He was called "a wrestler's wrestler."
But that doesn't even begin to describe Billy Robinson.
One of the toughest men to ever engage in pro wrestling and mixed martial arts, Robinson passed away quietly in his sleep last weekend, amid relatively little fanfare from a new generation that had only heard of his amazing exploits over the years.
But during his heyday, Billy Robinson ranked among the most feared competitors in a profession that had more than its share.
There was no pomp or circumstance about Robinson. He was neither flashy nor flamboyant, didn't have a catch phrase, and wasn't even particularly adept at cutting a promo.
But he didn't have to be.
"The British Lion" was the real deal.
Robinson, who up until his death at age 75 was still training young students of the game, was found dead in his Little Rock, Ark., apartment early Monday.
His loss will be felt for years to come.
Robinson went through most of his career with a well-deserved reputation of being not only of the most technically proficient competitors in the game, but also one of the most feared.
The late Lou Thesz once called Robinson one of the greatest catch-as-catch-can wrestlers alive.
Robinson, who once punched out renowned bar brawler Dick The Bruiser, was indeed a legit tough guy, well-versed in the art of submission wrestling and armed with ample ability to inflict serious injury to an opponent if he so chose.
Regarded by many colleagues as a gentleman outside the ring, Robinson could be equally as vicious inside it, often challenging other wrestlers to shoots to prove his superiority.
For his reputation of being difficult to work with, many of his contemporaries refused to step into the ring with him, labeling Robinson a bully who would stretch lesser opponents and hammer them into submission.
Robinson also was averse to doing jobs, especially to opponents he considered "non-wrestlers," some of whom he would take liberties with in the ring.
"That's their fault, not mine. I've never been scared of anybody. None of the guys from Wigan ever were," Robinson once said of wrestlers who were apprehensive about doing battle with him.
"He was a big part of my beginning," said 16-time world champion Ric Flair, who received his early training from Robinson. "He was a tough guy. But he didn't have a lot of friends. When you socialized with him, he just tried too hard."
Flair witnessed firsthand the beating Robinson administered to another young trainee, Khosrow Vaziri (later known as The Iron Sheik), who at the time was the assistant coach to the U.S. team for the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. It wasn't a pretty sight, and the hazing even made Flair want to reconsider his plan to turn pro.
Some, like former Olympian and longtime AWA world champion Verne Gagne, were more than up to the task of matching up with Robinson. The two enjoyed a successful program in Gagne's Minneapolis-based promotion, although Gagne would never go so far as to put the company's title on Robinson.
"Verne would never make him champion. Verne just didn't trust him," said Flair.
It also was in Minnesota where Robinson would land a starring role in the 1974 cult wrestling classic "The Wrestler" along with Gagne. True to life, he played an up-and-coming challenger to Gagne's world championship.
Robinson had been living in relative obscurity in recent years in Little Rock, Ark., where he taught classes at Westside Kickboxing and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
Even at his advanced age, the submission specialist could still turn heads with his ability and knowledge.
"He loved the spotlight. In his life with all the things he's seen, he was a real rock star," Westside owner Matt Hamilton told the MMA website Sherdog.com. "We'll miss coach and his personality. I'll remember him as a great character."
Robinson had suffered an assortment of injuries during his years in the ring, including knee and hip replacements as well as neck surgery, but he remained an active figure as a teacher and mentor right up until his passing.
"Billy was a great old guy who was passionate about teaching. Just a week ago he was down on the mat doing stuff. It's a shame because anytime you know someone and this happens, you just wish you spent more time with him," said Hamilton.
A newer generation that had witnessed a softer side to Robinson had nothing but admiration for the wrestler.
"He was the first globetrotting British heavyweight, which was something I aspired to be," William Regal (Darren Matthews) told the WWE website. "He's one of those people that's a one-of. There's never been anybody like him. He was a true icon in wrestling."
"One of the most intelligent, knowledgeable and friendliest guys I've ever met," posted NWA Legends Fanfest founder Greg Price, who had Terry Funk induct Robinson into the event's Hall of Heroes several years ago.
Former NWA world champion Dory Funk Jr. recalled working with Robinson in Calgary, Canada, shortly after winning the title in 1969. A week's worth of grueling one-hour draws was all it took to earn the new champ's respect.
"That week with Billy Robinson was a learning experience in a different style of wrestling," recalled Funk. "Not amateur style but shoot style. Billy was for real mentally and physically as tough as they come, like a champion should be, and that helped me tremendously through my next four years as NWA world champion."
