Dynamite Kid: Was He Really That Good?
October 11, 2006 by Lance Thompson
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The Dynamite Kid has become something of a buzzword on the Internet in
recent times. More and more seem to be using the ring name of Tom Billington
as a put down, a flexing of an allegedly powerful mental muscle in the
direction of an apparently more ignorant fan in an attempt to look
intelligent. We’ve probably all seen the sort of discussion: “Bret Hart/Hulk
Hogan/Shawn Michaels/Steve Austin/John Cena/WHOEVER is/was the greatest
wrestler of all time.” “Nope, Dynamite Kid was, son. I don’t even know how
you can say otherwise, mark. Watch something other than WWE, kid.”
If you pursue the issue with these people (and it’s my recommendation that
you do, if you can be bothered. It is unreasonable to assume that
information you’re being fed is nutritional at the best of times, let alone
when it’s coming from the typing fingers of a faceless jerk who’s wasting
his time talking about wrestling on the Internet. Hypocrite, moi?), one
usually begins to scratch off a very thin surface to find very little
beneath. Why was the Dynamite Kid so good? What were his best matches? In
what promotion did he do his best work? More often than not, the person
thinks this because Bret Hart told him to think it. Hopefully, you’ll figure
out something even more obvious: that trying to look intellectual in a
discussion about wrestling nowadays is not only an exercise in futility,
it’s more than often an indication of what I rather pretentiously refer to
as smarkist self-inflation, or in other words when you’re trying to look
cleverer than you are by bringing up a subject you have been too lazy to
properly research. Not that there’s nothing wrong with self-inflation:
anyone who knows me will tell you I myself have a chip on my shoulder, or
e-shoulder as the case may be; but the difference is, I know what I’m
talking about. When I say The Dynamite Kid was one of the top ten workers to
ever approach the wrestling industry, it’s because I understand two very
important concepts, i.e. what makes a great wrestler and what gives me the
right to say it. But let’s face it (at the risk of sounding like a smarkist
self-inflator), in a time where a 500lbs human/sloth hybrid is a World
Champion in the US’s number one company, men are being obligated to kiss
other men’s rear ends, sans-personality 180lbs stunt men are jumping for a
red X, The Great Khali is still gainfully employed and all this is making
money (except for the red X jumping, of course), unless you really have
sampled anything other than the current wrestling scene, you should think
about shutting your mouth rather than trying to sound intelligent. As I
said, it’s futile.
As you may have figured out, I included a false rhetoric in the title of
this thread in order to gain more readers, and presumably have managed to
keep you here by digressing into a social criticism on wrestling fans. Got
ya, sucker! Thought you were going to find some sort of controversial
backlash against Dyno, huh? Too bad. You’re mine now, and I’m gonna keep it
that way until I say so. The truth is, to me, the answer is Yeah, with a
capital Y, when someone asks me if Billington really was that great.
If you haven’t just mentally asked me Why, with a capital W, then you
haven’t been reading properly. But I’ll pretend you have anyway, because it
will finally lead me to the whole point of this article after a somewhat
My answer is going to seem like a cop out, but assess it properly and you’ll
hopefully learn something. Tom Billington was great in too many ways for me
to truly do him justice. This is a positive statement that can be made of
many great wrestlers, which in itself is a positive assessment of
pro-wrestling itself, which I consider to be a type of art when presented in
its true form. Likewise, there is no one match to sum Billington up, and I
don’t have the time or the energy to look at several in order to get a point
across. Fortunately, most of what Dyno did really well can be found in his
most acclaimed feud: vs Satoru Sayama, more widely known as the first Tiger
Mask, in Antonio Inoki’s New Japan Pro Wrestling.
You should get some mention of this feud from even the most obvious
self-inflating smark, who will vaguely reference it as evidence to support a
pro-Dynamite (or anti-everything else, as the two things are usually
interchangeable as I pointed out before) argument. A lot of people have
heard of it, and a lot of people revere it, and if you watch it, what will
become most obvious to you is the groundbreaking invention and athleticism
of not Billington, but Sayama. I mean, this is a man that, when met with a
gut kick, would catch the boot and do a 360 degree trip as a counter. Here’s
a guy who would not just roll out of an arm wrench, Regal-style, but twist,
flip and kip-up out of it. You’ve seen Shawn Michaels do a plancha, but put
it up against the Space Flying Tiger Drop, and HBK doesn’t look like the
showstopper any more. Hell, Sayama practically invented the 619, back when
Rey Mysterio Jr. was still dribbling paella down his baby mask. To the
untrained eye, Dynamite Kid vs Tiger Mask seems to be a showcase for the
Japanese junior heavyweight sensation, and undoubtedly this is what it was
intended to be.
