Mutiny and the Sinking of Stampede Wrestling
It was Lord of the Flies on steroids. But unlike little boys with spears stranded on a deserted island, this scene featured overgrown hulks – Stampede wrestlers – armed with crushing muscle power and driven wild by the scent of blood, like a school of sharks. As in the classic novel, they had turned on one of their own.
Bruce Hart, thirty-nine, the son of famed wrestling promoter Stu Hart, looked out on the lynch mob surrounding the vehicle in which he had locked himself for safety. There was no talking his way out of this jam. He felt a sharp, throbbing ache in his freshly busted jaw. Outside the van – which earlier that day had hauled the mob to this arena parking lot in Yellowknife (or Hay River, depending on who recalls the incident) – the wrestlers circled hungrily. The wildest of the lot were stoked on steroids, booze, and various drugs, from painkillers to cocaine. They hammered on the windows, kicking and violently rocking the vehicle, taunting their prey, challenging him to come out and play.
Bruce, paralyzed with fear next to his panicked assistant, the hapless Bob Johnson, a family friend and wrestling cling-on, knew he was in for one mother of a beating. As the booker and boss's son, he was the acting chief on this wrestling tour, but there was no way he was going to step out of the van. He had been around wrestlers all his life, and he knew full well he was past the point of restoring order.
These goons had travelled over a thousand miles, coming from Calgary. For a good portion of the trip, eighteen of them had been packed like gigantic slabs of beef in one van, with no air conditioning, in the sweltering summer heat. It was a nightmare for everybody involved, Bruce thought, but at the moment there was nothing to be done about it. Instead of trying to make the best of a bad situation, those bastards were lashing out, looking for someone to blame. He couldn't believe things had descended into such ugliness, into this cheap, hell ride to the middle of nowhere, where the freaks had taken over the circus.
His father's Calgary-based wrestling promotion, Stampede Wrestling, had been a western Canadian institution since 1948, forty-one years ago. The television show had been syndicated across North America and, thanks to bootleg tapes, had been seen in as many as thirty countries. Wrestling fans from around the globe knew about Stampede Wrestling. It had spawned some of the biggest wrestling stars in the world. Bruce's own brother Bret Hart was one of them. The famed British Bulldogs, Dynamite Kid and Davey Boy Smith, former tag team champions of the world, were another two. Ironically, it was the Bulldogs leading this mutiny.
Such was the wrestling business that you could be on top one day – a face on network TV, a main event star in the biggest arenas in the world – and the next day you were back in the shithouse, trudging along on tours like this one. In a matter of months, the Bulldogs had gone from first-class flights to this garbage run through the Northwest Territories, and they weren't happy about it.
Tom Billington – Dynamite Kid – was at the forefront of the attack. He was volatile, malicious, the loosest canon of the bunch. Billington was seconded by his steroid-raging cousin, the 245-pound Davey Boy Smith. It's not clear who rounded out the mob that descended on the van, though the Stampede Wrestling roster at the time included a young Chris Benoit, who is today one of the biggest wrestling stars in the world; former football player Lethal Larry Cameron; "The Angel of Death" Dave Sheldon; Johnny Smith; Ron Ritchie; and Goldie Rogers. Some of them may have looked on in horror, helpless as the scene unfolded.
Bruce believes some of the wrestlers were sympathetic to his plight, but they weren't willing to chance becoming targets themselves. "Usually [the gang would] pick up on whoever was the weak one in the herd and all the hyenas would jump on him and start ripping at him, tearing him apart until he snapped and cracked," remembers Benoit of his early days on the road as a Stampede wrestler.
Dynamite knocked threateningly on the driver's window and demanded Bruce roll it down. "[He] looked scared to death," Billington recalls in his autobiography Pure Dynamite. Bruce had good reason to be petrified. It was only a matter of time before the blood-thirsty Dynamite Kid came crashing through the glass.
It never happened. Someone had called the police. Bruce welcomed the shrill whine of their sirens that pierced the night. "They told Dynamite to cool it and he started threatening them," Bruce says. "He told them to fuck off. He was drunk, disorderly, stoned. He was almost trying to lead a riot [against the police]." As the RCMP restrained Dynamite, Bruce and Johnson got out of the van and headed for the hospital, where Bruce's jaw was wired shut. "That was a trip to remember," Bruce says bitterly. "Kind of like the Titanic."
What fuelled this ugly mutiny? What caused these men to lash out so violently against the boss's son? The answer is impossible to grasp without a taste of the filth these wrestlers wallowed in on their journey.
The Stampede Wrestling circuit had always been a harsh road. For over four decades, the revolving-door roster would do the loop, week after never-ending week. There was the Friday night show in Calgary for the TV taping. Then it was off to Edmonton, Saskatoon, Regina, Lethbridge, Red Deer, one night after another, sleazy motel to sleazy motel, and then back to Calgary to do it all again. Somehow they would squeeze in the smaller centres, too. Taber, Swift Current, Milk River, Tisdale, various Indian reservations, any gopher hole across the Prairies would do – wherever paying, screaming, fist-shaking wrestling fans were to be found. Cancelling shows was not an option. There could be a blinding blizzard. The roads could be glare ice. The junky van could be falling apart on the highway. It didn't matter. You made the shows or you weren't paid.