Robinson trained many stars over the years, and most recently had his hand in MMA with the likes of "The Gracie Hunter" Kazushi Sakuraba and former UFC heavyweight champion Josh Barnett.
"I learned so very much from Billy, not just in holds or moves, but in philosophies towards wrestling," posted Barnett, who had trained with Robinson in Japan. "He taught me what I consider one of the most important aspects to becoming great at anything; 'You have to learn how to learn.'"
Born in 1938 in Manchester, England, Robinson was the product of a family consisting of a long lineage of fighters, with his great-grandfather, his father and his uncle all combatants in their own right.
Robinson, who was defeating 30-year-old wrestlers at the age of 14, found a new home at the "Snake Pit," a famed training ground and one of the most respected catch wrestling schools in the world, where he would spend more than a decade learning under the legendary Billy Riley.
Many a wrestler turned up just once at Riley's gym and vowed never to return because the experience was too painful. His gym became known as the Snake Pit because it was such a dangerous place to learn.
The catch brand was a classical hybrid grappling style that had developed in Britain in the late 19th century. It was later refined and popularized by wrestlers in traveling carnivals who incorporated their own submission holds, or "hooks," into their repertoire.
Robinson would later describe catch wrestling as "MMA without time limits."
Robinson had already developed into an amateur champion before becoming an expert in submissions at the Wigan school. He had been the British national wrestling champion in 1957 and the European Open wrestling champion in the light heavyweight class in 1958, beating an Olympic bronze medal winner in the finals.
Following the trail of Karl Gotch, known as the "God of Wrestling" in Japan, Robinson became a major star in that country after winning a tournament for a version of the world championship.
The Japanese press billed a 1975 match between Robinson and Antonio Inoki as a classic encounter between "the world's two top technicians."
Robinson, who was inducted into the International Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2003,
was one of the few wrestlers successful on several continents, winning titles in promotions nearly everywhere he wrestled.
After his pro wrestling career came to an end, Robinson taught catch wrestling to mixed martial arts notables such as "The Gracie Hunter" Kazushi Sakuraba and former UFC heavyweight champion Josh Barnett.
Ahead of his time
Robinson, whose story was chronicled in the 2012 book "Physical Chess: My Life in Catch-As-Catch-Can Wrestling," wrestled the last professional match of his 32-year career in 1992 when he was one of the few remaining catch wrestlers alive.
A living encyclopedia, Robinson would spend the rest of his time coaching the lost art of catch wrestling from the sidelines with his cane - his body failing him from years of wrestling - and serving as a guest trainer at seminars throughout the world.
Considered the world's foremost expert in all things catch wrestling, Robinson was a worker ahead of his time.
Barnett eulogized his trainer in a post made shortly after Robinson's passing.
"Billy is a throwback to what being a professional wrestler used to be. He could shoot or work, a master of his disciplines, and was a great trainer as well. He is survived by a few of us who really took Billy's training to heart and will go on to keep the techniques, the lessons and legacy of Billy alive and well after even we pass.
"Be sad for what we have lost but be even happier for what we were fortunate to gain. I love you Billy, and if there's any cosmic, promised land for wrestlers like us, then I imagine you and Karl (Gotch) are having a beer."
Robinson's influence continues to inspire competitors today.
"When I think of a wrestler, I think of Billy Robinson," Daniel Bryan told the WWE website.
Many of Robinson's scuffles beyond the confines of the squared circle are part of wrestling lore.
How many are true or have been embellished may never be known, but one particular story has been told and retold for years.
Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson relates one version that involved Robinson and his late grandfather, Samoan-born High Chief Peter Maivia, who also was regarded as one of the toughest men in wrestling. The incident occurred during a 1968 tour of Japan.
"My family is known as being one of, if not the toughest, in wrestling; when they would get in fights .. somebody's nose would be gone ... an ear would be gone," Johnson told ContactMusic.com several years ago.
"There was this one time my grandfather was eating. He was on this tour wrestling ... and one of these wrestlers (Robinson) was making fun of him, how he was eating with his hands.
"They wound up getting into this huge fight that wound up going from the hotel restaurant, through the hotel lobby ... through the window ... out in the streets.
"The guy wound up hooking my grandfather ... so he tied up completely (couldn't move); my grandfather bit his eye out."
Other versions of the altercation have emerged over the years.
One scenario involves Robinson suplexing Maivia onto a table at the hotel bar and hooking him with ease, until Maivia starts biting Robinson's face, which ended the fight.