But only at Billington’s say so. What few realise is that the Dyno/Sammy
series is arguably a series of carry jobs. More significantly in the bigger
picture, it’s a classic face/heel battle that is more than meets the initial
eye, and both of these vital factors in the influence and longevity of the
feud are more down to Dynamite than Tiger Mask. Watch carefully, and you’ll
see that Dynamite calls the spots, does the majority of the limb psychology,
throws either stiff or extremely convincing attacks and sells like a bastard
in order to transform an entertaining spotfest into a piece of art.
Let’s take a quick look at their first ever match, Tiger Mask’s debut. Just
a few moments in, and Dynamite, the more established wrestler, is making
Sayama look like a star. Some awesome martial arts kicks from Sammy send the
Brit reeling, but none connect. This allows Dynamite not to sell the moves
themselves, which would be pointless, being as they are legitimate shoot
kicks, but sell the character of Tiger Mask itself. What flashes across
Billington’s face is an expression of both awe and astonishment, and these
emotions cause him to literally stumble back onto his arse as those he’s
seen a ghost. To his character, a cartoony rookie has just transformed into
a dangerous and unpredictable adversary, and by petitioning to the referee
for a time out, he lets the crowd know about it.
This dispels the widely accepted myth that Dynamite never had a personality
and hence was never pushed. The truth of the matter is that, like his
natural successor Chris Benoit, Dynamite was an intense individual who
utilised a devastating combination of holds and explosive assaults in order
to damage and bully an opponent. Yet, like all bullies, every so often he
shrank into a corner when he was so obviously upstaged, and the rarity of
this act made it all the more important. The difference behind Benoit and
Billington is that Benoit was always playing a role, no matter how well he
played it. Dynamite took it to the next level: he was a downright sodding
bastard in the ring, and everyone knew it. He was perhaps the only guy who
wasn’t just playing a heel, he was a heel. Sayama, among others, felt it,
and more importantly, felt the benefits.
Now, the piece of selling I’ve just underlined may seem insignificant in the
grand scheme of things. Every heel from Triple H to Jeff Jarrett has done a
similar bit of acting. However, few have done it as well as Dynamite did,
even fewer did it before him, and fewer still have mastered the timing of
the act to such a delicate degree.
It’s the “even fewer did it before him” bit that I want to focus on now.
Again, looking at the Tiger Mask series, you’ll notice several spots that
are commonplace in today’s junior or cruiserweight scene, mainly the
athletic counters out of wristlocks and dynamic transitions from hammerlock
to headlock to head scissors to nip-up. I’m not suggesting that all of these
were invented by Billington and Sayama, but I have found no evidence to
support a claim that they were at all commonplace before the Tiger
Mask/Dynamite Kid series. If you take the matches within their context,
Japan in the early 1980s, you’re looking at visually astounding interchanges
at a time before the legendary NJPW junior heavyweight scene had taken off.
If you extend your perception to a worldwide scene, in America at this point
the barely-mobile Hulk Hogan was runnin’ wild and Jimmy Snuka’s Superfly
Splash was considered the peak of agility.
What exactly does this mean? Quite simply put, it means that Dynamite is
arguably as influential as a Ric Flair. At best, and most unlikely, Dynamite
and Tiger Mask invented the aforementioned spots. At worst, Billington took
what he had learned working the British technical style on World of Sport
and the Anglo-Japanese style he’d mastered in Calgary and used them in
conjunction with Sayama’s natural Jackie Chan-esque agility to craft
something that had never quite been seen before. You can, however, find very
similar spots in lightweight performances as diverse as those seen in the
90’s NJPW Junior Heavyweight Division and TNA’s X-Division today.
