R: Billy Riley & Ernie Riley

Wrestling Heritage A - Z

Billy Riley

Also known as Dark Owl

The Father of the Mat

Even the title of legend is barely adequate for the great Billy Riley, a master of the catch-as-catch can style of wrestling and 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.

Billy Riley was arguably the father of modern day wrestling. Although no longer in the first flush of youth in 1930 no one could deny that he was one of the greatest wrestlers of all time and he was hard enough to mix it with the best of the lighter men through the decade and into the post war years. 

Not one of the fabricated personalities like Norman the Butcher or King Curtis,  not one of the colourful extroverts like Carver Doone or The Angel, or a future legend such as Bert Assirati, Billy Riley was a true wrestler, a real wrestler, but a man with the nous to take advantage of the opportunities presented in the 1930s. For Billy Riley the purity of wrestling may have been sacrosanct but it was always a means to an end, the end being putting bread and butter on the table.

Riley was from Wigan, Britain's wrestling capital and a coal mining town in the south of Lancashire.  Not a miner himself Billy wrestled with those who were. 

He left school at 14 to become an apprentice moulder in an ironworks, and during his spare time he would wrestle  Lancashire catch-as-catch-can style with the miners. These were hard, exceptionally strong, skilled wrestlers, and for a teenage boy it was a case of learn quickly or get hurt. Billy learned quickly and showed a natural aptitude in submission style wrestling.  

Following the first world war Billy turned professional wrestler.  In 1919 he  challenged  Billy Moores 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. 

In  America he is reputed to have won all his fourteen contests. During a tour of South Africa he defeated Jack Robinson for the Empire middleweight championship, which he held until his retirement some twenty three years later. Jack Robinson was a Cumberland and Westmorland style wrestler who was also proficient in ju jitsu. He was also the father of Tiger Joe Robinson. Wrestling authority Charles Mascall rated Ketonen and Riley respectively as the two greatest middleweights of all time.

Riley took advantage of his wrestling gift to earn a living in the rapidly developing professional style that swept Britain in the 1930s.  He 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.

Although a tremendous technician Riley adapted to the professional style and was more than capable of wrestling in a very tough style. News reports of that first match against Garnon:
“First one wrestler and then the other took turns at leg-twisting and arm-twisting, hair pulling and nose flattening ….. Bulldog Garnon took great joy in banging the head of his prostrate opponent on the floor about a dozen times, while the man from Wigan exhibited his strength by twisting the Welshman round and round by the ankle and wrist and then hurling him half-way across the ring until he sprawled, spread eagled and half stunned. Fifteen minutes of this was endured before the Wigan man stood on the other's head and was declared the winner.”
Billy wrestled around Britain throughout the 1930s, opposing the top men of the time  including Atholl Oakeley, Jack Pye, Sam Rabin and Dick Wills. Some of his roughest matches were with fellow Lancastrian Jack Atherton, and whilst the two men may have formed a long, lasting friendship and business relationship outside of the ring there was little sign of any good feeling inside the ring. The Lancashire Daily Post reported on one occasion, "It was nearly all rough and tumble ... Riley was disqualified in the fifth round presumably for throwing Atherton by the hair." The men continued to fight following the verdict and the paper went on, "Meanwhile the referee, having fulfilled his part of the contract by announcing Atherton as the winner departed and left the wrestlers to it. They kept up the show for a little while but soon gave up."

Throughout the 1930s All-In period Billy was billed as World and British Empire middleweight champion. Most newspaper reports of his matches acknowledge his wrestling skill but there are many examples of Billy mixing it as willingly as the next man, "...referee Mr  W. Goosey ... was kicked from the ring by Riley .... when he attempted to climb back into the ring the referee was accidentally kicked on the head by Riley."  On another occasion "The referee was counting when Riley struck him and at once Mr Walsh closed with the wrestler himself and the seconds had to part the two."

Billy Riley  retired from wrestling in 1947. Compared to professional wrestlers of the 1960s and 1970s he had relatively few professional contests, and claimed to have lost only twice. In wrestling such claims cannot be verified, but this should not lessen anyone's acknowledgement of his ability. 

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.

Most notably of all he continued to train those who were brave enough at his gym in Pike Street. The gym was little more than a large tin shed, lacking rudimentary facilities such as toilets and  changing rooms.  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. 

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. It became known as The Snakepit because it was such a dangerous place to learn. Swearing and bad manners were strictly forbidden at Riley's gym, and a display of either would be dealt with swiftly and painfully. As for big-headedness, well that was a mistake to make only once.  Forever wearing his trilby Billy Riley may not have looked the part, but hundreds testify that he was one of the greatest, and most dangerous, catch wrestlers of all time.   

Billy continued to impart his vast knowledge at the gym he founded until his death. The spirit of the Snakepit survives until this day at the Aspull Olympic Wrestling Club under the stewardship of one of Riley's disciples, Roy Wood.

Billy Riley, born 22nd July 1896*;  died 15th September, 1977.

(*Source birth documents, some websites state 22/06/96)
Ernie Riley
Also known as Jack Fay

In His Father's Likeness

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 at his weight. He was three times British light heavyweight champion over a seventeen year period from 1952 until 1969.  Riley was a more familiar figure on the professional circuit than his father; a sign of the times.

Joseph Ernest Riley was the son of Billy and Sarah Riley, born in the White Bear pub on 30th March, 1926. Ernie must have been immersed in wrestling from birth, not only was his father a world champion wrestler he also trained wrestlers at the White Bear and later at the Crispin, where they moved when Ernie was seven. Anyway Ernie was a Wigan lad, where every male was either a wrestler or a rugby player. Although the passage of time makes it seem inevitable that Ernie became a wrestler he didn’t take up the sport professionally until into his twenties. But then there was the little matter of a war to be fought, and dad’s insistence that his son learned a trade.

An electrician by trade, Ernie learned to wrestle alongside Francis Sullivan and Jack Dempsey and  began wrestling professionally shortly after the end of the Second World War, around 1948. We find our first documented match for Ernie in January, 1950, in Colne and using the name Jack Fay. In the early days of his career Ernie would use this name in some halls, presumably to hide his identity in those matches where his father was referee.

Francis Sullivan, family name Alan Latham, was a good friend and he and Ernie would earn extra cash in the 1950s working on Matt Moran’s wrestling booth. Ernie's friend, Derek Yates, recalled acting as Ernie's "manager," challenging Latham on behalf of his boy. Latham had by then taken his place on the stage of the booth, often having travelled to the fairground on the bus with Ernie and Derek.

Dismissive of gimmicks (though he did wrestle as the masked Dark Owl for a while as   had his father)  some fans complained that Ernie lacked colour, and complained even more loudly that he didn’t travel and his championship defences were too sparse. As far as lacking colour was concerned they really were missing the point, and the latter criticism was only justified in the 1960s. In his earlier days he had been an active champion who travelled around the country and worked in Turkey, Germany, Belgium, France Finland and India. In the second half of the 1960s Ernie did become inactive and the promoters did allow a very frustrating period for fans of championship inactivity to go on for far too long.
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 three 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  27th October, 2000.