When watching or talking about wrestling, there’s a seedy underbelly of reality that seeps through the foundation and sometimes takes hold over the actual kayfabe product presented. With most of these stories, it holds a momentous grasp, leaving us wondering about the fallout and impact of said situation. This story is not one of passing, fleeting existence. This story is a deep dive into the human that was Thomas Billington, otherwise known to many all over the world as the Dynamite Kid. Billington revolutionized the artform of wrestling in his own way, trailblazing a massive storm throughout that sends shockwaves through the ropes today. But his personal life has revealed that his in-ring work was one of the only things he could be championed for, as his marriage and backstage antics would boil over in the most intense and infamous ways ever seen in the industry.
It is well worth noting, before going further, that the ever-important series Dark Side of the Ring has recently done a full episode (Season 3, Episode 7) detailing the life, and eventual death, of the Dynamite Kid – branching his first wrestling experiences to his marriage, to his eventual WWF run with Davey Boy Smith as the British Bulldogs, to his waning and wandering finish to his wrestling career, and finally to his wheelchair-bound last days. I would HIGHLY recommend watching that episode as much of the content will be discussed here as well as many more other topics. That episode will do more than I will ever attempt to do, however, I feel that this piece can shed some light that the episode attempted to do amongst the dramatic pitfalls of the trajectory of his life.
Reader discretion is advised. After this trailer below, there are accounts of domestic violence and intense personal tragedy.
Thomas Billington was born in Golborne, Lancashire, England on December 5, 1958 to Bill Billington, a boxer (Bill’s father was a bare-knuckle boxer). Being in a widely known pugilist family, Tom drew to sports, particularly wrestling and gymnastics at a young age, building an agile frame with his smaller height. He would also train in boxing throughout, instilling toughness and perseverance from the beginning. He was meant for combat sports of some variety and it wouldn’t take long for him to make a mark in that world. Davey Boy Smith’s mother would take him and Davey to see wrestling matches in Wigan, deeply rooted by the tradition of catch wrestling for decades and decades. Ted Betley, known by his nickname “Dr. Death” long before Steve Williams would take the moniker, noticed Billington and invited him to train at his school modeled into his home at the time.
His early work would start to define a lot of the Kid’s eventual life, getting to work his first match at the age of 17 and eventually getting to work a taped TV match against “Strongman” Alan Dennison. Billington injured his throat on the top ring rope and Dennison got the win shortly after, but instead of continuing his heel persona and trouncing all over Billington, he refused the win and was a backstage friend to the Kid, impressed by his technical ability at such a young age. After winning a couple of titles (British Lightweight and Welterweight), Billington moved to Calgary, Alberta, Canada and started working in Stampede Wrestling along with the rest of the Hart Family and dozens of other legends-to-be. During this time, however, he would be introduced to steroids by the Junkyard Dog and even harder drugs by Jake Roberts. These two things would leave a catastrophic impact throughout the next decade and into the rest of his life. While I will go over the course of his career, it is imperative that you understand that he continued to abuse steroids to the point of growing into a grotesque walking muscle mass and his drug habit would continue to spiral into his own personal hell, which would create a volatile Tom Billington that is a true monster.
Throughout the late 70’s, the Dynamite Kid gained enough of a following – especially after a series of matches against Bret Hart for the Stampede British Commonwealth Mid-Heavyweight Title – to earn a trip to Japan, originally working for International Pro Wrestling, but after Stampede changed their working relationship terms, joined the roster of New Japan Pro Wrestling in 1980 where on his first tour, Dynamite Kid would work with absolute legends of the industry (Antonio Inoki, Riki Choshu, Tatsumi Fujinami, and Stan Hansen to name a few) in two-out-of-three falls tag matches throughout. It would be the end of the second tour in 1981 where the Dynamite Kid would start a series of hellacious matches with Satoru Sayama, otherwise known to the world at the time as the manga-turned-anime-based superhero wrestler Tiger Mask.
I feel like it’s important to point out that at this point the Dynamite Kid is 23 years old and about to set out and redefine the groundwork for wrestling’s building blocks. With a severe amount of technical ability, high-flying spots, and extremely hard hitting style of work, the Dynamite Kid would show the world what wrestling would eventually become in so many ways. I could probably sit here for the next 3,000 words and legitimately explain how many things Dynamite and Tiger Mask completely changed in the face of professional wrestling frame-by-frame, but others have probably done so already. Instead, it would be well worth noting you need to see it to understand and the internet is at your disposal.