Unfortunately, just as a Ken Anderson’s Mr Kennedy character will never
quite be Ric Flair, the wholly illogical stunt matches that take place
within TNA’s six-sided ring can never touch Dynamite Kid’s matches. They
focus and place too much emphasis on one thing and not the other, due to a
combination of A) time restrictions and B) a general dilution of a Tiger
Mask/Dynamite Kid style of match from a meaningful athletic contest to a box
of fireworks that burn a crowd out quickly. This again underlines Dynamite’s
quality: he was doing things better than most before them, because he was
not only astonishingly agile, but also inherently intelligent.
How? Well, what separates a Dynamite Kid from an AJ Styles is an
understanding of the importance of not only psychology, which I touched on
briefly before, but structuring. It’s how a match builds that really defines
it; individual incidents that take place are merely decoration in
comparison. And Dynamite really knew how to build a match.
Fast forward in the Dynamite/Tiger Mask feud to 1982, and no longer is Tiger
Mask the plucky underdog. They are now equals, with Tiger Mask even
overtaking the Dynamite character due to Billington’s in-match ability and
willingness to job for the betterment of the company (Billington knew his
role: he existed in NJPW to make Sayama look even better and put on great
matches, not to become a megastar). This year, they had at least two match
of the year candidates versus each other that I’ve seen, with one being
rated a full five stars by the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, which probably
meant something at the time.
Typical of a Dynamite Kid/Tiger Mask match, the structuring in the match I’m
watching now is near-flawless. The contest starts with both men getting a
feel for each other before the action explodes, with both men stretching
their bodies to the limit in order to prove who is the better athlete. You
can already see the story unfolding as Tiger Mask gets the upper hand, and
the look of frustration on the face of Dyno is excellent. Furthermore, his
actions and the way he moves betrays this frustration: he headbutts a little
bit faster and chops a little bit harder when he’s riled. The opening is
very much a commentary on the situations of the two characters: Dynamite,
the experienced wrestler, has truly been surpassed by the Tiger Mask, but is
totally unwilling to admit it. Hell, he’ll punish Tiger Mask for it, and as
the match drags on, this becomes more and more clear. It slows, with Dyno
using more wear down holds (it’s a testament to him that even a resthold
looks like a dangerous weapon when he applies it) and stiff strikes, and
Tiger Mask struggles to keep up. In this middle section, you also get some
astonishing moves, such as the Tiger Feint Kick, the Space Flying Tiger Drop
- a cartwheel spinning plancha - and more significantly Dynamite’s awesome
diving front dropkick into a kip-up. Top that, Mr Snuka.
All this awe-inspiring action is being utilised to build to a climax. To
compare it to a operatic symphony would be pretentious and over-the-top, but
hell, I’d do it anyway. The clash of the symbols is the tombstone piledriver
(what, you thought Undertaker invented that?) and the final crescendo is
when Tiger Mask back body drops Dynamite right into the crowd. A vicious
piledriver later, and it becomes a race to get back into the ring, a race
that Dynamite wins, earning himself a countout victory. This is a logical
conclusion to a very dialectical roller coaster ride: no, Dynamite doesn’t
pin Tiger Mask, but his goal from the start was to punish his adversary and
gain a victory at whatever cost.
In the other match, Dynamite is far more violent in his approach. Again, the
structure is excellent, but this time the emphasis is more on DK’s
aforementioned frustration. He’s stiffer than ever, and rips at the mask of
Sayama repeatedly. We realise as the match progresses that Dynamite is not
trying to gain a victory at all costs this time, but is out to destroy the
Tiger Mask. The bully has snapped, and goes apecrap, attacking the referee
and bringing a beer bottle into the proceedings as a weapon, achieving a
disqualification. This, among all the usual breathtaking moves, and Dynamite
has once again surpassed great.
What the reference of these two matches illustrates is not only Dynamite’s
talent at pacing and structuring, but also the variety of his structuring.
In a feud that lasted over three years, with both men playing the same
characters, we have very different and very distinguishable matches. Some
that were just ten minutes long, others stretching over twenty minutes, and
I’d challenge anyone to find one that was boring or a failure.
