DARK SIDE OF THE RING: “THE DYNAMITE KID”
The story of Tom “Dynamite Kid” Billington was the subject of the mid-season finale of Dark Side of the Ring on Thursday. Billington, who died in December 2018, is one of the most troubling yet revered figures the industry has seen. The episode struck a perfect counterbalance of these competing legacies he left behind focusing the first half on his awe-inspiring ring style that was so far ahead of the game and influenced countless future wrestlers. The other half of the documentary placed a light on the toll that physical style took and the mayhem and chaos he brought home with him. It culminated in a frightening retelling of the incident that drove his wife Michelle Billington to the brink and ultimately, sent Billington back to the U.K. while pregnant with the couple’s third child. This incident included Billington threatening to kill Michelle and pulling a gun on her (in the CNN “Death Grip” feature that was cited on the episode, Tom admitted to holding a gun to Michelle’s chin and tried to downplay its severity by stating the gun wasn’t loaded).
“Of course I still loved him, I just didn’t love what was going on” – Michelle Billington
For me, this was another very tough one to watch as the sadistic side of Billington was always known and the story of holding a gun to Michelle’s head has been shared previously but the depiction is haunting. It was incredible to hear from Michelle who would have every reason to have hate in her heart for Tom but does not. She acknowledges for all his faults; she still loved him and felt his decline was as much to do with the effects of CTE and depression. Based on his in-ring style, I have no doubt the head trauma he sustained was frightening when you consider how he wore down his body to the point that his career was done by his mid-’30s. To hear Julie Hart, share her last experience with Tom was another eyeopener that she sat with him as he just watched hours of his own matches with Tiger Mask. It painted a very sad picture of a wrestler that knew he was among the best to ever do it and yet was left with nothing
He leaves behind conflicting relationships with his family, whom he put through great pain throughout their lives. Beyond Michelle, his oldest daughter Bronwyne tracked him down in the U.K. and was able to forge a semblance of a relationship that at least leaves her with an ability to remember her father in some positive light. For Amaris, who was not born by the time Tom had left the family, it sounds like she had an unbelievably challenging path to understanding who her father was and reconciling the horror stories. Tom and Michelle also had a son named Marek, who was not interviewed in the piece.
Billington began training at the age of 13 under Ted Betley and made his official debut at the age of 16. Bruce Hart is the one credited with discovering Billington when he was wrestling for Joint Promotions in 1977 and brought over to Stampede Wrestling the next year right as Bret was starting out.
The documentary was hurt by not having Bret Hart as part of it as he was as close to Billington as any wrestler was. In many ways, you would have to believe there was great envy on Billington’s part seeing how Bret rose to the top of the WWF when the two were similar in size with Billington providing the more spectacular style and was the wrestler that Hart has previously referenced one of the best to ever do it and greatly changed the game. With Hart’s marriage to Julie, who was the older sister of Michelle, Hart would have been exposed to all the good and all the bad of Billington with his unique connection to both Tom’s professional and personal life.
In Heath McCoy’s Pain & Passion, it’s noted that Billington was first introduced to steroids around 1979 by the Junkyard Dog and would bulk up from approximately 180 to around 215 pounds and get even larger when he was in the WWF.
When Stampede Wrestling was shut down for the first time in 1984 after the sale of the time slots to the WWF, Billington was among the four that Stu Hart had insisted the company pick up along with Davey Boy Smith, Bret Hart, and Jim Neidhart. Billington and Smith had a very lucrative deal with New Japan Pro Wrestling and were not reliant on the WWF as their lone outlet. The two balanced Japan with the WWF but then, jumped to All Japan Pro Wrestling in a major coup that included a $20,000 signing bonus. This was politically tricky since the WWF had a relationship with New Japan. In time, the Bulldogs went to the WWF exclusively and won the tag titles at WrestleMania 2 in April 1986 defeating Brutus Beefcake & Greg Valentine in Chicago.
