A Life Less Ordinary, Tommy Billington “The Dynamite Kid”

History does not favour Tommy Billington well. Outside of the ring he had a legacy of broken relationships and burnt bridges, but inside the ring he had a legacy that few equal. Undersized, defiantly single minded and a workaholic he had supreme faith in his own ability. He was perhaps the most technically proficient professional wrestler in British History, he took high risk offence and put it centre stage. As a tag wrestler he reworked the psychology of the medium into a revitalised art form and everywhere he went he worked harder and demanded more than any other wrestler of his generation. To me, he was an anathema. A man I saw frustratingly small glimpses of in my early fandom, but left me transfixed at every opportunity. His passing only denotes the losses he undertook in the single minded pursuit of being the best.

Thomas Billington grew up in the mining village of Golborne, Lancashire. The son of a miner there wasn’t much to do in rural Lancashire area to get out of the daily grind. It was mining, Rugby League or wrestling. Thanks Billy Riley and his Snakepit, nearby Wigan was a hotbed of pro wrestling providing the backbone of Joint Promotion’s Northern Elite. Tommy would garner the interest of another local trainer Ted Batley and through Tommy’s father they would develop a relationship that had Tommy working weekends for Ted on his building sites, and working out as a pro during the week. Once Ted felt he was ready he moved on to the Snakepit to learn how to look after himself, but that relationship was not a happy one. He worked with Marty Jones, another Snakepit graduate honing his shoot skills. Vitally important in what was still a wild west business. On his debut Ted told Tommy that his new ring name was The Dynamite Kid and told him never to change it. He honoured his mentor and never did.

He would eventually move on to Joint Promotions. Max Crabtree interviewed in the book The Wrestling said “He was The One.”. An ideal babyface, small, skilled, acrobatic (he’d excelled at gymnastics at school), he would start work as a light and welterweight wrestler. The lower weight divisions in the UK Scene where was the true acolytes of the British Mat game prevailed. Jim Breaks, The Royal Brothers, Johnny Saint, Cyanide Sid Cooper, Mick McManus, all held sway between Lightweight and Middleweight and he excelled in his first two years as a pro. Learning fast he also kept an eye on what was around him. 1976 was a breakout year for the other Lancastrians of his generation. Mark Rocco and Marty Jones were re-writing what you could do in a British wrestling ring. Amping up the technical side of their game with intense brawls and supreme psychology, the veterans were mad at them for upping the work rate, but Dynamite saw the future of the business and took what he saw on board and applied to what he knew. He won the British Lightweight and European Welterweight Championships and was riding high. Bruce Hart saw his work and made him an offer to move to Calgary and his Father’s Stampede wrestling. Initially a short run in the hope of turning a large profit, the big money never materialised initially, but he would become one of Stampede’s star attractions.

A babyface on his arrival he would turn heel not long after, with his manager John Foley, another Wigan Shooter, he would headline the company throughout the late 70s. Stampede also had connections. New Japan Pro Wrestling used the company to season talents on long term excursion and we’re looking for Junior Heavyweight talent. Dynamite had proven to be a hit in big money matches, taking NWA Junior Champion Nelson Royal to the limit at the Annual Calgary Stampede Week, and now had a heavy reputation. After some matches with then WWF Junior Heavyweight Champion Tatsumi Fujinami, Anotonio Inoki liked what he saw. Dynamite had one run with IWE before he joined New Japan, but his first run with the company would last four years and redfine what Junior Heavyweight Wrestling could be. Starting on January the 4th 1981, he would blister opponents with technical flash and straight up toughness.

He found his ideal opponent in Satoru Sayama. The original Tiger Mask. Tiger Mask and Dynamite would become the by words for excellence over the next four years. A series that had no parallel at the time, their speed was break neck, their acrobatics were revolutionary and they carried themselves like they were the best wrestlers in the world. They were. As the feud went on they would wrestle in Madison Square Garden for the WWF, A match Vince McMahon called the greatest he had ever seen. He along with Davey Boy Smith, and out Stampede standouts, Jim Neidhart and Bret Hart would make their tentative steps in the big Apple. After a high profile feud over the WWF Junior Title, Tiger Mask left the company to help found the UWF. Dynamite would finally lift the belt Sayama had kept from him all those years. He would never defend it. Giant Baba came a calling and lured he and Davey away from New Japan for Baba’s all out assault on wrestling in Japan.

