Interview: The Return of Catch Wrestling's Snake Pit

Roy and Andrea Wood. Coach Roy Wood this morning received the BBC North West Unsung Sport Hero Award, and is nominated for the national award in BBC's Sports Personality of the Year. Photo via The Snake Pit Facebook Page

Catch Wrestling. Once a prominent sport in North America and Europe just a century ago, today it is an art that is flirting with extinction. A revival of sorts has been occurring stateside over the last few years helped by the explosion in popularity of Mixed Martial Arts and the UFC, as well as the demonstrable effectiveness of grappling styles like Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Folkstyle and Freestyle Wrestling.

Generally speaking the UK is not known for its wrestling talent, with MMA fighters often being exposed for their weakness in this area; the notion of grappling initially foreign to those who might originally come from Boxing or Kickboxing. With newer generation fighters learning more pieces of the puzzle with the increase of BJJ coaching within the British Isles, gyms are often looking abroad for coaches from places such as the USA or Iran to help fill in the Wrestling gap in their knowledge. Little do they know a wealth of knowledge is available on their very own doorstep, but it has been lost to many for decades.

The Northern County of Lancashire is the spiritual home of Catch-As-Catch-Can Wrestling, notable also for its role in the Industrial Revolution with industries such as Wool and Cotton production, mining, fishing on the coast and shipbuilding. Within the Greater Manchester area a town called Wigan was once world famous in its ability to produce talent in the world of Professional Wrestling. Riley's Gym in particular produced wrestlers as Karl Gotch and Billy Robinson who took their talents and spread their knowledge in Japan, directly impacting the creation of Pro Wrestling Strong Style, which eventually lead to promotions such as Shooto, Rings, Pancrase and Pride. Arguably Billy Riley and Riley's Gym is as important to the history of Catch Wrestling as Kano and Maeda are to the history of Jiu Jitsu.

I had the opportunity to interview Andrea Wood -- daughter of wrestler and coach Roy Wood, who was one of Billy Riley's last students -- about Catch Wrestling, Billy Riley, MMA, Freestyle Wrestling and the Olympics, the reopening of The Snake Pit and the revival of Lancashire Style Catch As Catch Can Wrestling.

KJ Gould: Hello Andrea, thank you for taking the time to do this interview. For those who might be unfamiliar with Lancashire Catch-As-Catch-Can and Catch Wrestling, briefly tell us a little about it and how you are involved in it. What parts of Lancashire were hotbeds for Wrestling, and why is Wrestling such an important part of culture there?

Andrea Wood: I know for a lot of Wigan it was popular in general, and Riley's gym was based in an area called Whelley where I still live. My father's house is also in Whelley and so we haven't moved very far!

Catch wrestling is a very old sport historically and many people would say that Wigan is one of most recognised hotspots for Catch worldwide due to many of the great wrestlers that came out of the Wigan area and the gyms here.

It is a very technical sport and I love to both hear and watch my father talk about the sequence of techniques and how in the original Catch days wrestlers would be thinking, not about the move they are doing but more about the counters to the counters that would be following. The speed of the sport also meant that the wrestlers' minds must be very quick as there was little if any time to steal a breath and so the level of intellect attached to the speed, agility and toughness of the sport fascinates me. The more I see of it -- now my dad is back on the mat -- the more I am in awe of what a great sport it is. I would challenge anyone to not be amazed by what a fantastic sport it is. As I have been around the Freestyle so long, I have a passion for wrestling in general but for me I enjoy the submission element that Catch brings in addition to the pin! I also like the fact that there is nowhere to hide when doing Catch, no way to cut corners, steal or bide for time and nowhere to escape. It is an incredible sport and I hope we raise awareness of the merits of Catch and raise appreciation for it in general.

KJ Gould: At one point Riley's Gym was known for its wrestling and wrestlers throughout Britain, but also in parts of the USA, Canada and Japan. Who was Billy Riley and who were some of the notable wrestlers that got on the mat there? What was it about Riley's Gym at its peak that made training there highly sought after?

