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The Life

November 15, 2002
ESPN The Magazine

The ink on Diana Hart's divorce was not quite nine months dry, but it still felt good to come home one day last May and find Davey Boy Smith, her ex-husband, sitting on her couch. The British Bulldog, as he was known to wrestling fans, looked healthier than he had in a while. His eyes were clear, and the purple pallor from his morphine days was gone. When he told her, "You look great," Diana took it as a hint he wanted to move back to their Calgary home. But another Hart was waiting impatiently outside in her car. Like Davey, Andrea Hart became part of the famous Hart wrestling family through marriage. She was 15 when she married her 37-year-old substitute teacher, Diana's brother Bruce. Now, almost two years after leaving her husband, Andrea was living with Davey. As Andrea leaned on her horn, Diana recalls that Davey rolled his eyes, as if he didn't want to leave. Then he kissed her one last time, and told his teenage kids, Georgia and Harry, "I'll call you in a couple of days."

Davey Boy Smith
The British Bulldog had risen fast -- and fallen far. At his peak, the dreadlocked Brit could fill London's 80,000-seat Wembley Stadium. Now he was broke, crashing in the basement of Andrea's condo. He was begging money from his father, a widowed pipe fitter. He was also taking so many pain pills that the only way to have any idea what he'd downed was to pick through undigested capsules after he'd thrown up.

And yet, as Davey Boy crawled into Andrea's van to leave for a weekend at a mountain resort in British Columbia, he was struggling to regain his grip on a life that had spun wildly out of control. A week earlier, he had wrestled in a tag-team match with his son, Harry, in Winnipeg, hoping to jump-start Harry's career and restart his own. He'd resumed attending Sunday night dinners at the home of Stu Hart, Diana's dad and a legendary Canadian wrestler and promoter. And he was looking ahead to a meeting with wrestling czar Vince McMahon when World Wrestling Entertainment came to Calgary on May 28, just 10 days away. McMahon had welcomed him back from drug problems before. As long as Davey kept his rock-hard shape, he knew wrestling's most powerful figure would be forgiving.

But Davey never considered that his overused body might not be that forgiving. According to Andrea, he went to bed beside her on May 18, 2002, in Fairmont Springs, B.C., and never woke up.

The heart attack cited as the cause of Davey's death is more than just the punch line to a bizarre and tragic soap opera. WWE, a company with a market capitalization of $585 million, was battered a decade ago (when it was still the World Wrestling Federation) by a government investigation into alleged widespread use of steroids. It's not eager to see steroid abuse linked to the death of one of its most famous figures, at a time when performance-enhancing drugs have come under close scrutiny by the media and the government. WWE recently circulated a letter to journalists insisting that "no toxicology report [exists] indicating that Mr. Smith had steroids in his body at the time of death."

But forensic investigations in England and Canada are still probing the underlying causes of Davey Boy's death. And two families awaiting the results -- the Harts of Calgary and the Smiths of Golborne, England -- are filled with mutual suspicion and mistrust. Diana charges Andrea with not telling everything she knows. Andrea accuses Diana of hurting the family with her suspicions. And Sid Smith, who stopped his son's cremation so he could fly the body to England for an independent examination, doesn't know what to believe. "Something's not right," he says. "I'm going to get to the bottom of it."


Hart House is a rose-brick, ivy-covered manor right out of Wuthering Heights. Or so it must have seemed 50 years ago, when Stu Hart, now 87, installed his family there. Today, the once-barren mountain overlooking downtown Calgary is crowded with condos. A cramped room in the basement, called the Dungeon, is unchanged since Stu started training his eight boys. His four daughters, while barred from the Dungeon -- surprise -- all managed to develop crushes on wrestlers. At 17, Diana, who clipped pictures of ones she liked from her dad's 50-cent programs, fell hardest for Davey.

"Young David," the name he'd already made for himself in the London wrestling scene, arrived in Calgary in 1981. Then 19, he hoped to follow in the footsteps of an older cousin, Tom "Dynamite Kid" Billington, who'd been discovered by Hart three years earlier. Davey weighed just 175 pounds when he asked Tommy, "How do I get big like the other guys?" The reply was matter-of-fact: "You need steroids." Dynamite had him drop his pants and injected two shots of milk into his young cousin's butt. The next day, wrestlers at Hart House mooed when Davey passed them. Not long after the rookie hazing, he would learn all about the real thing.