Even if you look at their first battle in 1981, the constant back and forth of such a balanced fight between the two is wild to watch even for the standard of wrestling then. It is a masterclass of pacing and psychology, keeping the entire crowd satiated and invested from bell to bell. This match definitively proved to thousands and thousands of people – kids, adults, wrestlers – that size is not a factor in having a legendary match. Rarely seen in other parts of the world outside of Mexico, this match in a NJPW ring with these smaller framed men blazed the trail of junior heavyweights and this match is still sought after as a momentous occasion of universal appeal and prowess. The ending of the match with Dynamite suplexing Tiger Mask into the ring, but Tiger Mask sliding over and landing into a German suplex is a perfect picture of the struggle these men were putting on screen and after the 3 count, you see them land in a shot each on one another, giving you the nod to know this is not even close to over yet. The most wild fact of all of this is this was Tiger Mask’s debut as a wrestler under the mask, putting junior heavyweight wrestling on the map as a viable promotional style of wrestling for promotions worldwide. And this wasn’t even the big one.
When Dynamite Kid wasn’t rewriting the book in Japan, he continued his hot streak in Stampede, winning the World Mid-Heavyweight title and main eventing more often than not. Ladder matches, pole matches, $2,000 challenges – the Dynamite Kid reigned over Stampede as a large contributor to its success, along with the Hart family’s deep ties to the promotion. And the Dynamite Kid’s ties would continue to fuse into the family, with Billington marrying Julie Hart’s (Bret’s wife at the time) younger sister, Michelle Smadu, in 1982. With everything coming up for the Dynamite Kid, he continued his feud with Tiger Mask, but was injured in a match with him on April 1, 1983, in which he vacated both the NWA and WWF Junior Heavyweight titles. Twenty days later, Dynamite Kid and Tiger Mask would blow the roof off of Kuramae Kokugikan and put in a Meltzer-reviewed 5-star match. This match is considered to be one of the greatest matches to ever occur by many. But instead of there being a definitive winner, Dynamite Kid and Tiger Mask both wrestled to consecutive double count outs, leaving the title vacant. And sure, I could go on, but haven’t you heard enough about this match by now? Dynamite Kid would eventually get the title back in February of 1982 in a tournament in which he would defeat Davey Boy Smith early on and then The Cobra in the finals.
Maybe it was actually the tournament for their belt (sort of, WWF rarely used it) or just word of mouth from backstage execs, but Dynamite Kid had finally garnered the attention of the World Wrestling Federation and would come to the WWF part-time in late 1984, defeating Mike Sharpe and Troy Alexander in a tag match with Bret Hart as his partner. He would eventually tag with Davey Boy Smith as the British Bulldogs, but instead of the Hart family being aligned together, Bret Hart and Jim Neidhart turned heel as the Hart Foundation and regularly fought against the Bulldogs. During the majority of the time they were a part-time tag in WWF, they would regularly face the top teams and finish in a no-contest, but as soon as they were signed full-time in 1986 (in which a specific story recalls Vince McMahon standing on a table in excitement that he had signed them) they were given a huge push, which saw Captain Lou Albano and Ozzy Osborne accompany them to the ring at Wrestlemania II where they defeated Greg Valentine and Brutus Beefcake for their first and only WWF Tag Team Championships run.
Sadly, eight months later, the cracks in the person that were Tom Billington would burst. In December 1986, during a house show tag team match against Don Muraco and Bob Orton Jr., Dynamite Kid would do a standard run to the ropes off of an irish whip, but didn’t bounce back off the ropes and instead fell down. He was rushed to the hospital and found that he had two herniated disks and nerve damage in his left leg. Since he was still champion with Davey Boy, Vince found the entire situation difficult and had Bret Hart try to retrieve the belt from Billington who was bedridden after back surgery. Billington refused. McMahon then had multiple tag team partners fill in, including Roddy Piper and the Junkyard Dog, but even then Vince’s hands were tied. Despite leaving the hospital and refusing doctor’s orders to not wrestle, Billington met with McMahon and eventually came to the agreement that the Bulldogs would drop to the Hart Foundation, in which Billington could hardly walk to the ring (which was done off camera) and was immediately knocked out by Jimmy Hart’s megaphone for the entire match, laying completely still and in extreme amounts of pain.
Following their only tag team title run, the Bulldogs were mostly used as fodder to get other tag teams over, but wouldn’t give anyone clean wins – only double countouts or disqualifications. It was around this time that the Dynamite Kid started to become not only bigger in size, but much more aggressive and stiff in the ring, leading to a young Mick Foley to have his jaw broken by Dynamite Kid, which then Foley was left without eating solid foods for three weeks. He would also be a bodyguard of sorts for Randy Savage to visit his old friends in the NWA – something not accepted at the time by fans or execs. But most remember his unruly attitude towards Jacques Rougeau who was tagging with his brother Raymond at the time as the Fabulous Rougeaus. The Rougeaus were actually gaining some momentum at that time, which angered Dynamite Kid since the two had not “earned” the position in Dynamite Kid’s eyes. Dynamite’s anger towards Jacques specifically boiled over one evening after a match between the two tags, in which Jacques had told Curt Hennig backstage to watch his stuff, since the Bulldogs (especially Dynamite Kid) were prone to ribs and jokes regularly. Hennig had apparently ribbed them, messing with his stuff to lead Jacques to immediately blame Dynamite Kid and Dynamite attacked Rougeau, leaving him in the locker room with his reputation damaged. To get back at Dynamite, Jacques took advice from his father and got a roll of quarters and loaded his punch at Dynamite, breaking and knocking teeth out of his mouth. There’s an even further “down-the-rabbit-hole” theory presented in the Dark Side of the Ring episode in which Dino Bravo told Dynamite Kid he might have a hit out on him from the mafia.
