Simply The Best
It was a dilemma. Two wrestling shows. Billy Robinson facing Albert Wall in the main event of one, whilst a quarter of a mile down the road the line up included The Wildman of Borneo, Lord Bertie Topham and Crusher Verdu. For a ten year old boy having to make a choice it was a no contest. Sorry Billy and Albert, but that mysterious long haired creature, the alleged millionaire and the oversized American were just so much more enticing.
Hopefully with the passage of time both Billy and Albert can understand and forgive the choice of a ten year old. It was to be two more years before the opportunity returned of seeing Billy Robinson in action, but at least by then there was some appreciation of one of Britain's greatest ever heavyweights.
One of the greatest heavyweights?
Arguably the greatest heavyweight. Discussion in the wrestling forums has continued down the years, but arguments have been made that Robinson would have had too much skill for the old powerhouse Assirati, that he was too aggressive for the master technician Joyce, and was technically better and more durable than masked man Nagasaki. Wall, Davies, Bridges could put forward their claims, but for many fans Billy Robinson was simply the best. Only Assirati can be considered a serious challenger for the title of Britain's best, and Assirati has the advantage that few living fans actually saw him in action, never having the chance to witness his shortcomings and rely only on the legend that has evolved around him. Immensely strong and powerful he certainly was, but there is nothing that has led us to believe Assirati came anywhere near matching Billy Robinson in technical ability.
Robinson's relationship with the establishment is one of those peculiarities of British wrestling which we find so fascinating at Wrestling Heritage. For Billy Robinson it must have felt at times that he really was the prophet without honour in his own country. Promoters willingly proclaimed him as their champion, benefiting from the dignity and legitimacy he brought to the sport, but did little to promote him as the outstanding champion that he was. Maybe Billy was simply a victim of the trend away from heavyweights with television increasing the appeal of the faster moving lightweights who looked just as big on the small screen! Certainly the matchmakers and promoters of the 1960s were doing little, if anything, to preserve the favourable position of heavyweight wrestling.
This may well have been one of the reasons that Billy not only sought recognition and respect around the globe, but that he stayed away from our rings after packing his bags in 1968. It is without question that our loss was the rest of the world's gain, as Billy received recognition as one of the world's greatest heavyweights throughout North America, Asia, Australasia and Africa.
By the time Billy Robinson left Britain he was nearing his thirtieth birthday and was by then unanimously accepted as the best of British heavyweights, a notable collection at the time that included Albert Wall, Billy Joyce, Gwyn Davies and Steve Veidor. Since January, 1967 he had been officially recognised as British Heavyweight Champion, having defeated his mentor Bill Joyce, though many had considered Robinson the unofficial champion from the day he had relieved Joyce of the European championship some eighteen months earlier.
Not that Robinson's first taste of professional championship success had been unexpected as young Billy Robinson had been widely forecast as the man to dethrone Joyce from a couple of years following his professional debut.
Billy's wrestling roots lay not only in the Lancashire Catch as Catch can style, which prepared him for all eventualities as a professional, but also in amateur wrestling.
He excelled in both. In 1957 Billy Robinson won the British light heavyweight amateur championship, defeating another prospective professional, Harry Kendall, on the way to the final.
We thank British Amateur Wrestling Association historian Allan Best for the programme of the event.
Reaching back a few years earlier Billy's aspirations had not been in wrestling but in the family business of professional boxing, his grandfather being Harry Robinson a bareknuckle fighter of the early twentieth century, and his father and uncle both boxing professionally. Uncle Alf (left) also made the transition to professional wrestling, and was a one time European heavyweight champion. The boxing programme on the right describes Alf as "One of the best heavy-weights in Great Britain. Winner of the £1000 Wembley competition and also the £500 Belle Vue competition."
The young Robinson obviously had a lot to live up to.
Billy's plans to follow his father and uncle into the boxing rings were curtailed by an accident in his father's greengrocer's shop when he was eleven years old. With plans re-drawn and Billy now turning to wrestling his father insisted that he had a good amateur background and that he enrolled at the Manchester Y.M.C.A. With the amateur foundations in place fifteen year old Billy was then introduced to a long time friend of his father, Billy Riley. Young Billy began the gruelling task of learning catch as catch can under the tutorship of Riley, Billy Joyce, Joe Robinson (Joyce's brother) and Jimmy Hart. There was no better place than Riley's Wigan gymnasium to prepare a man for the professional ring. Robinson quickly learned that his amateur knowledge was of little value against the Wigan wrestlers, with eleven stone Jack Dempsey outwitting him repeatedly on that first visit!
