Remembering My Afternoon With Billy Robinson

Note: This is an article I penned in early 2013 following a seminar I was fortunate enough to attend, conducted by Billy Robinson and UWFi's Billy Scott. Robinson would pass under a year later, and attending was one of the best things that ever happened to me. 

Today, Billy Robinson's name is perhaps more prominent than even 2013. With Josh Barnett's recent UFC run and foray into pro wrestling, Sakuraba working New Japan Pro Wrestling and being inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame, and Shayna Baszler's pro wrestling run, his influence has witnessed a resurgence. 

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Those weren't the only ones. Daniel Bryan and Timothy Thatcher both worked with Robinson, and Davey Boy Smith Jr. was a prized student of Robinson's. All across MMA and pro wrestling, Robinson's impact is felt. 

Today is Coach Robinson's birthay, and I wanted to remember him the best way I could: sharing my limited experience with him. I'd never say that I trained under Robinson -- that's something my trainers Jay Grooms and Brandon McCleese earned. I was lucky enough to learn from Robinson, though. If you've ever listened to any of my shows consistently you know in what regard I hold his work and education.

I hope you all enjoy. 

*** 

“GUYS!”

I heard this in my nightmares for weeks. A thick, hoarse, British accent bellowed this word throughout a church gym in southern Kentucky.

“If you don’t pivot you’re going to drop him on his skull,” the voice said in a lower voice, as opposed to the urgent scream in which preceded it.

The voice– that of the legendary Coach Billy Robinson — echoed through the gymnasium, covered in thin wrestling mats. Catch-as-catch-can specialist, professional wrestler, trainer of Kazushi Sakuraba, Shayna Baszler, Josh Barnett.

Fortunately for me, I didn’t have to worry about being dropped on my skull, at least not at that point. I was partnered up with Jay Grooms, a coach of mine. We’d trained together on and off for years, even competed in pro wrestling matches together.

I trusted Jay with my life. I had no concerns, he was one of the more technically skilled wrestler’s in the room — a room that contained students of Billy Scott, a major name in the world of catch-as-catch can.

“GUYS!”

There it was again, that voice.

Myself and four teammates and coaches had made the trek to southern Kentucky to a little town named Oakland (no, not that one) for the opportunity to learn from a catch-as-catch-can God.

Billy Robinson was posted on a tan, folding chair. He was forced to walk with the aid of a cane, the decades of his abuse his body had been subjected to had taken its toll. Scott, a UWFi alumni, would help Coach Robinson up, which happened at least a dozen times throughout the day.

Clad in burgundy sweatpants that didn’t match his black ‘scientific wrestling’ tee shirt or white New Balance shoes, Robinson made his way towards me.

“Oh shit.” I thought.

“Guys. Come here.” It was a bit of a whisper from Coach Robinson. I was scared to death, not wanting to disappoint a wrestling icon

Just a few months prior, I’d been in a car accident that had rendered my shoulders immobile. Coupled with a severe neck injury I’d sustained years before, my body was honestly in no condition to play basketball, let alone be wrestling. Still, I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to learn from Coach Billy Robinson. I sucked it up for the 5-hour seminar.

Well, almost. I’d never been the most mentally strong person. I didn’t need to be, I rarely competed, even when healthy, and outside of competition I lived a middle-class life in a rural area. There wasn't much of a need for me to "push through" anything. 

I’d underestimated Jay’s desire to impress Coach Robinson. Understandably so, Grooms idolized Coach; just months before, I witnessed Jay land a double-underhook suplex during a live round of grappling, which was Robinson’s longtime finisher.

“Grab the half-halch (hatch) and pivot.” Robinson said.

I was sent for a ride. There I am, flying through the air, flat on my back and ass.

“Do it again.” Coach Robinson fired back immediately.

Here I am again, almost like it’s my job. Coach Robinson could have asked me to take a piledriver on the gym floor, and I would have. Jay would have been thrilled to deliver it considering who the instruction was coming from. 

“Do it again, this time you (pointing at me), resist. Don’t let him have it.” He said.

I couldn’t have stopped Jay if I wanted to, but sure, why not? There I went, again, flying through the air, slamming onto the mats with as much grace as possible. Years of taking back bumps had helped, but my body was on fire.

“YOU GUYS!” Robinson again screamed.

He’d singled us out. I was terrified. I wasn’t sure what I’d done wrong -- only sure it was my fault. To say that Jay was technically superior to me was a vast understatement. I would go on to be thrown upwards of 20 times back-to-back as Coach Robinson worked with us to perfect the hold.

