My Life in Catch-as-Catch-Can Wrestling
By Billy Robinson, Jake Shannon
ECW PRESS Copyright © 2012 William A. Robinson with Jake Shannon
All rights reserved.
I come from a fighting family. My great-great-grandfather Harry Robinson was a bare-knuckle boxing champion of Great Britain, which in those days really meant world champion. My uncle Alf boxed with the world heavyweight champion Max Baer and wrestled another world heavyweight champion, Jack Sherry, in Belgium. And then there's my father, a street fighter turned pro who fought the black American boxer Tiger Flowers and was once world light heavyweight champion. Tiger told my father that he was the strongest man Tiger had ever fought.
In those days, fighters were known around the country. They were the stars, not soccer players, not rugby players. It was fighters and wrestlers—Billy Riley, Joe and Bob Robinson, Charlie Carroll, the Carroll brothers, the Belshaw brothers, Pop Charnock, and too many others to name—that people revered. Those guys were legends, and they were unbelievable athletes. Unfortunately, nobody really kept fight records that long ago, so the names of so many great wrestlers have been lost forever.
THE TIMES WERE TOUGH BACK THEN!
I was born in 1938. We had just gone through two wars—the Boer War and the First World War—and the third was about to begin. Life was rough. My siblings, both elder to me, would die in bombings during the Second World War. I never got to know them. My granddad—that is, my dad's dad—had died in the trenches during the 1914–1918 war. My dad had to take care of his family when he was about 11 or 12. He got into the green grocery business (green grocery means fruit and vegetables, certain canned stuff and fish and fowl). I remember that I hated Christmas as a kid because my job in those days was plucking and cleaning turkeys, geese, and chickens. That's what I did all through Christmas. I didn't want to look at a table and see a turkey or a chicken that I'd plucked. At one time, my dad had a number of shops. He put all his brothers and sisters into the business, and he would buy for all the shops.
It's difficult to explain today how tough it was then just to survive. The industrial age had started, but the unions had not yet got enough power to make life and conditions easier for the working class people. On the average day, a major meal was beans on toast with a fried egg on top, or fish and chips, or a sandwich with a mug of tea. Maybe, on a Sunday, you'd be able to afford a roast, and that was considered a family feast. The average life expectancy for a male in Wigan in the 1920s and '30s was about 23 or 24 years, and for a female it was not much more than 30 (I read this in an old Wigan newspaper when I was training there with Billy Riley). People had huge families, but a lot of children died from diphtheria and other diseases whose cures we now take for granted, and this kept the average size of a family down. There were also a lot of coal mine accidents.
People would do anything to make money. Back then, betting on anything was legitimate. They'd bet on "barrel jumping" (standing jumps into lined-up empty beer kegs), "ratting" contests (killing rats with their teeth), or "purring" matches (kicking each other wearing coal mining boots or wooden shoes with metal rims until one gave in or broke a leg).
"Hop, step, and a jump" was a big deal at the time. There's this funny story about an old-timer who had retired as the champion of hop, step, and a jump. The new champion came up and was ridiculing him and his accomplishments. Finally, the old-timer said, "Okay, I'll tell you what I'll do. We will make the bet that you cannot out-jump me, if I can pick where we jump." The young kid and his backers said, "Yeah." So the bet was made. The old-timer took them to the top of a seven-storey factory, and he jumped a hop, step and a jump, and his toes were hanging over the edge of the building. The only way the kid was going to win was if he jumped over the edge and killed himself. That's a true story. That's how people were back then.
Wrestlers had private matches on bowling greens on weekends. Most pubs had a bowling green because in England we play bowls on the grass, and on Sundays everything was closed. Side bets on these matches supplemented wrestlers' incomes; they had private matches for a week's wage or whatever they could afford. That meant one guy's family was going to eat next to nothing the following week. Only the wrestlers' friends and people making private side-stake bets were allowed to watch the match.
Then there were street fights, which were private matches in locker rooms. Men would go in and lock the door. People bet on who'd come out. My dad was the number one street fighter during his day. I learned so much from him.
There were no distractions for kids, because there were no cell phones, no television, and no video games. There was very little radio. I remember when I was seven or eight years old, we'd play knock-a-door and run away and hide, watching people come out to see who it was. Once, I tipped over bottles of milk. This was probably 1945, just at the end of the war. Milk was hard to get, and we used to have milk people that would come with the bottles and leave them outside the front doors. The people of the house heard the crash and saw me and my friends running away. They knew who I was and called on my dad.
