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1.6 | Catch-as-Catch-Can Roots in Lancashire | Under the Learning Tree

Updated: Dec 3, 2023


Under the Learning Tree Season 1: Jericho & (mostly) Guevara

1.6 | Catch Roots in Lancashire

1.8 | Taproots of Pro Wrestling

Under the Learning Tree is a series that follows the story of professional wrestling backwards from a current star performer in AEW Wrestling, back in time to their trainer, to their trainer's trainer, ad infinitum. The first stars we've been giving this treatment to have been kayfabe mentor and mentee Chris Jericho and Sammy Guevara. Explaining Jericho's Tree only took a couple of paragraphs, but Sammy's is in the midst of taking several installments, (weekly, every Saturday!) If you have time, the story is better appreciated from the start, so please follow this link: part 1, and from there, follow links forward at the bottom of each page to each successive installment.

 

So far in exploring Sammy Guevara's Learning Tree, we have discovered a main trunk in Texas, a major branching point in the person of Hiro Matsuda, and roots in Japan, in Mexico, and in England by way of Belgium and Ohio. In this installment, we will go into much greater detail regarding that root in the North of England, in that region where the catch-as-catch-can wrestling folkstyle that compromises the deepest roots of pro wrestling as a whole can be found: Lancashire. (With one little detour of "Greco Roman" (ie, French) wrestling roots out of Finland!)

Lancashire lay in the North of England halfway between the border of Scotland to the (further) north and Wales to the south. Wigan is a small inland industrial town in Lancashire a bit southeast of the seaside resort town of Blackpool, and a bit northeast of the port city of Liverpool. For many decades it was primarily occupied with mining and industry. But to many pro wrestling fans around the globe, it is simply: Mecca.


The Snake Pit

Building a Legend

In the summer of 1990, two Japanese pro wrestlersKY Wakamatsu and Kazuo Sakuradawent on a pilgrimage to see the gym where Billy Riley famously trained legends, and to hopefully lure one of said legends away to Japan to wrestle and train for their fledgling promotion, Super World of Sport. Likely they hoped to reproduce the success Antonio Inoki had had with bringing in Karl Gotch to be a pillar of his at-the-time fledgling New Japan promotion almost two decades prior. They were first referred to one of Riley's most famous students, Bob Robinson, who had wrestled under the name "Billy Joyce." Bob Robinson's wife was fighting cancer at that time, so he was unable to travel, so he suggested they meet with Riley's last student: Roy Wood.

Wood took them to see the site of the old gym. Or, to phrase it another way, its ruins. [1]

Its last student Roy Wood at the site of Riley's Gym

The men from Japan came near to tears from seeing the place they had heard so many legends about in such a state. Wakamatsu suggested to Wood that SWS might partner with Riley's successors to rebuild the mythic "Snake Pit"... [1] Sadly, as it turned out, SWS ended up being very short-lived. [2]

To the men who had trained there, this romanticization by the Japanese workers and fans seemed quite strange, going back to when they first heard about it from local boy turned international wrestling star, Billy Robinson, (related to Alf, but not to Joe and Bob, recall,) when he would come back from touring Japan and regale them with tales of how the Japanese had mythologized the place based on the stories he and Karl Gotch would tell, and how they all now referred to it by what had been K. Gotch's personal nickname for the place: "the Snake Pit". To the men who trained there, it was just Riley's gym, and it wasn't a place of myth or legend, just the best place to learn old-school catch-as-catch-can wrestling. [1]

Even back in his days as an active performer. Billy Riley had a passion for passing on his skills, and began coaching men long before actually building his gym. The exact timeline of Riley's career as a coach isn't entirely clear, but we have some strong clues. Bob Robinson began wrestling as "Billy Joyce" in 1944, but before that, Riley said of him: "for 12 years, Bob was the dumbest guy we ever had in the gym." For a dozen years, from ages 16 to 28, Bob would come to Riley's workout space after his shift in a coal mine and either Riley or Bob's big brother Joe would stretch him and beat him up, but he never got much better, as much as he hoped that wrestling could be his escape from the coal pits. But one day it finally clicked for him, and he went on to international acclaim. [1]

Bob Robinson

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the first notable wrestler who Riley is known to have trained was George Gregory, who debuted in 1933 and went on to be one of the most acclaimed wrestlers of the 30s. Most likely Riley also trained Joe Robinson around this time, as Joe was known to have begun wrestling pro in the mid-1930s, and unlike his little brother, he was reputed to be a natural who picked it all up very quickly. So it makes sense to imagine that all three men began training with Riley around the same time around 1932 or so, only with very different trajectories. Joe, for example, never made a big name for himself, only wrestling regionally, but he was a wrestler's wrestler, highly admired by everyone he ever sparred with, and continued to help train with Riley long after ending his pro career, around the same time his little brother finally began his own. [1]

