As one of the most iconic figures in the history of professional wrestling, legendary manager J.J. Dillon has experienced just about everything that the business has to offer. Whether he was in front of the crowds and cameras as manager of Ric Flair and The Four Horsemen, or he was working behind the scenes at WCW and WWF during the legendary Monday Night Wars, J.J. Dillon set an industry standard for the pop culture phenomenon known as sports entertainment.
Although officially retired from wrestling since February 2003, J.J. still makes occasional appearances with independent wrestling organizations from time to time, including Chikara and Ring of Honor. He recently published Wrestlers Are Like Seagulls: From McMahon to McMahon (Crowbar Press, 2005) which chronicles his experiences in the world of professional wrestling.
J.J. Dillon generously agreed to participate in an interview for The Wrestling Daily to share a little about his celebrated past and his current endeavors.
— Mike Bessler, September 2009
TWD: J.J., your book Wrestlers Are Like Seagulls is truly an impressive undertaking. Not only is the book packed with candid and insightful recollections of your decades in the business, but you’ve also included a wealth of great photos from your personal archives. Please tell us a little about the writing process for the project and how it felt to look back through time at your distinguished career.
JJ: I was introduced to Scott Teal by a close friend in the business. I had given passing thought about someday writing my memoirs, but never gave it serious thought until meeting Scott. The whole process took almost a year. We spent months recording extensive phone interviews.
I had kept detailed daily journals from the beginning of my career which gave us a documented basis from which to touch on details of each venue in the various territories I worked including the names of the wrestlers I worked with. Scott had our phone conversations transcribed by Philip Varriale, and Phil injected additional information about my career that added more depth to the final draft.
Scott broke my life story into chapters to make it easier to read, and added photos from my personal collection and photos of other wrestlers to coincide with references to specific individuals. (Scott Teal is a gifted author and a respected wrestling historian.) My story was told with brutal honesty including a hard look in the mirror at my own strengths and shortcomings.
I am very proud of the book. It has been very well received by all those that have read it. It is not available in book stores and you can only get a copy through www.jjdillon.com (or Crowbar Press), or at one of my personal appearances. I try to attend Cauliflower Alley Club each year, the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame functions, and at any other appearances, and I always try to carry a few books with me. For copies ordered through my website, I continue to sign (and personalize, if requested) the book at no additional charge as my way of saying thanks to all that have picked up my book.
TWD: In the process of delving into such a vast array of material, were there any “time capsule” moments in which you unearthed a particular memory or two that had been long forgotten? How did it feel to revisit some of the more difficult times in your career, such as your personal disputes with folks like Dusty Rhodes and Vince McMahon?
JJ: When I sat down in one-on-one exchange with Scott, as I reflected back I did tend to remember specific dates or matches in great detail. In real time, one is often so busy wrapped up in the moment that one doesn’t appreciate the significance or impact of what is taking place. As Scott and I discussed the whole of my career, I found that I did develop a greater appreciation for certain highlights of my career that I had never focused on before. I realized just how lucky and blessed I had been. I had a lot of help from many people along the journey and I felt it was important to acknowledge that help and I tried to thank each individual by name.
I’m glad you asked about Dusty Rhodes. I’d like to set the record straight. In Seagulls, I did say that I often found it difficult working with Dusty at times over the years because of his intense ego. I still stand by what I said. However, it would be wrong to characterize our relationship as a personal dispute ever at any time. To the contrary, Dusty was very kind to me and to this day I respect and admire Dusty. I want it known that I acknowledge my gratitude to “The Dream” and I attribute a large part of the success I enjoyed at the peak of my career to the opportunities available to me from working with Dusty. I have also come to understand that the ego is a big part of what has made Dusty an icon in the wrestling business. It is an essential part of the make- up of “The American Dream.” I consider Dusty a friend.
As for Vince McMahon; though at the time we parted company in 1996, our individual emotions were charged and intense, I don’t harbor any ill-feeling towards Vince. I appreciated that I was asked to participate in the WWE Horsemen DVD; that I was invited to the Flair retirement celebration on RAW in Orlando following the Flair-Michaels match (and I wrote Vince a personal letter congratulating him and the WWE for a job well done for Flair, and for inviting me to be a part of it); and that I was invited to participate in two recent taped sessions of the WWE Legends of Wrestling Roundtable that took place in Stamford. I guess time does soothe old wounds.
