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Billy Robinson’s legacy: A Godfather of the Japanese MMA/pro-wrestling connection

By Zach Arnold | March 4, 2014

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Goodbye, Billy Robinson. If you haven’t heard the news, the Human Windmill died in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Most people reading this article will have little knowledge of who Billy Robinson was or what he represented to the combat sports scene in Japan. This audio presentation by Eddie Goldman last year is a good starting point. His bio at the Pro-Wrestling Hall of Fame from Greg Oliver is also a good read.

Billy Robinson and Karl Gotch were the Gods of catch wrestling and the shooting style in Japan. Two men with very different personalities but one thing was very clear with both men: nobody in Japan dared to mess with either Robinson or Gotch given their backgrounds at Billy Riley’s gym in Wigan. They were feared and respected men who stretched out a lot of men and made them scream in pain. In return, many of the Japanese legends like Yoshiaki Fujiwara credited the Brit and Gotch with their knowledge and careers.

In the Showa Era of Japanese pro-wrestling, you had famous gaijin wrestlers who came in and contributed on a big scale. Jack Brisco and Jerry Brisco. Danny Hodge with his vice-like grips and legendary matches with Hiro Matsuda. Dory Funk Sr. and his two sons, Dory Jr. and Terry Funk, became by far the most popular gaijin wrestlers ever in Japan. But when it came to actual influence and respect, Billy Robinson and Karl Gotch stood above the rest. They were the two men that all the Japanese wrestlers looked upon as the masters of their craft. Even on his last trip to Japan at the UWF Snake Pit Japan gym, Billy was still pointing out that a lot of wrestlers were using the double-arm suplex technique incorrectly while at the same time professing his love for Japan but having to cut back on travel due to knee problems. Even with a cane, Japanese students listened to his instruction carefully and treated him the same way his students in the 70s respected him.

Robinson was a world traveler who worked everywhere. He wasn’t simply a shoot guy trying to wrestle. He was both a catch wrestler and a pro-wrestler. When he wrestled in the AWA, Verne Gagne always promoted him as a big deal… or as hard as one could push somebody to the point of top status but not Verne Gagne status. Most Americans might recognize Robinson as his role of a bad guy in the 1974 film The Wrestler with Ed Asner. He wrestled all throughout Europe, in Australia for Jim Barnett, Calgary for Stu Hart, St. Louis for Sam Mushnick, Hawaii, Montreal for Lutte, and even Jerry Jarrett’s territory in Memphis. However, it was his tours of Japan that made him a legend in the business both as a wrestler and instructor. And for his bar fight with Peter Maivia.

Robinson wrestled for Kokusai (International) in April of 1968. He soon became involved at the top of the cards with wrestlers like Rusher Kimura (“the demon of the cage” before becoming Giant Baba’s comedy figure) and Great Kusatsu. There were notable matches with Strong Kobayashi and Monster Rousimoff (Andre the Giant).

Gotch would go on to wrestle Antonio Inoki in 1972 to launch New Japan Pro-Wrestling. Inoki, one of two proteges of Rikidozan, became an icon of Japanese wrestling and culture. Robinson agreed to wrestle in New Japan in 1975 and had two famous matches — one against Strong Kobayashi on December 4th at Osaka Prefectural Gym and then the big match at the old Kuramae Kokugikan (old Sumo Hall before Ryogoku replaced it) against Inoki on December 11th that was a full-time 60 minute draw for the NWF title. The Inoki/Robinson match was viewed as one of the all-time classics and has aired hundreds of times over many decades on different Japanese television stations.

Instead of sticking around with New Japan after that match, Robinson went to rival All Japan in 1976 to wrestle Giant Baba at Kuramae Kokugikan. He also wrestled against Jumbo Tsuruta and did tag matches with German shooter Horst Hoffman, whose green gear color was said to have been an inspiration to one Mitsuharu Misawa.

Robinson eventually faded away from the Japanese scene as an active wrestler. However, his popular career and instruction along with Karl Gotch’s track record became an inspiration for the “dojo wrestling” group known as UWF. The first UWF incarnation was wildly popular. The second UWF birth with Nobuhiko Takada and Akira Maeda was off the charts. And it was the UWF that led to UWF-International, where a young man named Kazushi Sakuraba would start out as a mid-card shooting style wrestler before New Japan killed off UWF International. After the death of UWF International came the birth of PRIDE and the rest is history. Robinson was an instructor for UWF International at their Nashville office and would later become an instructor on trips to Japan for the UWF Snake Pit Japan gym. Here’s an interview with Josh Barnett talking about his experiences learning catch wrestling from Mr. Robinson.

The respective Japanese offices like New Japan and IGF issued statements today on Robinson’s death. It is a big story in the Japanese sports press. Animal Hamaguchi, one of Billy Robinson’s most famous pupils in Kokusai (who would later himself become of the best modern-day wrestling instructors in Japan), was shocked by the news of Robinson’s death.

Topics: Japan, Media, Zach Arnold | 3 Comments » | Permalink | Trackback |

3 Responses to “Billy Robinson’s legacy: A Godfather of the Japanese MMA/pro-wrestling connection”

  1. Dave says:

    There are always wrestling deaths going around, but most of them kind of roll right off of my back. This one, though, it sucks.

  2. Chuck says:

    That’s too bad about Robinson. Unlike most “shooter” types in wrestling, he was one of the few “real deals” (Like Danny Hodge, Karl Gotch, and a few others. Literally). RIP old timer.

  3. Tradition Rules says:

    A true technical genius and master.

    His matches with Inoki, Tsuruta and a tag match w/ Les Thornton vs Nick Bockwinkel and Jim Brunzell in the Real World Tag League made it easy to be a pro wrestling fan,…not the “hit your girl friend over the head and drive off with her in the truck of a car”, bull shit you see today.

    Not just a great/legit technical master, but a great story teller and seller through his matches.


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