Getting Your Neck Broke in the Snake Pit
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because your body can be your friend or our enemy.
By Eugene S. Robinson
While plenty of people into sports pray to God for some base level of interest in their eventually winning, the only sport on record as having divine beings participating in it? Grappling. Specifically, God, or some angelic being, trying to pretzel up Jacob for three days as he beat it back to Canaan, set the template that saw the physics of hand-to-hand struggle make its way through human history right up to a shack in Wigan, England, in the 1950s.
“It was really not much more than that,” said the late Karl Gotch about the place in the Lancashire mining town that housed the Snake Pit, arguably the home of modern mixed martial arts (MMA). Gotch, still considered a god in his own right in Japan for his strangulation skills, was tough enough to talk trash about all and sundry, so when he says, as he did before he died, that the Snake Pit, and the man who started it, Billy Riley, were the real deal? You have not a single doubt at all. “Those fellas were a tough bunch.” A bunch that were elbow-deep in a brutal wrestling style called “catch as catch can,” or catch wrestling for short, since if you could catch ahold of it, you could twist it any way that’d work best to get the twisted to give up.
“There were hookers, and then there were rippers,” Thesz once said. Rippers punished.
But in the days before internet marketing, one of the singular best ways to get anybody else to know how cool what you were doing was was to take it on the road. So the traveling road shows where carnival toughs would challenge any takers from the audience to fight for cash? Well, this is where the guys who won trained. In joint locks, arm bars, toeholds, crooked neck scissors and a whole host of nasty stuff that really, really hurts, the so-called “hookers” — named so because they’d catch, or hook, the angles of your limbs to bend them against themselves.
And when Billy Riley, his personal specialty being the breaking of opponents’ arms — specifically those opponents who refused to quit while they were ahead — opened the Snake Pit, fighters from all over started finding their way to Wigan. Fighters with names like Billy Robinson, Bert Assirati, the aforementioned Gotch, Riley and his son, all sporting basic black shorts, black knee pads and black dispositions to match. “We’d give each other hell,” Gotch laughed about his time with Riley, who had died in 1977. But like Gotch had told the Belgian bullies who broke him in when he first started: “It was just paying into a bank account that I’d pay him out of later.”
Which might sound like an empty boast until there’s the laying on of hands. Even right before they all died, old men to a man, Gotch, Robinson, fellow traveler Lou Thesz, all Snake Pit familiars — when they touched you, you stayed touched. “There were hookers, and then there were rippers,” Thesz once said. The distinction being that hookers just caught you; rippers punished for being caught. But the distinction being unlearned, a wag from the audience asked, “What’s the difference?” The aged Thesz, at this point, eerie glow and all, said, “Here, let me show you,” and from the time he touched the inquisitor to the time he stopped, the guy screamed.
That was the Snake Pit. Plywood floors, leaky ceilings and all. And that’s the way it stayed. Until the real fake pro wrestling took off in the mid to late ’70s, and membership dwindled, possibly as a result of the absolutely no-quarter-given training style, and then Riley himself died. Languishing where he left it until one of his students, Roy Wood, revived it. Well, that and the fact that MMA took off and, looking for the edge, fighters found their way back to the old stuff. The old, dangerous stuff.
Which today sees the Snake Pit alive and thriving. Still in Wigan. Still dangerous. Exactly how Riley would have wanted it. Stop in sometime.