Welcome to this week’s Slammer Jabber. For one week only, we are going to eschew the usual format of the weekly column and take a special look back at the life and career of one Dynamite Kid, who sadly died this week. We'll return to the usual format next week with the final push for TLC, but this week we look back at the career of Tom Billington.
Dynamite kid passes away
On Wednesday the news broke that Tom Billington aka The Dynamite Kid had passed away, on his 60th birthday. Marty Jones, a legend himself on the British wrestling scene, was the first reputable source to confirm Billington’s passing. Of course, the wrestling world reacted with sadness, given Dynamite Kid’s cult-like status as one of the true pioneers of the modern style. However, like all true pioneers put up on a pedestal, his sacrifice was great, and his flaws were very real.
For those unfamiliar with Tom Billington, after training at the infamous Snake Pit in Wigan, he became a fixture on the British scene in the mid-to-late-70s working for Joint Promotions as a young man, frequently working as the tag team partner (and workhorse) for Big Daddy. Dynamite would go on to win both the lightweight and the welterweight titles while competing in the UK. It’s important to note that this was at a time when British Wrestling was on television every Saturday afternoon in front of millions of potential viewers. World of Sport, not to be confused with the modern wrestling company of the same name, was actually a legitimate sporting programme, with multiple live sporting contests every week, and wrestling had a weekly, prominent slot. Arguably, it was a national passion, and families would gather around the television every week to see the latest bouts from the smoky town halls up and down the country. In the British national consciousness, wrestling was believed to be very much real for the most part, long before the term “sports entertainment” came into existence. Among the likes of Big Daddy, Giant Haystacks, Kendo Nagasaki and plenty of other headline attractions over the years there were also technical innovators like Dynamite and his contemporaries (Mark “Rollerball” Rocco springs to mind) who believed they could present something better than Big Daddy using his oversized midsection and lumbering move set to win the day. I would highly recommend that anyone with an interest in British Wrestling from its peak era have a look at John Lister’s book, Have a Good Week...till Next Week available here. It really is a superb look at British wrestling's heyday and well worth your time.
Dynamite would get his big break when Bruce Hart of all people would spot him on a British show and invite him to come to Stampede Wrestling in Calgary. Billington would hone his style in Calgary, as well as adding muscle mass (in his 1999 book Pure Dynamite he admits to beginning to take steroids including Winstrol and Dianabol at that time, something that would continue throughout his career and would ultimately take a massive toll on his health and contribute to his eventual demise). Billington’s career would take off in memorable feuds with a young Bret Hart among others, including one of the very first ladder matches. Dynamite would also be responsible for getting his cousin, Davey Boy Smith into Stampede after inviting him over from the UK and this would lead to the two feuding, and eventually forming a tag team. At this time Dynamite was having some of the best matches of his career up to that point and it didn’t go unnoticed.
Stampede would open doors for Dynamite in Japan, first with IPW who were affiliated with Stu Hart, and then more notably with NJPW, which would cause some friction with Hart who allegedly had a financial arrangement with IPW for a percentage of Stampede wrestlers earnings while on tour in Japan. During his run in Japan, Billington would have stellar matches with Satoru Sayama, the first Tiger Mask, which transformed the junior heavyweight style on a global scale. If you’ve never seen these two men wrestle, you have to go out of your way to see it immediately. Depending on when you are reading this, NJPW World has made some of Dynamite’s bouts under their banner available for free, no subscription required for a limited time as a tribute to one of their marquee performers. I honestly believe without the matches these two performers had, modern chain wrestling would probably not exist, neither would the high-impact, high flying strong style that has become so popular in the modern era. It’s difficult not to credit Dynamite and Tiger Mask with pioneering a whole lot of what you see in WWE, and even NJPW now. Of course, others had added and built upon that foundation, but the building blocks are clear to see. Dynamite would hold the WWF Junior Heavyweight Title, which confusingly was not particularly active in WWF at the time and was primarily defended in Japan, beating The Cobra aka George Takano, in the finals of a tournament. Dynamite would actually defeat Davey Boy Smith in that same tournament en route to winning the belt.
