Editorial Columns

Looking At British Bulldog’s Return To The WWF

Adam Van Winkle takes a look at the final chapter of Davey Boy Smith’s career, when the British Bulldog returned to the WWF.

Can you name a WWF New Generation (1993-1996) star not named Michaels or Calloway or Hart that got WWF Title shots in both the New Generation and the very differently packaged Attitude Era (1997-2002)? 

If you’ve been tuning into this month’s series of columns here at TWM as I’ve honored his too-short career, in memory of his too-short life, you know where I’m going here. It was the British Bulldog Davey Boy Smith transcending those eras, proving a draw at both ends of the decade in the WWF, as he had been a tag team draw in the era of Hulkamania before.

He was in the title hunt when Bret Hart and the Undertaker and Shawn Michaels and Yokozuna and Razor Ramon and Diesel were the big dogs of the New Generation, and it was he and Michaels and Taker that transcended the era and survived in the title hunt during the Attitude Era as WWF/E moved into the new millennium with the likes of Austin and Foley and Triple H and the Rock now in the picture.

Sure, there’s some obvious caveats and nuances to address here.  

Every other wrestler I just named won the title at some point, and Davey was always booked to lose.  Bret Hart was champion at the beginning of the Attitude Era, but in many ways it was his inability to adapt to that Attitude Era that led to Montreal. So, you could argue that Hart wasn’t very long-stayed in the Attitude era and surprisingly it was Davey Boy who survived longer in the WWF Title picture than his more vaunted brother-in-law.  

While we’re playing this fun game, Hart and Smith along with Kevin “Diesel” Nash would be the only dudes in that span to get title matches in WCW as well. To extend it to just one more annoying observation: Nash and Davey Boy would be the only two guys of those mentioned to get a WWF Title shot after returning from WCW.  I’m not including Nash in the original premise here, New Gen and Attitude Era title contender, as he did not return to the now WWE until after the acquisition of WCW which marked the transition from the Attitude (1997-2002) to the Ruthless Aggression Era (2003-2008) with the rise of the likes of Edge and Orton and Cena.

Okay, enough of the listing.  And why, you may ask, am I doing this trivia dance for a guy who never won the title, for a guy most would say doesn’t belong in this group of wrestlers?  

Bias probably plays a big part.  As a fan I always preferred the Bulldog to, well any of those other wrestlers I listed (you shoulda picked up in the last two weeks’ worth of columns that I was a Bulldog mark, heel or face).  But as a guy interested in the history of pro wrestling, interested in looking back at the wrestling of my childhood for who mattered and what made it better then (to me), I do think Davey Boy’s ranking in the all time greats of his era is going unnoticed.

I’m very glad the WWE finally put him the Hall of Fame this year, but, to be frank, Koko B. Ware and Mr. T and X-Pac are in that same Hall of Fame.  In other words, being in the WWE Hall of Fame doesn’t necessarily mean you are one of the handful of the most impactful wrestlers of your generation.

There’d be some clear reasons for my perceived lack of appreciation or celebration for Davey Boy, of course.  Of the wrestlers I’ve listed here, Davey Boy and Yokozuna are the only ones that have passed.  They didn’t make it to write their tell-all books, or fill up my YouTube stream with shoot interviews, or guest on Jericho or Stone Cold or Arn’s podcasts.  For that alone, they’ll be a bit overshadowed by the big names still around to tell their story.

And there’s the drugs and violence.  When he has been depicted in wrestlers’ books, or maybe I should just say, books by the Hart family, his demons and violence overshadow the WWF Title shots.  Bret Hart can’t stop writing about how messed up Davey was for the 1992 SummerSlam match and how Bret had to carry his brother-in-law who couldn’t remember a thing about what was supposed to happen with the match.  

I’ve watched the match closely and I call absolute bullshit.  I have no doubts, given other accounts, that Davey Boy smoked crack that summer, probably a lot of crack, but watching the match, Davey is not out of it.  He is hitting sunset flips and reversals that even if Bret called in-ring, he wouldn’t execute that well if he were that messed up. 

If you want a true account of a wrestler trying to carry an inebriate, go read Ric Flair talking about Kerry von Erich trying a sunset flip against him at an NWA house show match where Kerry jumped two feet to the side of the waiting Flair.  Of course, Bret Hart makes sure to mention at other points in his narrative that Davey would call him some nights while smoking crack, crying about his addictions. 

Diana Hart’s book is, well, pulled from shelves due to errors and libel. But, it was out there, and excerpts exist everywhere in wrestling forums. You can also pick up a pricey copy on eBay.  She dedicates an entire chapter to Davey drugging her without her knowing so he could abuse and take advantage of his wife.  Given the widely varied accounts of his drug use and other stories of violence and his untimely death, well, it doesn’t make this Diana’s most outlandish claim.

