May 20, 2007
Curse of Stampede Wrestling?
By TJ MADIGAN - Calgary Sun
Before the Calgary Flames migrated from Atlanta, before movie theatre multiplexes were in every quadrant of Cowtown, before cable TV was a fixture in every home -- Stampede Wrestling was arguably the most popular brand of local family entertainment.
Created by Stu Hart in the late '40s, Stampede had grown from a small-time local grappling group to a national and international wrestling phenomenon.
Thousands packed the Victoria Pavilion (and for bigger events, the Stampede Corral) each week to watch Hart's brand of rough-and-tough grappling action. Tens of thousands more watched on TV (and tape) across Canada and around the world, as the late great Ed Whelan served as the voice of reason amidst the mayhem.
In countries as far away as Antigua, people who couldn't point Calgary out on a map can tell you all about the Hart family, Stampede Wrestling and Stu Hart's infamous Dungeon.
While Calgary was still developing its identity, Stampede Wrestling became an undeniable part of it.
The Stampede juggernaut was finally derailed in 1984, when Vince McMahon gobbled up the local territories and took pro wrestling national.
But while many of the stars of Stampede went on to become worldwide celebrities in the WWE and WCW, tales of tragedy always seemed to outnumber the stories of post-Stampede success.
To put it bluntly, a lot of bad things have happened to a lot of the big names who honed their craft in the Stampede squared circle.
Some were self-inflicted traumas. Others were unfortunate tragedies or acts of God.
Some were genuine cases of bad luck and others were probably just par for the course in a business with such a rampant drug culture.
Maybe it's unfair to call it a Stampede Wrestling curse. But looking at the men who became grappling mega-stars in this city during Stampede's heyday, it's hard to shake the feeling that for many of them, there should have been a better life after the ring lights went down ...
Tom Billington came to Calgary from his native England in 1978 and revolutionized North American wrestling forever.
Billed as The Dynamite Kid, Billington introduced a high-flying, high-impact style which influenced a generation of wannabe wrestlers -- including Chris Benoit, who still credits Dynamite as his primary influence.
Dynamite was a Stampede Wrestling regular from 1978 to 1984, and again after his WWF run in the late '80s. He was a five-time Stampede tag champion and once held the company's highest prize, the North American Heavyweight title.
But Billington paid the price for years of steroid abuse, serious injuries and surgeries.
Today, he is confined to a wheelchair, living most of his post-wrestling life as a virtual recluse in a modest U.K. home. He is partially paralysed, suffering from a myriad of back, leg and heart problems, and is cared for by his second wife, Dot.
He will never walk again.
A bitter Billington published his autobiography in 1999.
It was a venomous no-holds-barred account of his career, his drug use and the cruel backstage bullying he was known for behind the scenes.
In 1999, Hart plunged from the rafters of a Kansas City sports arena when a rappelling stunt at a WWF pay-per-view went wrong.
Hart fell to his death in front of 15,000 fans, sparking a legal battle between his widow, Martha, and WWF owner Vince McMahon which would tear the Hart family apart.
Owen, just 34 years old at the time of his tragic death, left behind his wife and two young children.
The entire city of Calgary mourned Hart's passing, recognizing him as one of the true good guys in the seedy world of sports entertainment.
Before his WWF tenure, Hart had been the headline star of Stampede Wrestling from 1986 to 1988. He won the North American Heavyweight title twice in 1987, trading the belt back-and-forth in a feud with Makhan Singh. He also lifted the British Commonwealth mid-heavyweight belt from Gama Singh earlier that year.
In 1996, Brian Pillman narrowly escaped death after he fell asleep at the wheel of his Hummer.
Flipping the vehicle, Pillman completely shattered his ankle and spent several days in a coma before undergoing surgery to fuse his leg back together.
Miraculously, Pillman returned to wrestling as a top star in the WWF but his return would be short-lived.
On October 5, 1997, Pillman was found dead in a Minnesota hotel room.
On the eve of a big match, the 35-year-old wrestler had died of an undetected heart condition.
Pillman had been trained by Stu Hart, turning to wrestling after a short CFL stint with the Calgary Stampeders.
Teaming with Bruce Hart to form 'Bad Company,' Pillman won the Stampede Tag titles twice during his run with the company from 1986 to 1988.
He became a top star in Stampede Wrestling, developing a high-flying style and loose-cannon persona which made him a star around the world.
A 300-lb. powerhouse who got into the business at a late age, Cameron followed his run in Calgary with a wrestling tour of Australia and Europe.
But tragedy struck during a 1993 match in Bremen, Germany, when Cameron suddenly collapsed in the middle of the ring.
He had suffered a heart attack, dying in front of a German wrestling audience at age 41.
In 2002, Davey Boy Smith, The British Bulldog, died of a heart attack while vacationing in B.C.
Smith was just 39 years old when he passed away.
He had been training for a return to the ring and had recently started teaming with his son, Harry, in tag matches.
Long before he became a world-wide mega star in the WWF, Smith was a household name in Calgary.
He made the move here in the early '80s after being discovered in the U.K. by Bruce Hart. In addition to being a Stampede headliner, Smith was married to Stu Hart's youngest daughter, Diana, from 1984 to 2000.
After being manipulated out of the WWF championship in one of the most famous real-life double-crosses in wrestling history, Bret Hart ended his 13-year WWF career on a sour note.
Hart had been with the company since Vince McMahon bought Stampede Wrestling in 1984 -- The Hitman had gone from being the top star in Calgary, a six-time North American Heavyweight champion, to becoming one of the biggest wrestling stars in the world.
Things went downhill when Hart jumped ship to WCW in the late '90s. The Hitman suffered a career-ending injury -- a mule kick to the head (courtesy of Bill Goldberg) gave him a severe concussion during a 1999 PPV match.
In 2002, Hart also suffered a stroke after he fell from his bicycle on a Calgary pathway. Paralysis and memory problems were some of the issues Hart battled against through months of physical therapy.
Hart has made massive strides in recovering from the symptoms of his stroke and post-concussion syndrome.
In 2006, he performed in the musical Aladdin across Canada and was inducted into WWE's Hall of Fame. His autobiography is expected to be released this fall.
Tokyo Joe Daigo was preparing to return to Japan after a successful Stampede Wrestling run in 1974.
But on a road trip to Lethbridge, his career would be cut short when another vehicle slid on the icy roadway and smashed into the car he was travelling in.
Tokyo Joe had his leg amputated as a result of the accident, but went on to become one of the top wrestling instructors in the city, training T.J. Wilson, Harry Smith and Nattie Neidhart.
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