He was waiting for me and my friends when I came home. He asked me, "What you been doing?"
The lady from the house said, "Well, they kicked my milk over."
So he asked me, "Billy, did you do that?" But I didn't answer.
Now, my friend Billy Hubble didn't want me to get into trouble, so he said, "Mr. Robinson, I did it."
But the lady said, "No, he didn't. Your son did it."
So I said, "Okay."
My dad paid for the damage I had caused, and he totally ignored me for a week. When I spoke to him, he looked through me like I wasn't even there. Boy, I felt so bad about that. It was a lot worse than any physical punishment—my dad never hit me in his life. In our family, nobody lied or got out of anything that they had done. They all owned up to what they had done.
Back then, you had to make your own entertainment. On Sundays when the family decided to get together, everybody came over to our house, at the shop in Manchester. We always had a piano, a concertina, a banjo, and an accordion. My dad played all kinds of different instruments. Everyone in the family played something. I played piano and alto saxophone.
Everyone would gather around and play. Afterwards, my mother cooked for everybody. She was a hairdresser and a good cook. Somebody would bring desserts. The kids played together, the men had a few drinks and smoke, and the women spent time together. Later on, everyone gathered around the piano with all the different instruments and sang. And that would be it. They'd all go home and the kids would go to bed.
Well into the 1930s, about 30 percent of the Western world was illiterate. Educated people didn't make that much money. In my dad's era, it was always said that a person with common sense was going to be far better off than an educated person with no common sense. My mother wanted me to be educated, but my father was more into teaching me to look after myself and advance in a world of, shall we say, semi-educated people. I did two years of college at a private school, so I got the idea of what it was like, but my father decided that he wasn't going to pay for any more, because he thought it was a waste of time.
Obviously, times have changed dramatically. Take, for example, my son, Spencer. He's the pride of my life. I put Spencer through private school. There was no wrestling in private school, but he did get a fellowship to West Point, and now he's a lieutenant colonel in the National Guard, and he's doing very, very well for himself. He grew up to be a lot taller than I am, and he had to become an American to go to West Point, so now not only does he look down at me, he also calls me a "bloody foreigner."
HOW I BECAME A CATCH-AS-CATCH-CAN WRESTLER
My father never wanted me to get into boxing or wrestling. Or, at least, I'll put it this way: he may have wanted it, but he never let me know it, just as I never pushed Spencer to do it. But circumstances made sure I got into wrestling.
By the end of the war, a lot of guys were involved in the black market, making money selling anything from silk stockings to gas coupons, watches, and so on. And when you walked through the streets, there was always a chance that you might be seeing something that they didn't want you to see, and they'd attack you and beat you up. So the first thing I learned in street fighting was to get a 4H pencil (its lead is very hard, so it doesn't lose its point), sharpen it, stick it about four inches out of my hand, and then roll my shoulder (my dad taught me how) and flick it straight out with the pencil aimed right for the eyes or the throat or cheek. So no matter what kind of roundhouse punches the attacker was sending my way, I could go bump and hit him in the eye or through the cheek or on his throat. That would stop anybody, and you could not get arrested for it because the pencil wasn't a weapon. If it were a knife, you could be arrested. Even back then, handguns and knives were illegal. There were no handguns, and very few people had knives. If you got caught with a knife over a certain length, that was an automatic jail sentence. My dad taught me a few other little things, like how to pivot, doing a 180-degree turn on the ball of your foot.
One day when I was really young, three kids chased me home. I was scared and crying. When I got home, my dad was there, asking, "Why are you crying?"
I said, "These kids are going to beat me up."
He said, "Have they touched you yet?"
I said, "No."
He said, "Well, fight them."
I said, "Dad, there's three of them."
He said, "Listen. You've got two choices. You can fight them, or you can fight me." And I didn't want to even think about that. He said, "Don't worry about it. You'll fight one at a time. I'll make sure it's one at a time." So he made me fight them one at a time and told me to remember what he had shown me.
It worked. And that's when I realized that all this stuff he'd been showing me was really effective. I beat the first kid down. The second kid, I hit him once, and he didn't want any more. The third one didn't fight. That was the first time I knew my dad was proud of something I'd done. So I felt pretty good about that. Then my dad took us all out for ice cream and loaded them up with fruit from the shop to take home, because two of them had black eyes.