Billy Riley & Joe Robinson: Original Black-Trunk Boys

They would use space in the pubs Riley managed as a sidelinefor many years using a suitable room in a pub in Wigan called the Crispin Arms. But if there was nowhere available better suited, Riley would roll around with you on his living room floor if it seemed you wanted to learn. But Riley always spoke of wanting a permanent place that didn't rely on anybody's munificence—of building his own gym. [1]

In the late 1940s he finally took steps toward that goal, purchasing the land and working together with his students through 1947 & '48 to build the simple, small building which would grow into a legend. Riley always encouraged his boys to have a trade to fall back on, and for many of them that was a building trade, and so they were able to donate their time and talents to making their coach's dream of a gym come true. [1]


Billy Riley

Catch Prodigy

In 1911, Billy Riley was 14 years old and he had completed all of the formal education he ever would. He was Irish, 2nd or 3rd generation in Northern England (depending on the line you follow.) His family hadn't seen their father in a dozen years, nor heard from him in over a decade, so his mother ran a pub to keep them provided for—a line that Billy would later pursue, as his backup to grappling. [1]

At this young age, as was hardly unusual at the time, young Billy had entered the world of work to help keep his family afloat. Relatively speaking, he was quite lucky: scoring a valuable apprenticeship as a moulder (learning to make the molds for metal castings) rather than doing the dark, hard, hot, dirty, dangerous work in the coal pits like most local boys in his situation. [1]

But Billy Riley was an exceptional athlete, and it wouldn't be long before his athletic pursuits made the apprenticeship superfluous, as good an opportunity as it may have been, relatively speaking. At first, catch-as-catch-can was a weekend sideline for fun and a couple extra pounds. But young Riley soon showed his mettle against the tough coal-miner boys he was matched up against and moved up to more prominent matchups with higher stakes and side-bets. [1]

Billy Riley, with friend Bob Bootles posing as "trainer" for the photo

The mention of bets raises the question: were these contests legitimate competition or show bouts with a predetermined outcome as we see today? "At what point, if ever, were pro wrestling matches genuinely competitive?" is a highly disputed question, and the people most closely involved unfortunately can't really be trusted to give an honest account, from a combination of ingrained instincts to protect the business, and rose-tinted nostalgia. On this question. even the most rigorous scholars of early pro wrestling history come to mutually exclusive conclusions. The academic Lee Casebolt makes the case that in the era of sidebets, the financial incentive to win kept pro wrestling honest, or at least no more prone to occasional rigging than any other sport of the day. [3] In an interview about those days decades later, Riley said of his mother: "She made bets on all my fights. As much as £500 a time when I was champion. She wasn't daft. I never lost a bout where a side stake was involved." [1] But was he speaking with the confidence of an athlete who knows he is on another level than his competitors? Or as a sharp operator who knows the fix is in?

Wrestling scholar Ruslan Pashayev comes to a very different conclusion than Casebolt, arguing that the conclusion that Lancashire-style catch wrestling (at least) was primarily an agreed-upon performance by professionals is inescapable from the simple fact that the sort of throws and acrobatic escapes and bridges that formed the fundamentals of the style would almost inexorably lead to broken necks and deaths for anyone attempting to apply them to a real fight. Much like the infamous modern case of Lionel Tate, the North England area newspapers of the 19th century are replete with cases of snapped necks due to a Lancashire-style throw employed in a pub brawl or impromptu challenge. [4]

A Wrestling Throw in "the Lancashire Manner" from 17th-Century Mural


As an excellent prospect, Riley attracted great coaching. The summer he first began wrestling, he garnered the notice of Finnish champion "Greco-Roman" wrestler Waino Ketonen, who happened to be making a challenge-tour of northern England. Ketonen took Riley under his wing and became a mentor to the young man, remaining in the region for almost a year. [1]

Riley also trained with local wrestlers Peter Burns and Willie Charnock. Far less is known about these two, but that Burns later had a high-profile mentor-student match with Riley in 1914. Charnock, on the other hand, finished his active career around the same time Riley began his. He would go on to coach and train Riley up through the 30s. Though never rivals on the mat, when Riley became a trainer himself, they ended up leading rival gyms. [1]


Waino Ketonen

The Finnish Overthrow!


When Waino Ketonen was 21 years old in 1909, he won an amateur Greco-Roman wrestling tournament to become the Finnish "World" champion. (Greco-Roman is in fact the French wrestling folkstyle, with classical pretensions.) Finland didn't really have wrestling professionally, so W. Ketonen moved to the US the following year for the opportunity to make his sport a career, specifically to Massachusetts, where he had relatives to help him make his start. [1]

It was in 1911, only two years after winning that Finnish championship, and only one year after going pro in the States, that Waino went back across the Atlantic for a wrestling tour of Northern England. [1] So he was, in fact, a relative rookie himself when he met a teen Riley and took him under his wing as a mentor.

Sadly, it is not recorded what exactly led W. Ketonen to make this British trip, or whether he intended from the start to stay the whole four-fifths of a year that he did, or if opportunities or problems arose that extended his visit. It may be that the graps-obsessed Lancashire region seemed an excellent proving-ground to put in repetitions and make money to start to build his career—in the 8 months he spent in the area, he would work 80 matches. Equally, he may havelike many wrestlers would after himbeen looking for the roots of the catch folkstyle of wrestling that was at the heart of the US style of pro wrestling that he found himself needing to adapt to.

