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Historically, Lancashire has undisputedly been the home of Catch-as-Catch Wrestling and many would argue that Wigan is the Catch wrestling capital of the world. Wigan is a town known for it’s mining history and many chose Catch as their sport.
In the 1940’s, Billy Riley bought a piece of land and built a gym that could also be referred to as a shed. This was to be the home of many champions of the future and would create a legacy for the generations to come. This was a gym that could produce every type of wrestler. Professional wrestlers and straight wrestlers who could compete in both Catch and Freestyle.
Without a doubt this gym produced exceptional wrestlers. In the 1950’s it saw wrestlers such as Karel Istaz (Karl Gotch) and Bert Assirati. The 1960’s included Ernie Riley (Billy Riley’s son), Melvin Riss (Harold Winstanley), John Foley, Jack Dempsey (Tommy Moore), Billy Joyce (Bob Robinson) and Billy Robinson.
Other great wrestlers included Roy Wood, Alan Latham (Francis Sullivan), Seamus Dunleavy, Billy Chambers, Len Wetherby, Jackie Cheers, Frank Riley, Jimmy Hart, Alan Hartwood, Harry Duvall, Ken Baldwin, John Naylor and Brian Burke.
Riley’s gym, ran by Billy Riley was at the core of wrestling in Wigan. Billy Riley was a moulder by trade and also a keen wrestler himself. He excelled in the sport of Catch. Billy had a no holds barred attitude to the sport and this was demonstrated during his match against Jack Robinson in Africa where Billy won the belt and Jack was left with a broken arm.
Club ethos and members
This was a real, raw club. There were no children or women in this gym. There were no toilet facilities but there was a shower and Billy operated a strict policy regarding wrestlers showering after training. Billy extended this “no holds barred” attitude to his club. Many of the professional wrestlers would train in the morning and they would do the wrestling shows in the evenings.
The remainder of the wrestlers including Roy Wood had full time work commitments and would train in the evenings only.
Billy Riley coaches Roy Wood
In the late 1950’s, one of Billy Riley’s wrestlers was Roy Wood. Roy was one of the youngest in the gym and one of the last wrestlers to be taught by him. It was unusual for Roy to take up the sport as he was one of four brothers who all participated in boxing. People would travel to Aspull, the village where Roy and his family lived, to have boxing challenges with the Wood brothers. Despite Roy also doing some boxing, his heart however always lay with wrestling.
Roy’s father, Charlie Wood was a coal miner and it was by chance that Charlie worked alongside Bob Robinson (AKA Billy Joyce). Bob was Charlie’s “haulage lad”. Roy however, followed a career path to that of Billy Riley which was to become a moulder. Roy therefore had his apprenticeship and would work in the foundry. He would also do door work to supplement his income.
Despite these work commitments, Roy would go to Riley’s gym. There was a big age gap between the men in the club and Roy at 17 years of age. He was also one of the lightest in the gym. This weight difference was irrelevant to Billy. Roy remained undeterred. Roy recalls how as a newcomer and on a regular basis he “got murdered” and that there were no exceptions made on a Riley’s mat. Billy would say how everyone who stepped on a mat should be given the credit of a world class wrestler and this meant giving them nothing. There were to be no allowances and there was no such thing as “taking it easy”. This attitude would see many first timers never returning.
Riley’s Gym closes
The 1970’s saw professional wrestling take off with a great deal of showmanship and choreography. This put all wrestling credibility in doubt and partnered by a compulsory purchase of the land this led to the eventual closure of Riley’s gym. This seemed to be an end for Riley’s at this time. That was, until Roy Wood decided to re-open the club in order to teach his son, Darren Wood. Roy wanted to pass on his knowledge to Darren and other youngsters to ensure this great sport that he had been taught could continue.
Riley’s Gym Re-Opens
Roy’s reopening of the gym was not straightforward. The roof had caved in and was in a serious state of disrepair. Roy rallied round, got donations off a man named Bill Swiers who donated materials and got the help of locals and the gym was rebuilt but this time it was rebuilt to twice it’s original size.
