Earlier this month, Billy Robinson, a hallowed name in pro wrestling circles, a man who built a reputation grappling for the entertainment of others through more than four decades, passed away. But Billy Robinson wasn’t just a pro wrestler. Beneath the gloss, the 2003 National Wrestling Hall of Fame inductee was one of the best living grapplers skilled in the generations-old art of catch wrestling, and he was a teacher, and student, of the sorts of tricks that could swing the fight in your favor when it was for real. It’s not so surprising, then, that some of the most notable MMA fighters who weren’t reared on jiu-jitsu were privy to his secrets.
To get a glimpse of Robinson and his impact on mixed martial arts, Fightland spoke with Josh Barnett, a UFC heavyweight and longtime Robinson student; Erik Paulson, an esteemed MMA coach and catch wrestling disciple; and Jake Shannon, the founder of the Scientific Wrestling grappling system and Robinson’s right-hand man during his final years.
After retiring from the ring in 1992, Robinson plied his trade as a coach and teacher in Japan. He accepted a job with the United Wrestling Federation (UWF)’s Snake Pit, a gym named after the fierce catch wrestling school where Robinson had cut his teeth under Billy Riley decades earlier, learning the finer points of delivering pain through anatomical manipulation. And in a no-holds-barred realm already steeped in jiu-jitsu, Robinson’s catch-wrestling-bred students, like Barnett and Kazushi Sakuraba, were taking to the biggest stages of mixed martial arts to show that the Gracie family wasn’t the be-all-end-all of joint locks and choke holds.
Josh Barnett: I had been living in Japan, and I had heard that the UWF Snake Pit gym existed, but I didn’t know where it was or how to get there. One of the referees from New Japan Pro Wrestling told me about it and said he’d help me take a train to get to where it was. And he said, there’s a guy there, Billy Robinson, who’s an amazing wrestler and catch wrestler. I had never heard of Billy Robinson, but I was really interested to find out.
Jake Shannon: Sakuraba happens right around 2000, and he was just lighting up the Gracies. For people who were in and around the scene at that time, it was absolutely—pardon my language—fucking mind-blowing. It was like all the rules had been rewritten.
When I was a young kid, I had cancer and it had caused some health issues for me, back and forth, my whole life. Because of that, I got to be very involved in academics. The long and short is I learned how to research things really well, and when Sakuraba came through, I started wondering what the hell is this guy doing? And my research led me to Billy.
Erik Paulson: Catch wrestling is based on attacking. They call it a violent art. It’s perfect for fighting—it’s all attack, attack, attack.
You get these purists that say, “Oh, he didn’t do jiu-jitsu,” or they say, “But he was a pro wrestler.” They have no idea that pro wrestling is where they make the money, but catch wrestling is the backbone of pro wrestling. It’s actual, real, submission wrestling. A lot of these catch wrestlers were coming from a farming background, and most of the guys had a really, super-hard life. The chance to compete as a show wrestler was a lot of money back then.
Shannon: Billy’s whole family was all fighters. His great-grandfather was a bareknuckle boxing champion. His uncle was a wrestling champion—it was just in his DNA.
Barnett: Soon enough, I ran into Billy, told him about my background and who had trained me, and that I’d doing catch for a while. He had me start wrestling people and we just went from there. As he’s watching me, he just started adding little things, adding little things, and he said, "Come back, keep coming back." I was usually [at his school] three days a week, a minimum of two, for years on end.
Robinson had been coaching and living in austerity for many years by the time Shannon booked him to lead a seminar in the United States in 2006. Soon after, Shannon made arrangements for Billy to live and teach in the States on a permanent basis.
Shannon: It wasn’t great where Billy was. There were cultural differences, he was having a harder time, and he didn’t speak Japanese fluently—he could order food and get around that way—but I think it was just time for him to go.
Paulson: They didn’t take care of Billy very well over there. When [I asked once if he had dinner plans and] he said I might have a can of soup in the cupboard, I almost started crying. "Man, you should be taken care of like a superstar celebrity." But he didn’t mind living humbly. That’s how he was.
Shannon: I was pretty close with Karl Gotch, and he passed in 2007. I’ve been kind of doing things to subsidize some of these old timers, because there isn’t anything for them. For example, Karl, he’s known as a god of wrestling in Japan. The guy is worshipped. He’s huge. And at the end of his life, he was living like a monk. And he was happy with it—that’s the thing you have to understand these old time guys, like Karl and Billy: All they gave a shit about was wrestling. We say that now and it’s like a marketing fuckin’ shtick, but that’s the real thing with these guys.
I put together a seminar to fund Billy coming over the United States. And because I knew Karl so well and Billy just could sense that I was very sincere in my enthusiasm for catch and wanting to learn, and we just hit it off from there. He relocated at the beginning of 2007 to the States, and since then, he and I had been attached at the hip, traveling the world. And had Billy been younger, he probably wouldn’t have needed me, except maybe on the business side. But he had replaced knees, replaced hips, so I was in this position of being the person holding Billy’s marionette and being able to learn from him.
For grapplers either skeptical of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu’s claims to comprehensiveness or looking for an antidote to the art, Robinson’s arcane arsenal of techniques and demanding, personalized teaching demeanor was a natural fit.
Barnett: With Billy, it’s hard to pinpoint a certain thing. His technique, his style, everything he teaches you has a component that isn’t just necessarily about creating pain on somebody—because there is a ton of that—but he works on creating realistic reactions out of your opponent. Then there are the simple aspects of leverage and fulcrum and weight transfer. The move is the move, but why it works is simple physics.
