Living With Dynamite (June 17, 2021)

Revisiting Fighting Spirit Magazine's issue 88; published on December 27, 2012)

I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting when I belatedly watched Vice TV’s Dark Side Of The Ring episode on Tom “Dynamite Kid” Billington. I certainly wasn’t expecting the documentary to impact me as much as the Brian Pillman episode had done, so it was both a shock and a pleasant surprise to discover that this was one of the very best episodes in any of the programme’s three series, and possibly the best of those that were not afforded a double episode.

Perhaps one reason that I hadn’t made the Dynamite Kid episode a priority was because I already had the story straight from the episode’s main character, Michelle Billington, the ex-wife of Tom. In October 2012, I had the idea of talking to Michelle for an article that would attempt to understand the other side to Tom, because I knew there had to be something more to Tom for her to fall in love with him in the first place.

As a result, our writer at Fighting Spirit Magazine, Luke Dormehl, chatted to Michelle for a couple of hours that same month, and came back with a story that was so good that I felt it had to be published in direct, uninterrupted quotes. Then in December, and much closer to print deadline than I would’ve liked, Michelle sent me a document containing even more information about their relationship, which I knew I had to find a way to include.

It was a nice problem to have, but a problem nonetheless.

After some typical late-night editing, issue 88 was finally published on December 27, 2012, and since then, I have always maintained that Living With Dynamite was one of the best things I have ever published.

Almost 10 years later, it remains explosive, terrifying, and deeply personal.

Perhaps I should have brought this article to you before the episode aired - likewise, David Bixenspan’s article on The Ultimate Warrior and Luke Dormehl’s exclusive interview with him - but it is a testament to the producers of Dark Side Of The Ring that I feel that I should do so now.

As always, please talk to me about this article by using the comment section here at Substack, or by tweeting me @hardcopyDOTie.

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by Michelle Billington (October-December 2012)

I grew up in Regina, Saskatchewan, which is about a seven-hour drive east from Calgary. I’m from a family of eight, and we came from a very poor background - there was never a lot of money around. Because my mom had split from my father and re-married, my sister Julie was like my mom in a lot of ways. She used to look out for me, and try and keep me on the straight and narrow.

When I was 15, Julie started dating Bret Hart, and before long, she moved to Calgary to live with him. I waited about a year, and then Bret said that if I wanted to, I could join them. I had dropped out of school in the ninth grade, and he said that if I moved to Calgary, he would pay for me to go back and finish my education. It was a nice offer, but my pride said, “No”. I moved there, but got a job as a waitress so that I could pay my keep.

Once I was in Calgary, I used to go to the shows with Julie and Bret. One time, I saw this English wrestler called Tom Billington, who was very dynamic in the ring - just flying around like a ping-pong ball. His matches were unlike any of the others you would see on the card - everyone just looked like they were wrestling in slow motion in comparison.

I liked Tom, but I never thought he’d like me; I had really low self-esteem in that way. The first time he saw me was when I was getting a ride with Bret back to Regina to see my mom. On the way, we stopped in the city of Medicine Hat to get a Burger King. Bret got out, and I noticed that the Stampede “heel” van was already parked there, with Tom standing outside it. I still didn’t know that wrestling was predetermined, and that these guys were really friends, so I yelled out, “Bret, the bad guys are here!”, thinking that there was going to be a fight right there in the parking lot. I had a football jersey on, no make-up, and my hair in a ponytail. Tom said that it was because I looked scruffy that he was attracted to me.

“You didn’t give a shite about your looks,” he said. “And you had big tits.”

After that, Tom started coming out of the dressing room to stand near me when I was watching the matches. Later on, he told me that this was a huge hint he liked me, but I didn’t know that. I said, “I thought you were just watching the matches.” We had to talk to each other without turning our heads, because I thought Bret would get mad if he saw me talking to the guy who beat him up in the ring. When he did find out, he warned me to stay away.

“Tom will hang you up like he does his wrestling boots,” Bret told me. “He just uses women, and you’re better than that. You should be with a lawyer or a doctor.”