Around Diana, Davey was docile and devoted, and he made her laugh by mimicking her brothers. "He saw the comedy of my family, where everyone else saw chaos," she says now. "He wasn't an aggressive person. He was really very sweet." They were married in 1984. Diana, raised so strictly that she was forbidden to chew gum, worried about her husband when he hit the road with Billington: "He was a jaded old dog who'd been in too many fights."

The fast-paced acrobatics that Dynamite brought to the Dungeon from Manchester signaled a turning point for pro wrestling. The plodding violence that had been a staple since the '50s was on the way out. The twirling corkscrew jumps Billington made from the ring posts were coming in. Since Davey knew all of his cousin's moves and had a cheekier image, Stu cast him as Dynamite's opponent.

The two spent three years flinging each other around for Stu's TV show, Stampede Wrestling, then joined forces as a tag team. In 1985, they caught the eye of McMahon, who handed them Union Jack tights, a bulldog named Matilda and a role in the WWF as the British Bulldogs. With Dynamite's daring and Davey's flair for comedy -- he studied Woody Allen and Charlie Chaplin films -- the Bulldogs became international stars, facing off against acts like the Bolsheviks and Nikolai Volkoff and the Iron Sheik. (In 1986, McMahon even enlisted Ozzy Osbourne to be ringside for their match at Wrestlemania II.) Meanwhile, Davey's diet had come to consist mostly of pills: pills to get big; pills to soothe the aches and pains that came from performing 300 nights a year; pills to help him even out the mood swings he got by mixing the other two. He ballooned to 275 pounds.

The first blow to the WWF money machine came in 1991, when a Pennsylvania jury convicted a local physician of selling steroids to several WWF wrestlers. As big a star as he was, when Davey's name surfaced in a federal probe of human growth hormone traffickers later that year, the WWF told him his services were no longer required. Crushed, The Bulldog retreated to Florida. Diana had persuaded him to buy a small home there to get away from the pushers who trailed him around Calgary.

The move didn't stop trouble from finding Davey. In 1993, when he'd returned to Calgary for a visit, he was accused of attacking a wiry teen who made a crack about Diana in a bar. Eyewitness accounts varied, but the teen fell and fractured his skull.

The case made front-page news when Davey was charged with aggravated assault. He was acquitted three years later.

Diana chooses to remember the Florida years as more tranquil, especially after Davey found work wrestling with a rival tour, World Championship Wrestling. "I'd pick him up at the airport and we'd go to the beach," she says. "We'd Jet-Ski. We had three cars in the garage. Everything seemed great."

Meanwhile, McMahon had been charged by government prosecutors with conspiring to keep the WWF awash in steroids. When a federal jury acquitted him in August 1994, he pledged to enforce a testing program more stringent than the Olympics'. Soon thereafter, he hired Davey back. With skin stretched so tight over his bulging muscles that his veins looked like exposed tree roots after a rain, Davey didn't look like he could pass a visual inspection, let alone a urine test. But with TV ratings in the cellar, McMahon needed star power.

Paired with Owen Hart, the youngest and most gregarious of his brothers-in-law, Davey had a second lease on WWF life. It lasted almost three years, until Bret, the most famous wrestler of the Hart clan, grew resistant to the racy material McMahon was pushing. The two had a falling out that came to a head in Montreal after a match in which Bret was double-crossed out of a win by McMahon. The wrestler belted the boss, then stormed out of the company. To prove his loyalty as a Hart, Davey quit also, following Bret to World Championship Wrestling.

The people who ran WCW didn't care much about Davey. They hired him to keep Bret happy and irk McMahon, nothing more. For one thing, he'd aged into a steroid hag. All the years of lugging 275 pounds around on a 5'9" frame had wrecked his back and shot his knees to hell. Buried in matches on the bottoms of cards where he was used to make beginners look good, Davey lapsed into a deep depression. Weeks would go by on the road without his calling home. Diana later learned he'd started doubling his intake of the painkiller Percocet. "He'd show up and his face would be bright red," says J.J. Dillon, a veteran manager. "It was obvious things weren't quite right with him."