Years later in an interview, when asked about that night, Robinson said:
"I guess the toughest guy really isn't the best wrestler or shooter but the guy who's willing to endure anything and do anything to kill the other guy. and that's not me."
Veteran wrestler Pat Barrett wrote about the incident in his 1990 book "Everybody Down Here Hates Me."
He claims that Robinson had been ribbing Maivia in a hotel restaurant where the two had been drinking, making fun of him eating chicken with his fingers, and the socializing escalated to a point where the 5-10, 280-pound Maivia punched Robinson through a glass panel.
A blood-covered Robinson returned to the fray and attempted to suplex Maivia, who bit Robinson in the bridge of his nose, clamped on tight and refused to let go. Robinson let go of Maivia and tried, without success, to get away from the vice-like jaws. Three other wrestlers, who had been watching and either enjoying the spectacle, as Barrett wrote, or perhaps felt getting in the middle between these two men was far too scary, finally broke it up.
According to Barrett's account, Robinson went to the hospital and lost his eye. Maivia sat down and had another drink. "This was fighting, Samoan-style, no holds barred, and he was an expert at it," wrote Barrett.
Robinson later responded to the story in the Wrestling Globe Newsletter.
"Peter was a little wild when he had a few drinks. We were in the south of Japan and in an area where not too many people spoke English. Peter got impatient and started to act up which was making things worse, and nobody was getting served at the bar. I told him to grow up and shut up so that we could all get served, which he did, but Peter being Peter, it played on his mind.
"On the way back to the hotel Peter, for some reason, wanted to fight me and started throwing punches. I grabbed him and held him so he couldn't move. He then tried to bite me in the neck, so I pulled my jaw down so he couldn't do any real damage, but he bit through cheek. When I saw the blood I got angry and knocked him out ... he was unconscious for 25 minutes. I had to go to the hospital to get a shot for the bacteria.
"The next day I found out that George (Gordienko) had instigated the whole episode so I went into both their rooms, locked the door and challenged them. Neither wanted to do anything after that. And a couple of days later we were good friends again. As for the eye story, I had an operation on my right eye when I was 11 years old. Peter did not have the ability as a street fighter to get close to my eyes, and the reason I got bitten was because I didn't want to hurt him.
"But as you know over the years stories get exaggerated. Reputations are usually made by people who have never been on the mat, or in a street fight. Like most pro wrestlers/workers they start to believe they know how to wrestle and are really tough. But they never seem to have fought or beat anyone."
Maivia passed away in 1982 from cancer at the age of 45.
A less serious and even comical out-of-the-ring skirmish involved former NWA world champ Jack Brisco.
A late-night shooting match with the late Oklahoman ended up in the latter's hotel room.
As Robinson and Brisco traveled together in Australia, the two argued over which style was better - the submission style Robinson learned in Wigan, or the style Brisco learned at Oklahoma State on his way to becoming an NCAA champion and only losing one collegiate match his entire career.
Both had been drinking and initially were demonstrating holds and techniques until the horseplay intensified.
Stripped down to his underpants, Robinson was locked out of the room by Brisco, only to be let back in later by security, but not before enduring the guffaws from other guests at "the best hotel in the whole of Australia."
"I should have known better," Robinson later explained, "because, just a week earlier, Brisco and Dick Murdoch had pulled a nasty practical joke on me. They introduced me to America football. A game between Texas and Australia was being shown in Australia on television. We were watching it live. Dick Murdoch was from Texas and Jack Brisco was from Oklahoma.
"They were chewing tobacco and drinking bourbon and Coke. I had never done any of this."
Before he knew it, Robinson was drinking bourbon and Coke (which he hated) with them, and chewing tobacco as well. When he asked Brisco what to do with it, the Oklahoma State All-American told him to "swallow the juice and spit the tobacco out."
"I believed them and drank the juice," said Robinson. "I not only spit the tobacco out, but I also puked all over the place. They pulled this rib on me a week before, so I should have known better."
"Man he was tough," Brisco would later say. "A lot of wrestlers I met through the years fancied themselves as shooters. They were adept at demonstrating holds. 'Let me show you this' or 'Let me show you that,' but the real test was if they could get these devastating moves or submission holds on in an actual match. Most of these guys suffered from delusions of grandeur. They couldn't hit those moves if their lives depended on it. Billy was the exception by far. He not only could demonstrate the move, he could hit them from anywhere."
Reach Mike Mooneyham at 843-937-5517 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @ByMike Mooneyham and on Facebook at Facebook.com/MikeMooneyham.
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