Even the title of legend is barely adequate for the great Billy Riley, a master of the catch-as-catch can style of wrestling who was one of the world's leading middleweights from 1911 until 1947, a period that included the All-In days and the beginning of the post war revival.
Following his retirement from active competition, by then aged 51, Billy remained pivotal to the development of post war wrestling as a coach greats that included Billy Joyce, Jack Dempsey and Bill Robinson, and promoter with his long time friend, Jack Atherton. As promoter Billy was occasionally called upon to wrestle when one of the bill had not turned up, and Ray Plunkett has unearthed a contest as late as 18th November, 1958, against Jim Foy.
In 1919 Billy challenged Billy Moore's for the British middleweight championship, settling for a draw after 90 minutes of wrestling. The return match, three years later, and Billy won the title after 77 minutes of wrestling. A true pioneer, Billy, World Middleweight Champion in the 1920's, toured the United States in 1923, followed by a tour of South Africa.
Billy was at the forefront of the 1930s revival, defeating Bulldog Bill Garnon in the first All-In tournament at Manchester on December 15th, 1930. A great wrestler and a pragmatist Billy adapted to the new style of wrestling, working throughout the 1930s against men of the new age: Jack Pye, Atoll Oakeley, Tony Baer, Karl Reginsky, Tony Mancelli and Dick Wills.
Following his retirement Billy's ring activities continued as a referee on the shows he promoted with Jack Atherton, mainly in the midlands, nortern England and the Isle of Man. Billy Riley's gym was famous the world over. Named by one of it's trainees, Karel Istasz (Karl Gotch) Istasz, Billy Robinson and Roy Wood continued to teach the lessons of the grand master long after his death.
Around 70 wrestlers attended Billy's 65th birthday party (right).
Billy Riley died in September, 1977.
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Salford lightweight Eddie Riley was nicknamed Nipper for obvious reasons, and the young lightweight could certainly move around the ring. Eddie learned to wrestle as an amateur for two years at Marty Jones' gymnasium, before he was considered ready for the professional style. Turning professional in the late 1970s Eddie weighed in at 10 stones 12 pounds, just inside the lightweight division, and could be found flying around the ring against the likes of Mike Jordan, Jackie Robinson and Sid Cooper.
Over the years that weight did increase a little and Eddie eventually filled out to just over 12 stones, adding a bit more power to his still fast moves.
Eddie was a television favourite in the 1980s, making seventeen appearances on the small screen. He told us , “It was a privilege to be in the ring with Johnny Saint,Jim Breaks, Steve Grey, and Sid Cooper, plus many more great wrestlers.”
Eddie remained active until 1998, until a persistent knee injury finally got the better of him. “These are memories no one can take away from me, and this is why we have to keep our 'heritage'
After retiring from the ring Eddie went into acting and secured roles on many of the most popular television shows. Nowadays television appearances are more likely to be in Coronation Street or Shameless (he was once a victim in Crimewatch!) as Eddie develops his entertainment career.
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Big Daddy named Eddie as one to watch in Big Daddy's Magnificent 7.
Ernie Riley was another of the post war greats to emerge from Wigan and the Snakepit gymnasium.
Not surprising, really, as he was the son of Billy Riley and continued his father’s tradition of being the best that Britain could offer.
Riley was a more familiar figure on the professional circuit than his father, a sign of the times.
Dismissive of gimmicks, which he didn't need, some fans complained that he lacked colour, and complained even more loudly that his championship defences were too sparse. In his latter years this criticism was justified.
What was without doubt, though, was that Ernie Riley was the best at his weight, and there was no way that the belt could be removed from him. Here was a man who could really wrestle; like no other light heavyweight.
He was four times British Light heavyweight champion between 1952 and his retirement in 1969; and we are convinced that when he eventually relinquished his title it was on condition that it was passed on to Billy Joyce, a man of the same wrestling heritage.
Billy Joyce came out of the retirement forced upon him by serious illness following his tour of Japan and dropped down a weight to make it through to the final of the knock-out championship tournament and beat Tony Charles for the now vacant title at the King George's Hall in Blackburn.
On occasions Ernie added the European title to his collection, winning and losing it to Josef Molnar.
Ernie Riley died in October, 2000
The name is Riley and the home town is, of course,Wigan. Frank Riley was a trainee of Billy Riley's gymnasium. Respected amongst colleagues he had a short lived career as a welterweight during the first half of the 1960s.