If so, he may have been surprised to find himself in the position of a mentor rather than a mentee. After all, he can hardly have been teaching Riley specifically in the Catch style that he was just learning himself, but there was a lot of commonality between Catch and Greco-Roman, both having descended from Frankish wrestling traditions of the Middle Ages, (the Lancashire folkstyle having been brought to Northern England by Flemish immigrants,) and both being focused on lifting throws. [4] It’s very possible that training in multiple styles early on helped Riley learn the adaptability that allowed him to remain relevant as a wrestler and later as a trainer himself through all of the evolution in English professional wrestling that he would persist through down the decades.

W. Ketonen returned to Massachusetts and had a remarkable career throughout the teens and 20s: he held and defended the World Middleweight championship more often than not. It is reported that in 1929 he pulled up roots from Massachusetts and relocated for a time to Palo Alto, California to coach amateurs at Stanford University in Greco-Roman who were hopeful of training up toward making a run at the 1932 Olympics. In 1934 he retired from pro wrestling for good. [1]

Promotional Poster Featuring Middleweight Champ, W. Ketonen

While Waino's career may be little remembered now, at the time he was synonymous with “excellent Finnish wrestler” to the extent that an unrelated Finn lifted the name for himself for its cachet—Paavo Ketonen, who wrestled from the 30s to the 50s and trained and promoted for decades after that. [6] Paavo turned up in our narrative much earlier as the man who trained Soldat Gorky, who trained Duke Myers, who helped to train Scott Casey, who trained Booker T. [5]

Waino's Namesake, Paavo

Before all of that, Waino Ketonen had many matches and held many championships, but one in particular is worthy of special note, in 1922 and '23, Billy Riley toured the US and won the Middleweight championship from a competitor named Pinkie Gardiner. But in March of 23, his former mentor took that title and gave Riley a rare “L” in a bout that Billy would later describe as “the greatest contest of [his] career.” [1]

K. Gotch once claimed that the suplex that would later be called “German” after himselfthat he had branded as the “Atomic Suplex”was taught to him under the (extremely cool) name: the Finnish Overthrow. [7] This name cannot be found elsewhere in the literature, leading some to conclude that this was a kayfabe story Karl made up for the sake of punching up an interview in a wrestling magazine. But, equally, it might have been a name Riley specifically used for it when Karl learned it from him, due to Riley having learned it from the Finnish Waino. K. Gotch didn’t mention W. Ketonen by name in connection to the move, (although in a much later interview he spoke of having become friends with Waino long after his retirement,) [8] instead making the dubious claim that "the Finns" invented the suplex "150 years ago." [7] But seeing as Finland never really had a local wrestling folkstyle, it certainly makes sense to guess that Riley may have named it that due to association with a specific Finn mentor, and K. Gotch simply misunderstood or misremembered. It wasn’t W. Ketonen’s signature movethat was something called the “Double Arm Roll” [1]but it was definitely the sort of lifting throw one could easily imagine a Catch practitioner copying from Greco-Roman or vice versa, and one can still see the move or very similar ones used in competition in amateur Greco-Roman. Impossible to confirm, but tantalizingthe Finnish Overthrow as a through-line that would directly show the continuing influence on modern pro wrestling all over the world of one of the deepest Learning-Tree roots certainly is par for the course for this sort of research.

Is this Move the "Finnish Overthrow"?

 

Next week is AEW Full Gear, and as a tie in to this I will be using the Saturday publishing slot for something more modern: a deep dive into the "Who's Under the Mask?" AEW Devil storyline, examining suspects, likely and unlikely. and comparing with similar stories in multiple storytelling media.

Who Can It Be, Now?

The following Saturday, November 25th, I will finally, for real this time, be unearthing the last and deepest roots of Sammy Guevara's Learning Tree in the midst of the exotic cornfields of Iowa of the late 1800s.

FINISH! THE! STORY!



Learning Tree Lineage Diagram


Work-in-Progress Learning Tree Hypertext Document


Sources

  1. Billy Riley - the Man, the Legacy by Dr. Stephen Greenfield and Mark De Courcy

  2. Puroresu System Wiki, "Super World of Sports"

  3. "From sidebets to sideshow: The influence of gambling on the development of professional wrestling in America, 1870-1911" by Lee Casebolt, download

  4. The Story of Catch: The Story of Lancashire Catch-as-Catch-Can Wrestling, by Ruslan C. Pashayev

  5. RFVideo, “Scott Casey Shoot Interview

  6. WrestlingData, "Paavo Ketonen"

  7. "Karl Gotch, The Quiet Man, Speaks His Piece" by Bob Leonard, The Ring, Dec 1968, reprinted at puroreso.com

  8. "My Cigar with Karl" by Jake Shannon


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