Andrea Wood: Billy Riley was the founder of Riley's Gym and my father's (Roy Wood's) coach. I have spoken at length with him about his roots in wrestling and love to hear about the "olden days".

My father speaks extremely highly and with the greatest respect for his coach Billy Riley. Billy himself was a great wrestler who competed locally and internationally. He won the British Empire belt in Johannesburg during his time wrestling.

There were many great wrestlers from that era. Many people are already aware of Karl Gotch, and Billy Robinson but there were also great wrestlers who were less well known as they chose to remain in Wigan with their families and not travel abroad. The one that stands out most and for me the best in the club was Bob Robinson, AKA Billy Joyce. I remember Bob from being a little girl and he was an absolute gentleman through and through. He was one of the kindest men I have ever met and a real family man. I love to hear Dad talk the most about him as he will explain how Bob would just 'play' with people. Dad will smile as he reminisces about Bob giving someone his leg as he already had every counter you could think of lined up ready for what he would do next. My father always explains that Catch was a very clever sport and often says "It is like a game of chess, you always need to be a move ahead". It would seem that Bob was the master of this.

There were also other great wrestlers such as Tommy Moore AKA Jack Dempsey, Harold Winstanley AKA Melvyn Rhys, Alan Wood (Cousin of Roy), John Foley, Len Wetherby, Brian Burke to name but a few.

Riley's at its peak had the greatest standard of wrestling. People would travel from everywhere to live in Wigan and invest years of their life training daily. It would take years to get to the standard of the other wrestlers in the gym. Once you have such a high standard in a club and you have the best opponents to train with on a daily basis this is a breeding ground for talent and becoming an athlete at your sport. Any athlete knows that you are only as good as your training partners and so to walk into Riley's gym you could take your pick.

KJ Gould: For many fans of the UFC and Mixed Martial Arts, their familiarity with grappling mostly lies with American Folkstyle and Freestyle Wrestlers as well as Brazilian Jiu Jitsu players as traditionally they have had the most success in MMA thus far. From your perspective how is Catch Wrestling different and similar to these styles, as well as other arts such as Greco-Roman Wrestling, Judo and Sambo? Historically, has Catch Wrestling influenced these styles or have grapplers from these styles sought out coaching at The Snake Pit or from Lancashire wrestlers?

Andrea Wood: Catch is a sport in its own right and differs from all other sports. There is always overlap between sports, for example Freestyle skills are a great foundation for Catch wrestlers and varying sport styles often compliment each other. I think it is dangerous ground when people start to comment on other people's disciplines as no one can speak with authority on every sport and there needs to be a level of respect for each sport in it's own right. The Snake Pit is specifically Catch. We understand that people may be able to adapt this to help in other areas of training but we do not claim to teach outside of our own field of expertise.

KJ Gould: Riley's Gym had a reputation of being tough to endure, with tales of wrestlers losing some teeth, cracking their ribs and tearing their knees when they first got on the mat there. What was the philosophy behind this almost sink-or-swim initiation for would-be wrestlers? Is this how the gym garnered the nickname of The Snake Pit? As a building, what was Riley's gym like?

Andrea Wood: Riley's was a very tough gym but there was almost an unspoken gentleman's code where in the club training sessions, limbs were not broken as many of the men had to go down the pit or into their own hard working environment the next day. The wrestlers would put on submissions and it couldn't be denied that a great level of pain was often endured but as soon as someone submitted it was stopped. It is also true to say that many people would be one time only visitors as the club was too rough for them.

I had to ask my Dad for more detail about this before answering it as I did not want to be inaccurate. My father explained that Billy would teach all the men in the gym that when someone walked through the doors that they should treat everyone like they were world class when stepping on the mat with them. Once it was clearly established that they were new and if they had the right attitude people may take it a bit easier on them.

It also perhaps had a tough reputation as often other wrestlers wouldn't show you anything and you had to learn by your own mistakes and picking up what you could as you went along. That is why it would take years to become a good wrestler at Riley's and you would take a lot of beatings before you worked something out.

The Snake Pit nickname came from Japan when my father went over there in the 90's. Prior to that it has only ever been known as Rileys gym.