Things soon got worse. On Sept. 13, 1998, Davey was hurled into the air during a match in Winston-Salem, N.C., and landed on the handle of a trapdoor built into the ring for a stunt. "I think I hurt my back," he told Diana when he came home to Calgary, where the couple had recently returned. For weeks, he wolfed down pills he'd hoarded: Tylenol 4, Valium, Soma. Finally, he pleaded with drug connections to get him something stronger. And so Davey Boy was introduced to morphine.

"My marriage survived Tom Billington, and it survived steroids," Diana says. "It just couldn't survive that damn morphine."


Sid Smith could tell his son was tired of America. He could see it in the way Davey lobbied WCW to hold more shows in the U.K., and the way he jumped when his mother mentioned that a nice house in Golborne was for sale. "I miss England," Davey told an interviewer in January 1998. "My wife and kids love it. They'd move there in a heartbeat."

But nothing could offer Davey solace when cancer was found in the bone marrow of his sister Tracy, 26. As a sickly child, she had loved it when Sid let her join Davey on trips around England to see wrestlers like Rollerball Rocco and Big Daddy. Her death on a cold Friday in November 1998 -- two months after he'd hurt his back -- hit Davey hard. When he flew to England for the funeral, he was visibly stoned, his eyeballs puffy, his speech slurred. The Smith house was so crowded with mourners that Sid barely spoke to his son. Even if they'd spoken more, it's doubtful Davey would have unburdened himself about his own crumbling life.

Diana had become disgusted watching her husband shake off his morphine stupors just long enough to shuffle from couch to bathroom and shoot up again. By late 1998, the couple had all but stopped speaking. Things were so bad after Davey returned from England in November that Diana swallowed a handful of Xanax in a halfhearted suicide attempt, hoping to scare him straight. At that point, he finally agreed to check into a rehab clinic.

But that failed when doctors, misinterpreting his night screams as a sign of detox, rejected his pleas for sedatives to blunt the stabbing pain in his back. Three weeks later, he checked himself out and turned to old drug suppliers to help him self-medicate. Soon afterward, Davey learned that his mother was dying of stomach cancer. Three months after Tracy was buried, Joyce Smith was laid in the ground beside her.

If Davey looked wired when he said goodbye to Tracy, he was ghostly at his mother's funeral. That night at a pub, his younger sister Joanne noticed he was barely able to raise his glass. She dragged him home, threw him on a bed and shouted, "I've lost my mum. I've lost my sister. We can't lose you, too." Davey nodded, then passed out. Before Davey left the next morning, Sid said, "If you keep taking that crap, you're not my child anymore."

After he returned to Calgary from his mother's funeral, an MRI proved that Davey wasn't inventing stories about his pain. He'd cracked a vertebra, and a staph infection was sweeping up his back. Doctors immediately checked him into Rocky View Hospital. In the middle of a three-month stay, he received a letter from the WCW voiding his contract because he couldn't appear on TV.

Davey Boy Smith
To Davey Boy, bigger meant better.
Owen Hart, who'd stayed with the WWF after Bret and Davey bolted, visited his old friend in the hospital and told him he'd used his influence with McMahon to get Davey his job back. Their talks about reviving the old tag team gave Davey his first moments of brightness in more than a year. Then, at a WWF show in Kansas City on May 23, 1999, a harness suspending Owen in midair unclasped from its rigging and sent him plummeting 60 feet to his death as he hit the ring.

Three months later, when McMahon met Davey in a New York City hotel to plan his future, the showman raised the obvious questions about Davey's health. Davey assured McMahon he was clean, and McMahon, taking him at his word, offered Davey a four-year deal worth $450,000 annually.

But Davey fell off the rehab wagon again that fall. This time, McMahon's latest life preserver -- a stay in an exclusive Atlanta rehab clinic -- simply wasn't enough. In December, Diana caught Davey shooting up in the garage of their home. At her wit's end, she called a lawyer and filed for divorce.

Amid all this, Davey received one last chance from McMahon -- a chance to wrestle in March 2000 at a show in Calgary. He arrived barely able to stand. "I tried to protect myself because I was afraid Davey would drop me on my head," recalls his ring partner, Steve Blackman. "I ended the match as fast as I could and got the hell out." The next night, Davey arrived for a show in Edmonton in even worse shape. The WWF crew sent him home.

