"I Would Do It All Again"
PowerSlam Issue 53 - December 1998 by Fin Martin
Despite the constant pain, the innumerable operations and the loss of mobility, Tom Billington, who wrestled for nearly two decades as The Dynamite Kid, has no regrets about his choice of career. "I loved wrestling," he tells Fin Martin. "I wouldn't have change a thing . . ."
There was a time – a period of many years, in fact – when The Dynamite Kid was revered by mat fans, pundits and co-workers alike. A superlative bone-bender, he had incredible timing, an utterly intense, electic style, and a Great Universal-sized catalogue of devil-may-care manoeuvres. That diving head-butt, vicious snap suplex and running clothesline; those devastating chops and uppercuts. Dynamite indeed: he could and usually would bring the house down.
From 1981 through to 1986, The Dynamite Kid was widely regarded as one of the top three wrestlers in the world. He had numerous classics with the original Tiger Mask (Satoru Sayama) and The Hart Foundation with his British Bulldogs team-mate Davey Boy Smith. He also had the knack of assembling hugely enjoyable contest with grapplers who were not fit to lace his boots. The broomstick test? He passed it – with flying colours. Dynamite was capable of having a good match with anybody
Unfortunately, something happened in December of ’86 which would erode this super-worker’s skills and ultimately force him into early retirement.
During a doubles bout against Don Muraco and Bob Orton in Hamilton, Ontairo, Canada, Dynamite suffered a serious back injury. Several specialists advised him to all it quits right there, but Dynamite, then 28, felt he was too young to retire. He returned to action just weeks later, and actually worked a heavy schedule for the next five years.
As the new decade drew nearer, however, the back injury began to take its toll: though he remained a competent worker, he was finding it increasingly difficult to withstand the nightly punishment. Eventually, it became a physical impossibility. The inevitable he’d delayed for so long was finally upon him: he had to retire. And retire he did in a ceremony on an All Japan Pro Wrestling card at Budokan Hall, Tokyo on December 6th, 1991.
Dynamite made a brief comeback in British and Japanese rings in 1993, and even wrestled as recently as October 1996 in a six-man encounter on a major Michinoku Pro Wrestling event at sumo Hall, Tokyo. But The Dynamite Kid who thrilled wrestling fans worldwide in the 1980s was long gone, replaced by a man whose body was frantically waving the white flag and screaming, “Enough!” The booking with MPW was the end of the line. And everyone who sat the match knew it.
OVER THE LAST TWO YEARS, Tom Billington’s physical condition has deteriorated rapidly. His mind remains strong, however, he still has his pride and a wicked sense of humour, as Power Slam discovered in late October when he agreed to tell us his story . . .
At what age did you realise that you wanted to pursue a career as a pro wrestler?
I was 12-years-old when I took up boxing. I did that for six months in Golborne, Cheshire, which was where I was born. My trainer . . . I guess he was getting on a bit, so he retired. From there, my father, who worked for a plant hire company, had me drive a dumper truck on weekends. And as it turned out – and neither of us knew – the person who owned the plant firm was an ex-wrestler.
That was Ted Betley, right?
That’s right. Anyway, Ted said to my dad, “He’s a bonny lad. I’ve got two lads here, let’s put him in the ring and see if he can hold these lads down.” So, we went to the ring, which was in this long building he had like a barracks, and I did it: I held them down.
After that, I trained at Ted’s gymnasium, the barracks, six days a week for three years. So, by the time I was 16 – and I’m not being funny, I’m not trying to make myself look good – I knew more than those pr–ks in the ring, the professionals, did.
How did you get hooked up with Stampede Wrestling?
In 1977, two years after my pro debut, me and Stu Hart’s son Bruce were booked on a card in Cleethorpes. Bruce watched my match with Mark ‘Rollerball’ Rocco and, afterwards, he asked me if I wanted to go to Canada. He said, “You’ll have your own car, your own apartment, and we’ll give you ‘so many’ dollars per week.” I said, “F–k that.” Well, it wasn’t enough money.
