Journey to the Snake Pit

This UG Blog is courtesy of Finland’s Jasse Junkkari.

Back when I was still in preschool, I remember my dad telling me how, when he was young, a circus had come to town. It featured catch-as-catch-can wrestlers, real American showmen. Twenty years later, I’m tapping the mat in Wigan, England. There’s no showmen here – at a gym called the Snake Pit.

Travel trouble

I begin my pilgrimage on a Thursday morning on 23 August 2012. I’ve just finished a shift at the door of a Helsinki nightclub aimed at punters who have just reached legal drinking age. I shoulder my knapsack, pocket my passport and take off for Turku, which is connected to London Stansted by renowned customer service specialists Ryanair. The airport clerk charges me an extra fee of €60($70) for my inability to check in online earlier. No big deal, at least I’d managed to buy the tickets – although their final price turned out to be €80($90) instead of the advertised €45($55).

The three-hour flight passes pleasantly browsing a fresh issue of FightSport magazine, although the cover photo of the tattooed noggin and torso of skinhead fighter Niko Puhakka appears to give the old darling sitting next to me palpitations. As we approach landing, Ryanair’s helpful stewardesses sell gullible tourists train tickets to the center of London for a knock-down rate of €30($35). Naturally, I fall for this one as well – I pay €10($12) for the bus on my way back home.

After exploring London’s famous underground network for a while, I manage to emerge onto a street filled with people and automobiles. After barely surviving a few near-misses and receiving torrents of abuse from unimpressed cabbies, I start to realize that the look left, then right and then left again principle I had absorbed in Finland would not work quite as well when crossing a street in England.

Just as a foreigner might assume that any Finnish one-horse town would surely be a mere stone’s throw away from Helsinki, I had also figured that Wigan would only be just outside London when booking my flights. This turns out not to be the case. The people at the train station inform me that the journey would take about three hours and cost only £140($190). Happy days! After I recover from this shocking item of information, I decide to head for the coach station, where I book a seat for the next day. The price is £30($40) and the estimated journey time four hours. I toss my bag in the cheapest room of the city’s cheapest hostel and go looking for the biggest second-hand bookstore in London. The distance appears reasonable on the map.

Even before I learned to read, I’d spend lots of time at the library studying pictures in martial arts books and, over the last four years, I’ve popped into every second-hand bookstore I come across in the hope of adding to my collection of old wrestling, boxing, and jiu-jitsu books. Here, if anywhere, should be a good place to acquire more literature on these subjects. After all, London was the European Mecca of professional wrestling for a century. Pioneers like Yokio Tani and Mitsuyo Maeda fought here under both jiu-jitsu and catch-as-catch-can rules while also teaching British gentlemen the self-defense arts as practiced in Nippon. Catch wrestling featured in the Olympic stage for the first time at 1908 London Games, but, over the next couple of decades, Olympic freestyle wrestling would assume a new name and a new set of rules.

I arrive at the door of the bookstore with blisters forming on my feet, but am five minutes late: it’s closed. I spin round and hail a cab. I’m out like the recipient of a competently administered choke hold once I get to my hostel bed.

Wigan – wrestling, rugby and hooligans

The next day, my bus crawls along the motorway at a snail’s pace. The trip has already lasted for seven hours – I’ve found a bad case of summer vacation congestion. Luckily, I’m carrying a number of historical wrestling books. One of them includes an old saying, according to which any man pulled out of a Wigan coal mine will be either a wrestler or a rugby player. And often both.

When I mentioned my upcoming trip to a friend one week before departure, he knew nothing about the region’s famous wrestlers, but was able to tell me that Wigan was home to Britain’s nastiest football hooligans. “Fits the picture,” I thought. Wigan is part of the wider County Lancashire. From the 18th century all the way to recent decades, the city’s main livelihood has been associated with coal mining. The surrounding terrain is made up of expansive flat moorlands. Looking around, it is easy to imagine the workers of yore playing football or rugby or pitting their strength and skills against one another in a wrestling match on the soft green grass.