TWD: You’re best known for your work with The Four Horsemen through Jim Crockett Productions and NWA, but in the mid 1980s, you also did some work in the Memphis/CWA territory. I recently revisited some of the promos you shot for the old Championship Wrestling show in which you dish out some serious verbal abuse at Jerry Lawler and his devoted fans. You brought every last bit of your signature style and swagger to the Memphis territory and the fans seemed to respond well to your personality and presence. How much input and influence did you have on the creative process when you crossed over into Memphis and other productions and territories?
JJ: My role as Leader of The Four Horsemen was certainly the pinnacle of my career, but also just a snapshot of my career. Remember, I had over 3000 wrestling matches throughout my career. I had a great time the first time I appeared in Memphis at the studio with Lance Russell.
As is often the case with special moments in one’s career, it came about through a series of events. Lawler had worked a big show in Florida and faced Kendo Nagasaki for the Southern Title, and I managed Kendo at the time. Business was so-so in Memphis at that time, and Lawler had the Florida match with Kendo taped to air on Memphis TV. Kendo and I stole the title from Lawler and a return match was ordered for Memphis. I was asked to do a promo for Kendo for the Memphis rematch, but I didn’t appear myself.
It jumped the house significantly in Memphis and I think that Kendo and Lawler ended up getting three matches out of the deal. Each week I got a call in Florida to do just one more promo for Memphis. Lawler eventually took back the Southern Championship, and Jerry Jarrett wondered why they hadn’t created their own Kendo-like character. Kimala the Ugandan Giant was born.
Again, I was asked to cut a promo for someone I had never met or seen since it was a natural transition from Kendo. The new character continued to grow in Memphis as did my mystique. The fans started asking when they were going to see me in person in Memphis (remember, this is all before cable television changed the landscape). Arrangements were made with the Florida office for me to be booked a few dates in Memphis. My first appearance was the Memphis TV, and how could I miss with a front-story like mine prior to showing up? Jerry Jarrett gave me free reign, and the rest is history.
TWD: The Memphis/CWA area was a hotbed of pro wrestling in the late 1970s and early 1980s and an impressive roster of heel managers left their mark on the region during that period. From Jimmy Hart to Tux Newman to Angelo Poffo, some of the biggest and best names in the business did their share of memorable work in Memphis. Did you feel like you had to work harder to draw in the fans or did your reputation already generate a fair amount of heat for you?
JJ: As I already indicated, my work on the promos I cut from Florida for Kendo and for Kimala spoke for itself. You hear people say that they were in the right place at the right time and then capitalized on the opportunity. That is what happened with me in Memphis. I had a blast in Memphis, helped draw a few bucks and I was treated with the utmost respect and professionalism. They took good care of me. Jimmy Hart was there at the time and he briefly formed an unholy alliance with Jerry Lawler and Jimmy and I worked against each other a few times. Jimmy is a great talent and he went on to bigger and better things and is a credit to our business.
TWD: In your book, you mention that the last time you spoke or corresponded with Vince McMahon was prior to your departure from WW(E) in 1996. Was it a difficult decision to return to a WWE ring for Ric Flair’s farewell show in 2008?
JJ: It was not a difficult decision at all for me. I did say in my book that I would never again work for the WWF (now WWE), or for Vince.
For me personally, I see a distinction between appearing at the Flair farewell celebration (or to appearing on the WWE Ric Flair and The Four Horsemen DVD, or participating in the Legends of Wrestling Roundtable) and becoming to a full-time employee of the company (or a consultant, etc., on any basis). In fairness, I should make it clear that I have never had an offer or any type of overture for any type of employment from the WWE, nor do I ever expect any. I would never consider going back, so my feelings remain the same as they were in 1996.
I am not splitting hairs, and I’m not trying to search for some basis to justify my recent decisions. I knew that I owed it to my fellow Horsemen and to all the fans that supported me so well throughout my career, to put any personal feelings from the past aside and to do what was right for the business.
TWD: Your book also provides a candid look at some of the most infamous debacles in the history of pro wrestling, such as the 1998 “Road Wild” main event which involved the ill-conceived showdown between industry superstar Hulk Hogan and talk show host Jay Leno. You described this moment as “the beginning of the end” and “a sad day for the wrestling business.” With the recent introduction of regular “guest hosts” on Monday Night Raw, WWE has seemingly resurrected the idea of integrating celebrities into the wrestling world and a good deal of these appearances involve some degree of physical interaction with wrestlers as a kind of impromptu, on-the-fly booking. Has WWE learned from the mistakes of Bischoff and WCW or are they simply repeating a regrettable chapter in sports entertainment?
