The complicated legacy of the Dynamite Kid

Tom Billington exited this mortal coil on the day which he came to be. The circuitousness of this irony cannot be understated; as a man who was influential and revolutionary in the professional wrestling industry, he was equally loathed, divisive, and scary.

There are many wrestlers who owe a huge debt to the Dynamite Kid for showcasing his explosive style over the course of his career. While he is perhaps most well-known to the average fan for his run with cousin Davey Boy Smith in the British Bulldogs, his most prolific and significant work came in Japan working against the original Tiger Mask, AKA Satoru Sayama, and in Stu Hart’s Stampede promotion out of Calgary. The latter notably included an exciting series of matches with a young Bret Hart.

Looking back on the evolution of pro wrestling in the mainstream, most pundits reflect on the days of true catch-as-catch-can wrestling as epitomized by the NWA territories and Verne Gagne’s AWA. This included a slower, arguably more methodical style that was and still is valued by purists and historians who long for the territory days. Before Vince McMahon’s national expansion, before the courting of MTV by way of Hulkamania, this was wrestling. The legends of the day such as Nick Bockwinkel, Dusty Rhodes, Harley Race, and of course, Ric Flair all capture the ethos of this era.

Which is why Billington’s contributions are so significant.

Dynamite Kid in his prime was exciting, electrifying, and spectacular in ways not previously considered. There was a perfect hybrid of stiff physicality and athletic elegance. Few men have been able to wow with equal parts piledrivers and diving headbutts. On paper, that seems like an incongruity. But Billington made the proverbial square peg fit into the round hole, especially with the likes of Sayama and Hart. He was different, even in a different era.

That said, his work in the WWF as part of the Bulldogs also has significant merit. At a time when tag teams were still an important fixture (and a way for smaller workers to be paired up and still draw), the Bulldogs stood out amidst other notable tag teams of the time. The psychology of the tag division was far different than what became the norm in the Attitude Era. Extensive teamwork, double team maneuvers, and a certain cohesion between partners made the WWF of the 1980s special. Despite all teams having fairly clear-cut characters, it was still somewhat "gimmick-free" in the sense that work rate was more important than gimmickry.

Alongside the Hart Foundation and Demolition, Billington and Smith excited in every match, and arguably paved the way for future tag team transplants from more work rate-centered territories such as the Rockers and Legion of Doom to make waves in the WWF later on. It’s hard to envision the 80s without them. So even in the mainstream, Dynamite Kid left an indelible mark.

And yet despite his obvious talent, he is notoriously remembered by colleagues and critics for his unpredictable outbursts and quick temper as much, if not more so, than his work rate.

A long history of substance abuse and violence have marred much of Billington’s legacy, and to a degree, he was not shy about it long after his career came to a close. As mentioned by Sean Rueter on the main page earlier today, Billington’s 1999 autobiography Pure Dynamite danced around his personal life, but went into substantial detail on his storied career. Despite such glaring omissions, it seemed that a motif of hostility and aggression bled over into both aspects of his life.

Inside the ring, he could be more than just stiff. Mick Foley learned this the hard way as an enhancement talent who received a broken jaw from a Dynamite clothesline. The man was fond of ribs that went too far, such as lighting Gypsy Joe on fire at a McDonald’s in Japan, snap suplexing colleagues off of bar stools, assaulting strangers in public restrooms, and generally earning a name as a brutal locker room bully. As bad as John Bradshaw Layfield’s reputation for bullying has become over the last decade, it is not unreasonable to say Billington’s mean streak would give JBL a run for his money.

What is known of his personal life casts a less than positive light on the man.

A 2007 CNN documentary magazine entitled "Death Grip: Inside Pro Wrestling" highlighted Billington’s violent past. Originally married to the sister of Bret Hart’s first wife, ostensibly making him a part of the fabled Hart wrestling family, his ex-wife accused him of consistently volatile behavior that included threatening her with a shotgun.

Billington denied ever being violent, though strangely admitted to the shotgun incident, justifying his innocence by saying it was never loaded. He only "pretended that."

A history of steroid abuse and hard bumps led to Billington being physically incapacitated and confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his days. But not before his greatest disciple rose to prominence, fame, and eventually, infamy.

Chris Benoit sang the praises of the Dynamite Kid throughout his career. It was the fiery Brit who inspired a young Benoit to take up weight training and fulfill his dream of becoming a professional wrestler. Billington came to respect and somewhat mentor Benoit, both courtesies he rarely extended to anyone else in the wrestling world. Over time, they became more friendly, although the teacher/student dynamic never faded from their relationship.

Sadly, Benoit’s passing came with its own history of violence, one that was far more shocking given the man many felt they had come to know, and even more cruel than the sins of his hero.

While the motivations or causes of the Benoit family murder-suicide will never fully be known, the crime adds an ugly footnote to Tom Billington’s already tainted name. Right or wrong, the two names will forever be linked, and probably spoken of with both respect and revile by generations to come.

And now, more than a decade after the death of his tragic follower, Billington has also passed away, a shell of his former self. Even in hindsight, it is difficult to unpack the personality of this man and reconcile how good he was in the ring with how horribly he carried himself in life.

Today has already been marked by tributes from men and women throughout the industry, but this passing gives me serious pause to reflect as a fan. To me, something feels so wrong about celebrating him. It’s difficult to put into words what I’m feeling or want to feel as someone who admired his work but couldn’t stomach the carnage he left behind.

Obviously, I can’t speak for his peers or those that he influenced. We have a weird way of justifying our heroes’ shortcomings long after their glory days have turned to twilight, and we have seen the WWE conveniently forgive and/or glaze over the controversial words and actions of others in the past. Names such as the Ultimate Warrior, Jimmy Snuka, and the Fabulous Moolah have been honored in death, and in some cases, fully absolved for their sins in and outside of the business. Surely they will not be the last to see such paradoxical praise.

But there is just something about Tom Billington’s casual acceptance of his transgressions that makes his legacy all the more unsettling. In the parting words of his autobiography, he stated that he had "no regrets" about anything he had done.

Given his incendiary past, those sentiments should not be forgotten now that the Dynamite Kid’s fuse has been quietly extinguished.

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