But what makes Lancashire and Wigan in particular such a significant region from the combat sports perspective? While elsewhere in England and more or less all of Europe practised traditional stand-up disciplines with strictly controlled holds (for example, Finnish folk/clinch wrestling, where the aim was to topple your opponent with a body lock), Wigan wrestlers were free to use all imaginable holds and techniques to pin the opponent or force him to concede victory. Around the turn of the 20th century, this method, which was known as loose-style, Lancashire wrestling and catch-as-catch-can, conquered North America after it was adopted by touring professional wrestlers.

One of these athletes was Väinö Ketonen, who was born in Tampere, Finland in 1888. He won a lightweight Finnish championship in Greco-Roman or French wrestling in 1910. This strong-necked Finn won his first world title from up-and-coming British grappler Jack Carroll on 28 August 1911. The venue was Wigan’s rugby pitch and the style used was catch-as-catch-can. Väinö spent the next twenty years touring North America and making a name for himself as one of the most talented wrestlers of his time.

In 1923, Ketonen won the title from Wiganese cauliflower-ear Billy Riley, a man whose name would be remembered as the founder and head trainer of the Snake Pit, the toughest wrestling gym of all time. Established in the late 1940s and then known simply as Riley’s, the gym had modest facilities, but was known for its formidable wrestlers.

For today’s MMA and pro-wrestling aficionados, the best-known students of this master trainer, who passed away in 1977, are undoubtedly Karl Gotch and Billy Robinson, both of whom learned catch wrestling in Wigan more than 50 years ago and then went on to achieve great success as professional wrestlers and trainers in Japan, where they taught catch to MMA trailblazers like Inoki, Fujiwara, Funaki, and Sakuraba.

It was the Japanese who nicknamed Wigan’s legendary wrestling gym the Snake Pit.  Roy Wood was one of the last people to learn Riley’s skills from the man himself. Unlike his boxer brothers, teenage Roy wanted to learn wrestling, so his father took him to Riley’s towards the end of the 1950s. He was “murdered” regularly at training, but, unlike many other beginners, he kept coming back. Some years later, the gym closed down.

At the start of the 1970s, Roy, now a father, and some other locals wanted to introduce their sons to wrestling. Roy opened the doors of the old gym and started to head a wrestling club with old Riley providing practical tips and wrestling instruction. The club needed to improve its competition opportunities, so it decided to gear its instruction more towards Olympic-style freestyle wrestling. The club moved to new premises in the 1980s and assumed the name Aspull Wrestling Club.

It was around this time that the first Japanese wrestlers started to make pilgrimages and study trips to Wigan. Since the 1990s, Roy Wood has been to the Land of the Rising Sun more than ten times to teach local pros about catch wrestling, the root of their sport.

At 8:00 p.m., after nine hours on the road, I finally arrive in Wigan. There to meet me is Andrea Wood, daughter of Roy and the force behind the scenes at the present-day Snake Pit.

Training day

On Saturday, around one o’clock, I join twenty or so other catch enthusiasts at the edge of the mat of the Aspull Wrestling Club a.k.a. the Snake Pit – the three-hour training event is finally about to start! I am the only foreign participant, but the other guys welcome me warmly nevertheless, or perhaps for that reason.

A charming grey-haired man in his 70s walks. This gentleman, who can still easily perform a front somersault without warming up, is our instructor and one of the last living masters of Lancashire-style wrestling – Mr. Roy Wood.

He starts with a brief speech, welcoming us all and saying that he wants to share the experiences and techniques he himself learned at Riley’s gym. He explains that the biggest difference between catch and its better-known descendant Olympic-style freestyle was that a catch wrestler could not just spread out and be passive when being mounted by an opponent and would instead have to work hard to try and regain the advantage.

Then the gymnastics start. At first, we run laps around the gym, do spread-eagle jumps and deep squats – this feels no different from any basic warm-up session, but once half of our group has left the ring after twenty minutes, it becomes clear that this is meant to test and develop the stamina and gumption of the participants. Once the ordeal is over, Mr. Wood points out a maxim that should be familiar to all combat sportsmen: fancy techniques will not help you in a fight if you go weak after the first hold.