Point being, I think these stories, on the heels of Shaun Assail’s awesome article in ESPN the Magazine the fall after Davey Boy died that delved into the Bulldog’s demons, are overshadowing the other side of things.  When I was in middle school though, man, he was a giant in the ring, the guy I so badly wanted to see win a world title the most (my other favorites, Sting and Vader, already had world title reigns).

And man, did the WWF tease me on that one.

Davey Boy’s first WWF Title shot was against Bob Backlund in that tiny window between Backland beating Bret Hart at Survivor Series 1994 and Diesel beating Backland at Madison Square Garden a few days later at a house show for the WWF Title.  Davey Boy beat Backlund at a house show the day before Diesel did.  But as with his WCW Title match wins versus Vader, it was a win that didn’t win the belt, this time a countout victory over Backland. 

Fast forward to January 1995 and I’m tuning into Raw to get the Rumble results.  And we get these glorious still shots of the Rumble.  And Davey Boy and Shawn Michaels are the first two in and the last two standing.  BRILLIANT booking.  And Davey…throws Shawn over and he’s going to WrestleMania XI to face Diesel!  Except, BULLSHIT booking, Michaels only hit one foot on the floor not two as required for elimination, a rule NEVER before stipulated for Rumble eliminations, he skins the cat, comes back in and knocks the celebrating Bulldog off the top turnbuckle for the BULLSHIT win.  Can you tell I was mad?  Davey Boy was right there, then, teased again.  

Davey Boy did get a title shot that year against Diesel, at In Your House 4 in Winnipeg.  He got the win again…but it was because Bret Hart interfered in the match and Diesel was DQ’d.  I mean, how many times can you let a kid’s favorite wrestler win world title matches without winning the belt?!?

He had beaten Bret Hart at 1992’s SummerSlam so when he was facing Bret for the WWF Title at In Your House 5, I was sure he could do that again.  How disappointed was I when I tuned into Monday Night Raw the next night to see the same old, same old Bret Hart, still world champ.  Having rewatched the match now on the Network a few times, it’s as good a match as SummerSlam, better if you like blood cuz Bret sliced himself up, but, unfortunately for this fan, Davey Boy did not get the win this time.

When Shawn Michaels finally got his WWF Title from Bret Hart, Davey Boy Smith was there for another shot.  Both men made the final four of the 1996 Rumble, with Michaels again eliminating Davey Boy (and they threw in some Shawn Michaels hitting on Diana storyline).  This In Your House was actually subtitled for Davey Boy as In Your House 8: Beware of Dog.  Okay, middle school me thought, the pay per view is named for him, he’s got it.  It was…a draw.  A freaking draw.  Shawn Michaels won the King of the Ring rematch.  

Middle school me probably should have caught on that it wasn’t going to happen, and adult me knows why.  As with a Kerry von Erich before, a company wasn’t willing to trust a guy with that many issues with addiction and occasional legal problems to get a shot to carry the brand.

In 1997 the WWF European Championship was created, and Davey Boy was the first European Champion.  Fitting.  In looking back, the question becomes, if the WWF wasn’t going to put the WWF Title on Davey Boy, or the WCW Title when he was there in 1993 for that matter, why put him in so many major title matches to begin with?  The answer is singularly his British and Canadian appeal, two major markets for pro wrestling outside the United States.  SummerSlam 1992 proved that, the success of WCW’s 1993 European tour (where Davey Boy was given the Dusty finish, beating Vader to get the title in front of the British crowd only to have the promotion take it away on a technicality DQ) proved that.

As I chronicled last week, Davey Boy joined Bret and Jim Neidhardt in leaving the WWF after the Montreal Screwjob, but he was back in jeans in 1999.  And by gawd, they put him right back in the title picture.  By then I knew he wasn’t winning the big six man match for the vacant WWF title against the Rock, Triple H, Kane, Foley and Big Show.  Triple H got the title that night, but again look at that list.  One New Generation star was there to challenge for the vacant title in 1999 (yes Nash and Michaels would get title matches post 2003, but they weren’t there at the turn of the millennium).  Again, staying power proved.

Bulldog still got belts in that last run, and I was happy to see one of my favorites of all time winning the Hardcore and European titles, though I couldn’t get too hyped for Bulldog and D’Lo Brown or Bulldog and Al Snow matches.  By mid 2000 he’d be out of the WWF, and within two years he was gone.

Here I am at the end, having drawn logical conclusions about why Davey Boy Smith was so often in the title picture without ever winning it, and still I am left with this unbelievable nostalgic nagging for the British Bulldog to have at least once, one damn time, gotten booked for the WWF Title.  That would have made middle school me very happy indeed.

Rest in Peace Davey Boy.  

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You can find me on Twitter @gritvanwinkle.

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