I’m sad to say that most of you won’t know who Billy Robinson is or the style of fighting that he mastered. Even though Catch wrestling is one of the most effective grappling styles, it’s somehow been over-looked. I was introduced to Catch wrestling (“catch-as-catch-can”) by the legendary Eric Paulson and Josh Barnett at their home in LA, CWS. My grappling brain wasn’t developed enough to capture the golden grappling information that was flying around the gym at the time. But it did peak my interest, and as the years rolled by I continually, but sporadically, dipped my toe into the ignored yet massively effective world of Catch wrestling without ever fully submerging myself.
I decided fairly recently, after coming across the website www.scientificwrestling.com, that this had to change. So after trawling though 100s of different Catch wrestling vids, including on YouTube, and ordering up loads of Catch wrestling books – like “Say Uncle”, written by the aforementioned Billy Robinson along with Jake Shannon, a man who has committed himself to breathing new life into this effective but sadly forgotten grappling art – I also bought books by legendary Catch wrestlers like Frank Gotch and Farmer Burns and, of course, Billy Robinson.
When my books finally dropped through the door, I ran down the stairs like an excited kid at Christmas who’d overdosed on sugary treats. I started explaining to my long suffering other half, the Merlean, what the finer differences between Catch and Jujitsu were, and how I was going to submerge myself into this sport, get as good as I could get etcetera, etcetera, etc. But after one too many eye rolls, which signify she was about to tap out – or even worse, about to make me tap out for inflicting this blitzkrieg of unwanted information on her – I ended her misery and instead tried to decide which of my new books I’d download into my cerebral cortex.
But just then I saw the sad news on Facebook that Billy Robinson, a bonafide legend of the grappling art Catch, who taught MMA greats like Sakuraba and Josh Barnett the art of Catch, had sadly passed away in his sleep at the age of 74 at his home in Little Rock, Arkansas.
I’d made vague plans with myself around seven months ago to go train with Jake Shannon and Billy in the States, but life and all it entails had got in the way and now, on the day all these great books had dropped through the door, the man who contributed to them all in so many different ways had died. I’d never been more gut-churningly sick at the passing of someone I’d never met, and I curse myself for procrastinating and missing the golden opportunity to meet and learn from a legend. I made a Facebook status about his passing and nothing, literally nothing – no comments, no likes, nowt. I’m not a person who attributes the importance of things by how many comments/likes something gets; I think it’s a dangerous thing to do, but in this case I was mad. In a world of tap out wrestling and ‘I do UFC’ wannabes, all who claim to love the sport of MMA and all it entails, where was the love for this great man who had done so much for the grappling world and, indirectly, MMA? So I contacted Jake Shannon to see about plans to go over and train. I was shocked but delighted when he contacted me recently to tell me about a two day Catch seminar in Doncaster he was putting on from the 5th to the 7th of this month. Here’s the link:
If you’re into your grappling, it doesn’t get any better than this. But unfortunately, me being me, by the time you read this, the seminar will already be happening. Yeah, sorry about that. Find out about the next one through www.scientificwrestling.com or, if you can only make one or two of the days, add Jake Shannon on Facebook: Facebook.com/jake.shannon. I’m sure you’ll be able to work something out. If you live close to the below address, you’ll find us there:
Andy Crittenden’s Martial Arts Centre
4 Sandford Rd, Balby
Okay, back to the blog. So if Catch works, if Catch is so great, why don’t you know more about it? Why don’t more fighters know or use Catch? To answer this, we have to go back to the late 1800s to the North of England. This is the birthplace of Catch, where the coal miners and labourers would hold brutal Catch matches for the wages of a brutal day’s work. Catch wrestling was one of the biggest sports around at the time, filling large arenas with paying customers who would watch the toughest men engage in tough matches that sometimes could last hours. Over time, promoters realised that by fixing the matches they could control the time limits and so get more matches on the card while making them more exciting for the crowd. This turned the realest sport around into pro wrestling, the fakest sport around, making this story another of life’s great ironies. There’s a chapter in Robinson’s book “Physical Chess” which I feel sums this up. Billy Riley, owner of the long gone famous Catch As Catch Can gym in Wigan, The Snake Pit, says to his student Billy Robinson, “You owe me a steak dinner”. Robinson says to Riley “I’d love to buy you a steak dinner, I just can’t afford it”. And Riley says “That’s why it’s time: you’re turning pro”. This sums up why Catch faded away: the top guys always had to follow the money, and the money led to pro wrestling. That’s an overview of why you haven’t heard as much as you should – if anything at all – about Catch and how it it gradually faded out and pro wrestling came in. Sad but true.