STARCROSSED LOVERS

One time, I went over to Wayne Hart’s house because I knew his girlfriend. Tom lived there with Wayne, and this was right before he went over to Japan to wrestle. We got to talking, and because there was a copy of Romeo And Juliet on the table, and he was English, I thought he must read Shakespeare. I’d taken that class in school, so I started going on and on about the symbolism in the play. After about 10 minutes of wowing him with my rhetoric, I asked him how he liked the book. Tom looked at me and said, “It’s not my fuckin’ book. I don’t fuckin’ read.” I was so embarrassed.

He used to give me these one-word answers to everything I said. Later on, he said, “Well, I offered you tea. I don’t normally offer tea to anyone.” Tom was famous for practical jokes - he used to make people a drink and then slip a laxative, ExLax, into it. If he offered me hot chocolate, I knew better than to take him up on it. But he told me that because he offered me tea instead of hot chocolate, I should have known right then that he liked me.

We started dating in December, and by February, I was living with him. I was 17, and Tom was 21. That Christmas, we went to visit his family in England. At this point, he had been gone for three years, and he never phoned them. I kept asking him to tell his parents that I was coming home with him, but he never did. Then two days before we were going to get on the plane, he called them and said, “I’m bringing my girlfriend with me.” His dad was shocked. All of a sudden, he had to make arrangements, because they only had the one single bed, and suddenly he had to find a double. We weren’t married or anything; it was a really difficult situation.

Tom told me all these horror stories about where he grew up: about having to go outside to go to the bathroom, about how cold it was, and how grim everything was. I was pretty nervous, but when we got there, it was fine. He was just insecure, trying to make out like it was the worst place ever so that when I saw how small their family home was, and that there was only a little gas fire and no central heating, I wouldn’t be too shocked. I thought it was great.

His family were so welcoming, but in a very English way. In Canada, we’re affectionate people, but Tom’s family was very reserved; they hadn’t seen their son for three years, but when he turned up, it was just like, “Hey Tom, you want a cup of tea?” I understand it now, but at the time, I couldn’t believe it.

They talked about everyday things, but nothing in any depth.

BACK TO ENGLAND

We were in England for six weeks. My sister Julie was nearby, because Bret was in Europe wrestling at a tournament in Hanover, Germany. We had a great time; when the boys were working out, we’d take the bus to Wigan, and go to the market there. One day, we went to Liverpool to go and see Beatle Street. Tom’s dad kept laughing at me about that one. It was the first anniversary of John Lennon’s death, and we went to see the statue of him. There was just one flower on it - only one. We couldn’t believe it; it seemed like no one cared.

Both Tom and I were so young. It was the first real relationship either of us had ever been in. I can’t believe how quickly we got married; I was 18, and he was 23. We felt so old and mature, but we were only kids. There was nothing romantic about his proposal; he just said, “You know, when we go to England, we should just fuckin’ get married there.” I said that I thought that we should. Then, when we were in England, Julie and Bret were there, and I kept saying how great it was going to be to have a wedding. I asked Tom if we were booking a church, but then he turned around and said, “You know what, we’ll just fuckin’ get married back in Canada. I don’t want to say ‘I do’ in front of my family.” He was embarrassed, but I took it as him being shy; he didn’t want anyone to know how loving and romantic he could be. He had to be the tough Dynamite Kid in public, but there was such a sweet side to him. Tom was playful around me, like a little boy; he’d put three whole packs of ExLax in people’s drinks, but he never did it to me.

I thought I was making real progress.

Davey Boy Smith stayed with us when he first got to Canada. We had to hide him, because he was a good guy, and Tom was a heel. Every time the door rang, Tom would say, “Davey, get in the fuckin’ closet” so that no-one would see he was there.

Davey was very quiet, just like Tom. People assume that Tom knew Davey really well because they were cousins, but the truth is that when Davey turned up, they’d never really spent much time together. Davey’s parents lived about a block away from Tom’s, but Davey was a few years younger, and there was some big family rift that meant that the two sets of parents never saw one another. I would go and visit Joyce and Sid, Davey’s parents, but they would never go round to see Tom’s parents.

Davey’s mom was Tom’s dad’s sister, but they wouldn’t talk to each other.

BOYS WILL BE BOYS

Later on, when Tom was more secure with himself, he used to hate anyone in the locker-room being big-headed. If someone had a big head, if they had an ego, they were going down.