JJ: I don’t agree with a lot of the things Vince has done and the direction he has taken the wrestling business, but I also cannot ignore his success. The problem as I see it is that once you go down a certain road, you can’t reverse and pretend you were never there. I refer to the use and treatment of females, the all too frequent changes in title holders (as often as two or three times in the period of one show), and the emphasis on being perceived as purely sports entertainment.
If you acknowledge that everything is scripted, and if you show that the title (any title) no longer has any real meaning, how can you expect me to get emotionally involved in who is to be the winner of a title match when you’ve already demonstrated that the title itself doesn’t mean anything anyway? What are they fighting for, and why?
TWD: I recently spoke with someone who had the pleasure to meet you while working an indy show a short time ago and he was thoroughly impressed with your warmth and professionalism. He said that you went around the locker room and personally greeted each and everyone there, suggesting that your genuine interest in talent and staff is uncommon in the business today. Do you feel like you have a distinct or unique philosophy when it comes to pro wrestling? Who were your most important influences in the area of business relations and behind-the-scenes work?
JJ: I don’t know that I have a distinct or unique philosophy about professional wrestling, but I do have a distinct appreciation for how I got to where I am today. The purpose of doing this interview is not to sell my book, but you really have to read my life story from beginning to end to understand where I’m coming from.
I was never the biggest or the best, but no one wanted it more than I did or was willing to work any harder than I did. Even with hard work and dedication, I had the benefit of a lot of help from lots of people throughout my career. Please find a copy of my book even if you borrow a copy from a friend. I owe so much to so many. I’m hesitant to start listing names, because I can’t begin to list them all. They are listed in my book. You also have to be lucky, and I was often fortunate enough to be the right place at the right time. I also owe the fans everything. Wrestling fans are the best fans in the world, and the most loyal.
Whatever success I’ve enjoyed in the wrestling business, I owe first and foremost to the fans that supported me and supported professional wrestling throughout my career.
TWD: You seem to be very happy in your retirement, devoting as much time as possible to your children and grandchildren. But wrestling fans always enjoy seeing you back inside the squared circle and we’re always eager for the next chapter in your storied career to unfold. What can we look forward to in the coming months and years from the magnificent mind of J.J. Dillon?
JJ: I have slowed down a little bit. I look back on the era of the Horsemen and the lifestyle, and I wonder how did I do it? I had full, left-knee replacement two years ago. A year ago I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. It was detected very early, I had excellent treatment and today I am cancer free.
I continue to work full-time for the State of Delaware. I am active in Cauliflower Alley Club and again this year I will be the MC (along with Terry Funk) for the awards banquet in Las Vegas in April. I am on the board of the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum in Amsterdam, NY. We have our annual induction (the 11th) coming up in early June of 2010.
The PWHF is an amazing place. Just as every baseball fan must someday make a pilgrimage to Cooperstown, every true wrestling fan owes it to his or herself to make a similar pilgrimage to Amsterdam to see pro-wrestling’s only true brick and mortar Hall of Fame. I don’t have the words to describe it; you must see it for yourself. (If you go to www.jjdillon.com you will find convenient links to CAC and PWHF.)
I am also scheduled to appear at WrestleReunion 4 in Los Angeles the last weekend in January of 2010. I also look forward to the NWA Legends FanFest presented by Greg Price in Charlotte. I believe it is the first weekend in August. The Original Four Horsemen were all together this year in Charlotte and the turn-out and response was overwhelming. What an event! You never know when I may show up at one of the local events. Life is good for J. J. Dillon. I am blessed and I have much to be thankful for.
Please visit J.J. Dillon’s personal homepage to read more about his life and work. JJ. Is also available to be booked for personal appearances and he can be contacted through his official website. His book Wrestlers Are Like Seagulls: From McMahon to McMahon is available for purchase through Crowbar Press for $25 plus shipping.
(This article was originally published under the title, “Riding Shotgun with the Four Horsemen: TWD Interviews J.J. Dillon.” Minor revisions were made for publication on thebradyhicks.com.)
Mike Bessler was a co-founder of The Wrestling Daily. Like JJ Dillon, Mike has much to be thankful for. ✭