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The Unbearable Hardness of the Dynamite Kid

Tom Billington broke himself changing the way we watch wrestling

Tom Billington as the Dynamite Kid Ringer illustration

Tom “Dynamite Kid” Billington died Wednesday, not inside the wrestling ring he claimed in his autobiography to have loved more than life itself but decades removed from it. He bled and battered himself for fame and for love of the craft, making his matches in Japan and Calgary look realer than real by snapping suplexes that destroyed backs and dropping headbutts that permanently dented his brow. Along with the likes of his contemporary Tiger Mask and later his devotee Chris Benoit, Billington was one of the wrestlers who pioneered the acrobatic, hard-hitting style that came to characterize a truly great match, a five-star match in David Meltzer’s subjective rating system. Even though his style—you can call it an “all-or-nothing approach” and “ritual masochism” in the same breath—led to his reliance on a wheelchair in later years, Billington wrote in the conclusion to his 1999 autobiography Pure Dynamite that he “wouldn’t change a thing.”

“All I ever wanted was to be the best wrestler I could be,” he wrote. “I wasn’t interested in gimmicks, or being a great talker; I wanted to be remembered for my ability in the ring.” And he already was known for that in 1989, the year I really began watching wrestling with a critical eye. Billington was pretty much washed up by then, a shell of himself after a back injury that had occurred three years earlier in a WWE tag-team title match between him and partner Davey Boy Smith and the heel team of Don Muraco and Bob Orton Jr. But you could peruse the smart-fan literature, Wrestling Observer Newsletter and the like, and there he was already a bruising icon of the highest order. Aspiring grapplers like Benoit grew up wanting to be him; young fans like me wanted to watch whatever snippets of his performances were then available to us.

I never got to see Billington when he was at his best, when his highs were at their highest. And those highs were literal highs, not figurative ones: He was high on speed, gassed up on steroids, and high in the air when he leapt head-first off the top turnbuckle onto a prone foe. He battled Bruce and Bret Hart in Stu Hart’s Stampede promotion in Calgary during the late 1970s, when his body was still smaller, not the 200-plus pounds to which Dianabol and other steroids would inflate his 5-foot-8 frame, and his will to impress was larger. And his matches against Tiger Mask (Satoru Sayama) in New Japan Wrestling throughout the early 1980s were the stuff of legend, a prize I wouldn’t get to sample until I had acquired some VHS tapes via message board trading in the early 1990s.

Instead, my earliest recollections of Billington came when he was half of the British Bulldogs, the smaller half, no longer regularly having those quality matches, but just seeming to hit a few high spots while teammate and beefier cousin Davey Boy Smith spent the bulk of the time in the ring. (Billington says he tweaked his back in a match in 1986 and couldn’t carry the matches anymore.) Davey Boy would have his own inspired singles run a few years later, wrestling as the one and only “British Bulldog” and even trying to get officials in Canada and elsewhere to enjoin Billington from profiting from the once-shared nickname. As his star rose, Davey Boy also pumped up far beyond the way nature had intended his 5-foot-11 body to appear, because that’s what it took to survive in a world of genuine Andre the Giants and their ersatz steroid-inflated kindred (his death also preceded Billington’s by 16 years, passing in 2002).

I also observed Billington from afar when he was at the lowest of his lows, literally laid low in a wheelchair and subsisting on disability payments from the British government. Like many other fans during the “Attitude Era,” I had become enamored of the high-flying, hard-hitting matches staged by wrestlers such as Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit in WCW’s cruiserweight division. Like Billington, I didn’t care about the gimmicks or the talking—I just wanted to see the speed, skill, and realism of the work. And so in 1999, when Billington’s autobiography dropped, it became the first wrestler autobiography I ever bought and the first one I read.

The book was brutal and frank, candidly discussing Billington’s drug abuse and physical pain while also trying to re-frame his role as something of a good-natured locker room policeman rather than a locker room bully (Dynamite Kid was apparently a ribber nonpareil, a vicious hazer who made JBL look like an amateur and who once received a vicious, jaw-breaking sucker punch from 6-foot-3, 250-pound Jacques Rougeau as a receipt for his torment). Billington rages against a sport that prevented ex-NFL player Jim Duggan, a solid “six out of 10” as a wrestler in his opinion, from actually wrestling in order to play a silly cartoon meathead. It also turned people like cousin Davey Boy into prevaricators, with Smith apparently telling people in their Manchester hometown that he had prevented the Rougeaus from killing Billington after they broke his jaw (it was, according to Dynamite Kid, actually Olympic judo star Bad News Allen who appeared on the scene).