The building was very basic and rough. There have been suggestions from others that there was no shower or such basic facilities but this is untrue. In fact Billy was always adamant that everyone must shower after training. This was a compulsory rule of the club.

As you have asked me to answer this question from my perspective I think I have a slightly different insight into the question. I see the lads that we train today and those we have worked with for the last 15 years. Some of the groups of young people I work with are from particularly tough background and so it could be argued that they are tougher than the average kid on the street. I also remember the first team generation of wrestlers that my father taught. When I watch my Dad coach and see his expectations of pain endurance, fitness, strength, and training requirements it is abundantly clear that he is from an era of men that was totally different.

My father's idea of a hard training session is very different to anyone else I know. It is very hard to appreciate what he is trying to say as this unwritten code could mislead people into thinking that the gym was not as tough as it has been made out to be and therefore such hyped up tales of broken limbs, missing teeth etc may be people trying to get across the scale of how hard it was. However, when I speak to my dad he will say things like "People miss training because they are aching or they have got an injury. If we missed for that at Riley's we would never be there".

I also put into the equation that now sessions are done on good quality wrestling mats; back then it was done on what can only be described as a concrete floor with some creased up material over the top of it. So no skin on knees and burns that go with facilities like this in my father's mind are no big deal. It was just part and parcel of the session. If someone went near to a wall and moved away from the mat it was totally acceptable to ram them into it and if someone crawled away the result would be someone dropping their shoulder into your back from an almost stood position. When my Dad explains these things to me it puts a new light on things perhaps, although there was no doubt a gentleman's code as there was no punching, kicking, or choking and that submissions were put on in a way to ensure time was allowed for the man to tap.

KJ Gould: In the last century Competitive Catch Wrestling in both North America and Europe gradually transitioned into the worked, exhibition form we know as Professional Wrestling today. Many wrestlers from Riley's Gym knew how to both wrestle legitimately as well as how to put on a show, but what we see today barely resembles the mat-work of the past. What are your views on how Pro Wrestling developed, and has it helped or hindered keeping the competitive sport aspect of Catch alive?

Andrea Wood: I have watched my father wrestle professionally and sometimes this was the source of income that put food on the table. I know particularly when my Dad was young it was definitely the bread and butter of his mother's household as my father's wage would be the household income at the time. Although he is better known for Catch and the Freestyle coaching he does, my father has taught other guys the professional aspects of wrestling as well.

Wrestlers from Riley's gym could wrestle all styles of wrestling. Many of the wrestlers would wrestle both Catch and Pro. My father personally knows how much Show-wrestlers took hard bangs and when I was growing up, my father wrestled on many occasions with injuries; for example he once did a show with a broken collar bone.

In those days the rings were very hard and so no matter how well wrestlers learned to fall they would still be taking a lot of knocks. This was how people made their money to live from wrestling. My father would say that he got more injuries as a Pro wrestler than he did as a Catch wrestler in those days. Again, it is unfair to compare Catch to Pro as they are very different sports. I have myself worked with promoters of professional wrestling to organize summer activity programmes for children in the holidays and as a result of the kids watching the Pro I have had a class full of new beginners in my Freestyle class the week later, some of whom have gone on to become great in the Freestyle world.

In my opinion, it is easy to criticise other sports but it is often unfair. You can look at something with an open mind and a different perspective and see the positive and negatives in anything. If the sport is not for you then it is a simple choice to steer away from it and focus on the sport you are best suited to but no good comes from being disrespectful to other people's chosen fields.

KJ Gould: Your father, Roy Wood, officially took over The Snake Pit from Billy Riley in the 1970's. When did Roy begin wrestling under Billy Riley? Was he one of the last generation to learn under Riley and how did he become the one to take over coaching at the gym?

Andrea Wood: MY father was approximately 16 years of age when he went to Riley's gym. He was the youngest in the club and other guys there were in their ‘20's. He was the last generation to learn under Billy Riley and Billy closed the gym eventually.

