Wigan. Few communities of such modest size have had as profound an impact on the global wrestling scene as the tiny town in Lancashire county, England. Among wrestling enthusiasts from a variety of backgrounds, the word conjures up many powerful images — and now a book.
For fans on British wrestling and the World of Sport broadcasts, Wigan was known as the breeding ground for some of the most technically proficient wrestlers ever to grace the “telly.” Although less well known in North American professional wrestling circles, thanks to the efforts of men such as Billy Robinson, Karl Gotch and Tom “Dynamite Kid” Billington, Wigan was also synonymous with innovative mat wizardry and, particularly in regards to Robinson and Gotch, formidable submission wrestling prowess. In Japan, with the growth of the “shoot” wrestling movement (which eventually morphed into modern Japanese MMA) Wigan came to be viewed as the reservoir from which knowledge on how to cripple a man in a thousand ways flowed. If Wigan was the reservoir, popular perception holds that Riley’s Gym, colloquially known as the Snake Pit, was the spring that fed it.
Billy Riley: The Man, The Legacy by Stephen Greenfield and Mark De Courcy is the first publication which seeks to provide a detailed history of Riley’s Gym, the wrestlers who trained there, and most importantly, the man who founded it. Riley, whose prime years were in the 1920s, was an outstanding middleweight wrestler, laying claim at one point to the world’s title. More than an athlete, he was also a coach, devoted to passing both skills and sage life advice on to those who could endure the rigors of his rather strict training protocols. He was also a small-scale wrestling promoter.
Although many of the men at Riley’s Gym, and indeed Riley himself, engaged in “show” wrestling, the school’s fundamental focus was on teaching its members the age-old style of professional catch-as-catch-can: the “competitive” art upon which modern pro wrestling was founded. Opened in the late 1940s and operating until the early 1970s, Riley’s Gym offered men (but never women) the opportunity to learn a dying set of skills, rendered commercially obsolete by the firm dictates of promoters who controlled the outcome of professional wrestling matches and the greater public which demanded fast-paced, showy entertainment. Given that there is currently a resurgent global interest in catch-as-catch-can wrestling, and that Riley’s Gym was pivotal in preserving the art, Greenfield and De Courcy’s work is a timely publication. More than passive enthusiasts, both authors have, in recent years, taken to studying catch-as-catch-can themselves under one of the gym’s few remaining alumni, Roy Wood. Other Riley protégés, including Tommy Heyes, also continue to pass on their coach’s teachings.
Billy Riley: The Man, The Legacy is divided into three main sections. The first, broadly, provides background on Riley, his activities in wrestling, and the gym he founded. The second section consists of biographies of athletes who trained at Riley’s Gym. The third section is a compendium of the matches wrestled by many of those same men. At just over 500 pages, the book is a hefty tome. The size, however, should not intimidate potential readers since roughly half the book is comprised of match results.
Unlike many books on wrestling history, Greenfield and De Courcy, to their credit, have not only undertaken detailed research but also documented the sources for their findings, which include books, personal interviews, newspaper articles, websites, and wrestling magazines. Even readers who consider themselves well informed on the fields of British pro wrestling and catch-as-catch-can history will find new information in their work. This is the case concerning Riley and his students, but also prominent wrestlers who, even if from other locales, influenced the goings-on in Wigan. Two that stand out in this respect are the American middleweights Waino Ketonen and “Pinky” Gardner. The overwhelming majority of wrestling histories, to date, have focused on heavyweights. Yet, numerically speaking, they made up a small percentage of active grapplers in the early decades of the twentieth century. By turning their attention to some of the great “little men” in the game, Greenfield and De Courcy bring long overdue credit to some brilliant, and unjustifiably ignored, athletes.
One of the greatest features of Billy Riley: The Man, The Legacy is the outstanding array of photos it contains. The authors were able to draw upon a number of private collections to assemble an incredible collage of images from wrestlers’ personal, as well as professional, lives. Not all communities have been as assiduous in preserving a visual record of their wrestling history, but thankfully, those in Wigan were, and Greenfield and De Courcy take good advantage of it.
Billy Riley: The Man, The Legacy will offers readers considerable new information on its selected subject matter, but there are some areas where further attention might have been directed, particularly with respect to sources and how they are used, as well as overall editing.One source frequently utilized by the authors was kayfabe-era wrestling magazines. While they should not be entirely dismissed by historians looking for a window into wrestling’s past, it is critical that they be employed in the correct fashion and for the appropriate purposes. For example, periodicals of this type are excellent for determining what gimmicks wrestlers were using during a particular period and how promoters wished them to be portrayed to the public. For solid biographical information, however, they should be treated with extreme caution. After all, objective journalism and fact-checking, even in the most superficial sense, was not the goal. Selling the secrecy-shrouded wrestling business was. Until the 1980s and the rise of wrestling “rag sheets,” these publications operated as a virtual extension of the wrestling promotions themselves.
