“Imitated by an entire generation of wrestlers. The intensity and the anger yet snap and precision he wrestled with. A blessing and a curse.” – Fan Joe Dobrowski
Tom Billington found the success he always craved as The Dynamite Kid. But it came with a heavy price.
A pioneering, innovative performer whose high-flying and high-risk style paved the way for a future generation of undersized but talented wrestlers, Dynamite Kid was regarded during his heyday as one of the greatest workers in the world.
His matches with Tiger Mask in Japan and brother-in-law Bret Hart in Canada are legendary and have stood the test of time.
But while he helped revolutionize the business, he would eventually fall victim to it. Before his 40th birthday, Billington was told he would be in a wheelchair for life.
Years of working such a physical style, taking a brutal pounding in the ring, and abusing steroids took a toll on Billington’s body. He injected huge dosages of horse steroids to enhance his physique, was left paralyzed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair after a career of soothing the pain with pills and drugs.
“Technically brilliant and wildly aggressive” was how WWE described his style, which consisted of debilitating staples such as snap-suplexes and diving headbutts. Cutting edge and ahead of his time, Dynamite Kid was an acrobatic high-flyer who thrilled crowds with high-risk moves and big bumps, a hard-hitting style that would eventually be adopted by future WWE stars.
Although he was told his career was over in 1986 after breaking his back during a match at New York’s Madison Square Garden, Billington continued to wrestle for five more years. By then, though, he was in increasing pain.
In 1997, he lost use of his left leg. In recent years, he suffered a series of heart problems and a stroke.
The man once hailed as “the greatest worker in the world” died on Dec. 5. It was his 60th birthday.
For the last 15 years of his life, the Lancashire-born Billington was confined to a wheelchair and living on government assistance in his native England.
Once an international celebrity and bona fide WWE superstar, one of the most innovative and influential light heavyweights to ever step into the ring, Billington now had little to show for it, his life a cautionary tale.
“One of the great workers of all time. Poster child for steroid and drug abuse. Sad to see his demise,” lamented Bruce Hart, who brought Billington to North America, in a 2011 interview.
The son of a coal miner (who was brother of future tag partner Davey Boy Smith’s mother), Billington started wrestling when he was only 13, dropped out of school at 14 and began touring in Britain around the age of 16. It was there that he would eventually be scouted by Hart, who suggested he come to Canada and join his dad’s Calgary-based Stampede Wrestling promotion.
“Dynamite was never much of a conversationalist; he didn’t say two words,” Hart recalled of his initial meeting with the 19-year-old. “I thought he was just shy, but found out later that was just his nature. He told me he was working on the card later that night, and that he wanted me to book him in Calgary for my dad. I had a lot of the British guys trying to get into Calgary at that time, but I wasn’t sure if it was a rib or not. I told him I’d take a look, but quite honestly wasn’t expecting much.”
What he saw later when Billington performed in front of the small crowd astounded Hart, an accomplished matman himself whose duties also revolved around booking, recruiting and training talent.
“It was incredible. He just had this kind of natural aptitude. I likened it to the first time Berry Gordy saw Michael Jackson.”
Hart immediately contacted his dad, legendary wrestler and promoter Stu Hart, about bringing Billington into Stampede Wrestling.
“My dad was kind of adamant, as were most of the NWA promoters back in those days, that you had to weigh at least 220,” said Hart. “Dynamite was about 140, and I exaggerated to my dad that he was about 170. And later on with Davey Boy (Smith); he was pretty skinny too. But I remember that it was like going through hell and high water to get them in. And when we got them in, they were phenomenal workers.”
Hart had to continually lobby and push for the smaller, more athletic performers, urging his dad to give the territory time to pop. Stu, however, liked “the old shooters.”
Stu, says Bruce, initially was reluctant to push the 5-7 Billington. “But I knew he was exceptional. Just to get me off his back, he agreed to bring him over. I remember the first time I brought him into the dressing room, I told everyone he was one of the best workers I had ever seen. He was still a teenager at that time. Everyone in the dressing room was rolling their eyes when he first walked in … they thought it was a rib.”
The fearless, undersized risk-taker from England, though, would soon turn the promotion on its head.
“He went out and ignited the crowd,” said Hart. “He had a chip on his shoulder since he knew they were all kind of sneering at him. He had that kind of demeanor about him, and he went out and completely stole the show.”
The crowd, used to the plodding heavyweights who routinely headlined the shows in Calgary, couldn’t believe that such a small (at least by their standards) but physically gifted performer could do the amazing things he did in the ring.
