobriquet Kamisama — ‘God of Wrestling’. All of New Japan’s young stars would receive the infamously tough training of Gotch, including Tatsumi Fujinami, Riki Choshu and Minoru Suzuki. He would also use his contacts within the UK to send over some of his students to further their education. He did this with a young Satoru Sayama, who promoter Max Crabtree deployed in a Bruce Lee gimmick to a national TV audience as ‘Sammy Lee’.

Sayama was a sensation and returned to New Japan ready to be unleashed to the wrestling world as ‘Tiger Mask’. There was something serendipitous when New Japan successfully identified the gaijin star that could best unlock Sayama’s sensational talents — Wigan’s own Dynamite Kid (who himself had received some Billy Riley tuition). All of this was not lost on the feverishly obsessed and knowledgeable fans, who by now envisaged the humble mining town of Wigan as a mythical wrestling heaven. The Dynamite Kid’s cousin Davey Boy Smith — and the two paired as their sensational tag team — would only continue to add to the aura of the ‘Wigan- style’ and the Snake Pit legend, which was hugely instrumental in the establishment of the Japanese strong-style, a phenomenon that remains popular globally to this day. Robinson too would transition from a hugely admired gaijin to master trainer in Japan throughout the 1970s and 80s, and between them, he and Karl Gotch would pass on the teachings of Billy Riley to a whole generation of stars that would revolutionize the business for Inoki’s New Japan Pro-Wrestling and beyond.

Over the decades, many Japanese have made the pilgrimage to Wigan.

However, if they were to do so now, the small hut that was Riley’s gym is long gone — the land sold on after Billy’s 1977 death. But Roy Wood had already begun to take the majority of the coaching sessions as Billy went into semi-retirement, and he subsequently opened a new gym in the Aspull district of the town — this one officially given the name: The Snake Pit.

The Snake Pit continues to be Catch wrestlings predominant venue 45 years later — and 70 years after Riley initially opened his humble abode. Gotch passed away in 2007, Robinson seven years later — both in the US homes they had retired to — but both remain revered across multiple continents.

In 1990, veterans Kazuo Sakurada and KY Wakamatsu made the epic journey west. After finding and befriending Roy Wood, they invited him back to Japan with them to do some coaching. Roy obliged, and once again, more future puroresu stars were given first- hand coaching from a Wigan and Snake Pit original. So impressive was the 51-year-old Roy, that he was invited to cap his trip off by wrestling in front of 17,000 people at a Yokohama event; once again, he obliged.

Five hours passed in the blink of an eye that early June evening. I plucked up the courage to speak to Mr. Wood before I left, thanking him for his hospitality and congratulating him on a wonderful event. As I drove home in the black of night, I reflected warmly on what I had witnessed, and how it so aptly tied into the patchwork quilt that made up my knowledge of wrestling history. One thing I knew for sure, Catch wrestling and the Snake Pit, as well as their ongoing influence on pro- wrestling and puroresu, certainly haven’t tapped out yet.

On 4 June 2022, I attended the Catch Wrestling World Championships, which took place in the spacious conference hall at Bolton Wanderers football stadium — but was organized and hosted by neighboring town Wigan’s iconic gym, ‘The Snake Pit’. I had been invited there by Andrea Wood — daughter of current Snake Pit proprietor, head trainer and final surviving student of the legendary Billy Riley, Roy Wood — following the release of my book ‘Dynamite & Davey: The Explosive Lives of The British Bulldogs’. I was unsure what to expect as I saw the room transform from quiet and echoey to full and vibrant. Wrestlers, 33 of them, from the length and breadth of the UK were to compete in a total of 29 contests, to eventually crown new world champions in four weight classes. -- Steven Bell