And every few months, the loop veered out, touching down in centres across British Columbia and Manitoba. The northern territories – Alaska, Montana, Washington – they were hit as well at one time or another. During the late 1980s, Stampede Wrestling was broadcast across Canada on TSN, The Sports Network, and the Harts decided to take advantage of that, increasingly venturing outside the regular Saskatchewan-Alberta loop. That's why, in the summer of 1989, Bruce had booked this cursed trip to the Northwest Territories.
Milad Elzein, who was performing as the evil Arab wrestling manager Abu Wizal, had missed this particular trek, but he knows exactly what would have happened and why: "I'm not proud to say it, but we were a bunch of junkies back then. [We took] pain pills, marijuana, cocaine, anything we could get our hands on. Tommy was into pill-popping. I can't even imagine all the pills him and Davey took."
No one remembers how many towns were hit or how many days they had been on the road, but everyone remembers the trip as one long, foul ordeal. At first, there had been two vans. The villains, or heels, generally rode together, the so-called good guys travelling in the "babyface" van. Some of the seats were torn and broken, wobbling in their bases. There were holes in the floor. In one van, the liner had been ripped from the ceiling. The cabs reeked with the rotten smell of body odour and sweat, stale beer, and cigarettes, the odd belch or fart fired into the mix for comedic relief. Somebody had also pissed in the back of one of the wagons.
And the farther north the caravan travelled, the more uninviting the roads. "These big semis would come up from behind and you'd have to pull over and let them by. Then you'd wait for all the dust to settle down," Johnson remembers. "You'd be travelling along and all of a sudden that's the end of the road. There's a lake there. You'd have to wait a half hour for the barge to come along and take you across.... Then you'd travel another fifty kilometres and hit another lake and you'd wait for the next barge."
Bruce Hart remembers obscenely fat bumblebees and the kamikaze horseflies splattered on the windshield, and the deer, antelope, and porcupines that sauntered onto the road. "There were buffaloes up there that looked like they were on steroids," he says. "They'd roam around the highway not yielding to anyone. They'd stroll across the road and give you this look like, 'Ahh, fuck you. I'll let you go when I feel like it.'"
Dynamite Kid and Davey Boy Smith had only recently returned to the Stampede Wrestling circuit after a phenomenal four-year run in the World Wrestling Federation (WWF). Its WrestleMania was considered the Super Bowl of the wrestling world, and the Bulldogs had appeared on three of the cards. In one, in which they won the WWF World Tag Team titles, heavy metal star Ozzy Osbourne stood in their corner. For that single match, the British Bulldogs were paid $20,000 each.
They had children's toys made of their likenesses. They were on posters, collector's cards, and all manner of merchandising. They made more money then they ever thought they'd see in their lives, enough that Dynamite was able to pay cash for a $220,000 eighteen-acre ranch outside Calgary for him and his wife. And as they had become stars of network television, the Bulldogs appeared in public service announcements, preaching, hypocritically, to the kiddies about the virtues of clean living. They even made a guest appearance on the hit TV action series The A-Team.
These were but a few of the perks to be had when you were two of the top stars in the WWF. That organization, run by Vince McMahon Jr., had changed the face of professional wrestling. For decades, the North American wrestling scene had been divided into multiple territories, such as Stu Hart's western Canadian promotion. Each promoter had his own slice of land, his own kingdom as it were, and he controlled the wrestling cards in that territory. While they did swap talent, and occasionally do co-promotions, it was rare that promoters crossed into each other's territory. When that did happen, it usually provoked a territorial war and the aggressor would find himself blacklisted in the industry.
But McMahon didn't follow the rules. Instead, he finagled a national presence for himself on network TV and in the world of pay-per-view. He defied the territorial boundaries, booking shows in every territory across the country, poaching each organization's top talents while he was at it. McMahon orchestrated high-profile tie-ins with the rock world via Cyndi Lauper and MTV. He boasted the superhero-like Hulk Hogan as his top champion, a megastar who crossed over to the mainstream when he appeared in Rocky iii with Sylvester Stallone.
McMahon epitomized the flash-over-substance '80s. It was a decade in which a Hollywood star became president of the United States, the marketing images in a rock video became more important than the music, and blockbuster movies reigned supreme. It was a decade punctuated by unparalleled corporate greed, a time tailor-made for a figure like McMahon, and he prospered, turning his father's Connecticut- and New York–based territory into a global multimedia empire that brought professional wrestling to the masses in a way that Stu Hart never dreamed possible. The WWF was impossible to compete with. The old wrestling territories seemed like small potatoes next to its big-budget cartoon flash. As their fans abandoned them, the territories toppled one after another.
