WWE confirmed on Wednesday that Tom Billington, the former pro wrestler best known as Dynamite Kid of the British Bulldogs tag team, had passed away at the age of 60. He leaves one of the more hugely complicated legacies of just about anyone who has ever been a part of this hugely complicated business. In the ring, he was a uniquely gifted and driven athlete whose innovative work changed the course of wrestling history worldwide; wrestling being wrestling, it also destroyed his body in what felt like record time. Out of the ring, though, he was an admittedly lousy human being with a taste for sociopathic pranks on his peers, attacked all sorts of people unprovoked, and so abusive towards his wife over years of sadism (including menacing her with a gun) that she considered killing herself and their children to escape him.
Remembrances this week have, as a result, been heavy on qualifications. Fans and wrestlers alike want to remember a performer that’s widely considered one of the very best ever, but it’s not that simple. Given that Billington also freely and even proudly admitted to many of the terrible things he did, the truth of those stories isn’t really in much doubt. It’s not as if every wrestler has a book full of confessions about things like setting Gypsy Joe on fire in a Tokyo McDonald’s for lying to him about whether he spoke Japanese. The Dynamite Kid wrote that book.
Billington’s status as a sociopathic lout is beyond dispute, but his incredible skill as a performer and an influence on future generations of wrestlers isn’t in doubt, either. Watch Billington’s first television match, where he wrestled Alan Dennison as a fresh-faced 17 year-old, and it is easy to see what made the Dynamite Kid a legend, even just six months into his career. Not only is he effortlessly smooth in the chain wrestling exchanges that were a hallmark of the classic Brush style, but the pop and explosion on his more athletic moves, like his dropkick and his handspring counters, was a cut above most who appeared on the weekly World of Sport program. The fully formed Dynamite Kid is visible just 56 seconds into the first round: Working a series of wrist lock counters with Dennison, Dynamite takes a bump right on the back of his head and neck, folding up when Dennison counters a backflip attempt by dumping him.
The reckless abandon that would make him a superstar pops off the screen, even as the match soon turns into a more standard British style affair. That combination of grace, technical mastery, recklessness, and danger was everything that Dynamite Kid was about in the ring. It was always there, and people started noticing: The normally villainous Dennison’s post-match speech, in which he lauds his opponent’s prodigious talent and refuses to take a TKO win after a self-inflicted Dynamite injury, was not a normal occurrence in British wrestling.
Billington’s run at home was not a long one. The only territorial promoter in North America that kept up with the British scene in any meaningful way was Calgary’s Stu Hart, who promoted throughout western Canada under names like Stampede Wrestling. His sons would occasionally do European tours, and it was when Bruce, Hart’s second-oldest son and a major creative force in the promotion, went overseas in early ‘78 that Dynamite first landed on Hart’s radar. Bruce was the smallest of the kids, and Dynamite made for an ideal opponent; per the account in Kid’s book, Pure Dynamite, Bruce “told me I would get a free car, a free apartment, and $400 per week” for a short tour, which his trainer, Ted Betley, later verified with Stu over the phone. It was not until later, Billington wrote, that he would come to discover that this was one of Stu’s sons impersonating their dad. He got a $350/week guarantee and that was it.
While Stu himself was unimpressed by Dynamite at first—“Eh, you’re a skinny little bastard” was the alleged reaction—seeing him work in the ring and watching how fans reacted quickly rendered that first impression unimportant. Seemingly as if out of nowhere, Stampede Wrestling was remade in Dynamite Kid’s image. Thanks to Dynamite’s great matches with Bruce and eventually Bret Hart, the territory’s “mid-heavyweight” titles became its most prestigious.
Word started to get out that this sleepy little prairie territory, which had been the butt of jokes for many people in the wrestling business, now had some of the best matches in the world. Wrestlers in other territories that favored smaller wrestlers learned that they had another place to ply their trade, which resulted in an unlikely talent pipeline back and forth between Calgary and Tennessee. Dynamite, meanwhile, ratcheted up his risk taking, famously going as far as to do diving headbutts off the top rope to the floor.