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The trunked wrestler and transport café owner from Staplehurst, left, developed into a spectacular all-round leotarded master of the wrestling craft in the late seventies and he is discussed in more detail in Armchair Corner.
He is one of our Wrestling Heritage favourites, a skilfull under-rated heavy who could have done so much more, if only the promoters would have allowed him.
When not punishing the villains of the ring Basil Riley could be found behind the bar of the Thanet Arms in Hothfield, Kent, where he was the landlord.
Into the Fact or Folklore compartment we must put the claim that Basil drove his horse-drawn Romany caravan throughout Europe on a wrestling tour of Germnany, Spain and France.
During the last half century few men have made their contribution to professional wrestling in such a variety of ways as Frank Rimer.
Where to begin?
An amateur career in which he won the south eastern england lightweight championship, followed by professional training from Johnny Yearsley and at the Dale Martin Gymnasium.
His professional career began with the independents before being signed up by Joint Promotions in 1964. It was a surprise to many when Frank and his good friend, Ray Fury, started promoting their own shows, cheekily using the name Independent Joint Promotions.
In 1998 Frank and Tony Scarlo founded the Dropkixx Wrestling Academy which grew into the largest wrestling school in Britain. Add to that refereeing, MCing, and not least of all member of the organising committee of the British Wrestlers Reunion and management of the British Wrestlers Reunion website.
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Yet another 1970s second division masked man (third or fourth division did we hear your say?). We believe well respected wrestlers Ted Heath and Phil Pearson were beneath the mask on occasions. By now we seem a million miles from the days when Geoff Condliffe, Peter Thornley, Paul Lincoln and Bomber Bates made careers out of pulling on a hood.
Tommy Heyes was better known to wrestling fans of the early 60’s as Gene Riscoe. Tommy joined Riley’s Gym (aka, ‘The Snake Pit’) at the age of 17 where he spent more than 15 years being schooled in the finer points of Catch-as-catch-can Wrestling by former World Middleweight champion Billy Riley.
Both Catch-as-catch-can and Pro wrestling were taught at Riley’s gym and Tommy learnt them both. During his time at the gym, Tommy wrestled most of the gym’s great wrestlers, including Billy Joyce, Ernie Riley, Billy Robinson and Tommy Moore (Jack Dempsey). Tommy Heyes was sometimes referred to as ‘Tall Tommy’ by other gym members because he was taller than Tommy Moore. The two Tommy’s were regular training partners for many years.
After a brief spell as an amateur, Tommy Heyes turned pro and had his debut against former amateur champion Frank Hough. Mainly wrestling for Riley and Atherton promotions, Tommy adopted the name Gene Riscoe and appeared on the bills with the likes of Alan ‘Tiger’ Wood, Jack Fallon, Abe Ginsberg, and Monty Swann. Due to family and working commitments Tommy never wrestled outside of the UK. The photo on the left shows Gene Riscoe with promoter Jack Atherton and heavyweight boxer Primo Carnera; whilst the one on the right shows Gen Riscoe applying a Boston Crab whilst referee Billy Riley looks on.
Today, Tommy has not lost his love of wrestling and still actively coaches the Catch Wrestling he learnt at Riley’s gym at Bolton wrestling club. He is also an avid historian on Lancashire catch-as-catch-can wrestling and has written many articles on the subject.
In terms of wrestling ability Mel Riss ranked alongside the more often remembered Jack Dempsey, Billy Joyce and Ernie Riley. Mel Riss trained at Riley's gym, and it showed.
During his twenty plus years as a professional wrestler the one time British lightweight champion was a great ring craftsman. Fellow wrestler Eddie Rose told us, "Melvyn Riss was one of the very best wrestlers ever. I watched him many times; he could wrestle in the rugged Wigan style & he could enhance a bout with moments of sheer comedy magic. He was so full of energy and drive in the ring that you had to work flat out just to survive with him."
Mel turned professional in 1950 with the first of his many career highlights coming in April 1953 with a Royal Albert Hall encounter against fellow Lancastrian John Foley. Four years later he was back at the Royal Albert Hall, this time topping the bill whilst losing to Mick McManus. The following year he won the British lightweight championship which he held for five years until surprisingly losing it to a young Yorkshireman by the name Jim Breaks at the Royal Albert Hall in October 1963. Melwyn was a main lightweight contender for the remainder of the decade until 1970 when he cut back on his wrestling commitments and began working for the independents; his last recorded bout being in 1974 using the name Al Prince.
Turkish heavyweight travelled the world and was well known throughout Europe, Asia and Australia, visiting Britain in the mid 1950s.
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