Billy Robinson’s autobiography, “Physical Chess”, book review

Catch wrestling is always a hot topic amongst MMA fans, especially when Josh Barnett has a fight coming up, or wins a match using a submission hold. Back in the days before cell phones and the internet, catch wrestling was the king of sports. More popular than rugby or soccer, the art was a secret kept amongst small training camps that eventually budded into the sports entertainment we call “pro wrestling” today.

Billy Robinson has been witness to the hey-day of catch wrestling, and has participated in the sport aspect of it that led to contemporary promotions like WWE. Now, you can relive this piece of history through his autobiography, “Physical Chess: My life in catch-as-catch-can wrestling”.
Released by ECW Press, Robinson, along with his co-author Jake Shannon who also wrote “Say Uncle!, an oral history of catch wrestling, this book takes the reader on one heck of a ride – one that may not have even expected to ride!

Hit the jump for the rest of the review!

Born in 1938 in England, times were hard growing up during and after the second World War. Catch wrestling would be where young Billy Robinson’s life was changed forever, and for the best. Under the tutelage of Billy Riley, Robinson would become one of his top students and battle against great wrestlers all over the world. From the days of having private matches on hard grass or sand pits to working pre-determined matches as their evolution into sports entertainment began, Robinson would eventually spread his teachings to Japan along with Karl Gotch to help form their modern method of pro wrestling. From the perspective of the combat sports world, Robinson is a man many MMA and professional wrestling fans take for granted, and may not even know who he is.

Fans who have never heard of Billy Robinson before probably have but did not know it. Robinson was Kazushi Sakuraba and Kiyoshi Tamura’s trainers during their time in the UWFi, and he has some stories to tell about those two, especially Sak. He has worked for Verne Gagne, appeared in movies, wrestled in front of royalty – the only thing he has not done is put on the 4 oz. gloves and fight in a cage (although he may have done that too for all we know).

Reminiscent of Jake LaMotta’s autobiography in style and content, “Physical Chess” is a tale of evolution over several decades as witnessed by one man who lived through it all. Indeed, if there was ever a catch wrestler deserving of the “Raging Bull” movie treatment, Robinson would easily fit that mold. No punches are pulled (or “heeling” for you catch fans) when it comes to discussing his tough childhood and becoming the man that would win so many world championships in wrestling. With that said, this is not like Gary Goodridge’s autobiography, where he seemed to go out of his way to talk negatively about people. Rather, Robinson makes it known that business is business, and there was always camaraderie outside of the bouts. It was truly a different world from what we often hear about in sports today, but things were different in the good ole’ days.

Some of the anecdotes you will read about include how he learned to be a catch-wrestler, his globe-trotting days of going to different countries to wrestle, and what really happened in his fight against Peter Maivia, AKA Duane “The Rock” Johnson’s grandfather. Along the way, Billy tosses in tidbits about what makes a good catch wrestler and how to think and fight like one, and why many of today’s fighters and wrestlers will never be quite as good as they were in his era (Robinson also offers solid proof as to why, but you will have to read the book to find that out).

Robinson offers his thoughts on MMA, and interestingly enough believes that the sport should also include pinfall as a way of winning. His belief is that by not having pinfalls allowed, you are losing 50% of the submissions that could happen, as well as more opportunities for ground and pound as a guy tries to get off his back, and also makes things more exciting. Imagine all of the fights that could have gone differently if a fighter was on his back in guard, struggling to not get pinned. Whether you agree or disagree, his perspective makes for a unique way to look at how MMA is fought compared to the matches that Robinson is used to seeing and participating in from his past days of active competition.

Here is the disappointing bit – as of now, if you check out Amazon.com’s sales page, they list the book at 220 pages. In reality, this book is 143 pages – quite a large discrepancy. I truly wish this book was much longer, which was my same complaint with Shannon’s “Say Uncle” book. The information and stories are informative, exciting, and tales that future generations should know about. I find it hard to believe that a man as well-traveled and connected as Robinson could fit his entire life story into 140 pages (technically less since there are plenty of photos interspersed in the pages), and I would have loved to have heard more about Sakuraba, his match with Inoki in the 70’s (which is barely mentioned), and much more about his time in American pro-wrestling. What you get in the book is great, but so much more has been left out, and it would be an absolute shame for those stories to not be remembered. Like Robinson says repeatedly through the book, there are many great catch wrestlers who are now forgotten thanks to a lack of record-keeping in those early days – let’s make sure that does not happen again in this modern era of mass communication.

You can order Physical Chess: My Life in Catch-as-Catch-Can Wrestling for under $14, and it is definitely worth it if you are seriously interested in Catch Wrestling and one of the greatest and most influential catch wrestlers in the modern wrestling business.

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