#DaveyBoyWeek: Better Know a Wrestler

It's #DaveyBoyWeek, the 21st installment of our (patent-pending) Juice Make Sugar Wrestler of the Week series. As always, we'll start everything off by making "The British Bulldog" Davey Boy Smith a Wrestler You (Should) Probably Know Better.

Few men ever epitomized their time like Davey Boy Smith. The British Bulldog embodied the promise and excess of the Hulkamania era, the disappointments of the New Generation Era, the chaos of the Monday Night War, and the heartbreak of the early 2000s.

Smith broke into wrestling before he could smoke a cigarette or drive a car, debuting on the iconic “World of Sport” in England when he was only 16 years old. Smith, then rail thin quite literally baby faced, wrestled as “Young David”, sharing time in the ring with a who’s who of late-70s British wrestling, from other up and comers like “Fit” Finlay to Her Majesty’s personal favorite, Big Daddy.

As visually beautiful as the “World of Sport” style was to watch, the best money in wrestling was to be made in North America or Japan. Before he was twenty, Smith and his cousin Tom Billington (The Dynamite Kid) traveled to the Wild West of Canada, Calgary, to train with and wrestle for the Harts. Stu Hart’s Stampede Wrestling, while on the periphery of the NWA structure, was known as a place that took good athletes and made them great wrestlers. Just as importantly, Stu had existing inroads with promoters in the Lower Forty-Eight as well as Japan, so Stampede, while at times cash-strapped, was seen a springboard toward making good money.

Davey Boy and Dynamite fit perfectly into the world of early 80s Stampede Wrestling. Both men were tremendously acrobatic athletes (as was the “World of Sport” style), and some, including Bret Hart, say that during this period, Dynamite Kid was the best worker on earth. Davey Boy was quite different from Billington, though. While a very good worker, he also had an easy smile and clefted chin reminiscent of Cary Grant, traits that made it so that he didn’t have to be quite as good as Dynamite. (If you have a sense of Dynamite’s character, this must have made him intensely jealous and resentful towards Davey.)  

During this time, both men were introduced the worst vices of North American wrestling: steroids to enhance a wrestler’s larger-than-life look, amphetamines to easy the fatigue during the famously-long car rides from town to town, and cocaine, for staying up, and also just for fun. Unfortunately, both men took to these like stone(r)fish to drug water. Suddenly, both men’s short, lithe frames were covered in big, bulky, unmistakably artificial-looking muscle mass that look poised to burst through the skin at any point. Through modern eyes, it’s an uneasy sight; through the eyes of the mid 80s, it looked like green money.

***

When Vince McMahon and Stu Hart negotiated the buyout of Stampede in 1984, Stu used what little leverage he had to secure jobs for a small cadre of his wrestlers, which included Bret Hart, Jim Neidhart, The Dynamite Kid, and Davey Boy Smith. Hart was able to keep his family employed (Smith and Neidhart were in relationships with two of his daughters) and McMahon received a pool of TV-ready talent who would help fill out what became the spectacular tag team division of the Hulkamania era. With their ungodly looks and exciting in-ring style, the Bulldogs found great success in the WWF, capturing the Tag Team Titles at Wrestlemania 2 and carrying them for nearly 300 days before dropping them to old pals Bret and Jim Neidhart.

But, Billington’s erratic behavior — fueled in part by drugs and paranoia, but mostly just plain meanness — made the Bulldogs personae non grata in the WWF locker room. A misunderstanding one night involving The Fabulous Rougeau Brothers and Curt Hennig was the final straw for the Brits in the WWF, when the former assumed an especially mean-spirited prank pulled by the latter had in fact been executed by Dynamite. This (and the roster’s general dislike for Billington) precipitated a chain of heated verbal arguments and shoot fights, the result of which was Billington leaving the WWF minus a few teeth with his tail tucked between his legs. Davey Boy, lacking Billington’s strong headedness and not knowing what he would do without his tag team partner (they were, after all, a package deal) also walked out.

Living outside the warm embrace of the WWF or JCP during the national expansion era was hard, but the Bulldogs kept themselves afloat working in the retooled (and badly floundering) Stampede Wrestling as well as All Japan, where Dynamite in particular was a huge star. During this time, Davey Boy was in a bad car accident during one of those famously long Stampede car rides, suffering massive head trauma when he went through the windshield. It was the turning point in his addiction to pain pills and crack cocaine, the scourge of the day, and would ultimately lead to the premature derailment of his career and life.

