Many MMA fans are only vaguely aware of Billy Robinson. One of the old breed of British Catch-As-Catch-Can wrestlers, who were the underpinning of the old school territories system back in the 1970's professional wrestling scene, he was and still is a legitimate wrestling titan. Now in his mid-70s, Robinson is still training fighters how to fight and without him MMA history could be very different indeed.
Born in Wigan, Greater Manchester in 1939, Robinson grew up in the home of Catch wrestling in England. Like many forms of wrestling it differs from its counterparts.The main difference between Catch wrestling and the Scholastic form is the allowance of submissions other than choke holds. While it differs from Greco-Roman as submissions below the belt line are allowed and of course, unlike professional wrestling it is a real fight. Like these other disciplines, Catch wrestling does not normally feature strikes so was often learnt in tandem with boxing to create more rounded fighters which can be seen in the routes of American professional wrestling in the late 70's and early 80's. Historically Catch wrestling is also linked to Judo, after a number of bouts in the early 20th century which saw several high profile Judo practitioners lose fights to Catch wrestlers generating alterations in the make up of that discipline, it can be credited as one of the founding disciplines of Mixed Martial Arts.
Robinson's rise to fame was remarkable quick, winning the British Amateur Championship in 1957 aged just 18 and followed it with European Victory the following year, beating the 1956 Olympic bronze medallist in the process. The best part of the next ten years were spent honing his skills at the legendary Snake Pit with Billy Riley, the originator of modern Catch wrestling and master of the submission 60 years before the Gracie family came to prominence.
In the mid-60s, Robinson made his first trip to Japan where he wrestled on the professional scene with legends like Peter Maivia (The grandfather of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson), Mammoth Suzuki and the Great Kusatsu. It was around this time before Robinson held his first notable belt which was the IWE World Championship belt. It was also aroudn this time that Robinson had an infamous meeting with the big Samoan Maivia in a bar. Revisionist history, or should that be The Rock's revisionist history, will tell you that Maivia and Robinson had an altercation, over what has been lost in time, and Maivia knocked Robinson through a window and then bit his eye out. Robinson claims differently, although his story also starts with Maivia knocking him through a window, in Robinson's account, he returned and tied the bigger, stronger Samoan up. Maivia bit through Robinson's cheek in the process of trying to escape and in that moment of anger, Robinson knocked Maivia out. What is most likely is a mixture of both as it does seem that Robinson was knocked through a window and did return and wrap the guy up but what happened next probably had more to do with other wrestlers pulling them apart to cool down away from one another. It should be noted that both men were known to be great friends both before and after the incident.
Robinson held several titles in Japan before trying his luck in 1970 in the American territories where he landed in the American Wrestling Association (AWA) run by multiple NWA champion Verne Gagne. Robinson and Gagne who were both from the old school Catch background so Robinson was elevated into being one of the promotions top talents fighting people like the "American Dream" Dusty Rhodes, Ray Stevens and Gagne himself. The men held the two most notable title matches of the mid-1970's with Gagne defending the coveted AWA belt on both occasions in fights that were very close to legitimate shoot wrestling matches of a previous time. These fights were highly lucrative for the promotion, getting onto several cable networks which put the AWA in the limelight for more big events. Some of that money was invested into the acquisition of the then unknown Hulk Hogan which will go down in professional wrestling history.
The highlight of Robinson's own career lead from this feud with Gagne as he was invited over to New Japan Wrestling to fight the iconic Antonio Inkoi. Billed as a fight between the worlds two most technical fighters it was voted the greatest match of the year and in the top 5 wrestling matches of the decade. Fought as was the custom as a real fight to the public although the result was actually worked out before, it was a 2 pin out of three fight in accordance with Catch wrestling tradition. Robinson won the first fall but then started to become uncooperative with the promotions desire to put Inoki over, legitimately taking the "world's best" as he was known, down to the ground and clamping on submissions. Eventually, Robinson did give up the two falls to lose but the match forced the best out of Inoki just to survive.