Do you remember Outback Jack in the WWF? He came from Australia, and had a crocodile on the back of his jacket. He used to talk about how great he was to all the boys. Tom Halcion’d him, ripped the crocodile off his back, smashed his Rolex and put it back on his wrist, stripped his clothes off, and sent Jack down into the lobby naked, where the office would see him. It was “boys will be boys” stuff; they had their own code of ethics in the dressing room. I knew about this kind of stuff coming from where I did. I had lived in a very rough area: Central North in Regina. Even now the cab drivers won’t go down there after dark, so I had my own survival instincts.

Tom always had a short fuse; Stu Hart told me that at the beginning. He was quick to anger, and that got worse with the more steroids he took. People tell me steroids were completely responsible for various things that happened, but Tom already had that aspect to his personality. Still, for every explosion of violence in our marriage, there were weeks that went by that were just wonderful. He was so generous; when he would go on tour, he would bring me back $500 coats, and diamonds. He lavished me with things. One time, I remember him coming home with $10,000, in $100 bills. Our daughter Bronwyne would play in it, throwing it up in the air like she was playing in leaves.

She was probably the first Canadian to own Hello Kitty paraphernalia.

LIFE ON THE ROAD

To understand what happened in our marriage, you’d have to understand what was happening in wrestling, and to Tom’s health. Tom began to have injuries before I met him; he had both knees operated on, which is why he always wrapped them. When we started dating, he never consumed alcohol or drugs - that only came after his back started to bother him after six-week tours in Japan in the early-’80s.

Everyone in wrestling knew that he was in pain, but he never complained to me. He would tell me he had a sore back, and he began to use alcohol and prescription drugs to self-medicate, but I didn’t know the full extent of the damage. He was unbelievable with his tolerance of pain. He stayed safe by never going in the ring under the influence.

After Vince McMahon made his deal with Stu to take over the territory, everyone was in a panic, even Tom. He knew he was secure in his career, as he could go to Japan or anywhere else in the world, but it was the loss of being with his family and friends that bothered him; Stampede Wrestling was a small enough territory that the boys could return home at least three nights a week, and have Sundays off. At first, Tom was the only one who went to work for Vince, who had remembered him from the Tiger Mask match in Madison Square Garden. Tom hated working for New York. The boys were all telling him how difficult it was to fly and drive every day: they worked 21 days on, and three days off. Many had drug and alcohol problems, and were getting divorces. Tom decided to quit and take Davey to Japan instead, but Vince flew over there to ask him if they would come and work for him as The British Bulldogs.

Bret had been added to the roster, and with Bret’s convincing, Jim Neidhart joined up, too.

DROPPING THE STRAPS

One night, Tom collapsed in the middle of the ring after leap-frogging a wrestler. It was Christmastime, and Davey phoned to tell me Tom’s back had finally gone. At that point, I had no idea that it was so bad. He had his fourth and fifth lumbar discs removed, and the doctors advised him never to wrestle again, nor to take steroids again. According to the doctors, the reason Tom was so prone to injuries was because a side effect of steroids can be the drying and shrinking of tendons and soft tissue.

Tom refused to stay in the hospital, and the day after his surgery, he had me and Duke Myers pick him up from the hospital. Duke drove our Bronco at a snail’s pace, because every bump was excruciating for Tom. When we got to our acreage, Tom crawled out of the SUV, up the two stairs into our house, and made it to the sofa in the living room. He stayed there for a few weeks. When he had to go to the bathroom, he used Bronwyne’s potty. When he needed a wash, I’d wash his hair, and gave him a sponge bath. By this point, he had drugstore quantities of prescription drugs he had bought from someone at the gym. He also had a moody doctor who would come to the house to write him triple prescriptions.

When Vince called to say that Tom and Davey were vacating the tag team belts to Brutus Beefcake and Greg Valentine, Tom said he would make the match, and only drop the belts to Bret and Jim. Vince respected Tom, and gave him his wish. Tom was one of the few who had Vince’s personal phone number. Tom holds a record in the Canadian medical journals for being the earliest patient to return to work after such an extensive back operation; the surgery was on Christmas Eve in 1986, and instead of staying in the hospital for six weeks to recuperate, in January 1987 he flew to the States, walked down to the ring, and took a bump from Jimmy Hart’s megaphone to lose the belts the way he wanted to lose them.