Despite its superb talent roster and loyal fan base, Stampede Wrestling had also fallen on hard times financially. Stu Hart was considering selling the business in 1984 when Vince McMahon came along, looking to break into the western Canadian market. Rather than fighting what was probably a losing battle – with its grassroots production values and single camera TV tapings, how could Stampede hope to compete? – Stu sold McMahon the promoting rights to his territory. The deal called for Stu to be paid $100,000 a year for ten years, plus 10 percent of the gate from all house shows in Calgary and Edmonton. Stu, in turn, would give McMahon his TV spots across Western Canada. Another stipulation was that McMahon hire the top talents of Stampede Wrestling, including Stu's son Bret Hart, his sons-in-law Jim Neidhart and Davey Boy Smith, and Dynamite Kid.
Cousins Dynamite and Davey had been Stampede Wrestling icons during the early 1980s. Dynamite, who came from the poor English coal mining town of Wigan, had been wrestling since he was a teenager. It was Bruce Hart who brought him to Calgary in 1978 when he was only nineteen years old. At first, Stu was reluctant, believing the kid – who then stood five-foot-eight and weighed no more than 170 pounds – to be a runt. Surely he'd be squashed by the hulks of the wrestling game.
But Dynamite soon turned the promotion, which was doing lukewarm business in the late 1970s, on its head. Nobody had seen moves like his, and the fans were excited again. This little runt was a draw, bringing folks back into the arenas by the hundreds. A fearless acrobat, he launched himself across the ring when hit, making his opponents look like supermen. When he was bounced off the ropes or given a simple hip toss, he flew like a crash-test dummy shot from a cannon. On the offensive, he sprang at his foes like a panther.
Dynamite was genuinely tough, too. Even though the outcomes of bouts were generally predetermined and the punches pulled, it wasn't uncommon for the boys to get rough with each other. Despite his size, Dynamite quickly made it clear that he could hold his own. He was fast, strong, and prone to sharp, violent outbursts. He had a complex about his size, an insecurity he carried like a demon on his shoulder, and when he felt slighted in any way, when the trigger was pulled on his temper, Dynamite was someone to be feared. He loved being feared. Being "a hard man," as the Brits call it, was everything to Dynamite. "Win, lose, or draw," he used to boast; he'd never back down from anybody. Once he discovered steroids, eventually bulking up to almost 230 pounds, he became more volatile and dangerous than ever.
Davey Boy Smith, from Manchester, arrived in Calgary in 1981. Four years younger than Dynamite, he worshiped his cousin and tried to emulate him in every way. Although he lacked Dynamite's mean streak, fearlessness, and talent for innovation, Smith was an exceptionally gifted athlete and his star power was obvious. Pin-up-boy handsome with a warm look in his eyes, Davey Boy became a favourite with the female fans. They cried when the bad guys beat on him. He could fly almost as high as Dynamite, too, and once he got on steroids, or "the juice" as the boys called it, he developed a massive build that Dynamite, to his chagrin, could never match.
While Dynamite and Davey Boy had been cast as bitter foes throughout most of their Stampede run, McMahon recreated them as a team, the British Bulldogs, and their hard, fast, acrobatic style left spectators awestruck. But the dream soon crumbled. First, Dynamite's high-impact style caught up with him, and he ruptured two discs in his back. The Bulldogs were forced to drop their title belts. It was the beginning of a steady physical decline that would eventually end Dynamite's revolutionary career.
To make matters worse, the Bulldogs' were living at a punishing pace, wrestling well over three hundred nights a year, never taking time off to let their injuries heal. On the road, they partied like decadent rock stars – nightly booze binges, some of the wrestlers smoking crack cocaine after the matches. Along with his regular intake of steroids – up to 1,200 milligrams of testosterone injected into his buttocks daily – Dynamite was becoming increasingly reliant on a number of addictive substances. Of his WWF years, he writes: "A normal working day for me was: speed to wake me up in the morning to catch an early flight, Valium to make me sleep on the plane, Percoset just before the match, then we'd wrestle, hit the beer, and the cocaine, until the early hours, before taking another Valium to put me to sleep at night."
The Bulldogs became notorious in WWF dressing rooms for their malicious pranks. Dynamite had long been fond of slipping Ex-Lax into the wrestlers' coffee, often causing them to have embarrassing accidents just about the time they hit the ring. Wayne Farris, who wrestled in both Stampede Wrestling and the WWF as a sleazy Elvis wannabe named the Honky Tonk Man, says the Bulldogs once slipped a sleeping pill into wrestler Outback Jack's drink. They then shaved off all his hair, including his eyebrows, stripped him naked, and stuck him in an elevator, sending him down to the hotel lobby.
"I seen him terrorize people," Honky Tonk says of his experiences with Dynamite in the WWF dressing room. One day, a French Canadian wrestler named Jacques Rougeau Jr. blamed Dynamite when he found his clothing in tatters after a match. Dynamite swore he was innocent and attacked Rougeau later that evening, sucker-punching him while he was playing cards in the dressing room. Weeks later, in retaliation, Jacques and his brother Raymond blind-sided Dynamite, who claims Jacques was wearing a pair of brass knuckles. Dynamite lost four teeth and his mouth was torn to shreds. "He got exactly what he deserved," says Honky Tonk. Although McMahon tried to patch things up, Dynamite was always on bad terms with the WWF after that incident, and it wasn't long before the Bulldogs left the organization.