Unfortunately the act of putting on one legendary match cost Robinson more than he could have imagined although this can only be seen retrospectively. New Japan never had him back as a performer seen as too risky to employ as he had the potential to make their stars look bad and the idea stuck with several American promotions demoting him to a mid card performer, using Robinson to put future talent over. One last hurrah in 1982 saw Robinson face Bob Buckland for the WWWF championship in Montreal which gave Robinson his last true moment in the spotlight but his career faded out through the comic book style of the 1980's and retired in 1992.
Another shoot wrestler that was suffered earlier from the superhero age of wrestling was another Snake Pit graduate Karl Gotch. Gotch is the the man who is credited as the father of Japan's more realistic style of wrestling. In the early 90's several wrestler's unhappy with their place in the very political world of professional wrestling put together a show that was advertised as a real shoot contest taking that concept one step further and Robinson was invited to have a farewell showdown with long time rival Nick Brockwinkel. It was one of those cases where the stars a-lined and something insignificant can turn out to be so important and so was the case of Robinson's farewell fight. So impressed with the technical grounding, Robinson was installed as their trainer to produce new talent.
Many will know the UWF:I as the first stirrings of what we now know as Mixed Martial Arts. A company that broke the rules and inspired the idea for the first UFC as more than a concept but as genuinely promotable entertainment. It really cannot be considered a sport for ten years later when it became more than a no-holds brawl. Billy Robinson was the architect of this style that made the UWF:I so popular which at the time was a big gamble. In producing such talent Robinson also trained many of these fighters in the skills of ground fighting.
Billy Robinson was the man who made Kazushi Sakuraba
Sakuraba was a stand out wrestler at collegiate level chose to go into professional wrestling to emulate his hero Tiger Mask. In joining the UWF:I, Sakuraba would not find the ring psychology he had expected but rather the joys of the submission game. The limb lock, a speciality from Robinson's own career, became synonymous with Sakuraba and his early training had a lot to do with this. It was Robinson's belief that the best way to fake a move was to know how to do it properly which meant knowing how to defend it properly at the same time. This constant battle in training meant that all the IWF:I fighters could take their shoot style fights a step further which added to the excitement of the fight but also to the skill level of everyone in the company. Without intending to, the Snake Pit International became the first dedicated ground gym that was not Gracie run.
Sakuraba spent 5 years on and off under Robinson, learning a great deal of the moves that would make him a star. Four of Sakuraba's first six wins game via arm bar which he attributed to Robinson in an interview in 1999. How much this training would effect MMA would not be understood until the year 1999 when Sakuraba defeated three time ADCC champion and a member of BJJ's ruling family Royler Gracie via kimura. This was the first loss a Gracie family member had suffered in several decades but it would be tested as a fluke six months later when Sakuraba faced the unbeatable Royce Gracie, winner of three of the first four original UFC events. The fight, predominantly a ground battle where Sakuraba showed remarkable composure against the BJJ phenom, showed that wrestling with submission defence could beat BJJ. This time winning when Royce's corner threw in the towel. Sakuraba had shocked the world. Billy Robinson had a big hand in doing so but his credit in doing so has never truly been acknowledged.
Earlier attempts by the IWF:I to beat the Gracie's had been unsuccessful and was the ultimate undoing of the company which closed in 1996. However this does not mean that Sakuraba was the only successful fighter who has been through Robinson's camp. Former UFC heavyweight champion Josh Barnett comes directly from Robinson's camp and notable former champions Randy Couture and Jake Shields have gone to work with the Brit. The next man looking to break into MMA with Robinson training is former WWE star Harry Smith. The Canadian is the grandson of famous catch wrestler Stu Hart and son of the last great British catch wrestler, British Bulldog, Davey Boy Smith so he has quite a legacy to hold up to. However at 6"5 tall and 240lbs, and with the backing of Robinson he could well go on to have a successful career as he is only 25 years old.
Billy Robinson had a great career but his true worth may not be seen for many years to come as MMA develops as a sport. It does seem a shame that this pioneer is not known in his own country nor does there seem to be anyone to take up his legacy however this should not detract from the long lasting effect Robinson had by being the man behind the Gracie Killer.