Shortly after winning the British championship Billy turned professional, using the name Bill Kenton in some of his early matches. Star quality was apparent from the beginning, with opponents including Francis Sullivan, Ray Apollon, Tibor Szakacs and Billy Joyce. Early matches were, unsurprisingly in the north and midlands for Wryton, Morrell & Beresford and Relwyskow Green Promotions. Less than a year after turning professional Norman Morrell introduced the Mancunian to London fans at one of his Lime Grove shows. Shortly afterwards Billy was back to the south working for Dale Martin Promotions, and in January 1960 was brought to the attention of fans nationwide when he faced the muscular Canadian heavyweight Sam "Mr Canada" Berg, in a televised contest from Purley. It was around this time that Billy began to develop an interest in yoga, possibly a precursor of the life that was to follow, much of it spent living and working in Asia.
Throughout 1961 Billy quietly continued to develop against more experienced opponents, gaining the admiration of fans when they witnessed such a talented newcomer gaining wins over the likes of Gordon Nelson, Geoff Portz, Eric Taylor, Billy Howes, Francis St Clair Gregory and Gideo Gidea. The highlight of Billy's career to date came in May, 1961, when he swept aside Alan Garfield, Gordon Nelson and local favourite Joe Cornelius to grab the prestigious Royal Albert Hall heavyweight trophy. All of these achievements, even the Royal Albert Hall tournament, one of the most important events of the year, went largely ignored by The Wrestler magazine, with only a few perfunctory comments that included a passing reference to the Royal Albert Hall heavyweight trophy win, and Charles Mascall making the first fleeting reference to Billy as a prospective champion. As Billy shared top of the bill honours with the other top heavyweights of the day this ambivalence of the Wrestler magazine was to remain a pattern for the following decade other than a gallant rearguard action from Eddie Caldwell who frequently paid tribute to Billy and recorded some of his great championship clashes.
In 1962 Billy ventured further afield, gaining more experience against the top men of Asia and Europe. In the Spring of 1962 he left Britain for the four thousand mile journey to India, and on to Pakistan, at the request of the wrestling promoter Dara Singh. Whilst Billy achieved notable success with wins over local wrestlers including Tiger Johinder Singh, Randhawa Singh and Vasant Singh the lack of relative experience, different styles and climate resulted in losses to the great Dara Singh. One controversial result was Billy's disqualification following his retaliation when John Da Silva struck Billy whilst he was re-entering the ring.
In the autumn of 1962 Billy returned to Europe and prepared himself to take on the European heavyweights in the German tournaments at Nuremberg, Karlsruhe, Krefeld, Hamburg, and Hamburg. In his first German tournament Billy held his own with many of the big European stars, with wins over Willem Hall and Josef Molnar, but he failed to make it into the final placings which were taken by Horst Hoffman, Gideon Gidea and Hermann Iffland. By the time of the Karlsruhe tournament in September Billy had learned enough to take second place, runner up to Horst Hoffman, and by the conclusion of the Krefeld tournament the following month Billy came out on top, taking first place ahead of Gideon Gidea. Five years after turning professional Billy Robinson had established himself as a top contender for both British and European honours.
Having embarked on a steep learning curve in overseas rings Billy returned to Britain towards the end of 1962. Speculation that his succession to the heavyweight championship was imminent increased.
1963 was to be a big year.
In April the opportunity arose and Billy was matched British heavyweight champion Billy Joyce at Belle Vue, Manchester. This was the long awaited clash between tutor and pupil, and Eddie Rose, who was at ringside that night vividly recalls the event some half a century later. The master was not yet willing to give way to his student. Eddie remembers the young challenger dominating the match, which lasted fourteen rounds and concluded, "Robinson was defeated by a groin injury rather than by Joyce." Disappointment for Robinson but another indication that championship success was only a matter of time.
The unfortunate ending to that first championship encounter made a speedy return contest inevitable, and the following month the two met once again in the ring at Belle Vue, Manchester. Even though Robinson had dominated the first encounter Eddie Rose told us that he thought the wily Joyce could still fend off the challenger. Fifteen gruelling rounds later the referee declared the second championship match a draw, with champion Joyce giving "a magnificent display of defensive wrestling and opportunist attacks," recalled Eddie. (PROG "Joyce v Robinson")
These were just the sort of contests that earned professional wrestling the legitimacy that it had gained by the 1960s, rivalling professional boxing as the country's number one combat sport. Had promoters valued this type of match, bringing credibility to a sport maligned by the Sunday press at the time, we may not have seen the decline in attendance figures during the second half of the 1960s.
The disposal of the young challenger at Belle Vue may well have relieved the pressure from Joyce in the short term but when Robinson defeated the champion at Bradford on 27th May he knew the danger had not lessened. Throughout 1963 Robinson continued to increase the pressure on the champion, often holding him to a draw, occasionally taking the honours, but failing in a third championship contest in Glasgow.