So I didn’t go. But, as you know, I did go eventually – once they’d bumped up the weekly guarantee. That was on April 27th, 1978. I was only supposed to go for one month. I came back to England on February 2nd 1991. That wasn’t bad for a one-month tour was it?
Not bad at all. What was the going rate, per match, in England before you left for Canada?
Twelve pounds per night. That was normal in England then . . . Go on, have a guess at what my biggest ever pay-off for one month was.
Well, it would have come during you stay with the World Wrestling Federation for services rendered at a WrestleMania pay-per-view . . . Erm, somewhere in the region of $15,000?
It was $24,000 which, at that time, was worth about £12,000. That was for WrestleMania IV in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Did you train or have a hand in the training of you cousin and future partner Davey Boy Smith?
Maybe for a week or two, because just as Ted started training him, I left for Canada. Bu I was responsible for taking him to Canada in 1981, then Japan, for Antonio Inoki, and the WWF, for Vince McMahon Jr.
When did you first run into Bret Hart?
In Canada in 1978. He’d just started wrestling.
He was still fairly green, then?
Green? He was very green. I tell you, I went to Germany and came back and Bret had just beaten Norman Frederich Charles III for the British Commonwealth belt, which I’d lost to Charles just before I left for Germany. And Bret had just started (wrestling), after a bit of training in his dad’s gym, the Dungeon – which is well named, by the way; there’s been a lot of screams there.
Anyway, when I returned to Canada, I wrestled Bret many, many times over many, many months. And after I’d finished wrestling him – and if he denied this, he’d be lying – what he would do when he wrestled someone else was copy everything I did . . . Just like Chris Benoit. Have you seen Chris wrestle?
Once or twice.
Well, if you see Chris wrestle, you see me.
Did you and Bret get along?
At first, no. You see, when we were wrestling I’d hit him with an uppercut and I broke his nose a couple of times. But don’t get me wrong: it was by accident.
I’ll tell you something else about Bret: he wrestled Bad News Allen one night in a place called Regina. Anyway, Bret did something to Bad News Allen and he didn’t like it. Bad News took him down and said something to him – “I’ll f–king kill you” or whatever. So, the next day, Bret’s dad called me up and said, “Dynamite, how would you like to wrestle in the main event for the next few weeks.” And I said, “Yeah, that would be good, Stu.” But then, because I was wrestling Charles and The Cuban Assassin at that time, I asked him who I was going to be wrestling, and he said, “Bad News.”
Bear in mind that I wasn’t really using the steroids then, so he was a lot bigger than me. But I agreed to it. And I wrestled him for four weeks. One match was under normal rules, then we had a no-disqualification match, a Cage match, followed by a Streetfight. Anyway, it was because of that match, the Streetfight, that we got barred from the building: Bad News slammed me through a table and smashed a wine bottle against the ring post and stabbed me with it right in the bloody head. There was blood everywhere, and the man from the athletic commission said, “No. We’re not having that,” and we got barred from the building for about a month.
Anyway, the point of the story is, the reason I wrestled Bad News all those weeks, night in, night out, was because everybody else in the territory was scared of him. Seriously.
You worked alongside Hulk Hogan in New Japan Pro Wrestling and the WWF for many years. What was he like?
A great man – always laughed, grinned, shook your hand. But he was only in it for himself. He’d have a laugh and share a coffee with you, but when that building sold out, he didn’t give a s–te if you were paid 50 pence, so long as he got $50,000. Don’t get me wrong: I like Hulk Hogan very much. But he was only in it for himself.
How did you rate him as a wrestler?
To be honest, I rated his opponents, because it was them who made him look like a million dollars. On a scale from one to ten, I’d give his opponents nine and him one.
Did you first meet Satoru Sayama when he was working in England as Sammy Lee?
