R: Ernie Riley
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 in October, 2000.