Despite being champion (and not for the last time in his career) Dynamite would return the belt to NJPW as himself and his tag partner would be off to the burgeoning World Wrestling Federation. Of course, it goes without saying that WWF was in a phase of huge expansion following the success of Wrestlemania and the growth towards becoming a national, if not a global organisation. With the company vacuuming up any and all available talent who might prove marketable, Vince McMahon came calling and it’s understandable why they went. Christened “The British Bulldogs” (although Dynamite actually had his first televised tag match within the WWF alongside his old foe and real-life close friend Bret “The Hitman” Hart) Dynamite and Davey Boy would have a number of stellar matches with the company becoming a reliable and very popular tag team. During their run they would have memorable feuds with The Hart Foundation, The Moondogs, The Islanders and The Dream Team, the latter of which they would beat at Wrestlemania 2 to win the WWF Tag Team titles.
Unfortunately, this is where things began to go downhill for Dynamite. Years of full-pelt, snug matches caught up to him, the wear and tear of which when combined with putting on a serious amount of mass on his originally scrawny frame, led to a very serious back injury. That injury was so serious that it required major surgery and allegedly the operation was not a total success. Dynamite would return briefly to drop the tag titles to The Hart Foundation but afterwards had a lengthy hiatus while getting himself back into condition to wrestle. However, The Bulldogs would never quite reach those heady heights again and left the company in 1988. According to a variety of sources, towards the end of their tenure with the company, Dynamite had become increasingly difficult to work with having a well-documented backstage scuffle, and a further revenge-based incident with one Jacques Rougeaus. While this was the most high-profile encounter, it was not the only incident that occurred and it would seem that he was perhaps not the most well-liked wrestler in the locker room. The Bulldogs were known for their backstage pranks, but as detailed in his autobiography, often those pranks were more mean-spirited and verging on bullying than anything else.
The post-WWE world for performers in 2018 is a very different beast to 30 years earlier. Now the marquee value of being an ex-WWE superstar is enough to get you booked on most independent cards around the world and you can essentially name your price. In 1988, Dynamite Kid and Davey Boy Smith went for the most lucrative option available and returned to Japan, wrestling for the re-launched Stampede promotion between tours. The Bulldogs would jump to AJPW, which was a very big deal back in the 80s, akin to a headline performer jumping ship from WWF to WCW or vice-versa during the Monday Night Wars. However, things became strained between Davey Boy Smith and Dynamite Kid, and the team abruptly broke up in 1990 after (according to Dynamite) Smith phoned the AJPW offices and pulled the team from a major tour citing Billington having had a major car accident. How much of that is true, is likely to remain a mystery we will never solve, but the two became embroiled in a legal battle over the “British Bulldog” name, as Dynamite was given legal warning about using the name alongside new tag partner and fellow Brit Johnny Smith, and Davey Boy Smith began to use the name in the WWF. Despite their careers being inextricably linked, as I understand it, the two would never speak again. They were in the same building briefly in 1994 while Smith was between jobs with WCW and WWF and was working in the UK, where Dynamite turned up and threatened physical harm against his cousin before being escorted from the area.
The remainder of Billington’s life and career does not make for uplifting reading. He would continue with AJPW for a while, before retiring in 1991, his health failing and his injuries mounting from years of spectacular bumps. However, like most wrestling retirements it wouldn’t last, and he would end up working some matches for Michinoku Pro, but by this time he was a shadow of his former self, quite literally, having lost much of his trademark muscular look as well as the toll years of drug use had taken on his body. By 1997 he was confined to a wheelchair, in part due to the back injury he suffered while in the WWF, and he would mostly retreat from the wrestling world for the remainder of his life, eventually having further health problems including a leg amputation, a stroke and more. Such was the cost of the in-ring style, and the outside of the ring lifestyle Billington chose to live. He passed away, on his 60th birthday in 2018.
Dynamite Kid is a difficult person to characterise. As a wrestler, he had a style that revolutionised pro wrestling. It felt realistic, fast-paced and everything looked like it hurt. He popularised the superplex, and he used the tombstone and flying head-butt to perfection. He also made a great heel, something that many may not have seen if they were only familiar with his WWF tenure. There’s a reason why he is so revered by so many, and the tributes came flying in when news of his passing broke.
However, there will always be an asterisk beside his name, because by all accounts Tom Billington the human being, at least during his time in wrestling, was not a good person. As previously mentioned his pranks on other wrestlers were often cruel and unusual, in his book he comes across as bitter, unapologetic and borderline psychotic at times. He explains how he had threatened his ex-wife with a shotgun on numerous occasions and he generally seemed like a magnet for trouble. He allegedly once broke the jaw of Bruce Hart over a personal issue, and the story of his stiff clothesline breaking the jaw of Mick Foley while Foley was a WWF enhancement talent is well known. He did take part in some television interviews after the Chris Benoit murders in 2007, which only seemed to confirm these personality traits. Pure Dynamite often seems like a very one-sided, perhaps slighted skewed view of his career which makes it hard to derive how truthful his version of events really was. It’s impossible to know how much was fact and how much was fiction from that autobiography. That said, I would encourage everyone to read his book if nothing else to make up your own mind on his legacy, and it does give a fascinating insight into the logistics and excesses of wrestling in the 1980s.
