Billy Robinson: British Steel
by Jake Shannon
Mr. Bradley Craig from The Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame in Scotland asked me to write this for the induction of my close friend, coach, and mentor Billy Robinson. In his request he wrote, “Nobody knew the man like you, other than his family and a select few Brits from back in the day.”
Funny, I never really stopped to consider it this way, but Mr. Craig was right. I mean, I ghost-wrote his autobiography, toured the world for seven tough years as his assistant coach, and documented as much of his wisdom as I could into instructional videos and courses. He was like family to me, and I even named my youngest son William after him in 2012. I was even the person to discover that he had passed away in his sleep in Little Rock, Arkansas in Spring of 2014.
I think it is fair to say I knew pretty Billy well, maybe better than anyone else, especially at the culmination of his life. As such I've found myself in the unique position as perhaps the world's leading expert on his both life and his methods in wrestling. I am so grateful for this well-deserved induction into the International Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame.
Billy lived and breathed wrestling. It defined him. It gave him fame, fortune, and everything that goes with it. Wrestling was also a source of tremendous pain and tumult for him. More than anyone I know, Billy seemed to wholeheartedly embody American writer Charles Bukowski's admonition to “Find what you love and let it kill you.”
Toward the end of his life, he was seriously crippled up from a life lived constantly wrestling heavyweights and taking bumps. His vocal cords were badly damaged from a cervical surgery leaving him with a gravely, although still booming voice. He walked, if you could call it that, with a cane due to an unsuccessful hip and knee replacement. His right arm was weak and trembled due to cervical nerve damage from neck cranks, probably incurred at Billy Riley's gym in Wigan as a youth. He gave absolutely everything he had to become the very best in wrestling.
In many ways it was in his blood. His great-grandfather Harry was an English bare-knuckle boxing champion. His father's brother, Alf, won the Lonsdale trophy and even boxed world heavyweight champion Max Baer and wrestled world champion Jack Sherry. Billy's father was a respected street and pro fighter that took world champion Tiger Flowers to his limit.
Billy had early hoped of being a champion boxer too, until a childhood accident left him nearly blind in one eye. Fortunately, his Uncle Alf was not only a professional fighter, but he was also a professional wrestler, and he mentored Billy early on in the ways of wrestling.
Born and raised in Manchester, Billy was bigger than the other kids his age and soon even began beating grown men in wrestling. Alf realized Billy's awesome potential and, given that it was less than an hour trainride to Wigan, vouched for him to train at Riley's gym there when he was only 15 years old (interestingly enough, it was Alf who invited Karl ‘Gotch’ Istaz to Riley's Gym after he placed in the 1948 Olympic Games in London).
Billy paid his dues and this, coupled with his raw natural talent and grit, lead to him winning, and a lot. Rather quickly he won both the British National Championship and the European Open Light Heavyweight Championship in amateur wrestling. I remember hearing either Tommy Heyes of Jack Mountford, Lancaster wrestlers from Billy's Era, say that Billy was the only Englishman that had a real chance at winning an Olympic Gold Medal in Wrestling.
Despite his success as an amateur, Riley wasn't impressed. “Listen son, you've won all the cups and the medals. Why don't you take me out? I taught you how to wrestle. Take me out and buy me a steak dinner?” Billy replied, “Mr. Riley, I'd love to, but I can't afford to take you out and buy you a steak dinner.” Riley responded, “It just goes to show you, kid. You can't buy steaks with medals. It's time you turned pro.” Billy's only regret is that he didn't wait long enough to go the Olympics before turning pro since he had already beaten everyone that went as part of the British team.
Billy turned pro at a very good time, as television was just beginning to really catch on. Billy wrestled throughout England, Spain, Germany, Sweden, Belgium, France, Lebanon, India, Nepal, Japan, Canada, Australia, all over the United States.
He met his wife, Ulla, in Germany at a wrestling show and 18 months later they were married. A few years later, Billy's only son was born, Spencer. Billy sent his son, who never pursued a career in wrestling, to private school and Spencer eventually became a Colonel in the National Guard.
He had one hell of a run with Verne Gagne's AWA, even running training camps attended by the likes of Ric Flair, Sgt. Slaughter, the Iron Sheik, and Chris Taylor. Japan cemented his legend with matches like he had with Antonio Inoki. Luminaries like Lou Thesz even praised him as, “the best in the world”. He even starred with Ed Asner in the Hollywood film The Wrestler.
As age and injuries began to take their toll, his marriage to Ulla ended unamicably. I knew Billy, perhaps better than anyone, and I'll be the first to tell you, outside of wrestling he was a very private man. He kept personal matters, like this, private.
He was open about how tough this time was for him. As his body, marriage, and career began to fail he exacerbated things by drinking too much and gaining a lot of weight. He briefly worked security for the Gold Coast Casino before hitting an all-time low working as a gas station attendant.
Broke and broken, he was invited back to Japan to coach for the UWFi, a proto-MMA, worked-shoot promotion that had also recruited Lou Thesz and Danny Hodge. It was here that he had one last farewell match against his friend Nick Bockwinkel before becoming a coach for the nascent Mixed Martial Arts scene in Japan. Here he trained legendary mixed martial artists like Kazushi Sakuraba and Josh Barnett to massive victories with the catch-as-catch-can wrestling lessons learned at Riley's gym a lifetime earlier.
In 2007, Billy was looking to retire and be closer to his son Spencer in the United States. I was looking for a new mentor in catch-as-catch-can wrestling since my first, another feared catch-as-catch-can wrestler named Karl Gotch passed away that same year. Mutual friend and UFC Champion Josh Barnett introduced us and the rest, as they say, is history.
I personally cannot think of anyone else that is more deserving of their legacy being enshrined at the International Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame than Billy Robinson, and I thank you for doing so.