And of course it brought out Billington’s own rage, the rage that ruined his personal life. His creative energy went into his art and craft, yet his hatred was reserved not just for wrestlers he inadvertently or purposely injured in the ring, like Bruce Hart, but for the people closest to him. Billington’s ex-wife Michelle said that he held a shotgun to her head for several hours (Billington claimed it was unloaded). In another disturbing tale from the annals of wrestling history, Billington broke ex-manager J.R. Foley’s daughter’s kneecaps in order to facilitate a more favorable injury settlement after the girl had been involved in a car accident. “No point crying over spilled milk,” Billington wrote of his personal travails, addictions, and his premature exit from the ring due to injuries. “Eventually, I had to change my attitude … I started coming to terms with it.”

Pure Dynamite conveys a tremendous sense of pride in the craft of wrestling, almost to an absurd degree, even as he recognized the unfairness of booking practices in the WWE. “Unless you were six-foot-six and built like a brick shithouse, you have to work very hard to keep your place on the card,” he wrote, adding “if the promotion wanted you at the top, you went to the top.” Meanwhile, “standards of wrestling were definitely higher in Japan, for the simple reason that good wrestlers were in the majority.”

When discussing a WWE comeback in 1993, Billington told Bret Hart, who had become one of the company’s main-event attractions and wanted Dynamite Kid to return, that “even if I wanted to, I’d have to juice up a bit.” Hart mentioned that steroids were now verboten, something Billington found risible, much like how these deflating grapplers were now boasting about how they were “going for a leaner look.” By 1991, Billington’s career had wound down, and he had used up his remaining vigor wrestling in Japan against the likes of a young Mick Foley (whom he also took liberties with when Foley was still a WWE jobber, according to Foley’s autobiography). All the while, he was refraining at doctor’s orders from using the steroids that once gave him the thick build and “loud, aggressive” voice of which he was once so proud. “My ability was nothing like it used to be,” he noted, and he could no longer perform his signature snap suplex on larger grapplers—which at that point meant almost everyone, given his significant weight loss. Four years later, his back, damaged from multiple injuries incurred during two decades of wrestling, gave out for good, confining him permanently to a wheelchair.

Billington’s legacy, then, seems to be twofold: He was one of the sport’s first phenomenal athletic performers, a wrestler who went full speed ahead in the ring and eschewed rest holds and gimmicks, as well as one of its first notable casualties. He didn’t die, of course, but his career died—and even though he claimed to have no regrets, that was surely the same as an actual death, given how much he had come to identify as 220-pound star grappler “Dynamite Kid” and how little he cared about the fate of scrawny Tom Billington. Others would follow in his footsteps, dying or retiring early because of injuries, often small wrestlers like him, the “200-pounders” that Lance Storm tweeted were inspired by his example to enter the wrestling business.

When I first read Pure Dynamite, I was a teenage fan obsessed with workrate, a veritable “mark” for it. Rey Mysterio and his fellow cruiserweights were ravaging their bodies so that I wouldn’t have to enjoy a single minute of tired old rest holds and eye gouges, the boring stuff of lumbering Hulk Hogan and keg-shaped Bruno Sammartino’s seemingly interminable WWE title reigns. Like Dave Meltzer, I dreamed of nothing but five-star matches as far as the eye could see. So, alas, did Billington, and his body of recorded work will continue speaking for itself long after his own body rejoins the soil. He will not be here to see it, but I and my fellow fans will be. Every five-star match, every match-of-the-year candidate owes a debt to the Dynamite Kid. He set the standard for what counts as quality in the modern wrestling era. And he inspired a generation of wrestlers to make the spectacular the new normal.

Because of Billington’s sad example, I now realize that my fellow workrate marks and I were here to bear witness to excruciating torment, the self-inflicted pain required to create what many sophisticated fans will dub a masterpiece. Tiger Mask and Dynamite Kid had their masterpieces, as have the likes of modern-day, devil-may-care ring heroes Tommaso Ciampa and Johnny Gargano. But now, because of a man who died with no regrets about his gloriously dangerous athletic deeds, I have so many regrets of my own. At what cost did this wrestling hero fly through the air with what appeared to be the greatest of ease, and what role did we paying customers play in enabling his subsequent fall to earth?

Oliver Lee Bateman is a journalist and sports historian who lives in Pittsburgh. You can follow him on Twitter @MoustacheClubUS and read more of his work at