After a short break, we begin to study a number of different techniques. The goods are exactly what I had been expecting: solid basic wrestling with various take-downs, pins and closing moves. My ten years of Brazilian jiu-jitsu had already introduced me to many of these techniques, such as the fireman’s carry and the toe hold, while others, like the shoulder rip, are completely new – and painful. The master shares his teacher Riley’s belief that the best wrestling moves will hurt.

Then it is time for the final segment of the training session, sparring. The rules are simple: a pin or a tap-out, and no foul play or choking. As the other wrestlers sit and watch, I take down my British opponent from both legs. The wrestling bouts I had as an 18-year-old in the States start coming back to me. After a brief struggle, I manage to pin his shoulders to the ground with a half nelson. We shake hands and it is time to grab the neck of another wrinkly-eared lad. I again lunge for the feet, but my new opponent is awake and grabs me into a front headlock, spins round and tightens his grip. I tap out to avoid fainting.

Even when choking is off limits, you can only blame yourself if you nearly choke on your own hand. Now it is my turn to stand on the sidelines and observe the others. The grappling is fair, but intense – it’s hard to catch your breath in a catch bout.

I am called to the cener once again, this time to face a muscular young guy. The situation is fluid, with both of us fighting ferociously to gain the decisive advantage. The thought of keeling over becomes more and more appealing as the lactic acid continues to build up in my body. I slip another hook in and lock myself on my opponent’s back. One last heave and he taps the mat to signal surrender as his shoulders get pinned to the mat.

One of the day’s techniques, the banana split, which stretches the hip adductor and pins the back to the mat, has worked its magic. After a quick shower, it is time for food, refreshments, and lots of talk about the future of the Snake Pit and catch wrestling at a nearby pub.

Japanese voyages and the Olympic Games

Roy and I head for lunch to a large wooden building in the middle of an enchanting old oak forest around Sunday noon. It formerly served as a barn, but nowadays houses weddings and other get-togethers.

The coach’s older brother, a retired coal miner just like his father and many other Wigan men before him, is also present. Roy remains an energetic gentleman and he keeps the company amused with his many stories. I have to concentrate on the food – the Lancashire accent is as understandable as Portuguese to me, even though my English is of a high standard for a Finn. Fortunately, Mr. Wood adopts a more approachable mode of speech when we arrive at his home.

He tells me that one of his dreams had been fulfilled last summer when he got to take part in the London Olympics as freestyle wrestling coach to Maria Dunn. They did not win a medal, but Roy came back with plenty of good memories as well as an official Olympic torch like the one that he had carried.

This senior coach learned catch wrestling for Riley as a young man, but the majority of his own training work has involved freestyle wrestling. Japanese interest in the Snake Pit provided him with an opportunity to maintain his old catch skills.

Roy tells me he had been forced to break the leg of a particularly troublesome wrestler during his first trip to Japan. This convinced the Japanese of his skills and they offered him a job as a puroresuringu coach. But Roy had a job and a family back home in England, so the Japanese had to settle with hosting the occasional visit from this leg-breaker.

Roy remembers asking Riley’s opinion of judo. Riley answer was:  “Roy, you don’t put on a jacket when the fighting starts – you take it off.” Roy does not admit to following MMA or to knowing much about Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, but says that, in his opinion, it’s a good idea to remain at the top of the pile during any match. After watching a game of rugby that evening, the general sensibility of this principle becomes more and more clear to me as well.

No man a prophet in his own land

On Monday morning, it is time to pack my back and head back home. The first leg is by train to London, from where I’ll fly to Turku the next morning. By Wednesday, I’d be back escorting Finland’s future hopes out for a vomit.

The next day, Roy Wood would be receiving the son of legendary Japanese pro wrestler Fujinami for a three-week intensive training course. I find it curious that the Japanese, with their infinitely rich martial arts tradition, have identified such great value in our Western wrestling heritage.

Perhaps they see catch as more a millennial tradition than just a form of wrestling and Riley’s gym as much more than a mere hut with a wrestling mat – they recognize it as an actual snake pit!

Jasse Junkkari

The author has a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and is a passionate student of combat culture.