“All of a sudden he became a big ticket in Calgary,” said Hart. “He was the impetus, the inspiration for a whole generation of guys who would have otherwise been considered too small, but became big stars, guys like Owen and Bret, Davey Boy. (Chris) Benoit was just a mark up in Edmonton at that time. He was so impressed by Dynamite that he tried to copy him when he broke into the business. He wore the same type of tights as Dynamite and tried to walk and swagger like him. He wasn’t as explosive or as good an athlete as Dynamite; I don’t think anyone was at that time.”
As far as a learning curve was concerned, there wasn’t much Hart could teach Billington, who was offered a $350-a-week deal with Stampede.
“I was almost in disbelief. How could no one else have seen that potential? He was lights out when I first saw him. If you were trying to teach other guys that kind of stuff, it was way beyond their capability. With him, it was natural. He just had that special gift of athletic ability. He almost saw it as being obligated to the fans to do it (steal the show) every night.”
Billington, who worked out obsessively, never had to get a pep talk from Bruce or Stu to “go the distance.” It was The Dynamite Kid who often pushed other wrestlers to up their game.
“He’d tear into the other wrestlers in the dressing room and say, ‘There’s only 50 people out there tonight, but if you guys busted your (behinds), maybe there’d be 500 next time.’ My dad had a lot of appreciation for that. He was a great role model to have in the dressing room. It was hard for anyone else to refuse to do anything if he was putting his body through that, doing 60 minutes or getting color, while everyone else had to follow suit.”
The influx of talent into Calgary – local and abroad – was a shot in the arm for the promotion. Stampede would soon become one of the hottest and most innovative territories in North America and a melting pot for such diverse styles as European, Japanese, American and Canadian.
“Our business just took off,” said Hart. “I was happy for my dad’s sake. In a way it revived his legacy. It was this kind of perfect storm, with Bret, Dynamite and Davey, the Japanese and a few others that had people almost spoiled. He just kept turning the tempo up higher and higher, and they were able to sustain it. Dynamite was the kingpin.”
“We sent him over to Japan, and he was a hot ticket over there too,” adds Hart. “His matches with Tiger Mask completely changed the whole dynamic over there.”
After doing big business in Canada and becoming a revered figure in Japan, Billington was recruited by Vince McMahon in 1984. He signed on with the company as a future member of The British Bulldogs with cousin Davey Boy Smith, who was four years his junior. Stu Hart had earlier sold Stampede Wrestling to McMahon, with part of the deal being Kid, son Bret, and sons-in-law Davey Boy Smith and Jim Neidhart being part of the package.
Quick, agile and muscular, with a unique blend of power and finesse, The Bulldogs won the WWE (then WWF) tag-team title at Wrestlemania II in 1986 by defeating The Dream Team of Greg Valentine and Brutus Beefcake. Matches against The Hart Foundation – Bret Hart and Jim Neidhart – were merely a continuation of the classic confrontations waged back in Stampede Wrestling.
But it wasn’t the same, says Bruce Hart, noting that Billington was on the downhill slide by the time he got to WWE. “At that stage Dynamite was kind of like Bobby Orr when he went to the Chicago Black Hawks. His best years were with Boston, and Dynamite’s best years were in Canada and Japan.”
Perhaps to compensate for his size, Billington also had a reputation of being a bully outside the ring. With a mean streak and wicked sense of humor, Billington often pulled ribs backstage that were sometimes cruel.
“He had a bit of a malicious streak in him. That was kind of the impetus of that episode with (Jacques) Rougeau,” says Hart, alluding to legitimate heat between the two and backstage fights that eventually led to Billington being released by the company.
“I pulled as many pranks and ribs,” admits Hart, “but my idea of a prank and a rib was slightly different from Dynamite’s. Mine were more to ease the tension and lighten the drudgery on the road. Nobody ever got hurt. There were never any casualties.”
With his weight ballooning to 225 pounds, mostly as a result of steroids, his ring work suffered. In Hart’s book, wrestlers like Dynamite and Bulldog were far better performers before they became “roided up.” They were more athletic and faster; they became ponderous and more injury-prone after gaining the extra bulk.
Hart also could never understand why talented performers like Dynamite and Davey Boy exercised an over-reliance on performance-enhancing drugs. To Hart, it was the antithesis of performance enhancement.
“I remember having a conversation with Dynamite after his run in WWE,” said Hart. “I told him that even though he got bigger and all that, by my estimation neither he nor Davey were anywhere near as good after they got that big. They were more cumbersome and didn’t have the explosiveness. They tended to blow up quicker. When I first met Dynamite, he could go 60 minutes five or six days a week. When he got bigger, he’d blow up after 20 minutes. All of the performance-enhancing drugs sure didn’t enhance his performance. He was nowhere near as good after he got bigger.”
