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WRESTLING COLUMNS

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 negative detour.

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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