Paulson: Billy’s approach to wrestling had a different twist to it, a different feel. Even though he learned it 50 or 60 years ago, nobody was doing his stuff. I thought, why aren’t people doing that today? It’s because there were a lot of secrets that weren’t shared with anyone. Billy was a complete student of catch wrestling, so he had the ability to wrestle, to throw, and he was really good at the ground—reversals, switches, great at submissions, great at positioning, tilts, and turns. He just had a great command, like a master of grappling.
Shannon: We’re so used to this Tae Kwon Do method of training in the West, but the old-school way that was taught by Billy, he just wanted to see you do it and then stop you when you fucked up. And in the beginning, that’s all the time. In the West, we have to be shown A and B and C, and Billy’s like, “Let me see you wrestle. Stop. Stop. Don’t move. You fucked up right there, angle this way.”
Barnett: Billy stuck by the concept that you have to learn how to learn. And I really took that to heart, and putting my mind to be in the best state to learn what it is he’s teaching me. Not just doing moves and not just listening and reacting but understanding the concepts, the philosophies, and the broader ideas of things and understanding the most intricate aspects of the move and understanding why it is what it is, so I could apply it across all ranges and make alterations on the fly. That really pushed me that much further, just the simple idea of learning how to learn.
Shannon: Some of the marketing and sales copy for catch wrestling on the Internet is like, “Oh, it’s so brutal,” and people think it’s about muscles because some of the guys are big bodybuilder buffoon types or whatever. But Billy would be the first to tell you it has nothing to do with brute force. It’s all energy and flow and using the opponent’s energy and biomechanics and basic high school physics of torque and leverage and things of that nature. There’s hardly any strength in it. You have to have condition and wind so you don’t gas, and you have to spar for good timing, but the techniques are all about science and mechanics. He could adjust you by two inches and it would be game-changing.
Through the stories of the people who knew him best, a portrait of Robinson emerges as an exacting teacher, a cantankerous personality who still knew how to have fun, and a man who subjugated everything else to a single-minded pursuit of grappling.
Shannon: Billy was a bit of a private guy. I mean, I ghostwrote his autobiography; I was as close as anybody, in my opinion, could be to him, and he was still a very private person.
Paulson: You always expected to get it wrong and get yelled at. “No! No! Not like that! Stop!” Then he’d get mad and get down on the mat and show you.
Shannon: He never, ever gave compliments—very rarely. But it was actually because he cared. He held it to a higher standard. He didn’t think you should be congratulated just to stroke your ego. You should be congratulated if you get it fuckin’ right. That’s it! I have a deep respect for that.
Barnett: He cared about the people that supported him and backed him. He liked to enjoy a nice beer and a good meal. He was a real good dude—a nice amount of curmudgeon and a good part of old, wise trainer.
Shannon: You have to understand he was just an animal. He was a rock star. When we first went to England, he was like, 72, and he hadn’t been back there. We took Billy over there, and it was grueling, man. We were at a different gym every night, but I was rooming with Billy, and the guy was like Keith Richards. I think I was 38 at the time, and he’s drinking me under the table, staying up all night, asking for all the women’s phone numbers. He never slept. He’d wake up and his drink would be coffee, until about four o’clock, then he’d switch to beer. That was his diet, nonstop. The guy lived a full life, and he did it on his terms, the way he wanted.
The next two tours when we went over to the UK, I had to ask our host, “Dude, can you get me my own room? I can’t hang with him.”
On Monday, March 3, 2014, Billy Robinson was discovered in his apartment in Little Rock, Arkansas, having apparently passed away in his sleep at 74 years old.
Shannon: I just saw him two weeks ago. We had another booking and I hadn’t heard from him in five days. I called the apartment complex where he lived and the woman said, “Oh I know Billy, I’ll go check on him.” I didn’t hear from her for an hour. And you know, I didn’t know. I was like, "Maybe she forgot." So I called back and said, “Hey, it’s Jake again.” She didn’t even say anything and put the Little Rock police on, and that’s when they told me.
The first two days were just brutal, man—I was just a mess. This is the first day I can talk about it and not really get into that embarrassing warbly voice.
Paulson: I truly believe that if Jake hadn’t come along, depression could have set in and I don’t think he would have lived these extra years of his life due to all his pain and everything he had gone through. When you wake up, you need three things: something to look forward to, something to do, and something to love.
Shannon: He just was very special to me. He literally changed my life. I named my youngest son after him. My wife was as busted up as I was. He was like family.
Barnett: The MMA world should remember him as a legend among legends when it comes to wrestling. And I don’t mean wrestling as a specific thing, freestyle or catch or pro wrestling, but he should be remembered as a legend among legends when it comes to being an overall professional at fighting and working and coaching and training. And honestly, he is a lost gem. He really is. There are so many people that are never going to understand what they missed out on.
I don’t care if they aren’t doing the latest Berimbolo sweep or whatever. Don’t just focus on what’s in front of your face. There are people that have been doing this forever, and they have a lot to teach somebody. Before that opportunity is gone, go out there, find it, and pay attention.
Paulson: Billy was married to the sport. He was married to the art. That was his bride. And you could see it with that twinkle in his eye when he talked about it. And if someone was smart, they’d sit and listen and embrace every word he said.
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