Many different people in the industry will say this was when Dynamite Kid changed from being the hard-ass backstage goof with all kinds of temper issues and it would boil over into everyday life for everyone, none more affected than his wife, Michelle. Michelle would wake up with a shotgun in her face some days and Tom would note that the next time it would be loaded or that Tom would be leaving her and taking the kids that she raised while he was away wrestling. The extent that Tom had pushed himself through the past decade of working the heavy style he did had pushed him into a much darker state than imaginable, leaving him to spend more time away from his family and tormenting them during the time he was home. It didn’t help that his reputation for being the tough guy was hurt by Rougeau or that his body simply couldn’t do the things that it once did anymore. It was a much different reality than Billington was used to, and all of this change culminated in him demanding and being granted his release from the WWF, and to his surprise, his tag team partner Davey Boy also was released. Their last match in WWF was at Survivor Series, in which their team with The Powers of Pain ended up winning against The Conquistadores and Demolition, but the Bulldogs were eliminated early on.
Davey Boy and Dynamite Kid ended up winning the International Tag Titles in Stampede, then immediately heading to All Japan Pro Wrestling with Giant Baba offering them $20,000 and the ability to choose what tours they were working. This would have an interesting effect on the tag team, and knowing they were going to be together in AJPW, Dynamite and Davey Boy ended up fighting against each other and forming new tag teams with Dynamite working with Johnny Smith, a storyline relative of Davey Boy, and Davey Boy forming a tag with Chris Benoit. After this feud played out, however, things would get even more chaotic for Dynamite Kid, as Davey Boy pulled out of the World Determination Tag League, telling AJPW offices that Dynamite had been in a car accident and they couldn’t make it. This was not remotely true. Davey Boy then immediately signed with the WWF and trademarked the name British Bulldog, rendering Dynamite Kid without the name of the tag team he had been in for years. Continuing on with Johnny Smith as the British Bruisers, and while they eventually did acquire the All Asia Tag Team Championships, everything would come crashing down nearly immediately for Dynamite Kid.
Faced with an extreme amount of pain every single time he got in the ring due to his style, Dynamite Kid abruptly announced he would be retiring immediately after winning a tag match on December 6, 1991. It is around this time that he was also going through intense personal issues, none larger than his divorce with his wife. Health issues continued to pile up and while hanging out with Dan Spivey and taking hits of LSD, Billington almost died twice, being revived by shots of adrenaline both times. He performed in his final match in 1996 in Michinoku Pro Wrestling, five years after his last match in AJPW and he looked like a specter of his former self and could not keep up with the other workers – also older legends – throughout the match. Throughout the rest of the 90’s into his final days in 2018, Tom Billington was back home in Wigan (moving back after the divorce and retirement) and wheelchair-bound for most of that time – even losing part of his left leg in 1997 – and was in and out of hospitals for various reasons due to his substance and steroid abuse. He would eventually pass away on his 60th birthday.
After his death, the legacy of Dynamite Kid was shattered into pieces and remains broken to this day after Michelle, his ex-wife, was part of a larger CNN story about wrestling and domestic abuse. It wasn’t common knowledge all of the things that Dynamite had done during his career, and it surely would’ve been a much bigger deal had people known. None of the wrestlers even knew except those that were extremely close, like the Hart family, until this interview occurred. The amount of sheer lunacy that was placed in Michelle’s lap from Billington is immeasurable and unforgivable. Other than what I have mentioned here, I don’t feel that it’s important to detail all of what happened, but I can tell you that the CNN interview and the Dark Side of the Ring episode do an amazing job in handling such delicate matters. The drug abuse, the steroids, the domestic abuse – all of it is truly a deeply concerning issue to dive into. But Dynamite was all three. And that’s what’s even more damning about him. He put his entire life into professional wrestling, going on the record multiple times at the end of his life to say that he would do all of this all over again, and as long as the fans are happy, then his job was done.
“Tom Billington didn’t care about the human Tom Billington, so why should you?” Rhetoric aside, the Dynamite Kid was an innovator for tons of offensive maneuvers and he is a technician of in-ring psychology. He’s also an incredibly self-destructive human incapable of understanding the long-term risk of deliberately ignoring the effects he had on anyone or himself. Thomas Billington, or the Dynamite Kid, is a villainous trailblazer who is possibly the most infamous wrestler of all-time.