Yes. He was wrestling Rocco and I was booked against Marty Jones. That’s the first time I met him. I first wrestled him in Japan at Sumo Hall on the last card of a tour. That was his first match as Tiger Mask, which was in 1981 . . .
No matter how good you think you are, there’s always someone around the corner who can beat you. Anyway, he beat me.
That was nothing to be ashamed of, though: he was an incredible grappler.
He still is . . . but he’s gained a lot of weight.
To this day, fans still rave about your series of matches with the original Tiger Mask. In hindsight, do you think they were as good as people say?
No. They were better.
Did you ever beat Tiger Mask?
One time, by disqualification. I never did get the pinfall, though: he was too good for me, if you know what I mean.
Hey, did you know that after Sayama left New Japan and joined the UWF in 1984 – you know, with Akira Maeda and those lads – he tried to convince me to jump?
I do now. Why did you turn him down?
Well, I thought to myself, it might last a week or a year but, if it goes under sooner rather than later, where would that leave me? So I decided to stay with New Japan, until All Japan promoter Giant Baba offered me a $1,000 per week rise to work for him.
That was in the autumn of 1984, right?
Correct. And I took s–t head (Davey Boy Smith) with me.
When you arrived in All Japan, Mitsuharu Misawa had just donned the Tiger Mask gimmick. How did he, the second Tiger Mask, compare to the first?
He didn’t. I wrestled Misawa, as Tiger Mask, many times. Now, I like Misawa but, at Tiger Mask, because he was a lot bigger than Sayama, he was just too clumsy. He is a good lad and I do like him – as Misawa – and, as you know, he is one of the top wrestlers over there. But as Tiger Mask, he wasn’t in the same league as Sayama.
In between tours with All Japan, you and Davey Boy Smith were bending bones for the WWF. Come 1986, however, the overseas tours ground to a halt and The British Bulldogs worked exclusively for Vince McMahon . . .
That’s right: we did. You know, we would give Vince plenty of notice before we left for Japan but, one time, when we came back, he said, “No more (tours of Japan).” So, that was it. After that, we went full-time with the WWF. We didn’t wrestle in Japan again for over two years.
What do you remember about the series with The Hart Foundation?
Oh, we had some great matches, especially by American standards. But, don’t get me wrong, we still hit each other very hard.
Anyway, one time we were wrestling in Uniondale, New York and someone was late, so they put us on early, like the second match or something. When we’d finished, the rest of the matches on the card got no reaction, no claps or nothing. So after, the promoter had to put us on last. You see, if they put us on too soon – for example, before a match between Hulk Hogan and King Kong Bundy – when they went on, the people didn’t give a f–k. (The other wrestlers) couldn’t follow us.
How did it feel to capture the World tag team belts from Brutus Beefcake and Greg Valentine at WrestleMania II?
To be honest with you, when I was in Detroit, Michigan one night, (road agent) Chief Jay Strongbow said to me, “Dynamite, you’re not ready for the belts.” My response was, “Chief, if we don’t get the title shot a WrestleMania, then we’re going back to Japan. We’ll call it a day?” I said, “We’ll leave.” So, he called Vince up and he must have got the okay, because he came back and told us everything was sorted. So that was it. And we took the belts. Which was great.
Was your manager at that time, Captain Lou Albano, a help or a hindrance?
Definitely a help. He was a good character . . . What happened was that Vince asked me if I wanted a manager, and I said, “Yes. I’ll take the Captain, Lou Albano.”
Bear in mind that Albano was only with us at television tapings; he didn’t go on the road. And do you know what he would do before we went to the ring at the tapings?
He would drink a bottle of whiskey and a bottle of vodka, then he’d tell Vince McMahon to f–k off.
He told Vince McMahon to f–k off?Oh, yeah: every night. He’d say to Vince, “You can’t fire me because your dad told you not to.” Anyway, Vince eventually fired him.
