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"CATCH US IF YOU CAN"
by Andrew Vaughn
When the town of Wigan is mentioned throughout the world it usually conjures up images of mining, Wigan Pier, pies or Rugby League. However for many people involved in wrestling throughout the world the town of Wigan means just one thing and that is Riley's Gym. And two Wigan lads have made cracking little documentary detailing those days and the independent documentary film ‘Catch: the hold not taken’, is now out on DVD.
The film, which was screened at the world’s top international sports film festival in Milan last November, is produced and directed by Mike Todd and Ian Bennett and celebrates the history of Lancashire Catch as Catch Can wrestling. Popular across the world from Europe to America, to Asia and beyond, this phenomenon of global significance is close to being lost in Britain. Perfected by Lancashire miners in the 19th century, ‘Catch’ has both amateur and professional traditions and is the basis for modern freestyle wrestling that appears in the Olympic Games. The film contrasts the billion dollar phenomenon of modern professional wrestling with its humble roots, where the original tradition struggles to survive. It examines its exile from the commercial world of ‘real’ sport and looks at Catch’s clear relationship with the growing modern phenomenon of full contact fighting.
Exploring beyond the televised charade of modern times, it reveals the lost truth of mankind’s oldest sport, examining the ‘real’ wrestlers who emerged from Lancashire’s industrial heartland. It looks at their relationship with their sport and how this unique regional style, almost without historical documentation, became the world standard for international competitions.
Nearly three years in the making, the film focuses in particular on Billy Riley’s Gym – now run by Roy Wood as Aspull Olympic Wrestling Club and known to all as the Snake Pit. As an apprentice moulder, Billy trained with the Wigan miners in the traditional art of Lancashire Catch-as-Catch-Can, at a time when it was one of the most popular sports in the area. When he opened his gym in the 1950s on Vine Street in Wigan, it fast developed a reputation as one of the most formidable schools every known. People travelled from all around to train at Riley’s. The gym was little more than a tin hut with very few facilities. But it turned out many champions, including the likes of Billy Joyce – who many regard as the greatest Catch wrestler to ever step in the ring (or onto a field for that matter). Interviewing old time wrestlers and local characters such as Jimmy “The Man Of Granite” Niblett who missed the 1948 London Olympics selection because of taking a bad kick to the knee in a football championship the previous weekend. It's heartening to know that Jimmy still likes a good run up the steepest hill in the neighbourhood. The film investigates how this ramshackle old gym came to be revered as the spiritual home of wrestling by the Japanese. There are interviews with some of the foremost names in world wrestling, from US Olympic Gold Medalist Dan Gable, to Japanese pro-wrestling’s biggest star Tatsumi Fujinami. As Mike Todd states: “Very few people know that Olympic freestyle wrestling originates in Lancashire. This is a forgotten story.
Ian Bennett added: “Real catch wrestling is one of the most physical and demanding of all sports and is definitely not a ‘show’. It is a unique part of our cultural heritage that has had a world wide impact.”
The film was made on a shoestring budget and is narrated by Anthony H. Wilson, who gave his services for free, and is described by BAFTA winning writer and martial artist Geoff Thompson “A fantastic film. The best wrestling documentary ever made.” I'll second that.
The DVD is being distributed by Riverhorse Productions. The film can be purchased online at www.riverhorse.tv and is available at all good retailers
Mike Todd is currently working on a documentary about Michael Shields. Ian Bennett now lives in Hamburg
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