My father reopened the club as a result of my brother, Darren as he wanted to learn wrestling and so the club was reopened. My father also coached Billy Riley's grandsons Mark and Paul at the same time and Billy's nephew, Patrick Burns. Billy would come into the club and watch my father coach from the sidelines and they would spend many a time discussing the wrestling during the session, techniques etc.

KJ Gould: The original building that was Riley's gym was condemned and demolished by I believe the Wigan town council. Roy Wood continued to coach by setting up a gym in nearby Aspull and the teaching eventually changed from traditional Catch As Catch Can Wrestling to that of the international Freestyle Wrestling recognised by FILA and the Olympics. What prompted the change in direction of coaching? Was interest in the Catch style dieing out?

Andrea Wood: A decision was made by the Riley family to allow houses to be built on the land and so the gym was closed. This led to my father buying Aspull Boys club and reopening the club which became better known as Aspull Wrestling Club. It was at this point that the name of the club changed.

The reason for the change from Catch to Freestyle was two fold. Firstly, the gym was working predominantly with children now and Riley's had always been geared towards seniors. Secondly, the only governing body at the time was for Freestyle and they were very clear that they would not accept the Riley style of wrestling. No submissions were allowed in the amateurs. My father recognised the need for competitiveness and a way to test the skills you practice in the gym and so gradually the club moved from Catch to Freestyle to allow competition outside of the club itself.

KJ Gould: In recent years Roy Wood has focused more on the coaching at the Aspull Olympic Wrestling Club while you have taken over the day-to-day operations and running of the gym. Was working with your father and within the sport of Wrestling always on the agenda? What does Wrestling mean to you socially and culturally?

Andrea Wood: My father has always said that he only wants to do the side of sport which he loves which is getting on the mat. As all club owners know, there is also another side to building a successful club which involves fund raising, writing grants, grassroots development, accessing international training partners and camps, regular competition and sourcing suitable competitions dependent on wrestlers' levels. In addition, there is a strive to excellence to achieve kitemark club status such as Club Mark and Aspull was one of the first clubs to be awarded this status which led the way in setting this standard of excellence. Aspull is still a voluntary organization which it has always been and so we depend on a great team of volunteers which we are fortunate to have. Volunteers whether they be the ones who organize kit, clean the mats, organize tournaments or whatever role they play are all essential to the success of the club.

We have also led the way in mentoring younger generations to coach and have had many wrestlers go on to become coaches and give back to the club what they received as a child.

If you had asked me when I was a little girl whether I would be so involved in the club I would have confidently said 'absolutely not!' The reason being that when I was young, Riley's gym was very much a lads club and it was unheard of for girls to go into the gym. On the rare occasion that myself or my Mum would need to get hold of my Dad when he was coaching at the club, it went without saying that I would go up the path and knock and wait patiently for him to come outside. It was just a no-no of the day. Then as Aspull opened and we developed schools programmes and changed to Freestyle, my father was one of the driving forces behind getting females onto the mat and accepted in the world of amateur wrestling.

Although I had spent my entire life as a child living, eating and breathing wrestling it was only from the sidelines. I would go to all the tournaments and cheer on my Dad's team, I would watch my Mum make bucket loads of sandwiches and breakfasts, I would listen to conversations between my Dad and his wrestlers about how they could improve their performance, I would watch him put his hand in his own pocket and buy the lads wrestling boots and buy their dinner and make sure they didn't go without.

My experience in my younger years however never involved me being on a mat. My involvement came later as I finished my law degree and returned home and I started to see some injustice with the people running wrestling and so I began to fight for the team at this level.

As time progressed I just seemed to become more and more involved in the wrestling and my passion grew deeper and so I began to train myself and get on the mat. Very quickly it became apparent that there were very few if any competition opportunities for females and so I decided to go into coaching. I had already been shadowing my father around some schools in the region and as time went by I became more and more involved. This led to me getting a coaching qualification and gradually I began to expand the school coaching programme. Eventually I knocked my hours I worked as a solicitor down to 3 days to allow me to coach 2 full days per week and then years on I left the legal profession completely to set up Heartlift which involves coaches working full time delivering a range of sports including wrestling to get young people into positive activities and give them alternatives in life.