There were certain rules that you abided by in England in those days. Guys would go to the pub, and if someone had a dispute they would say, "Come on, let's go out to the cobbles." This basically meant, "Let's go out to the cobbled street, beat the hell out of each other, and then come back in and buy each other a drink." There was no animosity afterwards. To start a fight in a pub in England was very simple. You went to any pub in England, you drank your beer and then just turned the glass upside down. That meant you could beat anybody in the house; it was a challenge. Everybody understood these rules.
I always wanted to be a boxer. My uncle was a boxer, my dad was a boxer, and my great-grandfather was a bare-knuckle fighter. My dad used to take me to a pro boxing gym. I loved sparring. I started going through the training stuff at that time. I was going to be a boxer. Or so I thought.
One day, when I was 12 or 13, I was working at my dad's shop after school, straightening out crates and potato sacks to take back to the market the following morning. Other kids were playing with some Coca-Cola signs and spinning them through the air. Somebody shouted, "Look out, Billy!" I turned around, and one of the spinning things hit me in the eye. I don't remember much after that. It tore the retina from two o'clock all the way around to ten o'clock, and I was in the hospital for six months. That, of course, ended my boxing dream; there was no way I could get a boxing licence with the eye injury.
Fortunately, I used to watch my uncle when he wrestled in Manchester, and I used to go to the YMCA with my dad as a guest. This was a very exciting time for me as a kid because I was always around great professional fighters. I got to go to the gym with one of the all-time great catch-as-catch-can wrestlers from America, Benny Sherman. He would go with my dad to the gym because he was very interested in the street fighting aspect. He also sparred with different pro boxers. Sherman was great. Famous ballet-dancer-turned-wrestler Ricky Starr was also there, boxing with sparring partners like Rocky Graziano. Starr was a state amateur wrestling champion. He was a very good boxer, too. As a kid, I remember sitting on George Gregory's back while he was swimming laps. I personally knew people like Randy Turpin and Henry Cooper very well. A couple of other boxers also went there. My dad and all those guys worked out together, and I watched. I learned what it was like—the street fighting, the boxing, and then the wrestling.
By 14 years old, I was getting big. I was about six-foot-one, probably 180 pounds (remember, this is in England, where we are not as big as Americans as a whole), and I was in pretty good shape. My uncle Alf wanted to get me into pro wrestling, but my dad was in favor of trying me out at amateur wrestling first.
It wasn't until the 1960s that promoters put money into amateur wrestling. Until the mid-'60s, there was no amateur fighter—boxer or wrestler—who could compare with the pros, because there was no money in it. Whenever somebody got any good at a sport, they turned pro to make extra money for their family.
My dad took me down to the YMCA and introduced me to the coach of the amateur team. I stayed there. I had always been athletic, and with what I already knew about street fighting, boxing, and wrestling, it didn't take me long before I could hold my own with anybody there. At 14 or 15, I was beating 30-year-olds, and I thought, "Well, I come from a fighting family. It's in my blood."
Again my uncle wanted me to turn professional, but my dad said, "Look. If you're going to learn to wrestle, learn the best style that there is, the best form of combat fighting, which is catch-as-catch-can wrestling. And the greatest gym in the world is in Wigan, run by a man called Billy Riley."
At Billy Riley's gym (Karl Gotch called it "the Snake Pit," and the name stuck), I started out working with the wrestler Jack Dempsey (not the boxer), a.k.a. Tommy Moore, and with John Foley. John was a middleweight. Dempsey was a welterweight. These guys were older. They looked in shape, but they were too small. Or so I thought. I thought, "Well, he's only a welterweight, he's only a middleweight, I can handle these guys," because anybody that size in the YMCA, I had beaten very easily. What a mistake that was!
Billy asked me, "Well, what's your best hold?" At that time it was called a crucifix—it's where the opponent's in a defensive position on his hands and knees and you hook his arm by putting your leg around it and get a farther half nelson to turn him onto his back. I was a very strong young man; I had long, lanky arms and I was supple, so that was usually a very easy hold for me to get. But every time I tried it on these guys, I was on my back or screaming. The worst part was how easily they beat me. And of course Billy Riley and my dad were laughing. Finally Billy said, "Okay. You can start. We'll teach you." So it is that I learned to play physical chess. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Physical Chess by Billy Robinson, Jake Shannon. Copyright © 2012 William A. Robinson with Jake Shannon. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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