Tom did not rehabilitate out of hospital the way the surgeon planned, either. He didn’t go for physical therapy - he went to the gym instead. Tom decided to increase his lower back exercises, and his use of steroids. After his back healed, he noticed his shoulder was bothering him as well, and he had trouble lifting it above his head. On the road with the WWF, he was taking pills to wake up, be pain-free, and go to sleep at the end of the nightly drinking and pill-popping after the matches. When he came home, he didn’t want to go out, because that’s all he did while on the road. On the other hand, I wanted to go out because I stayed home for 21 days at a time being a single parent. I also bred bullmastiff dogs, which Tom sold to many of the wrestlers, like Bad News Allen, Bruce Hart, and Corporal Kirchner.

He just wanted to rest up, and drink at home.

MY DAD, THE WRESTLER

We had our son on May 5, 1988. Tom was a proud father, and had the habit of calling Marek, “Little Tommy”. He bought Bronwyne a pony for her fourth birthday, but the damn thing would never stay in our field; it would bust into the field of our neighbour, who was an equestrian vet. Marek was a baby that never slept, and was fussy unless moving, so Tom would drive him around the garden on our little red tractor.

Tom would go for months without a violent episode. It was his inability to cope with stress and wrestling politics that caused him to take it out on me sooner or later, when he was drinking or on pills. I encouraged him to sell the acreage, and we came out of it incredibly well-off. We were able to pay for a five-acre home, west of Calgary. Tom was debt-free, except for the last few payments left on our SUV.

He decided to have his shoulder fixed, since he would be financially secure for the months he'd be off. The day we moved into our new place, he was getting the surgery, and I couldn’t believe it when I saw that Tom had one of the wrestlers pick him up from the hospital, and bring him back to the house; I had two small children to deal with while unpacking at our new home, and while my brother and our friends didn’t complain, they were having trouble manoeuvring around us, with all our furniture and boxes. To add to things, I now also had Tom in agony from having his shoulder muscles cut open, and his tendons sewn back onto his bones. He was sitting at the table on heavy medication, and drinking. Later that night, he was so upset that I was unpacking and looking after the kids without giving him all of my attention that he threatened to rip out his surgical stitches, and was trying to lift the arm the doctors had told him not to move for six weeks. I was screaming for him to stop, and he seemed to enjoy the horror he was putting me through. In the morning, it was like he didn’t remember it at all.

A while later, I became pregnant with our third child. Davey came over, and asked Tom if Owen Hart and he could go to Japan as The British Bulldogs. Tom said, “Yes”, but he yelled and swore about it after they left. I told Tom that Davey had to make a living and feed his kids.

At this point, I didn’t tell my sister Julie much about Tom, because she was sick of hearing about his neglecting to come home, and his violent episodes. A couple of times, I threatened to leave him if he didn’t stop, but I’d find alcohol and pill bottles around the house.

I worried that my kids might find them.

BACK TO ENGLAND (PART II)

Tom went to Japan at the end of 1990. Before he left, he had his neck x-rayed, and he was told he had the neck of a 100-year-old man. He was almost bone on bone, and one bad hit could paralyze him for life. I begged him to quit wrestling; we owned our house, and he could open a wrestling school. He said, “No-one charged me - I’m not charging anyone else.”

When he came back from Japan, he spent most of the money he earned buying people $100 steak dinners, leather jackets from the Tokyo Hard Rock Café, and drinking. I did our budget, and pointed out that we had no money coming in, and there was no way we could make it if he kept spending money that way. He became angry and said, “I’m having a cigarette. Put that on your fuckin’ budget.” For weeks he didn’t speak to me, unless he wanted something.

On New Year’s Eve 1991, Tom came home at 10pm with a black eye, and his cheek ripped open. He had a white t-shirt on, with blood all over it. Bronwyne was crying, and asked what happened. He said, “I fell down, little girl.” Later, he told me he was jumped by cowboys because he refused to pay the New Year’s cover charge, and he also refused to take his sunglasses off. It was -40°, and he was wearing his shades in the bar.