My body was close to breaking, but I was bursting through mental barriers that I’d never previously known. This was simply another day at the office for Billy Robinson, who had endured the fabled Snake Pit, training in conditions that today would seem cruel and unusual.

Finally, after nearly twenty half-hatch throws, the technique satisfied Robinson, who strived for perfection. The innovator of the Tombstone Piledriver made me feel like I’d just been struck with one across the temple. As deranged as it sounds, I couldn’t have been more honored.

Eventually, Coach Robinson’s attention turned towards the son of Robert Lucarelli. Much like Robinson, Lucarelli also experienced difficulties walking. A participant in the UFC during the company’s dark ages, Lucarelli had discovered the wonders of catch wrestling, and wanted to share the knowledge with his son.

A large teen, Lucarelli’s son was optimal size for my head coach, Brandon McCleese, to work with. Coach Robinson picked on Lucarelli, again, striving for technical perfection in a sport when many were satisfied with just being passable. He had Lucarelli and Brandon repeat the same process over and over, like Jay and I before. Despite the younger Lucarelli’s frustration, you could tell he was grateful.

While I was honored that I had been given personal advice from Robinson, I needed to catch my breath. I’d not experienced pain like this, even after the injuries, the training, the wreck. 

90 seconds later, I was being put in a shin lock in front of dozens of others, by Billy Scott himself, as Coach Robinson stood nearby, running his cane along my shin to show how the hold worked. The agony, the struggle was real on this day with my tiny legs.. I noticed my teammates giggling along, knowing this was probably my worst fear. My thin, bony shins weren’t pleased.

When the hold was released, I was certainly relieved. More than anything, I was appreciative. I’d had two of the top names in catch-as-catch-can wrestling working with me -- a writer, a part-time wrestler at best. Meeting wrestlers never meant much to me, but learning from them does.

I learned more than I could ever convey through word on that day.

The lessons I learned that day extended far beyond wrestling and pro wrestling. If you ask my (now wife), she may disagree, as for weeks she’s was subjected to a mentally coniditioned drop toe hold each time she surprises me with a hug from behind.

At the end of the seminar, Coach Robinson asked if there was anything else he’d like us to go over. Jay asked to demonstrate the double-underhook suplex, in which Robinson loved and gave his seal of approval. I’d never seen that sense of happiness or satisfaction on Jay’s face, although he tried to hide it from Coach Robinson.

The stern, hardcore personality was gone. Coach Robinson was laughing, sharing stories, and asking students to snap photographs with him.

We then all had pizza, and Coach Robinson told us stories about stretching Ric Flair. It seemed surreal. I was starstruck.

I’ll always remember each side of Coach that I saw that day—the happy, experienced, eager to teach personality, as well as the man who pushed me to physical and mental limits I never thought I’d achieve on the wrestling mats again.

“GUYS!”

Pro wrestling is strong, and so is the legacy of Billy Robinson.

Thank you, Coach Robinson.

***

Billy Robinson would pass a year later, making our group one of the last to work with him. With Billy went a wealth of knowledge that could be lost forever, but is being preserved by all of the aforementioned names. This period of my life, training with Billy, training with eventual UFC fighter Jessamyn Duke, working a charity wrestling show while I was hurt, pushing myself to medal at my last tournament, it all gave me a sense of work ethic and reason that I hadn't understood prior. It changed my life. I saw that people like Billy Robinson, people like Jessamyn Duke, my coaches Jay and Brandon, and people we were holding an event for that truly struggle -- they put in work every day. Whether it be for skills or survival, they never stopped learning and adapting.

I found that in unique lines of work like the one I'm fortunate enough to have, off days are a privilege and hard work is mandatory. I can't pretend I always had the same hard nosed attitude I do now, and I can credit Coach Robinson and my coaches for instilling that in me.

Since then, myself and Jay would work the occasional charity wrestling show locally, and won a small promotion's tag team championships, which you all sometimes see on our shows. It's all a neverending circle where I'm constantly utilizing and remembering the life lessons I picked up on that day.

I feel the implications of this day, and my five or six month journey following my car accident to this day. I pushed myself to physical, mental and emotional limitations because I had something to overcome for once outside of my own laziness. Fear of failure can be crippling, and can make cowards out of the best of us. That was something this time period fixed for me. I was pushed to my limits and I made it through. On the mats, in the ring, in the doctor's office, in life. My afternoon with Billy Robinson was a big part of that. 

Happy Birthday Coach Billy Robinson, and thank you. 

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