The reopening of the gym led to the reappearance of Billy Riley and from time to time he would visit the club, take his seat at the edge of the mat and would watch Roy coach. Occasionally, Billy would pass on his knowledge and advice to the new generation of wrestlers. Coaching children was a new concept to Riley’s but it was welcomed and again produced champions.
Barriers faced by the second generation
Unfortunately, others were not so accommodating to Riley’s. Wrestling in Great Britain at the time was purely freestyle and so did not take kindly to Catch wrestlers bringing their style to tournaments. Roy only knew the Riley way. Riley’s permitted techniques that in freestyle were illegal.
Roy recognised that his team needed competition and something to train for and realized that the world of wrestling was not going to adapt to Riley rules. Roy therefore was forced to change the style to freestyle/amateur in order for the boys to have the chance to compete. This did not however prevent him teaching some of the techniques known only to Riley’s gym that weren’t illegal. This additional knowledge thereby giving the boys an upper advantage and again Riley’s wrestlers new generation went on winning medal after medal. Roy’s son by the age of 10 already won the title of British Champion alongside other wrestlers including Neil Maxwell and Tony Leyland.
Roy always respected the knowledge that Billy had passed onto him and after competitions he would take the wrestlers to Billy’s house in order to show him their medals. This continued for the remainder of Billy’s life and in 1977, Billy passed away. Roy would still however go to the house with the boys and they would show Billy’s wife their achievements and include her in the club achievements.
First Tuesday documentary “The Wigan Hold”
The 1980’s saw Yorkshire TV produce the documentary “The Wigan Hold.” This clearly portrays the working class element and the lack of resources that were available to wrestlers. This led to the Sports Council offering to rebuild the gym. At the time, it was agreed by all that the gym was in such a state of disrepair it would make more sense to relocate to new premises and Roy bought a building in Aspull, the village he had been brought up in.
From Riley’s Gym to Aspull Wrestling Club
Ever since Roy reopened the gym there was the ongoing problem within the British wrestling committee that amateur and professional did not mix and that Riley’s was a professional club. This was causing difficulties for the Riley’s team to access competitions and be included despite Roy’s coaching adaptations to suit freestyle and so Roy made the decision to rename the club to ensure that their inclusion in competition could not be denied. This led to it being called Aspull Olympic Wrestling Club, later to become Aspull Wrestling Club when there was a ban of using the word “Olympic” in club titles.
There had been significant interest from Japan as they recognised that the club continued to produce champion after champion, decade after decade and nothing seemed to stop the club producing unstoppable, unbeatable athletes. They became keen to learn the sport, Wigan style!
The documentary triggered Osamu “Sam” Matsunami, a Japanese wrestler, who had a very keen interest in wrestling to act. He saw the documentary and then saved up and flew to England. He spent 6 month periods over the following years at the club and then went on to coach with Bill Robinson who was by now living in Japan and keeping Catch alive over there. Sam returned in 2012 and did his assessments and qualifications and is now an affiliate clubs coach of The Snake Pit. Details of his club can be found in the “Affiliate club” links
Other visitors, included Mr. Watamatzu and Mr Sakurada from SWS company who visited the original Riley’s gym. They were so passionate about the club and its value that they saw the disrepair, one of them in fact cried, and pictures were taken of them holding up the gym roof. They even offered money to renew the building. It would seem that recognition for Wigan Catch wrestling was more recognised in Japan than England. Roy then took them to Aspull and they watched how, with ease, Roy naturally switched from freestyle back to his roots and the sport of his preference, Catch. SWS watched in awe and three weeks later they returned with a contract for Roy to go to Japan teaching this almost forgotten art. The coaching then led to an ultimate bout in Yokohama arena with Roy wrestling his opponent. SWS valued Roy’s skill and knowledge so much that they offered him further work but as a family man and the owner of a local business Roy chose to return to Wigan.
Roy returned home and continued to teach the children at his club on a non profit making basis. He put his heart and soul into the second generation team and would often fund the club and wrestlers out of his own pocket.