For me, as much as I love wrestling it is about much greater, wider issues that surround people's lives. It is about giving people a place where they are welcome, have a family, a reason to get up each day, a pride in themselves, a choice that is different to everything that they may see around them, a team of people who can guide and mentor them, a place where people will encourage and empower them. People underestimate the power of sport!  It is funny how things happen for a reason and although there was no planning from day one it is like things have just developed organically. When people say that things happen for a reason it is so true in my experience and it is incredible to see how blessed we have been in all that we have done and for that I am really grateful.

KJ Gould: The Summer Olympics are being hosted in London next year. Is the A.O.W.C. involved in the Freestyle Wrestling events and if so to what extent?

Andrea Wood: Yes, Aspull is involved in Freestyle wrestling events and we have had a great track record of success. We attend tournaments throughout the year and have done so for decades.

Last week we held our annual international tournament which has been running for over 30 years and attracted approximately 200 competitors. We had wrestlers from numerous countries and were delighted to yet again win the best club in the tournament based on points accumulated throughout the day.

We have had numerous wrestlers on the Great Britain team and we are currently working with Maria Dunne from Guam who has been sent to ourselves for her pre-Olympic training. Maria wrestled at the Beijing Olympics and felt that if she was to stand the best chance of medaling in London she needed to find the best club, coach and training partners to work with. As a result she chose to train with ourselves and now trains 2 - 3 times per day with us. She has also been involved in the Catch seminars and Maria explained that prior to coming to Wigan, she has trained and competed in many venues across the world and had reached a stage where similar techniques were being practiced everywhere. That was until she came to Wigan. She then discovered Catch and feels that it could really improve her performance as she is seeing techniques that could be suitable for Freestyle, but that are not known outside of our club.

KJ Gould: Work is underway to 'reopen' The Snake Pit as a place to learn Catch Wrestling again at the Aspull club. How long has this been in the works, and what prompted your father to start coaching it again?

Andrea Wood: This has been a work in progress in the sense that I have been asking my Dad for about 15 years to teach Catch again. It was only really this year that he agreed on the basis that he coaches and I deal with all the other side of things. He finally agreed to coach again as I had done research and established that there genuinely are people out there who want to learn Catch as a sport in its own right and it is my job to ensure that we access the right people and clubs to work alongside. My Dad will comment to me how he is teaching techniques in the seminars that took him years to learn as that was how Riley's gym worked and he just hoped that people appreciate what he is passing onto them. I take my role very seriously in all honesty, as I want to ensure that there is a genuine Revival of Catch as it is a great sport and it would be criminal for it to be lost in the pages of history.

Another aspect we are keen to promote is to give credit to many of the old wrestlers from Riley's who are often unmentioned like Tommy Moore AKA Jack Dempsey and Bob Robinson as they deserve to be recognised for the great wrestlers of their day. We are trying to build an archiving system of all the old photographs, magazines which we have dating back over 100 years ago to provide a reference point for people with a genuine interest in Lancashire Catch, Riley's gym and the wrestlers it produced.

Finally, and this is the part I am most excited about, is the scholarship scheme. This is a scheme that I am really passionate about as it allows referrals of people who deserve a chance in life but need someone to give them a helping hand. Anyone who has trained regularly in what I would call a "real" club will know that there are those people who you look at and think "What a natural", there have been world champions in gyms that go amiss all because they could not afford to travel, to buy the kit, the insurance, the subs. This scholarship scheme is there to give people like that a chance in life and to remove boundaries that may be in the way of them becoming all that they can be.

KJ Gould: MMA fans who read the articles and interviews here at Bloody Elbow have begun to see and appreciate what Catch Wrestling has to offer through fighters like Kazushi Sakuraba, Josh Barnett and even Randy Couture towards the end of his career. What are your thoughts on Mixed Martial Arts, and has interest in this and the fighters I've mentioned lead more people inquiring into Catch Wrestling your end?