On a personal note, I have some fond memories of the Dynamite Kid. Growing up in the UK I used to collect as many WWF VHS tapes as I could get my hands on from various shops, car boot sales, markets or wherever it was possible to find them. Silver Vision, the UK distributor of WWF Tapes had a mail ordering service, and after looking on the inside of one of my WWF videos, I saw a release dedicated to The British Bulldog. Or so I thought. The tape that arrived was showcasing the team of The British Bulldogs, which blew my mind having never seen Dynamite Kid before. Seeing him wrestle for the first time, I was entranced. I needed to see more. Of course in the days before the internet (or certainly the early days), tape trading was the only way to do that. In the back pages of Powerslam Magazine, there were always adverts for tape traders, and I sent my money order (thanks Mum) off to a stranger to get a copy of a compilation of matches featuring Dynamite Kid and Tiger Mask and my take on wrestling was forever changed. Until recent years following Puroresu in the UK has been difficult, even for NJPW (the Ustream years were a particular pain point), but I’ve always tried to watch what I can, and it’s so gratifying to see those matches on NJPW World now and be able to relive the bouts that opened my eyes to what was available outside of the big two American companies. Dynamite Kid was a huge part of that, and I will forever be grateful for that.
I do have one personal Dynamite Kid-related story that perhaps might be appropriate. In 2001, the Frontier Wrestling Alliance, or FWA was making waves in the UK and over the course of the previous few years they had begun to amass quite the following, even gaining a regular slot for in FWA performer “The Showstealer” Alex Shane on the radio show of former children's TV presenter Tommy Boyd. The show in question was broadcast on a nationally available talk radio station at 8pm on a Saturday night. Eventually, this cross-promotion gained such traction that the company were able to book an event in 2002 at an indoor arena in Crystal Palace in London, which was recently used by Ring of Honor in 2018. The show was also to be televised on a popular cable channel, and was dubbed “Revival”. I and my friends were in the front row, and the show was excellent, shining a light on British talent such as Doug Williams, Jody Fleisch, Johnny Storm, and many others, while also featuring imports such as Eddie Guerrero and Brian Christopher. Jody Fleisch would go on to win a one-night tournament to be crowned “King of England”, and in a surprise appearance, Dynamite Kid was there to present the medal/trophy to Fleisch. It was intended to be a big moment, a passing of the torch from Dynamite to the new high-flying, innovative sensation and the crowd lapped it up, myself included. Dynamite, however, looked like he would have preferred to be absolutely anywhere else in the world than being literally wheeled out for a half-hearted appearance. The sadder part, came as everyone left the arena, and Dynamite was sat behind the curtain in front of the stage, clearly awaiting assistance from the ring crew. It was a high, followed by a tremendous low to see him in that condition, and really brought home just how much he had sacrificed.
Dynamite Kid will always be regarded as a divisive figure. To some a hero, to others a villain. He’s far from a household name, and yet without his influence, many of the most notable performers of the past two generations might never have adopted the style that got them to where they are. Dynamite Kid was an apt name for Tom Billington, in the ring and in life. He was explosive, eye-catching and ultimately self-destructive. I hope in his final years he found peace, and he passed with those he loved around him. There are certainly hints towards the end of his autobiography that he had found happiness with a new life away from wrestling, I just hope it wasn't too late.
RIP Dynamite Kid
If you want to read an even more in-depth look at Dynamite Kid’s career, and one that does his achievements and flaws more justice than I ever could, please do check out John Pollock’s coverage of his career here as well as all the other great work himself and Wai Ting do at Post Wrestling. It really is a phenomenal website with masses of content each week, and they are two of the hardest working guys in the whole industry so please do go and support them.
Well, that is it from me for this week. I will be back at the same time next week with all the news from the go-home editions of Raw and Smackdown ahead of TLC, as well as touching on any major stories that might break in the next week. In the meantime, keep it locked here at Screenjabber for all the best movie, Blu-ray, DVD and video game reviews, as well as all the latest news, podcasts and more. Until next time, so long folks.