Hall of Fame: Billy Riley

Billy Riley was an English practitioner and teacher of catch wrestling. As a trainer in the sport, Riley taught some of the leading post-World War II figures in catch wrestling at his training school known globally as “The Snake Pit” in Wigan, Greater Manchester, England.

Riley was born on 22nd June 1896 in Wigan, England where he grew up to be a moulder. Wigan was a tough mining town and Riley soon found himself training with the miners in the art of Lancashire catch-as-catch-can wrestling. Riley took to the sport quickly and soon began to display extraordinary submission skills and in no time at all earned a reputation as a devastating “hooker.” His matches soon gained notoriety for the trail of opponents with broken arms that he left behind him.

During the 1930s Riley travelled to Africa to capture the British Empire championship from Jack Robinson, who left the match with a broken arm. Then later in the 1940s, Riley purchased a small plot of land on Pyke Street in Wigan and with the help of his students, built a gymnasium on the land. Billy Riley’s gym became known as the Snake Pit and quickly earned a global reputation for its catch-as-catch-can style of wrestling. Producing among others Men such as Karl Gotch (Istaz), Bert Assirati, Melvin Riss (Harold Winstanley), John Foley, Jack Dempsey (Tommy Moore), Billy Joyce (Bob Robinson), Dynamite Kid (Tom Billington), Billy Robinson and Riley’s own son Ernie Riley.

In the late 1950s the son of a former student, Roy Wood, and the son of Wood’s friend wanted to learn wrestling so traveled to Wigan, only to see the school in complete disrepair. The roof had literally caved in. With the help of locals, Roy Wood managed to get the gym started again. Riley’s gym was reopened. However, this time, since Roy’s son Darren and nephew Paul had wanted to learn, the gym was opened to children.

When Roy began wrestling, he was in fact the youngest person in the gym. He recalls how he constantly got “murdered” when he first started. Nearly all the wrestlers were not only older but also much bigger and heavier than he was. He explained that when you walk on a mat Billy always taught that you wrestle everyone like they are World Class even if they say that they had never wrestled before. Many would often come to the gym, be treated like this and never return again. Roy however persevered and gradually learned about the sport.

Catch: The Hold Not Taken (2005)

Later Riley decided to take a seat by the mat and let Wood coach and teaching children was a new concept for both Roy and Riley. The results though, soon showed that the teaching at the Snake Pit was still world class. By the age of 10, Darren had won the British Championships alongside local children Paddy Govan, Kevin Govan, Tony Leyland and Neil Maxwell who were also Riley’s wrestlers. After competitions, the children would go round to see Riley and his wife, and take the medals and trophies which they had won.

Riley died on 27th August 1977. Roy Wood and Tommy Heyes kept the Snake Pit running, and the children continued to visit Riley’s wife to show her the trophies and achievements they had won thanks to the efforts of her husband.

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