Tell us about the back injury you suffered in that fatal match with Muraco and Orton in December 1986.
It was at the Copps Coliseum in Hamilton, Ontario. The discs, two of ‘em, ripped, and they had to put me on a stretcher and strap my legs down because the nerves were causing one of them to jump. So, they gave me an injection and took me to the hospital and later removed two of my discs.
How long were you in hospital?
On and off, about ten months. You see, I used to discharge myself from hospital, but I was in so much pain that they kept taking me back in.
Three specialists told me to retire. While they were telling me this, I said – under my breath – “Bollocks.”
You must have been in agony when you returned the following month. How did you cope with it?
I took painkillers.
Did you become dependent on them?
Yes. It really wasn’t good for my body.
When did you start taking steroids?
It was in 1978, in Germany, when Sylvester Ritter was there: he gave me some pills. When I went to Canada, I was introduced to injectable anabolic steroids, like testosterone, decadurabolin, that sort of thing.
Were you ever put under any pressure to use steroids?
Erm, no. But I knew that I had to take them, otherwise I wouldn’t have got a job.
Because, without steroids, you weren’t bulky enough?
Right. Off steroids, I could only get up to about 180 pounds. When I was on steroids, I weighed about 225. You had to look the part, and I couldn’t do that without steroids.
I was taking 200 milligrams three times a day in each of my buttocks which, in total, is 1,200 milligrams per day. Which is a lot. That was testosterone and liquid dianobal.
Did your steroid usage result in any unpleasant side effects?
Yep. They could make you very short-tempered. Say if you went to a nightclub after the matches and someone you didn’t know said something harmless, like hello, you could find yourself belting them straight in the mouth.
You did that?A few times, yes.
What other drugs, did you take?
I took cocaine, halcyons – which is a downer about five times stronger than valium. I’d take amphetamines, smoke marijuana . . . Probably no other wrestler would admit it, but the majority of them were doing the same drugs as me.
You must have been spending an awful lot of money on drugs.
To be honest with you, during my time with the WWF, I was spending about £700 per week on hotels, rental cars, beer and drugs.
I understand there was some serious heat between you and The Fabulous Rougeaus, Jacques and Raymond Rougeau. How did that come about?
There was, yeah. It began on a card in Ohio. I had a bad name at that time and, before their match, the Rougeaus went up to Curt Hennig and asked him to watch their clothes. Curt said, “No problem,” or something like that.
Anyway, while they were in the ring, Curt cut their clothes up – which was all right; I’ve done that many times. When they came back to the dressing room, Curt was sat on the toilet, which was his alibi. He said that he didn’t know anything about their clothes being cut up and, naturally, the Rougeaus blamed me.
So, they called Vince McMahon up and said something like, “Dynamite’s gone too far this time.” The next day, we were in Miami and I think it was Curt who told me the Rougeaus had been talking to McMahon and had accused me of cutting their stuff up. So, I walked straight into their dressing room and slapped Jacques right in the f–king mouth. He tried to leg-dive me but, when he did that, I put my arms around his waist and took him down and held him on the floor. Then Raymond came over and said, “Leave him alone. He’s had enough.” I said, “Excuse me, this is none of your business.” And he said, “Well, I’m making this my business.” So I knocked Raymond out.
A week or two later, we were doing television in Fort Wayne, Indiana and, as usual, I was the last one out of the canteen. So I’m walking down the corridor and Jacques was on one side and Raymond was on the other, talking to Pat Patterson And I thought to myself, they’re not going to do me in while Patterson’s there. Anyway, I’m going down the corridor with a cup of coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other and – bang! – Jacques hit me and knocked four of my teeth out. Well, he was wearing a bloody knuckle duster, wasn’t he?
In the end, Vince McMahon got involved. Jacques agreed to pay my dental bill and that was the end of that.
You left the WWF immediately after the 1988 Survivor Series. Business was booming at that time, so why did you leave the group for a lower-paying job with Stampede?