The staph infection that his doctors thought they'd contained was now spreading into his legs. It grew so virulently that he was back in the hospital that summer. Because his divorce had left him isolated from the Harts, he was surprised when Diana's sister-in-law Andrea came to visit. She returned the next day and the next, evidently finding a sympathetic ear for her grievances against the Harts.

"Being in the Hart family isn't an easy job," Andrea says. "And believe me, it's a job." When Davey got out of the hospital, the two began secretly seeing each other. In September, Andrea moved out of her home and into Davey's place. But if they were looking for comfort, they didn't find it.

One day that fall, Andrea's estranged husband, Bruce Hart, tried to corner Davey outside his home. Davey sped away so fast on his motorcycle that he flipped headfirst over his handlebars trying to avoid a car backing out of a driveway. Another day, Bruce showed up at the gym where Andrea worked out. When Andrea called Davey, he jumped into his BMW and darted through traffic so fast he got pulled over by the cops. This led to his license being revoked.

By May 18, when Andrea drove him to Diana's house to see his kids, he was broke and burdened by tax problems. He hoped to convince McMahon, who was coming to Calgary with the WWE in 10 days, to let him into the ring one last time. To show he was repairing relations with the Harts, Davey persuaded them to let him resume attending Sunday dinners at Stu's house. On one such visit, Diana's sister Ellie nudged Davey to watch a video she'd shot while he and Diana were living in Florida. As Davey watched his kids performing a Christmas play, Ellie says he teared up and mumbled, "I have to change things."

Diana believes Davey had made up his mind to leave Andrea. She argues that the only reason Davey answered Andrea's honking horn on the last day of his life was so he could break things off on their drive to British Columbia. Andrea dismisses any such possibility: "Neither one of us would ever go back to our spouses."

The only thing on which everyone agrees is that Davey was juicing again. "Right up to the end, Davey was 'roided out because he thought he could go back to the WWF," Bruce says. "Davey was in pain because he'd put on 15 or 20 pounds of muscle weight," concedes Andrea. "Some days, he had a hard time walking."

There are thousands of stories about athletes who don't know when to give it up. Davey had wrestled since he was 12, so it's not surprising he couldn't imagine a life without it. The question is whether his juicing contributed to his heart attack. Steroids don't kill. But they do put stress on muscles that grow larger than nature intended. And the heart is a muscle.

Wrestling people have been the staunchest supporters of the theory that it was other drugs, not steroids, that did him in. Diana believes it was morphine. That theory has the added advantage of letting her cast suspicion on Andrea, whom she accuses of withholding information about what Davey did on that fateful drive into the mountains.

"There's no such thing as a steroid overdose," Diana insists, "and he couldn't have looked like he did in Winnipeg when he wrestled with Harry if he had been on his last legs."

Andrea fires back: "It makes me furious to hear talk about drug use. Everyone knows steroid abuse wrecks your body. Especially the Harts."

Sid Smith isn't ready to buy either theory, which is why he flew Davey's body back to the U.K. in May for examination by an independent pathologist.

A Manchester Police Department spokesman says there's no evidence of foul play, but a hearing on the coroner's inquest is pending.


The Canadian Legion Hall in the tiny Alberta town of Ogden is rocking on Friday night. A bunch of truckers are playing keno in the front bar. Beside them, blue-haired grandmas read romance novels and nurse their drinks. And in a meeting hall out back, a crowd large enough to fill a Denny's has come to see the Hart family's latest crop of grads.

Harry Smith is one of the stars. At 6'5", he's more than half a foot taller than his dad, but he's wiry and fast. Word has it, McMahon is keeping an eye on the kid. Tonight, he's starring in a "triple-threat" match with a Jesus imitator who calls himself Apocalypse and a beefcake named Dave Swift. Harry's face is too innocent to summon the requisite expressions of pain when he gets drilled into the mat. But he has little fear. And just like his dad, he's wanted to do this since he can remember.

Davey might have been a washed-up druggie in the wrestling world, but Harry idolized him right up until the day he walked out his door for the last time. Asked how he plans on living up to the best in Davey, Harry's answer is quick and unequivocal:

"I'll try to get as big as him."

Shaun Assael, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the co-author of Sex, Lies & Headlocks, a biography of Vince McMahon (Crown Books). E-mail him at

This article will appear in the November 25 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

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