Catch DVD preserves Snake Pit's legacy
BRIAN ELLIOTT - SLAM! Wrestling
Even though its name is well-known throughout the United Kingdom, the
North of England town of Wigan, in Greater Manchester, is not renowned for
any one thing. Perhaps moreso than anything, it is recognised for its sports
teams, with Wigan Athletic playing high-profile Premiership soccer, and
Wigan Warriors just on the come-down after many years of rugby dominance.
But the global influence of Wigan's soccer and rugby teams pale in
significance to that of another of the town's sports, the much-forgotten
Catch-as-catch-can wrestling, or Lancashire wrestling. Catch-as-catch-can
has had an influence extending to virtually every corner of the globe, both
in freestyle wrestling, mixed martial arts, and indeed, professional
Catch-as-catch-can developed out of Wigan's mine pits in the late 19th
century, where tensions were wrought in the dreadful conditions faced by its
workers. Anyone who was caught fighting in the pits would be instantly
dismissed, and so the workers took to grappling in the nearby fields to
settle their scores. These contests even had rules, which stated that you
were not allowed to gain advantage by ungentlemanly means, such as
eye-gouging or hair-pulling.
Over the course of time, the more skilled competitors shone through.
Often, they would use joint-locks to subdue their opponents, applying
technique rather than outright brawn or aggression. Others were keen to
learn those techniques, including Bill Riley, who would later be the man
most synonymous with catch-as-catch-can.
Riley learned the sport from his early teens, and quickly proved to be
one of its greatest ever practitioners, travelling the world showcasing his
ability, and being named the British Empire Champion during a tour of South
Africa in the 1930s. But during this time, Riley also competed in some
professional wrestling bouts, such as in 1933, when he faced "Dirty" Jack
Pye, a legend in British wrestling history. A reputed crowd of 33,000 turned
up to witness the event at Wigan's Springfield Park.
It was in the 1940s that Riley opened the Snake Pit gym, although in
reality, it was little more than a tin shed. There, Riley would pass on his
knowledge, which in many cases became a grounding for a career in
professional wrestling. Karl Gotch and Billy Robinson, in particular, went
on to become true legends in professional wrestling, with others such as
Bert Assirati and Billy Joyce spoken of in almost mythical terms by
Catch-as-catch-can fell on hard times in the 1970s, with a flashier style
of professional wrestling now more appealing to the masses, and interest in
the amateur sport at low point. The Snake Pit closed, although by the end of
the decade, it had re-opened due to the persistence of Roy Wood, a protégé
of Riley's. When Riley passed away in 1977, there was a further concerted
effort to make sure that catch-as-catch-can remained a part of the local
culture, and eventually funding became available to rebuild the Snake Pit,
just a couple of miles away from its original setting, in the village of
Aspull. The gym is now known as the Aspull Olympic Wrestling Club.
The above is merely a brief history of catch-as-catch-can, something that
is expounded upon in the 2005 documentary film Catch: The Hold Not Taken.
The film goes back to the roots of catch-as-catch-can, and speaks to the
people directly involved in its history, and its continuing legacy.
"Our film is about how catch-as-catch-can evolved from the early days of
the pit miners," co-director Mike Todd told SLAM! Wrestling. "We wanted to
give a voice to the 'ordinary' wrestlers who kept the sport alive, and
carried on the tradition of Riley's gym."
Keeping in mind this objective, Catch is an excellent documentary,
which plays a little like a library film, in the sense that this is a
down-to-earth production, speaking of real people rather than "superstars."
Visually, it looks nothing like a WWE documentary, for example, and in many
ways the low budget of this film serves as a metaphor, pointing to the
amateur status of the original sport.
Several recognisable figures help to narrate the history of
catch-as-catch-can, including wrestling historian Mike Chapman (whom many
will recognise from a brief interview appearance on The Spectacular Legacy
of the AWA DVD), Olympic freestyle wrestling gold medallist Dan Gable,
ghost-writer of Pure Dynamite (Tom Billington's autobiography) Alison
Coleman, and New Japan Pro Wrestling legend Tatsumi Fujinami.
But while their insights are interesting, the stories told by the likes
of John Rigby MBE, Jimmy Niblett, Roy Wood, and Tony Francis are pure gold.
You may not have heard of any of these men, but their tales of how they
learned and applied their craft are fascinating.
Some of the footage used throughout the film is also exceptional. There
are glimpses of a more elderly Riley getting down on the gym's mats to show
a hold to a student, and some staggering video footage of a 1939 bout
featuring the aforementioned Jack Pye. There is also a brief look at an
Antonio Inoki vs. Karl Gotch contest from 1972.
If there is one mild disappointment to the DVD, it is that the careers of
some of the more famous Riley students are not dealt with in any depth. The
glaring omission is Billy Robinson, who had a notable pro wrestling career
in England, the USA, and Japan.
"We would have particularly liked to have spoken to Robinson, and Karl
Gotch," said Mike Todd, "but we made the film on a very low-budget and
couldn't afford to visit Billy in Japan, or Karl in the States. But I think
our story is more about the history of catch-as-catch-can, than about the
individual wrestlers themselves. In the end, we felt that Catch told the
story that we wanted to tell."
With a running time of 60 minutes, Catch: The Hold Not Taken is an
excellent look at the history of the sport, encompassing professional
wrestling, Olympic wrestling, and mixed martial arts. Those who are
interested in the early history of any of these sports will likely revel in
what Catch brings to the table.
"Catch-as-catch-can has, in a way, been forgotten by history," Todd told
us. Thankfully, though, we now have Catch to preserve it.
Note: Catch: The Hold Not Taken is available in PAL (Europe) and NTSC
(United States & Japan) formats, by visiting the Riverhorse Productions website.
Brian Elliott is British journalist covering pro wrestling, fight sports,
and soccer. He is the sports editor for Zodiac Lung magazine, and can
be visited online at http://spaces.msn.com/brianelliott.