For Davey and Dynamite back in North America there was no home to go to. Stu Hart had sold his controlling interest in Stampede to Vince McMahon and he took on his bigger names. Reportedly he danced a jig on his desk the day he signed Dynamite and Davey Boy. They would become The British Bulldogs and alongside their in-laws the Hart Foundation, they would set about a blistering series of matches that would make people see the WWF Tag Division as the place to be in the mid eighties. They steadily built towards a title challenge to The Dream Team at Wrestlemania 2, but Vince made it clear, it would be a challenge. Their two weeks with Baba, two weeks with Vince approach was unique, in fact only the Steiner Brothers would ever have a similar arrangement, but Vince wanted his champions on every card. So they said their goodbyes to All Japan, and would be rewarded with a championship victory in the Rosemont Horizon. Not long after things came tumbling down. Dynamite’s back gave out on a house show in mid stride while running the ropes. He would be recovering in hospital for weeks afterwards. Once he was recovered enough to wrestle, in Tommy’s opinion just barely, the Bulldogs would drop the belts to the Hart Foundation at a TV taping. Dynamite wouldn’t drop them to anyone else.

The next few years were big paydays and heavy grind as the Bulldogs and Dynamite especially struggled to get the zing back on their fastball. A backstage fallout with Jacques Rougeau, caused a rift between him and segments of the roster. Many considered Tommy a locker room leader, others considered him a bully, but Jacques and he did not get along. The fallout ended up with Jacques jumping Dynamite from behind in a cafeteria of all places and hitting in the mouth while holding a roll of quarters essentially a knuckle duster that broke open Billington’s mouth. McMahon settled the dispute but relations soured after that event. A notorious prankster he was never far from the glare of the agents. They’d be gone after Survivor Series 1988. When he and Davey returned to the revived Stampede, he was made booker in an effort to give him some responsibility and calm his more wayward tendencies. His insistence in a no nonsense strong style approach caused tension but gave a grounding to a strong product in the territory. It also made it possible for wrestlers like Chris Benoit to shine in a workhorse environment.

Not long after Dynamite and Davey quite the WWF, they would be back on the plane to Tokyo. The Bulldogs were in high demand, and looked back to old form on those tours. Their 45 minute epic with the Malenko Brothers being a prime example of the latter day Bulldogs at their best. An AWA Dream Match between against the Rock ‘N’ Roll  Express also lives up to the impossible hype you’d expect, but really their relationship was souring too. Davey stopped tagging with Dynamite in the early nineties. Dynamite found a new partner in Davey’s cousin Johnny Smith and The British Bruisers were born. It was a tag team that didn’t quite reach the Bulldogs, but they were spectacular and able. Baba pushed them as such.

Eventually after twenty of years of hard grind, steroids, heavy weight training and recreational drug use caught up with Tommy. Historic tales of his abusive nature and short temper would also sully the reputation of the man. His mentoring of Chris Benoit would also come to bite him, as it did the entire wrestling industry. Eventually the pain was to much, the travel, the bumps, the drugs. His last run in AJPW was productive, but he lost weight hand over fist as he made a conscious effort to clean up his act. Off the gas and slighter built, he was still immensely popular. If you watch the 1992 Real World Tag League match between the Bruisers and Terry Gordy and Steve Williams you can hear how beloved he was by Japanese fans. The hottest tag team on earth, The Miracle Violence Connection couldn’t get a round of applause. The small man from Golborne blew the roof of the place.  

When he was done with all Japan he made his goodbyes in Stampede with Owen Hart as Stu closed the territory down once again. Off the road he split from his wife Michelle who survives him along with his three children, Bronwyne (a wrestling valet), Marek and Amaris. Dynamite would have one last match at the Michinoku Pro These Days Event in Sendai, Japan and ran out his career in All Star Wrestling where he had made sporadic appearances in the eighties for his friend Mark Rocco.

To me as a fan those fleeting glimpses on his trips home where what made him stand out. I can still hear Max Crabtree announcing him in his own Yorkshire twang with the emphasis on the last syllable “The Dynamite, Kid”. Cast as a heel against Marty Jones he stretched the rule book of what was possible in a British ring. Used to Japan and Stampede, Joint’s genteel rule set could hardly contain him. He was a buzz-saw. His legend has been cast. An example to present day wrestlers in knowing your worth, and having pride in your work, but also in not how to spend your free time. Daniel Bryan, Jay Lethal, All Japan Junior legend Tsuyoshi Kikuchi, Dynamite Kansai, Tyler Bate, Pete Dunne, Manami Toyota, Akira Hokuto, Nikki Cross, have all visibly been influenced by him, but his effect was more than the sum of his parts. Stoic, fearless, and sheer dogged bloody mindedness.  There have been British wrestlers who drew more money. Their may be some who are technically more proficient, but there will never, ever be another wrestler like The Dynamite Kid.