After this, his relationship with his cousin became untenable and Smith returned to the WWF as a singles act. As the ‘90s opened, Smith had all the ingredients to be a huge star in the WWF: he had a handsome face, a Herculean look, and legitimate historic ties to the height of Hulkamania (having appeared in Wrestlemanias 2-IV). Having seen the writing on the wall with Billington, Smith had also secured a trademark of the name “British Bulldog” on his own, ensuring that he could promote himself as such as North America while Dynamite could not. It was a shrewd, vindictive business move worthy of Vince McMahon himself.

***

Vince had his eyes on international expansion, and having a top star with ties to “World of Sport” was what Vince would need to get the WWF (there referred to by the pejorative “American Wrestling”) over in England.

During his big singles push, one of Davey Boy’s less marketable trait came to the forefront: his promos. As a tag team wrestler, Smith had been able to let his in-ring work do the talking for him, but in the WWF, singles stars needed to be able to talk. Maybe it was Smith’s strong Mancunian accent, but his promos always sounded a bit garbled and rushed. It was as though he stepped up to the microphone thinking “Oh god, I have to make it through thirty seconds of this.” While Davey Boy emoted honest, hard-working babyface intensity, his promos made him seem like the lovable dumb guy on the football team.

And so it was that Davey Boy was positioned in a unique spot that was truly all his: he was an upper-midcard star in the states, but pushed like a top dog (no pun intended) during tours of the UK and Europe. During this time, Smith also became a Battle Royal specialist (like top European stars Andre the Giant and Big Daddy before him), winning several such bouts on English tours and having a very strong (but overshadowed) showing in the ’92 Royal Rumble, which was won by Ric Flair.

Smith’s popularity was one of the reasons the WWF decided to promote Summerslam ’92 at Wembley Stadium in London. Bulldog was always envisioned to be a big part of the card, but he was actually given the main event spot because his brother-in-law and long-time friend Bret Hart, the Intercontinental Champion at the time, pitched dropping the title to Smith. It gave British fans a huge feel-good moment, with one of their own capturing a major American heavyweight title (as the Intercontinental Championship still was in 1992).

More importantly, for a marketing standpoint, having a British champion would help McMahon fight the perception that he was simply forcing “American Wrestling” down Brits’ throats. Furthermore, main eventing the Intercontinental Title gave prestige to the belt and to Smith, who needed the rub to feel more “main event.” And if that wasn’t enough, having a long, athletic IC Title match with a clean finish helped hide a countout finish in the World Heavyweight Title match earlier on the card.

The match is the closest Davey Boy Smith ever came to wrestling and (more importantly) feeling like a main event wrestler. On that night, it seemed, Davey Boy Smith had been made the international star of the ‘90s.

But it didn’t stick.

***

Upon return to the states, Davey Boy wasn’t as over as he should have been, and more importantly, he screwed up enough to get caught receiving shipments of Human Growth Hormone (not yet a household name outside of bodybuilding, football, and wrestling circles) at a time when Vince McMahon was desperately trying to look like he didn’t endorse the use of performance enhancing drugs.

Now, it was obvious that Davey Boy Smith was abusing steroids and growth hormone and had been doing so for many years (in fact that abuse was one of the things that made him a star), but it wasn’t the usage that was the problem, it was getting caught. After holding the Intercontinental Title for less than two months (well, three if you count the tape delay to the day the title change actually aired), Smith dropped the title to Shawn Michaels and was fired from the WWF. It was the end of his best run, and the end of the part of his career that’s easy to watch.

In spite of his ignominious release from the WWF, Smith found himself almost immediately employed by WCW. WCW treated Davey Boy like a huge star, featuring him alongside the likes of Vader, Ric Flair, and Sting.

As a sign of the star power WCW believed they had acquired, Davey Boy was featured heavily in the May ’93 Slamboree show against WCW World Heavyweight Champion Vader, who he beat by DQ. Smith was also a part of the notoriously stupid (and expensive) WCW mini-movies, one of which showed he and Sting playing homoerotic beach volleyball (a la Top Gun) before Vader and Sid Vicious attempted to blow them up with a bomb. [Seriously.] Even more memorably, Smith was on the set of “Flair for the Gold” when the Shockmaster debuted, prompting Davey Boy to say (not realizing he was still miked), “He fell flat on his fucking ass!”