Andrea Wood: Definitely! I am so thankful for fighters like Kazushi Sakuraba, Josh Barnett and Randy Couture as they have put Catch on the map! Over the last 10 years the interest in MMA and the rate of growth is exceptional and so to have fighters giving such huge exposure to Catch can only be a great thing! We have had many enquiries from MMA fighters, in fact we have a guy flying over from Guatemala this weekend to come and train with us and we welcome this interest.

As the Snake Pit however, we have made it clear from the outset that we are what we are and we do not pretend to know or talk about things in which we have no expertise. There seems to be a lot of people who have a qualification in sport and I am not sure how this is possible as you could spend your life learning only one. My opinion is that for fighters at the top of their game, I would think that the best way is to go to each coach specific to that field. So for example, if you want to develop your boxing you find the best boxing coach you can find. If you want to work on takedowns you find a Freestyle coach, if you want to work on hooking-in and Catch specific submissions you find a Catch coach and so on. This makes sense to me. As a lawyer I specialized in criminal work, if you came to me to ask me about selling a house I would refer you to a conveyancing lawyer, if you had staffing issues in your employment I would refer you to an employment lawyer. That doesn't mean to say I have no knowledge on the other subjects as they were part of my degree but I am certainly no expert in that field.

Part of the reason my father was reluctant to coach was because guys would come in the gym and he would be trying to teach them Catch. They would say that they couldn't work those techniques for example, standing up with a person to do a standing double-elbows or they would open themselves up to a choke. My father would be frustrated as choking is not permitted in Catch and they would be equally frustrated as they were trying to learn Catch purely for the purposes of MMA. It is for this reason that we have chosen to have a seminar application procedure to ensure that there is clarity on what the sessions entail and prevent disappointment on either part.

My father has a wealth of knowledge and I have seen some of the recent MMA lads in the classes astounded by some of the techniques he is showing. They are adamant about the benefits of Catch for their sport and those benefits are reflected by the fighters we have mentioned but my dad is a Catch coach and the sessions will only cover what he feels he has authority to speak about.

KJ Gould: Interest in Catch Wrestling in North America seems to be gradually growing thanks to enthusiasts who have been fortunate enough to spend varying amounts of time with the older generation Catch Wrestlers such as Billy Robinson, the late Karl Gotch & Edouard Carpentier, Dick Cardinal, Billy Wicks and 'Judo' Gene LeBell, to name a few. There is also interest from coaches and enthusiasts to see competition Catch Wrestling make a return with matches and tournaments based on the traditional rules that allowed both pins and submission holds. Is this something you'd also like to see again in England and the rest of the British Isles? What can you tell us about what might be on the horizon for competitive Catch Wrestling in Wigan, Bolton and the rest of Lancashire and beyond?

Andrea Wood: One of our main goals is to see tournaments in Catch. We already have some provisional plans for 2012 and we think that competition is imperative for the success and growth of Catch. Formulating the details of the rules is however proving more difficult as in Lancashire and the Billy Riley era rules were agreed on individual bouts and there was huge variation. Competitive rules also varied from club rules. We have been working hard on this and ensuring that it is something not rushed, but instead tried and tested. We appreciate that other people have also formulated rules that work for them and so the rules we finalise will be for the Snake Pit wrestlers and clubs. Whilst we are willing for others to adopt them we by no way claim to be the authority on what others should do, we are simply trying to adhere as closely as possible to the Lancashire original rules that my father was coached under.

KJ Gould: For those wanting to find out more about The Snake Pit and Lancashire style Catch Wrestling, how can they get in touch? (I'll make sure to list the website and facebook, but please add anything else you'd like promoted or pugged).

Andrea Wood: Thank you for taking the time to read about us. We would love to hear your feedback or any enquiries you may have.

For those wanting to find out more please visit

www.snakepitwigan.com

Or you can email me at andrea@snakepitwigan.com

There is also a Facebook fan page the Snake Pit

(For those interested in Heartlift please visit

www.heartlift.co.uk

andrea@heartlift.co.uk )

(there is also a Facebook fan page for Heartlift)

Can I also recommend Normit Media who have done a fantastic job with our website and the media support they have offered from the outset. Fortunately for us we have found someone who loves Catch and so has offered to significantly reduce his rates but still provide a top class service and standard of excellence.

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