Over the course of the next several years, especially after Dynamite departed for WWE, another trend emerged: boatloads of wrestlers in the Calgary-based territory blatantly modeled themselves after the British star. Chris Benoit was the most famous of these, but was just one of many imitating Dynamite’s wrestling style, imitating whatever haircut of his they found most flattering, and wearing the same solid color tights with a single stripe down each side. The same thing happened in Japan, if not in the same numbers, thanks to Kid becoming a massive star after his feud with the original Tiger Mask. Benoit, Davey Boy Smith (Dynamite’s cousin), Keiichi Yamada (the future Jushin Thunder Liger), Ben Bassarab, Randy Thatcher, Biff Wellington, and Brian Pillman all went through Stampede, and all took noticeable cues from Dynamite. There are almost certainly others.
Dynamite made his way to WWE in 1984, where he and Davey Boy were soon put together as The British Bulldogs. After a couple false starts thanks to their Japanese commitments, the two became a top tag team in short order—organically over with fans thanks to being significantly more spectacular than everyone else on the roster and immediately on a track to the tag team titles once they agreed to give Vince McMahon exclusivity. (According to Bret Hart’s book—Bret was related to both of the Bulldogs by marriage and they were two of his best friends on the road—the Bulldogs said at the time that Vince was so happy to get them locked up that he got up on a table and danced after they signed their new deal.) After winning the belts, which meant main event money much of the time, the two kept the titles for months and months, with seemingly no end in sight until a decade of being the biggest in-ring daredevil in the business finally caught up to Tom Billington.
Dynamite Kid probably would have been every bit as big a star if he hadn’t committed to taking ridiculous, unnecessary bumps all the time. That risk-taking was not what connected with fans, or at least ranked notably behind his ability to project toughness and violence while still being a graceful athlete. (While not something he showcased in WWE, his natural cockiness as a heel was a huge part of his appeal in Stampede and Japan, as well.). Being a pinball as a villain and flying as the virtuous babyface is one thing, but landing awkwardly and extra hard is another, as is frequently taking hard bumps to the floor. The nightmarish ‘80s WWE travel schedule didn’t help, but even after he was “toned down,” as a top WWE babyface, Billington still took the biggest bump of the“Hulkamania” era at the finish of his WrestleMania 2 tag title win—and took it completely off camera. Copying Ole and Gene Anderson’s old “ultimate sacrifice” finisher, Davey rammed Greg Valentine into Dynamite’s skull as the Kid was perched on the turnbuckles, sending him flying into a void. The TV viewers only sensed how he landed from the audible offscreen thud and the fact that he wasn’t entering the ring for the post-match celebration.
When the rent came due, Dynamite, then just 28, collapsed crossing the ropes thanks to cumulative nerve damage. That injury, which left him barely able to walk, was kept secret from the general public; other wrestlers substituted for him around the horn as he was false-advertised for numerous cards. Eventually, per Pure Dynamite, Vince McMahon asked Dynamite to come back to drop the titles. That required a nightmarish trip from Calgary to Tampa at a point in his recovery when he should have basically been bedridden and Davey carefully supporting him on the way to the ring, but he did it. The Hart Foundation laid Dynamite out with Jimmy Hart’s megaphone before brutalizing Davey to win.
Billington somehow returned in March, against the orders of doctors who recommended retirement, and remained a shockingly good wrestler for the remainder of his career. But the Dynamite Kid who wowed the world was gone, despite the fact that a diminished version of Tom Billington, one without full use of his left foot, was more than capable of doing enough to get by in the ring. Somehow, he made it through the end of 1991 as a full-time wrestler, with a handful matches here and there after. His wife had by then mustered the strength to buy him a one-way ticket and demand that he exit her and their children’s lives.
Tom Billington was a lot of things. To me and my generation of fans, he was a pioneer and a virtuoso of the more athletic type of pro wrestling that would later change the sport. It was never quite McMahon’s taste, but fans gravitated towards the steak of The British Bulldogs—and The Hart Foundation, Randy Savage, The Rockers, Strike Force, and Ricky Steamboat—while losing interest in the lacquered sizzle of guys like Hulk Hogan and The Ultimate Warrior. But the Dynamite Kid moment that most stands out in my memory is something I didn’t even witness, but which is described in the pages of Bret Hart’s book.
One day in early 1991, Bret confronted Billington, who had been threatening to murder his and Bret’s wives and children with a shotgun. After admitting that he didn’t have a gun with him, Tom broke down and cried, the first time Bret had seen him do so in 13 years of knowing him. “Fookin’ broke I am,” he told Bret. “I’ve thrown it all away. I’m done. I’m goin’ back ‘ome…I can’t even wrestle anymore.” Everything Tom Billington did—everything, in the ring and out—all came to bear on him at the same time. It crushed him. There was no way it couldn’t.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.