A section where the use of wrestling magazines becomes problematic, for example, is in the biography of Riley’s Gym standout Karl Istaz, better known internationally as Karl Gotch. Acknowledging the “embellishments of wrestling magazines” the authors nevertheless provide detailed biographical information on Istaz, as well as his purported views on various wrestlers in the business, which are drawn directly from “interviews” conducted in them. This ultimately leads them down some wrong paths, regarding, for instance, his early amateur wrestling career. As a pro wrestler, he was “sold” as being German, and interviews reflected this, billing him as a former amateur who learned his craft in Hamburg. The authors note that “many keen amateur historians” have, to no avail, tried to track down documentation on his career beyond participating in the 1948 Olympic Games. Researchers would be similarly stymied in trying to find information on a young Abdullah the Butcher in the Sudan. Being that Istaz states in post-kayfabe era interviews that he began his amateur career in the city where he actually spent his youth, Antwerp, and he was later a member of the Belgian Olympic team, Belgian sources might prove more fruitful.
Of all the wrestlers profiled in the book, the authors reserve most of their critique for Istaz. Acknowledging that he was a “divisive figure in wrestling” they nevertheless draw most heavily on the testimonials of those who have something bad to say about him, such as Tom Billington and Bob Cook, without balancing their perspectives against the many others, including tag team partner Rene Goulet, Larry Hennig, and Boris Malenko, who had more favourable recollections of the man. Whatever the origins for the authors’ views on Istaz may be, his portrayal certainly stands out in contrast to the other more complimentary assessments given of Riley’s Gym students.
Newspapers, typically reliable when chronicling the “what and where” of events close to the date of their publication, are generally well used by the authors in recounting the many matches that the Riley crew were involved in. Greenfield and De Courcy draw on an impressive array of newspapers both from Great Britain and the United States. One apparent oversight in this respect is the absence of papers published in Albany, New York. Since the book contends that Riley won the world’s middleweight title from Pinky Gardner in Albany in September 1923, and this could be regarded as the crowning achievement of his athletic career, it might have proven advantageous to delve further into the matter by looking at sources originating from where, and when, the title change is said to have occurred.Additionally, since the work’s primary emphasis is on the competitively-legitimate skills of catch-as-catch-can and the men who possessed them, more emphasis could have been given to commenting on which of the many matches covered in the book might have, in fact, been competitive encounters. Readers are left with little direction on the matter, even in regards to the clearly-worked “All-In” bouts which emerged by the 1930s.
By far the most glaring oversight, apparent throughout the entire book beginning with the cover matter itself, is attention to basic editing. There are literally thousands upon thousands of spelling, grammar, punctuation, and layout errors. This extends beyond the main text into the footnotes, which have no discernible format. Although some errors are inevitable even in professionally-produced publications, their sheer volume serves as a distraction to the reader, and occasionally obscures the points that are being made. If future editions of the self-published book are released, attention might be prudently directed to the matter.
Methodological and technical issues (as well as some evident biases) aside, readers from many wrestling-related backgrounds will still find both a great deal new and a great deal to like in Greenfield and De Courcy’s Billy Riley: The Man, The Legacy.
Fans of British pro wrestling will learn more about some of the well-known greats including Billy Joyce and Billy Robinson and undoubtedly pick up a few new names along the way. Many Canadians, too, will be surprised to find background information on Stampede heel manager John (J.R.) Foley, who was not only a Riley pupil but also regarded as one of the toughest and most skilled wrestlers of his era.
Those most interested in Riley himself will gain insight into his personal past as well as his personal character. For the first time anywhere, Greenfield and De Courcy also offer details behind his international tours to the United States and South Africa. Quite rightly, their analysis on the topic counters Karl Istaz’s contention that Riley sailed to America and came right back again. History buffs focused on the Japanese “shoot” movement will learn new angles concerning the connections between Wigan and Japan that have not been explored by other authors.
Finally, those most attracted to the art of catch-as-catch-can wrestling itself will be particularly interested in the stories of training sessions at Riley’s Gym, Riley’s coaching methods, and the approaches and philosophies of the wrestlers who learned their craft under him. They will also be pleased to know that the art is enjoying a resurgence in Wigan area today. Billy Riley: The Man, The Legacy is a step forward in filling large holes in the existing bodies of literature on each of these subjects.
C. NATHAN HATTON is a lifelong fan of professional wrestling with twenty years of involvement in submission grappling. He holds a PhD in History and teaches at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario. He is also a high school wrestling coach.