I’m sure you’ve got principles, and I have too. We were doing a show in Syracuse and everyone had their plane tickets to go home the next day . . . everyone but me, that is. So I said to the Chief, “Where’s my plane ticket?” Anyway because I wasn’t getting the same treatment as everyone else, I told them I was done. So I did the Survivor Series, and that was it. Smith came with me. Well, he had to, didn’t he?
I’m not being funny, but I carried that fat bastard all the years we were together. He did what I did. And if something ever went wrong, I always had to sort it out.
Plus, I’d already been on the phone to All Japan. That was set up, so we went there.
You were a notorious prankster during you wrestling days. Give us a few (publishable) examples of what you got up to.
Oh! Me and my mate Harley Race – you know, The King – were in the Marriott Hotel somewhere in the Carolinas one night, sharing a room. Anyway, we’d been out for a load of drinks and had gone back to the room. Middle of the night, I got up to use the bathroom and, on the way back, I took my cigarette lighter and set fire to his bed . . . while he was in it. So he was in bed and I got back in mine and pretended I was asleep. A minute or two later, the smoke and the heat set the sprinklers and the fire alarm off. Anyway, I blamed him. I said: “King, you daft bastard, you must have fallen asleep with a bloody cigarette in your hand.”
Another time, I was sharing a room with a midget wrestler called Little Tokyo. This is what I did: we went to the bar, and I dropped two halcyons in his drink. Later, we went to a restaurant, and he passed out on the table.
So there he was, with his head on the table, and I called the waitress over and asked her to remove all the plates. After she’d taken all the stuff away, I picked Tokyo up – well, he was only about three foot – and dumped him on the table. At this point, I thought, “Bollocks” and was about to leave when two policemen walked in. I don’t know why I did it, but I went up to the police and said, “Excuse me, but I just ordered some food and this stranger came over and passed out on my table.” So (laughs) the police dragged him off the table, handcuffed him, threw him in a police car and took him down the cells (laughs).
You haven’t been on speaking terms with Davey Boyz Smith for a number of years now. What happened?
It was a lot of things. A lot of lies and things he was saying behind my back. For example, he called his parent, my auntie and uncle, and told them about all the drugs I was taking.
Another time, and I’m sure it was her, his wife Diana called All Japan and said, “I’m sorry. The Bulldogs can’t come, because Dynamite is dead. He’s been killed in a car crash.” Which was their attempt to screw up my deal with All Japan . . .
I haven’t spoken to that bastard since 1991. And I won’t again. I would rather hit him than speak to him.
When you retired at Budokan Hall in December 1991, did you genuinely believe that you would never wrestle again?
Yes. Because of all my injuries and the pain I was in . . .
The only reason I came back in 1993 was because Giant Baba asked me to. He said, “Please Dynamite, come back, even if it’s only a few times.” So I agreed to it, and went back. But soon after I got there, I knew it wasn’t going to last. I finally told referee Joe Higuchi, “I’m not being funny but, after this tour, I have to retire. Please tell Baba, thank you for everything.” And that was that.
But you came back again, for Michinoku Pro Wrestling, in October 1996. I’ve seen that match and it’s safe to say you were struggling. At that time, you had to be telling yourself, “This REALLY is the end.”
Not half. That was definitely it.
What’s your quality of life like now?
I have good days and bad days. I’m pretty much bedridden. I’m paralysed from the waist down . . . my left foot looks like a golf club. So, I’m not walking. If I want to get off this bed, I’ve got to crawl.
With that in mind, consider this: were all the dangerous dives, all the bumps, all the knocking yourself out to have a great match every night . . . was it all worth it?
I would say, yes.
So, if you had your time again, you wouldn’t do anything differently?
No. I wouldn’t change a thing.
Because I loved wrestling, I loved the excitement, I loved my opponents, whether good or bad . . . really, and I mean this, I would do it all again.