“All I ever wanted was to be the best wrestler I could be. I wasn’t interested in gimmicks or being a great talker; I wanted to be remembered for my ability in the ring.”
Dynamite Kid wrote those words in the introduction of his 1999 autobiography Pure Dynamite and, in the week that the wrestling world lost him, they are pretty much the perfect encapsulation of his career and legacy in the business.
As soon as the news broke that Dynamite – real name Tom Billington – had died at the age of 60, on his 60th birthday in fact, the tributes began to pour in for the last surviving half of the British Bulldogs.
“Every wrestler under 200lbs likely owes a debt of gratitude to The Dynamite Kid,” said Lance Storm. “He inspired so many and helped change the sport. In the ring he was incredible.”
It deeply saddens me to announce the passing of Tom Billington the “Dynamite Kid.” 😭😢🙏I was really happy and glad I got to see Dynamite one last time last June in the UK. 🇬🇧 ❤️🙏. Dynamite was certainly an inspiration to myself and many others and really revolutionized pic.twitter.com/req7CWTdxm
— Davey Boy Smith Jr. (@DBSmithjr) December 5, 2018
That influence was built on a pioneering style in the early 1980s which combined the hard-hitting European way of working with a high-flying and impactful style more in line with Mexican lucha libre.
He provided the template for countless wrestlers over the years and his legacy is maintained in the modern era by competitors such as British star Tyler Bate and, to an extent, current WWE champion Daniel Bryan.
But it was his desire to be the best wrestler he could be, to be that pioneer who merged styles in a way never before seen, which was to prove so costly for Dynamite Kid.
He stood 5ft 8ins in a world populated by giants and compensated for that by packing on kilogram after kilogram of muscle, putting enormous strain on his back, knees, ankles and everywhere else in his body.
And then there were the moves. The sight of a wrestler leaping off the top rope to land a headbutt on a grounded opinion is one which is never seen in 2018, with the dangers of concussion well known to everyone in and around the sport.
But for the majority of his career, it was Dynamite’s finisher. While it is impossible, even now, to look back at his epic matches against Tiger Mask in New Japan and not be impressed, they also provoke a wince when he climbs to the top rope and crashes down, forehead-first.
Dynamite was also one of the best examples of a man who was a legend in his professional life, adored by fans around the world, but a man with severe personal demons, often to extremes which border on the unbelievable.
Bret Hart worked with him in his father’s territory Calgary after Dynamite first went to the United States to ply his trade and witnessed firsthand the darker side of Tom Billington.
Hart recalls a time when, during a tour of Japan, Billington spat in the face of a homeless man. Hart openly documents the abusive relationship between Billington and his wife at the time, Michelle Smadu – the sister of Brett’s own partner Julie – with reckless gunplay a seemingly everyday occurrence, even around their children.
In the WWF, he was known as a locker-room bully and once had his teeth punched out by Jacques Rougeau after pushing him too far in a behind-the-scenes incident which followed several fights between the two.
Separating the art from the artist has always been a deeply problematic process with Dynamite Kid and his death does not change that.
His best-known work to fans around the world came in a four-year spell with the WWF, although he was deprived exposure to the British audience when he left in 1988, a year before the company began featuring on Sky.
Alongside Davey Boy Smith, with whom he would eventually fall out in 1990 and never speak again, the duo made their debut in September 1984 and won the WWF World tag-team championships at WrestleMania II two years later. Accompanied by Ozzy Osborne, managed by Captain Lou Albano and accompanied by a real-life British bulldog called Matilda, it was as good as it would ever get for Dynamite in the WWF.
In December of that year, he was injured in an innocuous and low-key tag-team match and ordered to drop the belts to Nikolai Volkoff and The Iron Sheik. He refused, and instead the Bulldogs did the job for the Hart Foundation, although Dynamite never entered the match due to his physical condition.
Having undergone back surgery, he was laid out by Jimmy Hart’s megaphone before the bell. The writing was beginning to appear on the wall.
“I had started to take cortisone, injecting it directly into my shoulder,” he would write. “My back had been aching for a long time and I knew that was partly down the crazy things I’d done over the years in the ring, the high-risk moves, night after night.”
He received medical advice to retire at 28 but ignored it and even kept it a secret from his wife. Dynamite continued to wrestle, even having a seizure at San Francisco airport – “I convinced myself it was a one-off” – and his autobiography lists countless other injuries from that point until his eventual WWF exit in 1988.
We’d both been blessed with innate ability and passion, but his life and his choices had caught up with Dynamite.
His WWF career over, Dynamite returned to the scenes of his former glories, Canada and Japan, where he remains a hero today. But his days as a professional wrestler were numbered and he had his final match in Japan in 1996, a six-man tag-team match in which he admitted he was “practically skin and bones”.
The following day, he had a second seizure. It was over.
Bret Hart recalls meeting Dynamite in 1991 and being shocked at what he discovered. Their paths crossed several times following that but it was a pivotal moment both in their relationship and in the demise of a man who had been a legitimate in-ring powerhouse and iconic performer.
“Tom was knackered. His entire body was broken; his shoulders, his knees, his neck, his back and worst of all his heart,” he wrote. “We’d both been blessed with innate ability and passion, but his life and his choices had caught up with Dynamite.
“Just when my career was starting to take off, his was ending. My heart went out to him even though he was a classic example of that old adage: What goes around comes around.
“The Dynamite Kid, one of the greatest workers of all time, broke and broken, a bona fide wrestling tragedy.”
Dynamite Kid lived his final years in a wheelchair after losing the use of his left leg. He remarried and his second wife, Dot, acted largely as his carer for several years before his death this week.
In one of the most poignant, significant but absolutely heart-breaking moments of his final days, it is Dot who shows him a video message from his old Japanese adversary Tiger Mask in 2016.
The video is shown to Billington on a laptop in his modest Manchester home and is very difficult to watch.
I wanted to be remembered for my ability in the ring…
“Thirty-five years have passed since our matches, can you believe it?” Tiger Mask begins. “Our fans still talk about us and they even admire us.”
In what sounds now like an epitaph, he continues: “Tommy, you are the strongest man. You are the man with the strongest spirit.”
Billington, looking like a man far older than his 58 years, does not seem to recognise the person before him, even when he puts on the tiger mask. It is a truly devastating moment.
“I’ll be honest, when I started wrestling as the Dynamite Kid all those years ago I had no idea things would end up the way they did,” he concludes in the final words of his book Pure Dynamite.
“But I’d do it all again. I wouldn’t change a thing. Wrestling was my life and I loved it. No regrets. I had a blast.”