It’s with great sadness that I read the news on social media that Tom “Dynamite Kid” Billington, one of the greatest and most innovative performers in the history of the sport, passed away on his 60th birthday.
A native of Lancashire, England, Billington learned boxing in his early youth and saw the traditional World Of Sport bouts. At just 16, Billington wanted to pursue the craft and was recruited to learn the sport by Ted Betley, a former grappler that trained aspiring students. Betley took the young hopeful to Billy Riley’s training academy, the infamous “Snake Pit” in Wigan, England. A former British Empire champion, Riley was a masterful submission specialist and coached a gritty style of catch wrestling at his school. The young Tom Billington endured exhausting hours in the gym to learn the technical catch wrestling style and it provided a solid foundation for his career.
Using the moniker “The Dynamite Kid,” Billington made his pro debut as a scrawny 17-year-old kid on the World of Sport program in 1975. A natural in the squared circle, his athletic ability and technical skill were quickly noticed. Within just a few years of his start in the sport, he won a variety of lightweight championships in his native country until he relocated to Canada in 1978 to work for the legendary Stu Hart’s Stampede Wrestling promotion, a move that played a pivotal role in his career. Once he arrived in the Canadian territory, he worked a series of memorable matches with a rookie Bret Hart and gained more exposure for his exceptional skills.
His stellar performances in Stampede brought him the opportunity to work tours of New Japan Pro Wrestling, where he began to cement his legacy as one of the greatest performers to step into a ring. His series of matches against Tiger Mask throughout the early 80s were some of the most innovative bouts in the history of the industry and inspired a generation of wrestlers. A fast-paced, physical style became one of Dynamite’s trademarks and his risky matches thrilled Japanese audiences. The Tiger Mask/Dynamite series made headlines throughout the wrestling world and was imported to Madison Square Garden for a WWF event in 1982. Tiger Mask successfully defended the WWF Light Heavyweight championship, and Dynamite was on the WWF radar, another major aspect that later played a role in his career.
Dynamite Kid vs Tiger Mask Highlights pic.twitter.com/l4Gxqp2E9I
— History of Pro Wrestling (@HistoryofWrest) December 5, 2018
By 1984, Tiger Mask, who was one of the most popular wrestlers in Japan, left NJPW after a dispute with Antonio Inoki. Billington continued his series of impressive contests with names such as Roller ball Rocco, who worked as Black Tiger in New Japan. Billington also brought his cousin, Davey Boy Smith to Japan after he started his career a few years earlier in England. After Tiger Mask’s exit, Dynamite thought there was the potential for more money elsewhere, and he jumped with Davey Boy as a tag team to Giant Baba’s All Japan. That same year, The British Bulldogs were among the collection of Stampede talent that were offered a chance to work for the WWF as Vince McMahon prepare for his national expansion. In his autobiography, “Pure Dynamite,” Billington explained that he didn’t sign an exclusive contract with the WWF because he wanted to keep Japan an option. He worked several tours for All Japan and a full-time schedule for the WWF in 1985. During their run, the British Bulldogs had notable matches with the Hart Foundation, The Dream Team, and others. Perhaps, the highlight of their run as a tag team was when they won the WWF Tag Team titles at Wrestlemania 2.
In late-1986, Dynamite suffered a serious back injury and required surgery, prompting the end of the Bulldogs’ run as champions. After a decade in the wrestling business, the wear and tear of his risky style did serious damage to his back. Complicating the situation, years of excessive steroid abuse to add bulk to his smaller frame and frequent drug use took a toll on Billington’s body. He sounded very bitter in his book when he detailed the circumstances of his injury and that it required the Bulldogs to drop the belts. He also wrote that doctors advised him to stop wrestling, but the 27-year-old Billington returned to the ring as soon as he could and continued a full-time WWF schedule in March of 1987.
The Bulldogs’ departure from the WWF was surrounded in controversy and the details of the incident depend on who you ask about the scenario. As mentioned, Dynamite had the reputation as a harsh person and was known to work stiff in the ring. In fact, as was highlighted on a WWE DVD release over a decade ago, a rookie named Jack Foley worked as an enhancement talent and was injured during a match with the Bulldogs. The future WWE champion tried to land an elbow, which Dynamite took offense to and then hit him with a clothesline in the face. Foley suffered a dislocated jaw and it took several weeks for him to recover from the injury. Thankfully, Dynamite and Foley made peace years later. However, a backstage fight with Jacques Rougeau, where Billington hit him when Rougeau was playing cards led to another confrontation when Jacques knocked out Billington’s front teeth. This led to the Bulldogs’ last appearance at the Survivor Series in 1988.
Following their WWF exit, Dynamite and Davey Boy returned to Stampede and worked tours of All Japan in 1989. As history showed, Davey Boy eventually went back to the WWF while Dynamite continued to work in Japan. Just two years later, Dynamite’s innovative and stellar 15-year career came to an abrupt end when he retired from full-time action in 1991. The high impact maneuvers that made him a star around the globe took their toll. Years of steroid and drug abuse had destroyed his body. After he announced his retirement, he appeared in the ring a few times in the years that followed, but he was a shell of himself during his final appearance in 1996.
In the late 90s, Billington was confirmed to a wheelchair as a result of all the damage done to his body. It was tragic to see the athlete that thrilled audiences around the world with his aerial skills confined to a wheelchair. As mentioned, his autobiography that was originally published in 2001, seemed as though Dynamite held grudge toward some throughout his career. Sadly, in 2013, he suffered a stroke and required full-time care at his home in England. Thankfully, it was reported that he made peace with some of the people he had disagreements with previously.
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
Tom Billington was a complicated man, and the career of the Dynamite Kid is as innovative as it is a cautionary tale. But, make no mistake about it, he never truly received the credit he deserved for his in-ring accomplishments and the professional wrestling genre wouldn’t be where it is today without his contributions to the sport.
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Until next week
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