Eventually Billington would suffer the consequences. In 1986, he broke his back in the ring and nearly didn’t return to wrestling. He did return to WWE, though, working there until 1988, and spent three more years in Japan and Canada. In 1996, his last match took place in Japan. The next day he had a seizure at the airport, spelling the end of his ring career.
“A lot of pills, a lot of steroids, a lot of alcohol contributed to that,” says Hart. “To some degree it’s surprising that he lasted as long as he did. He was in a bad state 20 years ago. It’s ironic that he outlived (Jim) Neidhart and Davey Boy and Owen and (Brian) Pillman. The last time I talked to him he was pretty frail and didn’t sound good.”
The next year, Billington was restrained to a wheelchair after he lost use of his leg, part of which was amputated. In 2013, he suffered a stroke and a handful of heart problems. A GoFundMe page was launched for help with his medical bills in 2016.
His cousin and British Bulldogs partner, Davey Boy Smith, died at the age of 39 in 2002 of a heart attack.
Ahead of his time
Just how good was The Dynamite Kid?
Bret Hart, who first met Billington when he was breaking into the business, called Dynamite the best wrestler ever “pound-for-pound.”
“There are people in life that have a ripple effect both professionally and personally,” Hart posted on social media. “Tom ‘Dynamite Kid’ Billington was one of those people. The second professional wrestling match of my career was against Dynamite. I benefited from his greatness and through our matches in Stampede, WWE and everywhere in between, I became a better wrestler because of him.
“Dynamite truly was the best wrestler ever, pound-for-pound. Tom was family, my brother-in-law, and we were very close. In many ways I felt like one of the few people who truly knew him, both the good and the bad. I saw Tom one final time this past June in England and I can only hope he is finally at peace.”
“When Muhammed Ali was justifiably referred to as ‘The G.O.A.T.,’ Dynamite is right up there in that conversation,” added Bruce Hart. “Dynamite was technically as good as anyone I’ve ever seen. He had an uncanny sense of when to do things, and some of the stuff he did were things that I never saw anyone else do. He was the equivalent of a human pit bull. He was tailor-made for our business.”
Hart also called it an “egregious oversight” that WWE has never seen fit to put Dynamite or Davey Boy in its hall of fame.
“He never got anywhere near enough credit,” says Hart. “To me that was one of the disappointments that make WWE look bad. WWE never knew how exceptional he was. Dynamite and Davey Boy were arguably one of the top two or three tag teams in WWE history, and they’re not in their Hall of Fame. If there was some prevailing reason why they didn’t put them in … but there’s not.
“Dynamite was one of those guys who was always held in awe and the highest esteem by the upper echelon in the business. They boys knew that most of the stuff he did was cutting edge and way ahead of its time, and what he did was damn near better than anyone else. He took the business to another level. Even non-Calgary guys like Shawn Michaels would tell you that Dynamite was one of his first people that he idolized. Dynamite was like a Wayne Gretzsky or Michael Jordan or Bobby Orr to all the Japanese guys like Tiger Mask and (Jushin) Liger. He was that good.”
‘Part of the job’
“Dynamite was pretty much destitute the last few years,” says Hart. “There are a lot of blanks that need to be filled in, but I don’t know that they ever will be with him, because he was somewhat of an anomaly.”
Ironically, the reclusive Billington said in 2000 memoir “Pure Dynamite,” he would have done it all over again.
“Even though my legs are paralyzed and the doctors have told me I’ll never walk, I’d do it again,” he wrote. “Wrestling was my life. It was the only job I knew how to do and I loved it. It may have ruined my body but it was just part of the job. As long as the fans were happy, I was happy. I didn’t care what damage I did to myself.
“We used to snort cocaine off restaurant tables at three in the morning and nobody would bat an eyelid. The bosses at WWF said there were no steroids, no drugs, no alcohol, but it all went on then … Because I was on the small side I had to take steroids to keep my weight up.”
What Bruce Hart will remember most about the man he introduced to North American wrestling was his resolve to put on the very best match every night no matter the town or the size of the crowd.
“He would give the fans everything he could, which is almost rare these days,” says Hart. “He’d take the crazy bumps and the upside-down turnbuckles and the flying headbutts off the top rope. He did it every night, and even more in Japan.”
The Dynamite Kid ushered in a profound change in the business, says Hart, one that has continued to shape the modern style of wrestling.
“He was really revolutionary. To his credit, everything he did in the ring was more conducive to getting the other guy over than himself, which is really what a great worker is all about. He had the athletic ability and aptitude to be able to make whoever he was was working with, including me or Bret, look incredible.”