Physical Chess: My life in Catch-as –Catch-Can Wrestling
By Billy Robinson with Jake Shannon
Reviewed by Joe Babinsack
The combination of Billy Robinson – a man with a tremendous reputation as a “catch wrestler”, “Shooter” or “Submissions specialist” – depending on your perspective, and Jake Shannon – a man who relentlessly preaches the lost art of those very same labels, seems such a natural.
The combined efforts of a man who built a worldwide acknowledgement of his mastery, and a man who is bringing that technical know-how to the masses has created a somewhat short but powerful book that connects the dots between the modern day MMA industry and the Catch Wrestling made famous in Wigan, England by the man who trained Robinson – Billy Riley.
Riley’s gym in the United Kingdom continues to be the stuff of legend.
While so many of the names of greats may not be recognized today – Charlie Carrol, Billy Joyce (aka Bob Robinson), John Foley, Gideon Gida .. but some, like Karl Gotch, will open your eyes. But the main figure in Billy Robinson’s details is Billy Riley, as well as the reputation of Wigan from those distinct names and the impact they had across the globe, including Japan, including Brazil, including many of the forerunners of the modern MMA scene.
It is interesting to read of the history of this violent sport, from Robinson’s perspective, not just because of the reality that violence today is so diminished from ages past, but also in the underlying disdain for so many of today’s legacies. There’s a definite sense that Catch wrestling was there, done that, in terms of so many holds and approaches.
For example, the Kimura, which – as the double wrist lock – existed long before Kimura used it to beat some Gracies in the 1950’s in Brazil. This and other holds are talked about, and Robinson lets us know that the Catch Wrestlers of years gone by knew far more than any of the current crop of Champions of the UFC (or elsewhere).
That should raise some eyebrows.
Whether its Robinson talking about the origins of Greco Roman wrestling (which has nothing to do with Greco or Roman, and in itself is a bit of trivial that I’ll let the book divulge) or the talk about how the supposed submissions experts of today are so one-dimensional, there’s the sense that Robinson has merely scratched the surface of his own mastery, and the framing of the details by Jake Shannon shows an understanding of the craftsmanship of this side of the MMA world, a reverence that meshes well with Robinson, and a style that may take a few pages to get used to, but fully comes to life in the stories, the explanations and the big picture through examples approaches.
For those still seeking relevance to the modern era, consider Robinson’s influence in Japan, the sense of rivalry (which was never anything heated) with Karl Gotch as well as Robinson’s training of guys like Kazushi Sakuraba, Joseh Barnett, David Smith and Rolando Delgado.
But Billy Robinson has been in the pro wrestling scene since the 1950’s, provides glimpses in to a number of notable figures, and talks of palling around with the upper crust of the NWA and AWA in the 1970’s.
Whether talking up George Gordienko, talking down Verne Gagne (Verne apparently liked to let guys get beat on for a while by his “policemen” – Robinson being one of them, and then take over when the fight was out of the guy), or talking about how one Wayne Coleman (yeah, the Superstar!) seemed to be more than just a little wary of the English submissions master, Robinson provides the details in a folksy manner, an understated manner, a manner that gives the perspective of a man who saw it all.
Robinson also had his part in the 1970’s era of MMA, and while the Antonio Inoki fights are obviously a different animal than the UFC, the concept and the approach to marketing those matches were all about styles. Billy Robinson was touted as one of the technical masters for his battle with Inoki, and he retained that reputation for decades.
But the funny stories surrounding his training, and the Japanese cultural differences in terms of training, are there in the book as well.
What I loved about the book was the ease of transition between Catch Wrestling, MMA and Professional Wrestling. All are different, and yet all share fundamental roots. Sure, the concept that professional wrestling was more real back in the day sometimes gets overplayed, but there was an era when professional wrestling was the same as Catch Wrestling, was the same as MMA ... it’s just that it is difficult to say that all professional wrestling matches were this, that or the other thing.
Training stories and the side-bets and the reality of the dangers of the fighting game sometimes need that same grain of salt, but fights went on for money long before guys earned reputations in Wigan, and many of the same submission, technical and violent skills were once learned on grass, not canvas; in locked rooms, not in auditoriums; and between guys with reputations, not just guys with offputting approaches to reputations.
Well, yeah, there’s a lot of questioning about a lot of reputations.
One thing I’ve learned over the years of reading up on the earlier eras of fighting is that the guys who brag the most are typically the guys who learned how to manipulate their reputations. Billy Robinson never seems to be of that ilk. He talks the talk, he walked the walk, and those intermixtures of professional wrestling and shootfighting and his perspectives seem to indicate that his reputation was as real as it gets.
If you are wondering about it, yes, the fight is in there, with all the legendary yet mundane details.
That fight between the High Chief, Peter Maivia and Billy Robinson, the fight where someone may have lost an eye, an epic battle of the technical master of wrestling and the toughest guy on the planet. Of course, ever since Maivia’s grandson became The Rock, the fight garnered even more mainstream whispering.
But I’m not a book report writer, and all the hype and legend deserves the full attention of the reader reading the book.
Billy Robinson deserves that attention. His stories are eye-openers; his talk about shooting, hooking, catch wrestling or whatever the MMA world wants to call it these days – this is the real deal. His knowledge could fit in a book three times this size, but this is a definite start, and undoubtedly those learning at his learned hands are earning a master’s degree in the sport.
And that’s a level of detail that words alone cannot convey.
Reading Physical Chess is like coming face to face with the legend himself, after being introduced by Catch wrestling’s leading proponent today. One interesting thing about approaching the book, from this long time wrestling fan, is having the words of Gordon Solie sounding sonorous in the back of my head.
Professional wrestling, he once said, is “the game of human chess”.
Somewhere at the center of this book, I stopped channeling Solie. Not because Solie was wrong … because pro wrestling at its best can channel the technical skill, the reality of toughness, and wrap it with a more charismatic and marketable package.
But I stopped thinking Solie because I learned that the comparison between Catch-as-Catch-Can wrestling and the MMA game was a comparison between Chess and Checkers.
No matter what the skill sets are today, no matter how much glory and gold the Champions are earning, I learned about an age when the masters of what we now call MMA learned far more about destroying body parts, fighting to earn a living and how they eventually learned to work for that living.
Maybe, just maybe, there’s more hype than history, but the legend of Wigan Gym and Billy Riley lives on in Billy Robinson, and that legend is one great story to read about.