Billy Riley - Trained many submission "catch" wrestling specialists ("hookers") of long ago

Arguably the father of modern day professional wrestling. There was a saying about putting your hand down a coal mine in Wigan and you’d pull up a wrestler or a rugby player.

Riley was from Wigan,  and this was the wrestling capital of twentieth century. Not a miner himself Riley wrestled, with those who were, in the Lancashire catch-as-catch-can style.  Billy Riley founded Rileys gym in the 1950’s, and many of the mid 20th Century  professional wrestling stars owed their skill to Billy Riley and the other trainers at “the Snakepit.”

Stories abound of successful wrestlers who turned up just the once at Riley’s gym and vowed never to return because the experience was too painful. 

Billy himself  excelled in wrestling and was British Middleweight Champion in the 1920’s, as well as holding the World title from 1919-23, before losing it  to the Finnish wrestler Waino Ketonen. Wrestling authority Charles Mascall rated Ketonen and Riley respectively as the two greatest middleweights of all time.

Billy Riley  retired from wrestling in 1946. He continued to referee and promote shows in conjunction with Jack Atherton.  Most notably of all he continued to train youngsters (and those not so young) at his Snakepit  gym until his death in  September, 1977.

The Briton taught some of the figures in catch wrestling at his training school called "The Snake Pit" in Wigan, Greater Manchester, England.

During his days as a moulder in the Lancashire cotton mill township of Wigan, Billy Riley trained with the miners in the art of Lancashire catch-as-catch-can wrestling, one of the roughest and most loved sports of the region.

The tough Briton soon began showing extraordinary submission skills on the mat and went on to gain the prestigious British Empire Championship in the 1930s against Jack Robinson in South Africa. Riley was known to be a devastating "hooker" and it showed in his wrestling matches as he soon gained notoriety for breaking his opponent's arms. He toured across the Atlantic to the United States, where he gained immense respect as a skilled athlete.

Billy Riley decided to teach catch wrestling in Wigan. He bought a small plot of land in the 1950s on Vine Street in the town. The gym was called The Snake Pit. The rules of the Snake Pit were simple. No children, and certainly NO females were allowed. Luxuries such as toilet facilities were not available, and the man in charge of the school had no time for those who were not in good shape or had a low pain threshold.

The gym soon became popular for producing some of the toughest catch wrestlers in the world. Men such as Karl Gotch (Istaz), Bert Assirati, Melvin Riss (Harold Winstanley), John Foley, Jack Dempsey (Tommy Moore), Billy Joyce (Bob Robinson), Billy Robinson, and Billy Riley's son Ernie Riley were all attended The Snake Pit.

The Snake Pit became too much of a labour for the new breed of "show wrestlers" by the 1970s, and the rough style of Riley was soon losing its demand. The Snake Pit fell into disrepair and anonymity.

When the son of a former student, Roy Wood, and the son of Wood's friend wanted to learn wrestling they traveled to Wigan, only to see the school in complete disrepair. The roof had literally caved in. With the help of locals, Roy Wood managed to get the gym started again. Riley's gym was reopened. However, this time, since Roy's son Darren had wanted to learn, the gym was opened to children. Riley decided to take a seat by the mat and let Wood coach.

Teaching the children was a new concept for both Roy and Riley. The results though, soon showed that the teaching at the Snake Pit was still world class. By the age of 10, Darren had won the British Championships alongside Tony Leyland and Neil Maxwell who were also Riley's wrestlers. After competitions, the children would go round to see Riley and his wife, and take the medals and trophies which they had won.

Riley died in 1977. Roy Wood kept the Snake Pit running, and his children visited Riley's wife to show her the trophies and achievements made possible by the efforts of her husband.

The Aspull Wrestling Club

The next major change for the gym came in the mid 1980s, when Yorkshire TV filmed the documentary "First Tuesday - The Wigan Hold". The focus of the film was on the lack of resources available to the otherwise world class British wrestlers.

This led to a Sports Council offer to rebuild the site. At the time there were various problems, and it was decided that it would be best to relocate the gym. Roy, therefore, bought a new building a couple of miles up the road in Aspull. It then became named the Aspull Olympic Wrestling Club (AKA Riley's). Osamu Matsunami, a Japanese wrestler with a very keen interest in the history of wrestling, saw the documentary and then saved up and came to England. He spent 6 month periods at a time wrestling at AOWC. He then went on to coach with Billy Robinson in Japan.

Roy Wood was soon recognized in Japan as one of the premiere trainers of submission wrestling. Roy was invited to train at the Yokohoma Arena. He was asked to prolong his stay in Japan, where he could train some of the finest athletes in the world, but Roy opted to stay in Wigan.

The Aspull Wrestling Club has since then become a hotbed for youngsters and athletes who want to train in submission wrestling catch-as-catch-can style.