“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.”
The life of Tom Billington has ended. With 60 years to unpack, his story was one that was as punishing and brutal as the style he performed that left audiences in amazement while simultaneously accelerating his deterioration.
When the crowd disappeared, the money dried up, and the bill arrived for the price he put his body through, Billington was a broken down man, confined to a wheelchair before his 40th birthday. He found his passion and calling in professional wrestling, carving out a legacy that is both complex and disputed depending on the person you speak with.
Bret Hart once compared Billington to baseball legend Ty Cobb, a miserable and reprehensible human being who was also one of the great baseball players of all-time.
In his 1999 “Pure Dynamite” biography that he worked on with journalist Alison Coleman, Billington presented a dark and disturbing tale of his life with no stone left unturned and a refusal to sanitize the path he left behind. It was brutally honest. What set the book apart was its ability to force its readers into a state of discomfort, forcing them to sort out Billington’s legacy and complicated story.
For every classic match and death-defying maneuver Billington put forward, there were equal stories of torturous ribbing, bullying, maniacal pranks designed to cause harm over laughter, and constant tales of drug abuse and domestic violence.
Billington was born December 5th, 1958, exactly 60 years to the day he would take his final breath.
As the son of a coal miner born into a family lineage of boxers, it was no surprise Billington found himself involved in combat sports at an early age. His original wrestling trainer and mentor was Ted Betley, a former masked wrestler who went by “Dr. Death”. Betley was the one that got Billington into Billy Riley’s famous Snake Pit in Wigan, which also produced Karl Gotch and Billy Robinson.
Billington dropped out of school at age 14 and made his professional wrestling debut at 16 wrestling for promoter Max Crabtree.
It was Bruce Hart who is credited for spotting the teenager. Bruce convinced his father Stu to bring the undersized performer to wrestle for his Stampede Wrestling promotion in Calgary. Billington arrived in April 1978 at approximately 180 pounds, making $350 per week in the territory.
Billington was a revelation during this era with his revolutionary in-ring style that was about to transform the territory and make it one of the hottest in the industry. In late 1978, he hit his stride turning heel on partner Bruce Hart and aligning with the evil manager J.R. Foley, who would be the source of Billington’s diabolical sense of humour that few would find entertaining. One story involved Billington loading a toilet with lighter fluid knowing Foley would smoke sitting on it, setting the toilet ablaze after flinging the cigarette into the bowl.
In March 1982, Billington married Michelle Smadu, who was the younger sister of Julie Smadu, Bret Hart’s first wife.
In the Stampede territory, Billington was introduced to steroids. It would be a game-changer for the junior heavyweight as those around him always felt he was self-conscious about his size. Billington took his 180-pound frame and in time, would balloon to 225 pounds, causing irreparable physical damage. Billington noted in his book that he was injecting 6 CCs daily, showing no signs of moderation or concern despite the amounting scar tissue where he would be injected.
The working relationship between Stampede Wrestling and Antonio Inoki’s New Japan Pro Wrestling opened a new opportunity for Billington, who would make his first tour with the group. Inoki had an arrangement paying Stu Hart for each tour, allowing Hart to send his guys over for more experience. Prior to New Japan, Billington had done a ten-day tour with the International Wrestling Enterprise (IWE) in 1979.
Through the New Japan connection, he was introduced to the rival he will always be linked to in Satoru Sayama a.k.a. Tiger Mask. Sayama’s debut match took place on April 23, 1981 against Billington. They would engage in a classic series of matches throughout the early ’80s, eventually taking the match to Madison Square Garden on August 30, 1982. To this day, theirs is considered one of the greatest in-ring feuds, cited by many a performer as historically influential.
Since arriving in Stampede in 1981, Davey Boy Smith became an underling to Billington and the two began to team. At their peak in New Japan, they were making $5,200 per week while balancing their schedule with Stampede. There was a war between New Japan and All Japan and talent raids were in effect. Shohei “Giant” Baba presented a big offer to Billington and Smith, offering the two a guaranteed $20,000 to sign and adding an increase to their weekly rate at $6,200. Baba requested that the two keep their departure a secret. Politically, it became even more difficult as Billington was the WWF junior heavyweight champion, a belt that was only defended in New Japan. Billington was forced to vacate the title.
All Japan became their insurance policy because regardless of what happened to their bookings in North America, they had their guaranteed money coming from Japan. This was of great value when Stampede Wrestling closed for the first time in 1984. Stu Hart reluctantly sold the territory and the rights to the local television to Vince McMahon. The agreement called for McMahon to pay Hart $1 million over ten-years and 5% of the live gate whenever the WWF came to town. McMahon made one payment and then reneged on the deal, claiming that Bruce Hart’s running of an opposition show nullified the arrangement. This allowed Hart to re-open the territory.
With the WWF’s expansion and closing of Stampede in 1984, Billington and Smith began taking dates with the promotion but were unwilling to give up their All Japan commitments. This lasted until early 1986 when the WWF made the move to sign the two full-time, ending the Bulldogs’ tenure with All Japan. With the two under deals, they received their lone run with the WWF tag titles defeating Greg Valentine and Brutus Beefcake at WrestleMania II with Ozzy Osbourne cornering the Bulldogs.