While you might not have heard much about Catch, it’s worth remembering that a lot of today’s standard moves were original Catch moves going under different names: a figure four scissors in Catch is a triangle in Jujitsu, and ask Josh Barnet how to do a Kimura – he’ll correct you and call it a “double wrist lock” before handing you your arm back to you. You see, a Kimura was always a double wrist lock until Kimura beat Helio Gracie with it. Kimura learned the move from Karl Gotch, and Gotch learned it in Wigan. The more you look back into the history of grappling, the more Catch you’ll find. One of the other differences between Catch and Jujitsu is that Jujitsu is more of a flowing martial arts where you can fight off your back, while in Catch – like freestyle wrestling – if you end up on your back, this would be counted as a pin, thus ending the match. But in a sport like MMA where if you don’t evolve you die, I believe Catch wrestling will make a resurgence. Here Billy explains how moves and styles go in and out of fashion in his and Jake Shannon’s book ”Physical Chess”.
What happens is young people watch what the current champions are winning with. They copy it, even try to better it, but it’s the same hold or moves. They forgot a lot of other stuff that’s won other matches, then maybe 30 years go by. One of those forgotten holds comes up again, and a champion starts to beat everyone with it. So everybody wants to learn it. It’s a cycle. For example, at the 1948 Olympics in London, the Turks did very well with the top ride, and people started calling it the Turkish ride. Everybody was talking about the Turkish ride.
Riley said “Well, what is it?” So I described it to him.
He said “come in here”. Riley’s offices was a library of wrestling books and prints. He brought out etchings that were 400-500 years old of exactly the same ride and he said “The Turkish ride? We were doing that over 500 years ago”.
I love how Billy explains this with the database of grappling moves, old and new, growing and being learnt and taught with some being forgotten until used in a big fight – which sparks more learning, and the cycle grows and continues.
Like I said earlier, I never met or trained with Billy Robinson. So I asked a very close friend and student of his, Jake Shannon, if he could write about Billy. This is want I kindly received from him.
Billy was one of a kind. Here was a guy who could not only soak up the catch-as-catch-can knowledge from legendary old times like Billy Joyce and Billy Riley, but he could apply in championship competition and coach others to become champions themselves. I am not sure there is anyone like that in catch-as-catch-can right now. He was severe as a coach, but it’s really because he cared, he really wanted you to get it right. He came from the old school, and as such sometimes had a hard time passing along what he learned to a generation of young people distracted by video games and the Internet. At the same time, he demanded hard work, but outside the gym he played hard too. He could drink the younger guys under the table and never failed to ask for a cute barmaid’s phone number. He was larger than life and this world is smaller without him.
This is quite a disjointed blog which I apologise for. I started it when I first heard about Billy passing. But what with having to train for a fight, it’s got put on the back burner till now. Writing this it struck me how Billy and Catch are alike and how you can’t have one without the other. Billy was born in the north of England, as was Catch. While he was alive, he was a devastating force of nature because of Catch, but little is known about either. Hopefully this blog has whetted your appetite to learn more about Billy Robinson and Catch, as well as the origins of some of the holds you might learn in your grappling class or you see while watching MMA. If so, I can’t recommend his book – Physical Chess: My Life In Catch As Catch Can Wrestling – any more highly to you. It takes you back to the north of England, where both Billy and Catch were born, and tells of some of the forgotten champions, and goes into more detail how Catch faded almost completely away while being packed with plenty of funny stories and interesting grappling knowledge. Plus, you don’t get a better tour guide than the British Lion, Billy Robinson.
So all that’s left for me to say is thank you and R.I.P. Billy Robinson