Watch other Dynamite matches, and you’ll see his class shine through in
different ways, again innovating and influencing. His feud with Bret Hart in
Stu Hart’s Stampede promotion is another example of him getting the very
best out of a green opponent, doing the majority of the work even though he
was often booked as a face. Bret, not unskilled but nowhere near the
storyteller he would grow to be, is made to look like a genuine upstart
threat in a more cerebral way than Tiger Mask was thanks to Dynamite’s
selling and calling spots that not only favoured Hart, but were very
entertaining at the same time. Another example of one of the small things
that Billington did so well can be found in some of these matches (if indeed
you can find them), which is limb psychology and selling involved. In one
match, he goes after Bret’s leg in order to isolate a body part, and in
another, Bret does the same to him. Then, Dynamite limps. Why? Because it
makes sense for him to do so. This may seem like me making a mountain out of
a molehill here, but this is a seemingly very simple art that very few other
wrestlers these days have a proper grasp of. You only need to look at a Kurt
Angle match to see what I mean: suplex + suplex + Angle Slam + Ankle Lock
submission does not add up. This is why Dynamite never relied on limb
psychology in his matches, because he never had a finishing submission hold
in his repertoire in order to capitalise upon it. It wouldn’t have made
sense for him to build a match around leg locks only to finish it with a
diving headbutt, just like it doesn’t make sense for the Ankle Lock to
succeed a thousand consecutive slams. What he did do was integrate limb
psychology into his matches as a small facet of the overall diamond, one of
his character’s basic tactics in the dissection of an opponent’s will. His
dominating tactic was to damage his adversaries from the torso-up with
high-angle belly to back suplexes and snap suplexes in preparation for the
swandive headbutt or cradle tombstone piledriver, but he might also work the
leg at some point in order to ground a high flier. It was logical, it was
exciting, and it was a vital part of some great performances. It’s worth
noting that Bret Hart would go on to base many of his in-ring stories in his
WWE peak on working the leg or back before pulling out the sharpshooter, and
his understanding of this technique could be attributed in some way to the
impact Dynamite had on his early career.
Again from Stampede, Dynamite had the “fortune” of getting to work with
Bruce Hart. Bruce, a turgid worker who barely ever looked anything other
than mediocre, found himself elevated to a level beyond reason when working
with Dynamite. Their matches were heated, brutal, realistic (even to the
point of legitimacy) and engrossing, likewise Dynamite’s work with the
otherwise unspectacular Keith Hart.
Perhaps even more significant than versus Bret is Dynamite’s feud in All
Japan Pro Wrestling with Mitsuharu Misawa. The man who would grow to be the
most talented wrestler to pull on a pair of green tights was guided through
some of his earlier matches by a DK who’s body was deteriorating due to
steroid abuse and years of working a high impact style. Dynamite, who was
clearly suffering, appears to still manage to plan out a violent and intense
series against a Misawa who was not yet the confident performer we would see
take to the stage in later years. If an earlier Billington had hooked up
with a 90s Misawa, we could have had the greatest match of all time.
It’s also arguable that Dynamite had an impact on the career of Kenta
Kobashi. Again, if they’d both met at their peaks in a singles match or been
booked into more high profile contests, the results would have been far more
impressive, but the matches I’ve seen both men involved in on opposing sides
say a lot. When they’re both tagged in, the younger and slighter Kobashi is
schooled by Dynamite in the ways of stiff shots and hugely impactful moves.
When Kobashi came into his own in the 90s, going on to become another
wrestler who could lay claim to the title of “the greatest ever”, he was
famous for his devastating chops and head bump moves. Now Kobashi has come
full circle, his own body deteriorating as Dynamite’s did, we see him
playing old lion in a similar way, unleashing sadistic strikes on the likes
of KENTA in order to keep his head above water.
Phew. I’ve deliberately only focused on Billington’s singles career in order
to provide some enlightenment for those wanting to know more about the
master of the diving headbutt, because he’s most famous in the Western world
for his tag team with Davey Boy Smith, but what I will say is that the
British Bulldogs were every bit as good as the reputation that precedes
them, perhaps even more so. They were as good as any other mid-80s tag team
you could find and were a vital part of the renaissance that tag team
wrestling enjoyed around this period, both in the West and the East. I would
go into detail, but as I said, most people reading this won’t need me to
justify the Bulldogs to them, and I’m not an expert or connoisseur on tag
wrestling. I do believe, however, that Doug Furnass and Dan Kroffatt had
their best tag contest against the Bulldogs, as did the Killer Bees, the
Malenko Brothers and arguably the Hart Foundation. Davey Boy, it’s worth
noting, while not untalented, was significantly inferior to Dynamite, and
had his personal best series of matches against his “cousin”. Just watch
Dynamite leap out of his own lateral press to make Davey Boy look that much
more powerful to see how well someone can be put over.