The turning point of Billington’s career can be traced to December 13, 1986 at a show in Hamilton, Ontario. During a tag match against Cowboy Bob Orton and Don Muraco, Billington’s back locked up. He was in intense pain, unable to finish the match and was later counted out. He was rushed to the hospital and diagnosed with two herniated discs in his back with nerve damage to his left leg and foot. Years later, Billington revealed that he was then told by doctors to pursue a new line of work and believed his in-ring career was done. He wrestled seven weeks later.
Despite having no business being inside a wrestling ring in his condition, Billington says he was encouraged to come back to drop the tag titles. Vince McMahon’s idea was for the Bulldogs to drop the belts to the Iron Sheik and Nikolai Volkoff. Billington claims he refused and would only drop them to the Hart Foundation. The match is a horrible example of a man being literally dragged to the ring, with Davey Boy Smith carrying him down the aisle in Tampa. Billington lay face down on the floor as Smith worked and lost the match. He stated in his book that he was paid $25 for the superhuman effort.
In an era without downside guarantees for a performer like Billington, he willed himself back to work for WrestleMania III in March 1987, where he had a six-man tag with the Bulldogs and Tito Santana taking on the Hart Foundation and Danny Davis. Billington was working a taxing schedule for the company and was never the same after the injuries in 1986.
The Bulldogs’ exit from the WWF was sped up following several incidents between Billington and Jacques Rougeau. The story was that Rougeau was concerned about his gear being destroyed in the locker room and had Curt Hennig watch his bags. It’s believed Hennig ended up cutting Rougeau’s ring gear and Rougeau blamed Billington. When confronted by Billington, the two got into a physical altercation with Billington getting the best of the fight. Rougeau was urged to get his receipt for the incident and did so days later. Rougeau, using either brass knuckles or a roll of quarters depending on whoever is telling the story, met with Billington and blasted him in the face, causing teeth to be knocked out. The situation was at a boiling point and Billington felt the Rougeaus should be fired. When they weren’t, the Bulldogs handed in their notices and finished at the Survivor Series card in November 1988.
They returned to Calgary where Billington was made booker of Stampede Wrestling while also getting back in with All Japan. Stampede’s business was bad, and it shut down for the final time in 1989. Billington was now solely reliant on All Japan and teaming with Smith. The two would have a falling out when Davey Boy Smith signed with the World Wrestling Federation while Billington was preparing for them to participate in All Japan’s year-end Tag League tournament. Billington was left to scramble for a replacement partner in Johnny Smith for the tour. Billington also found out the name “British Bulldog” had been trademarked by Smith and he could no longer use the moniker. Billington held lots of resentment against Smith as a result.
In 1991, his marriage to Michelle ended with his ex-wife later describing horrific events that occurred, including having a gun held to her head by Billington, who unsuccessfully downplayed the story by stating that it wasn’t loaded. Michelle would later share stories of physical abuse, being on the brink of suicide to get away from Billington and paying for a one-way ticket to send Billington back to England.
As a performer, Billington was a shell of his former self and was finally forced to retire on December 6, 1991, just one day after his 33rd birthday. He returned for one more match in 1996 teaming with Dos Caras and Kuniaki Kobayashi against The Great Sasuke, Mil Mascaras, and his career rival Tiger Mask.
By 1997, Billington was confined to a wheelchair and would be ridden with health problems for the remainder of his life. He had suffered seizures, a partial leg amputation, a stroke in 2013, and lasting heart problems from his heavy steroid use.
His book “Pure Dynamite” was released in 1999 and was praised for its brutal honesty, although critiqued for Billington’s portrayal of his matches in Japan asa being legitimate. A website was launched for Billington by a group called Thindata and was powered by the team at Live Audio Wrestling. One of the features of the site was monthly interviews with Billington that were conducted by Jeff Marek in the pre-podcast era of wrestling radio.
Billington leaves behind his three children; Bronwyne (who got into wrestling in 2013 and works for Real Canadian Wrestling out of Alberta), Marek, and Amaris from his first marriage to Michelle. He is also survived by his second wife Dot and three stepchildren; John, Steven, and Mark.
The story of Tom Billington is highlighted by the excesses that took him to great heights within his profession. However, like any great movie, song or wrestling match, everything ends. For Billington, the great heights of his career were offset by enormous personal falls. He left a body of work that will inspire generations of performers, but also a life full of damage to others that cannot be swept under the rug simply because he was a great wrestler. This is the ultimate complexity when analyzing the life and death of Tom Billington, which are as inextricably linked as the date tying the two together.
With files from the Wrestling Observer Newsletter by Dave Meltzer, Pain and Passion by Heath McCoy, Pure Dynamite by Tom Billington and Alison Coleman, Dungeon of Death by Scott Keith, Hitman by Bret Hart, SLAM Wrestling.