As outlined in the Dark Side episode, Billington’s career took a major turn after his back injury that left him hospitalized by the end of 1986 after a match in Hamilton, Ontario. In callous handling of the situation, the company was adamant about Billington dropping the tag titles with Smith in the ring rather than forfeiting them. Billington, in zero condition to wrestle, is literally carried down the aisle by his partner and laid out by Jimmy Hart’s megaphone as The Hart Foundation fought Smith 2-on-1 to win the titles in Tampa, Florida. Billington would claim in his 1999 biography “Pure Dynamite”, that he was paid $50 for the ordeal of flying to Tampa in his poor condition and dropping the belts.
They spent a lot of time on the incident involving Jacques Rougeau from 1988. The tension had built between them with the story often shared that the tipping point was Rougeau coming backstage and finding his gear destroyed and suspecting Billington of the ill-advised “rib” and led to Billington striking Rougeau and doing a number on his ego in front of the locker room. Rougeau stewed about it for days and got his revenge using either a roll of quarters or brass knuckles (both were cited in the documentary and shared over the years) leading to Rougeau knocking four of Billington’s teeth out and worse, deflating his reputation. A new wrinkle to this story was the implied threat by Rougeau through intermediary Dino Bravo that if Billington sought revenge, that members of the Montreal mob would come after Billington and his family. The story was shared by Michelle Billington and backed up by Rougeau, who said he told Bravo knowing it would get back to Tom but that Rougeau made up a name and it was an empty threat. The situation was untenable, and the Bulldogs gave their notice leaving the company after the Survivor Series in 1988 and returning to Stampede Wrestling and splitting their time in All Japan.
Tommy had a canvas and he was brilliant. He’s not the first nor will he be the last to suffer for the sake of his art and there’s a sense that a lot of people who are great at something aren’t necessarily great at all aspects of their life and they find solace in doing what they do. But they pay for that brief time. You become a bigger star than you ever imagine and then you pay for it every day for the rest of your life” – Mick Foley
By end of 1988, Billington is only 30 but his career is winding down as the physical ailments are impossible to contend with daily wrestling a style that was impossible to maintain yet became what fans expected. The second iteration of Stampede Wrestling lost a lot of money and Stu shut it down for good by the end of 1989. He had a huge falling out with Davey Boy Smith, who signed and returned to the WWF forcing Billington to scramble and find a replacement in Johnny Smith for the Real-World Tag League in December 1990. After the violent New Year’s Eve incident, Billington leaves Calgary for good and continued to wrestle in the U.K. and All Japan.
By the spring of 1994, he was largely done although returned in October 1996 for a six-man tag in Michinoku Pro. Billington teamed with Dos Caras & Kuniaki Kobayashi against the original Tiger Mask (his most famous rival), The Great Sasuke & Mil Mascaras. It was Billington as a shell of his former self in the ring and he would never wrestle again.
Billington worked with a journalist named Alison Coleman and released his biography “Pure Dynamite” in 1999 that was a brutally honest account of his life and career. It came out around the same time as Mick Foley’s “Have a Nice Day” and while it had nowhere near the reach of Foley’s, it was well-received despite his depiction of matches in Japan being legitimate. To help promote the book and expand its distribution, he launched a website that was run by the same team that did Live Audio Wrestling and was way ahead of the podcast era. The site included monthly interviews with Billington that were conducted by Jeff Marek and was the most insight Billington had ever provided on his career. One of the memorable shows they did that would be very hard to listen to today, was a show where Marek reconnected Chris Benoit with his idol and the two spoke about the impact Billington had on him. During this same period, Billington attended a WWE show in Sheffield, England visiting people backstage when the company staged its ‘Rebellion’ show in December 2000.
He maintained a relatively low profile the rest of his life while undergoing several major health issues that led to a portion of his left leg being amputated and suffering a stroke.
Billington died on December 5, 2018, on the same day he turned 60 years old.
“Why?” – Tom Billington’s response when Dan Spivey said he loved him.