It’s an eternal shame that Dynamite was rarely or never booked into feuds
against peers on his level. His only match against Randy Savage was a rushed
tournament affair wherein both men were tired, and he never received the
opportunity to work a match of length with a Ric Flair or a Ricky Steamboat.
Apparently there does exist a very competitive match between Dynamite and
Curt Hennig, but I’ve thus far unable to get my hands on it. I believe
Dynamite could have had a great match with anyone, booker permitting, as he
showed he could adapt better than most. When flips became the in-thing
post-Tiger Mask to the point where even the muscle-headed Smith was landing
on his feet after monkey flips, again probably because of Dynamite, he was
the guy who forcibly dragged wrestlers to the mat, or hit them twice as hard
to ensure they fell to the outside, where he could stiff them back to earth
a little (in other words, he’d have been the perfect foil to today’s
X-Division). I’d have loved to see that versatility rewarded with a push
against more high profile opponents, perhaps a longer series against Tatsumi
Fujinami in 1981. Unfortunately, it never was, and Dynamite never got to
wrestle a peak Kobashi, Misawa or Toshiaki Kawada. Thus, anyone who agrees
with Bret Hart, Mick Foley, Chris Jericho, Chris Benoit, Bad News Allen and
others when they say that Dynamite Kid was the best ever has to be a
subscriber to the philosophy that pure skill and execution is more important
than an extensive back catalogue of truly acclaimed matches. By the same
token, it’s easy to see that if Dynamite wasn’t the be-all and end-all of
“who was better” disputes, he could be considered the Orson Welles of the
wrestling industry. Just like Welles revolutionised filmmaking with Citizen
Kane, so too did Tom Billington innovate and inspire so many. Whether you
concentrate on his flaws or not, the Dynamite Kid’s contributions to the
business cannot be underestimated and he remains an integral weave in the
tapestry of professional wrestling.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this rather hypocritical and sloppy mark-out, as it’s
my first wrestling column. To show your appreciation, leave me some feedback
or go bid for some Stampede tapes. You won’t be disappointed.
by Lance Thompson ..
Brian White wrote:
How old are you Lance Thompson your column was almost unreadable. Have you seen the Dynamite Kid Wrestle Live? I’m sick of people thinking they know more than others about Wrestling Dynamite Kid was a so/so wrestler with no mic skills and no personality he was lucky to be a mid card wrestler great in a tag team, he is the most overrated Wrestler out there, just because it’s trendy to say he was the best doesn’t make him the best. PS. The X Division is the stupidest thing in Wrestling going and Samoa Joe is just awful.
andrew irving wrote:
Undeniably well written, though a little self-indulgent in the early stages. I read the whole lot and enjoyed it very much but please, should you follow up with another column (which you most certainly should!) don't try to upstage the reader's intellect. Excellent piece.
Carl A Hague wrote:
This is not a response to the column but to Brian White's comments. He say's that Dynamite had no gimmick, no mic skills and was an average wrestler. In Dynamite's autobiography (if you haven't read it, then you are missing out on one of best wrestling books ever written), he states that he didn't WANT to be remembered for any gimmicks or his mic skills, just for his wrestling ability. Regarding him being a "so-so" wrestler, then I challenge Brian to write a column on who he thinks the greatest wrestler his. We all have different opinions, let's respect that.
Shawn Gallatio wrote:
Probably the best article I've read on OWW. I don't even care about Dynamite Kid, but this was truly captivating. You my friend should be working at WWE creative (but would probably be a greater help to the losers at TNA). Great article, keep em coming.
Justin Carcerated wrote:
Brian White, you're clearly a WWE fanboy if you think the X-division is the stupidest thing in wrestling. John Cena, Vito, the WWE women's division, and Umaga too name are few, easily top the X-division in that category.
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