It was the first thought that came into my head – surely everyone’s going this way?
‘The British Bulldog’ Davey Boy Smith was both an inspiration and a tragedy, a bittersweet journey uncomfortably synonymous with professional wrestling.
From humble roots of working class Manchester, Smith would become one of the WWF’s biggest draws of the 1990s. He started out as a tag team with The Dynamite Kid, a fellow Mancunian, who went by the name of The British Bulldogs; of course, it being the WWF and the 80s, they were given a pet bulldog, Matilda, who would buoy the team and, of course, terrify the cowardly bad guys.
But it wasn’t until 1991 and a repackage as a rugged singles competitor that his star grew. I didn’t see any of his work ‘live’, as he’d left by the time my brother and I began watching, but at the age of about ten, for some reason, I lavishly blew a fiver on a video of SummerSlam 1992.
SummerSlam that year came from outside America, one of the few big events to do so. It came from Wembley Stadium, and The British Bulldog was going up against Intercontinental Champion Bret Hart in the main event. It had to only go one way, surely? The reaction of eighty thousand fans as The Bulldog made his way down the aisle, Rule Britannia blaring, adorned head to toe in Union Flag gear and flanked by Lennox Lewis, was unlike anything I’d heard before. Yes, it’s wrestling, but there was something quite emotional about it. Sure enough, Bulldog was given the strap that night – the crowd went berserk. It was perfect.
Though perfectly capable, Smith’s in-ring ability was not his strength. This was not going to set alarm bells ringing; the crowds were probably unlikely to much care about skill – look at how Hulk Hogan was portrayed. The Bulldog most definitely had the superstar look, coupled with an aura that guaranteed big-name billing in such performances. He’d go on to capture many more titles and headline many big events, tangling with the likes of Shawn Michaels, Stone Cold and The Rock.
Bulldog left the WWF for rivals WCW in 1997, which turned out to be a wholly disastrous move. The next year, WCW were bringing in 80s star The Ultimate Warrior, and planned to have him make his debut by breaking through the ring – to do this, a trapdoor had been put in place. Indicative of just how careless WCW were toward their talent, they didn’t think to tell anybody on the show that night that such a device had been installed. Bulldog took a back drop directly onto the trapdoor, suffering spinal damage so severe that it almost crippled him. In a further demonstration of the company’s unwavering class, they fired him while he was in hospital.
Admirably, he returned to the WWF in late 1999, but by then the damage was done, and it was very visible. During the long period of recovery from the trapdoor incident, Smith had become dependent on cocktails of drugs to numb the relentless pain in his back. His skills were diminished, his struggles were physically and mentally evident, and sure enough, The British Bulldog dropped down the card like a stone, his appearances meaning less and less until he disappeared from TV altogether. Despite several courses of rehabilitation, Davey Boy could not escape the clutches of drug addiction and passed away in May 2002, aged only thirty-nine. A sad end, and one on a long list of fellow competitors who fell the same way. His son Harry follows his legacy, currently performing in Japan.
And indeed just as I write this, I’m told that Chyna, one of the most badass superstars the WWF has created, has died today at forty-five. She was one of my favourites as a kid; very sad news indeed.