Only a month later, Davey Boy himself fell flat on his fucking ass, albeit metaphorically. Smith was involved in a nasty bar fight with a mark who may or may not have been hitting on his wife, which left his opponent/victim inclined to seek legal recompense against Smith and WCW. In an attempt to avoid flak, WCW fired Davey Boy after less than a year of service.

 

With the heat having cooled off Vince McMahon for steroids and Davey Boy for his bar fight, Smith returned to the WWF at Summerslam ’94. Two years after his legendary main event against Bret, it was clear that thanks to his personal and professional mistakes, Smith would never be put in such an important position ever again. With that said, he still had a huge name in Europe and was a talented worker, so there was a spot for him on the roster.

For the next two year, Smith was a certified midcarder, forming a tag team with Lex Luger called “The Allied Powers” which played up both men as patriots representing their respective countries, and then later as a member of Camp Cornette, a stable of cartoon heels. By late ’95, Davey Boy had worked hard enough in the midcard to earn back to trust of Vince McMahon and received several main event matches against Diesel and Bret Hart.

In early 1997, Smith became the inaugural WWF European Champion, defeating his Camp Cornette tag team partner (and brother-in-law) Owen Hart in a tournament final in Germany. The goal of this title was similar to that of Davey Boy’s Intercontinental Title win nearly five years earlier: to find a way to identify and elevate The British Bulldog as the WWF’s resident international star so as to increase the WWF’s chances to successfully promote abroad.

Conspicuously foreign, a star and a real-life Hart family member, European Champion Davey Boy was a natural fit to take part in the new Hart Foundation vs. “America” (as embodied by Stone Cold Steve Austin) feud. Unfortunately, Smith’s push within the angle was standing on unsteady ground. The brutal, legitimate rivalry between Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels was going full swing, and while Michaels found it hard to sabotage the deeply-entrenched Hart, he was able to politic enough to take the European Title from Davey Boy in the main event of One Night Only, a UK exclusive pay per view.

Taking a loss in England essentially destroyed Smith’s mystique as a literal and figurative “European Champion.” While Smith had never achieved true main event status stateside, the WWF had always taken pains to protect him abroad. Two and a half months later, Michaels laid down for super best buddy Triple H, handing him the European Title as a gift. These two moves basically destroyed Smith’s credibility as anything other than an interchangeable midcarder. Imagine if Hulk Hogan lost his title in MSG to The Iron Sheik and never got a rematch — it would completely undermine the character.

Davey Boy’s European Title loss was a real-life warning shot by Michaels fired across the nose of the Hart Foundation. Bret still refused to play nice with Michaels, however, leading to the Montreal Screwjob, which caused Davey Boy as well as Bret and Neidhart to leave the WWF.

***

Smith emerged in WCW with Hart and Neidhart, but unlike his first run with the company in 1993, he was not treated like a significant acquisition. Smith worked midcard and tag matches until he suffered a horrific spinal injury at Fall Brawl ’98 when he fell hard on the edge of a trapdoor that had been placed in the ring to create a gimmicked entrance for The Ultimate Warrior. While Smith laid at home recovering from near-paralysis, he got one of Eric Bischoff’s legendary FedEx notices, telling him he’d been fired.

Davey Boy returned to the WWF, won the European Championship again from D’Lo Brown, but much like his last run in WCW, was never treated as anything special. Years of steroids, speed, injuries, and the political machinations of new power brokers Shawn Michaels and Triple H had reduced Smith to a shadow of himself. He floundered in the lower midcard of the then Hardcore Division before being released in mid-2000.

 

Almost exactly two years after his last televised WWF match, Davey Boy Smith was dead. His heart, scarred from years of steroid and recreational drug abuse, gave out at age 39. A man of his time, Smith was one of the first high-profile wrestler deaths in a domino chain that culminated in the Benoit double murder-suicide.

He was also at the very heart of major league wrestling from the height of Hogan to beyond the height of Austin and a great athlete who wrestled nearly every significant star of his era in a number of memorable matches. Most importantly, though, Davey Boy was the harbinger of the WWF/E’s global expansion in the same way Hulk Hogan was the embodiment of national expansion. Every Rey Mysterio or Great Khali lives in the shadow of Davey Boy Smith, a man who took a company that was unmistakably American and made fans on a different continent accept it as their own.