Unknown to Roy another wrestler of Riley’s, Karel Istaz, better known as Karl Gotch was in Japan coaching Mr Fujinami and Karl was also helping to revive Catch wrestling. Involved in this was the wrestler, Osamu Nishimura who had originally been an amateur wrestler himself but who had a great interest in Catch wrestling. He therefore decided to follow his dream, find out what it was all about and go back to the roots of the sport and therefore found himself in Wigan. On arrival in Wigan, he set off on foot and ended up in another gym. Fortunately, the owners of the club knew Roy and rang Roy to explain the situation. Osamu spent time in Wigan and loved what he saw. So much so that he contacted Mr Fujunami and told him that he must see for himself what was happening with Roy Wood in Wigan. Mr Fujinami flew to Wigan and was so taken by what he saw that again, weeks later, he returned with a contract for him to sign. This led to 12 visits to Japan for both coaching purposes and also taking teams over to Japan. Roy however, still remained a family man and firmly kept his roots and priorities in Wigan despite receiving exceptional coaching opportunities.
Catch – The Hold Not Taken
Mike Todd and Ian Bennett of Riverhorse productions also worked very hard to produce the DVD “Catch – The hold not taken” which illustrates Lancashire as the predominant Catch capital. This DVD allowed the history to be preserved and give people insight into the sport of Catch and again keeping the spark alight across the globe for those with a genuine keen interest in Catch.
Roy Wood’s Coaching commitments to present day
Roy has always remained the coach at Aspull Wrestling Club and has gone on to produce champions in freestyle. Many of his wrestlers have gone on to represent Great Britain in many international events, including the Commonwealth Games. He has also coached himself at international level including his position of coach at the Commonwealth Games in India. 2012 marked the year of the London Olympics and Roy spent 12months with a female athlete from Guam and then coaching her throughout the games.
Roy’s lifetime commitment to wrestling has been publicly reflected when people have nominated him for awards. He has been honoured to win and receive the the following:-
2009 – Coach of the year (Wigan)
2009 – Club of the year Aspull Wrestling Club
2011 – BBC Sports Personality of the Year Unsung Hero (North West)
2011 – Wish FM Local Hero Awards “Man of the Year”
2012 – Coach of the Year – Wigan Sports Awards
2012 – Club of the Year – Aspull Wrestling Club – Wigan Sports Awards
2012 – Coach of the Year – Greater Manchester Sports Awards
2012 – “Be Inspired” Changing Lives and Creating a Lasting Legacy – Greater Manchester Sports Awards
2012 – Torch Bearer – London Olympics
Riley’s Gym – Aspull Wrestling Club – The Snake Pit
So, some of you may be wondering? Why is it now called “The Snake Pit?”
Well we have our Japanese friends to thank for this. Since the links to Japan and the training of Catch out there, they renamed our club “The Snake Pit” and it has stuck ever since. It is also a great way of testing people who really know their stuff in Catch. Anyone who does know the history of Rileys gym will understand the interchangeable names of Riley’s, Aspull Olympic Wrestling Club, Aspull Wrestling Club and The Snake Pit.
Catch is back!
It is funny how things have a way of doing a full circle! Roy has always had Catch as his number one sport but was forced to adapt and change towards freestyle to save the club. Roy thought that to revive Catch from it’s home in Wigan would be impossible and so he has continued to coach freestyle wrestling. He will be the first to say that his preference however is Catch and his daughter Andrea has been asking him for a long time to coach Catch again to ensure that his knowledge is passed on to future generations. Roy’s concern was that people only wanted to learn Catch to dilute it, adapt it and that there was no genuine interest in it as a sport in its own right. Andrea has worked tirelessly to show Roy that there is a genuine interest closer to home that Roy is unaware of.
FINALLY he has agreed to coach Catch-as-Catch Wrestling again. Roy is conscious that if the few remaining coaches from Riley’s gym do not pass on their knowledge that the sport will die and will be lost in the pages of history.
As the youngest remaining wrestler from the club Roy is keen to find the right coaches locally, nationally and internationally who he can entrust with this knowledge and who can replicate his coaching style and technique which can be traced back to Billy Riley. This will therefore ensure that this great sport will be preserved for generations to come and will never be forgotten.
During Roy’s lifetime he hopes to see a real Catch revival with the same no holds barred attitudes back on the mat and in competitions. We welcome all those with a genuine Catch interest and urge you to join this revival and be part of changing the future of Catch-as-Catch Wrestling.