Between the two Belle Vue championship clashes was the most illustrious wrestling event for many years when, on 22nd May, His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh attended a professional wrestling show at the Royal Albert Hall, a charity even raising money for His Royal Highness's Award Scheme. Shortly after 8pm Billy Robinson, and all those involved in the show, were introduced to Prince Philip. The closing bout of the first half of the tournament saw Billy draw with Scotland's bearded heavyweight champion over four ten minute rounds.
In the months that followed Billy continued to travel, not just the length of Britain, but to Europe, the Middle East, India; learning wherever he went, relentlessly pursuing Joyce each time he returned home.
For the heir-apparent the succession was not to prove a smooth journey. When the championship changed hands it came as quite a surprise for fans, as on 9th March, 1964, it was Shipley's Geoff Portz that defeated Joyce in Bradford to take the championship. Portz held the title for six months before Joyce re-gained the belt with a straight falls win in Middlesbrough.
Surprisingly, championship success came via a different route for the Mancunian. His older rival, Joyce, was also holder of the European heavyweight championship, and a title match between the two of them was arranged for 12th June, 1965, once again at Belle Vue, Manchester. Seven rounds into the match a perfectly executed suplex followed by a body press gave the winning fall and the European belt to Billy Robinson. Robinson cemented his championship claim at the beginning of August by successfully defending his newly acquired belt against ex champion Joyce, once again winning in the seventh round.
Clearly if Billy Joyce was going to lose the championship it was only going to be to someone the champion considered worthy. It was January 1967 that Billy Joyce lost hold of the British title for good, with Robinson finally acquiring the belt. He celebrated with a new gown declaring "Bill Robinson, British Champion" embroidered on the back. After an investment like that it's a good job he kept the title!
From that moment onwards Billy was universally acknowledged as Britain's finest heavyweight. Former champion Joyce had been criticised by fans in the south for rarely straying far from home and rarely making defences in southern England. Robinson avoided such criticism by making an early defence against Tibor Szakacs at the Royal Albert Hall. Southern fans did see less of Billy from 1967 onwards, but so did everyone as he was increasingly working overseas. By this time Billy's eyes were set westwards and there was already talk of Billy going to America to take on the likes of Thesz, Sammartino and Gagne.
By 1967 a new top heavyweight had emerged onto the British scene, the masked man Kendo Nagasaki. Encounters between the British champion and the masked man was a lucrative money spinner for the promoters, but they did have the dilemma of needing to protect the reputation of both men. Or did they? After all, Nagasaki had only been a professional for three years.
The promoters overcame their dilemma by having Robinson announce that he had no desire to hold Nagasaki to any commitment to unmask should he be beaten. It would seem that Robinson and Nagasaki had mutual respect for one another as both were capable of defeating just about anyone. The two men faced each other more than a dozen times. Whilst many contests ended inconclusively as double disqualifications, double knockouts or no contests, Billy did have at least two clear knock out wins over the masked man.
By mid 1968 British fans were beginning to realise they were in danger of losing their champion for good, and Billy's first trip to Japan did nothing to ease those fears. Billy travelled out to Japan in April 1968 for a two month visit, did not return home until October, and was back in Japan the following month. Once again British followers had to rely on Eddie Caldwell for providing them with news that Billy was to challenge for the International Wrestling Enterprise (IWE) World Heavyweight Championship. With more well established and familiar world champions Samartino and Funk Jr known to British fans news of Robinson's defeat of Toyonobori in Okayama on 19th December, 1968 was underwhelming. Of more significance for Robinson were the links between the IWE and North American promoters and we can only assume that these links may have been instrumental in leading to Billy's arrival in North America in June 1969. The following month he was to hold the most widely acknowledged World Heavyweight Champion to a sixty minute draw.
With great satisfaction the British fans knew their boy had made it. We knew in our hearts we were unlikely to see him in our rings again. Albert Wall and Steve Veidor were more than ready to fill the void created by Robinson's absence with Wall taking the vacant British title. We had the satisfaction of knowing we had witnessed simply the best.
As far as our story is concerned we have reached the end. Of course there is much, much more to tell. Those with the first hand knowledge we don't possess are invited to continue the story of Robinson establishing himself in North America as a legitimate wrestler, more drawn matches with Funk, wins over AWA champion Gagne, his work in Japan where he was immensely popular both as an active wrestler, coached the Japanese Olympics wrestling team, and trainer of shoot wrestling. In 2011 Billy Robinson was inducted to the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame, the first Briton to be honoured.