Tom “Dynamite Kid” Billington died Wednesday, not inside the wrestling ring he claimed in his autobiography to have loved more than life itself but decades removed from it. He bled and battered himself for fame and for love of the craft, making his matches in Japan and Calgary look realer than real by snapping suplexes that destroyed backs and dropping headbutts that permanently dented his brow. Along with the likes of his contemporary Tiger Mask and later his devotee Chris Benoit, Billington was one of the wrestlers who pioneered the acrobatic, hard-hitting style that came to characterize a truly great match, a five-star match in David Meltzer’s subjective rating system. Even though his style—you can call it an “all-or-nothing approach” and “ritual masochism” in the same breath—led to his reliance on a wheelchair in later years, Billington wrote in the conclusion to his 1999 autobiography Pure Dynamite that he “wouldn’t change a thing.”
“All I ever wanted was to be the best wrestler I could be,” he wrote. “I wasn’t interested in gimmicks, or being a great talker; I wanted to be remembered for my ability in the ring.” And he already was known for that in 1989, the year I really began watching wrestling with a critical eye. Billington was pretty much washed up by then, a shell of himself after a back injury that had occurred three years earlier in a WWE tag-team title match between him and partner Davey Boy Smith and the heel team of Don Muraco and Bob Orton Jr. But you could peruse the smart-fan literature, Wrestling Observer Newsletter and the like, and there he was already a bruising icon of the highest order. Aspiring grapplers like Benoit grew up wanting to be him; young fans like me wanted to watch whatever snippets of his performances were then available to us.
I never got to see Billington when he was at his best, when his highs were at their highest. And those highs were literal highs, not figurative ones: He was high on speed, gassed up on steroids, and high in the air when he leapt head-first off the top turnbuckle onto a prone foe. He battled Bruce and Bret Hart in Stu Hart’s Stampede promotion in Calgary during the late 1970s, when his body was still smaller, not the 200-plus pounds to which Dianabol and other steroids would inflate his 5-foot-8 frame, and his will to impress was larger. And his matches against Tiger Mask (Satoru Sayama) in New Japan Wrestling throughout the early 1980s were the stuff of legend, a prize I wouldn’t get to sample until I had acquired some VHS tapes via message board trading in the early 1990s.