It was at that moment that I realized what the future held for my children, and when Tom left for a couple of days after New Year’s, I contemplated ending it for myself, my kids, and the baby growing inside of me. I couldn’t do it, though; I couldn’t do it because I couldn’t guarantee that no-one would survive. My neighbour came to visit me, and told me to call mental health. The lady was a lifesaver. She told me I was in the cycle of violence, and there were only three ways out: I kill myself, the perpetrator gets treatment, or I leave him. The first and second were already met with a big fail, and it was this lady who helped me to see I could rise above and leave Tom, go back to school, and be self-sufficient.

I didn’t believe it at the time, but I knew I had to try and save my kids.

I bought Tom a one-way ticket to England, and paid for it with the last $3,000 we had in the bank. When I gave him the ticket, we had a big argument, and he put me in holds that popped out my jaw, and stretched me into agony. He told his brother, Mark, to go get his gun, because he was going to shoot me if I didn’t gather up the kids and leave for my sister’s in 15 minutes. I panicked, and the children were holding each other, screaming. I called the police, and the officer told me to leave if Tom was asking me to do so.

I didn’t feel that I should have to do that, because I had the children, and I was six months pregnant.

THE HEALING PROCESS

I did end up leaving, and going to Julie and Bret’s, and it was to be the last time I’d have knock on her door, for her to hide us while Tom cooled down. Just like when we were kids, Julie promised to protect me, no matter what.

Tom didn't have a dime when he left; he sold his custom-made ruby and diamond bulldog ring to the friend who drove him and his brother to the airport.

Our third child was born April 14, 1991. Her name is Amaris, and Tom has never met her. I went on social assistance, went back to school, and obtained my teaching degree. I re-married, and had twins from that relationship, who I named Trey and Trinity.

Tom never kept in touch all that well after we split, but I never, ever knocked him to the kids. When my oldest, Bronwyne, was 16, she wrote her dad a letter to ask why he didn’t stay in Canada to be part of her life. She asked him some questions, and he never came back to her. I said she should call him, and she did. “Dad, did you get my letter?” He said, “Yeah, and I thought it was pretty fuckin’ rude.”

Then he hung up.

Later on, Bronwyne had a baby, Miami Jayne, which made Tom a grandpa. Growing up, my children had always said that when they were old enough, they were going to go and find him, and that’s exactly what Bronwyne did. We’re in touch with Tom’s brother, Mark, who knew where he lived. So Bronwyne went to England, and knocked on the door of her father’s house. Tom was shocked as shit. He just said, “Hi, how are you?” and invited her in for tea.

They didn’t talk about anything deep or personal, but the day before she was going to fly back home, she took a kitchen chair and sat it down next to his wheelchair. They were watching some Bad News Allen matches from back in the day. She put her head on her dad’s shoulder, and they both started crying.

But they didn’t say anything to each other - that’s just not the way he is.

Bronwyne’s engaged to marry next September; she already accepts that her father doesn’t feel comfortable traveling, and won’t be at her wedding, but now she makes regular visits to see him. The last time she went, she took her boyfriend, Dan.

She’d love to take her daughter to see him, when she can afford it.

LIVING THE GIMMICK

I have no ill will towards Tom. We were on a journey together, and we were both young and naïve. In the end, he will always be the father of my Billington children, and the greatest wrestler to fly around the squared circle. For those two things, he deserves my utmost respect.

Towards the end for us, Tom would sit and watch his matches with Tiger Mask over and over. Sometimes I’d watch them with him, but he became moody and depressed, and preferred watching them alone. It was sad to watch. Tom always resented any wrestler who “believed his own gimmick”, but here he was grieving for The Dynamite Kid while I was grieving for the young man I walked in the fresh snow with all those years ago.

I think almost every wrestler loses themselves at some point in their wrestling persona, unless they have another career to fall back on, coping skills to handle the ride down the ladder, and the support of family and friends to help them transition into reality once the show is over.

Bad News Allen and Stu Hart were shining examples of a man staying true to himself and his family once his wrestling career was over.

Michelle Billington asks that readers of this article consider a donation to the For the Love of Children Society at ForTheLoveOfChildrenSociety.org.


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