JJ Dillon Reflects on Piper, Rhodes, WCW, and More
Ring Rust Radio had former WWE Hall of Famer J.J. DILLON on the show this week, and it was a great episode with plenty of exclusive content.
JJ Dillon Transcript:
Ring Rust Radio: The Four Horsemen is the most iconic group in the history of professional wrestling, but it’s interesting in that it had several different incarnations over the years with a bunch of different members getting involved at one point or another. In your opinion, what was the best version of the Four Horsemen and what put it over the top in comparison to the other versions?
J.J. Dillon: I’m often asked that question. The history of wrestling is that anytime anything catches on and is successful, promoters by the nature are going to ride it past its peak and ride it until the horse has nothing left and drops. So with that no one should be surprised there was a number of reincarnations of the Four Horsemen even after the glory years. The original group with Olly will always be special to me because everybody that was part of that group was already established. It wasn’t like someone was trying to get a rub from somebody else to elevate somebody else. Everybody who was there was already a champion and had the bragging rights. That was a part of the initial appeal. I always think that if it wasn’t for Olly, maybe a lot of the things that followed never would have happened. Certainly of that group, Flair was the foundation with the limousine driving, jet flying, kiss stealing, son of a gun. If you look at everybody, I was a little bit older but I could have fallen into that grove.
Olly was young but just didn’t seem to fit that mold. Olly late in his career is always referred to as a grumpy old man. It made it easy to move Olly out of the picture after our first successful run. Olly drew money everywhere he wrestled, his style never changed, and no matter what side of the ring he was on you go the same act. It helped freshen us up because now we had a personal issue with someone. A part of us was now across the ring from us and that opened up a spot for Luger. He wasn’t experienced at the time and was really green. He came up because of a situation he was in down in Florida with Bruiser Brody and had to leave. I think Eddie Graham and Jimmy Crockett talked and said that he had a great body, we can move him in with these guys, and camouflage the fact that Lex wasn’t experienced.
We then moved past that to when Barry Windham shocked the world and jumped sides to join us after that. I really believe that in terms of bell-to-bell action, the group with Barry was probably the greatest in terms of what we could accomplish any given night in the ring. When Tully and Arn left to go to New York to join Bobby the Brain Henan to form the Brain Busters, as far as I was concerned the glory years of the Four Horsemen was over. They were never going to be as big as they were during that extended run. Olly was always special, Barry was the group that was technically the best, and beyond that I really don’t think that much about it.
Ring Rust Radio: The biggest news recently was the passing of Roddy Piper. As someone who has spent the majority of their life in and around the wrestling business, how do you view Piper’s impact on the business and what are your thoughts on his career as a whole?
J.J. Dillon: Well, I knew Roddy for over 40 years. I started in the business full time in the Carolinas with Jim Crockett senior. I wasn’t a kid, I was 28 years old when I started full time. I stayed there for over two years and from there I got my first break in the business with the Canadian Maritimes. It ran during the summer months in the hockey arenas when they didn’t have the ice down. I went up there and that’s where I got my first big push. I would work on TV one day a week and one of my TV matches was with a young, inexperienced guy by the name of Roddy Piper. I beat him up on TV and that was the only time in my career that I faced Roddy.
It was 1973 and that was the beginning of a relationship that lasted over 40 years. When you look at Roddy he wasn’t physically a monster, so it wasn’t like his size or anything stood out. He was a legitimate tough guy and a Canadian Golden Gloves champion. He also studied Judo and had a black belt in judo. Despite his size, Roddy never backed down from a challenge from anyone. Fear was not a word in his vocabulary. I had a chance to see him many times over the years and be around him, and as over the top as he was he has an innovator. He was in the first WrestleMania, he could go on with Gordon Solie as his co-commentator in Georgia Championship Wrestling and do an excellent job. So when he went on to do Piper’s Pit, and broke the coconut over the head of Jimmy Snuka they still talk about that now a days. Roddy was always off the wall and you never knew what he was going to do.
The words icon and legend get thrown around a lot in our business and over used, but we lost two people in less than two months that for me, who spent half a century in and around the wrestling business, the American Dream Dusty Rhodes and Rowdy Roddy Piper exemplify what is really an iconic legend. Both of them are going to be missed very much, I care deeply for both of them, they were friends as well as people I worked with, and I don’t think there will ever be another American Dream or Rowdy Piper. There will never be someone that comes along with that type of iconic talent, achieve what they did in the ring, and have the impact they had on the business.
Ring Rust Radio: We mentioned losing Roddy Piper before, but another devastating loss for wrestling fans recently was Dusty Rhodes. You had a long history with the American dream in and out of the ring. How would you describe Dusty’s legacy in the wrestling industry and do you think he made a bigger impact in the ring or behind the scenes?
J.J. Dillon: I think he did both. He basically took Crockett promotions to another level. At the time they were a regional company based out of Charlotte and a family owned business. Dusty came in there and I was fortunate enough to join him at the very beginning. Certainly the pinnacle of my career was the run with the Horsemen and part of our success was because of him. People wouldn’t buy tickets to come see the Horsemen come out and stand in a corner. There had to be someone across from them, and there had to be someone on the other side that when the bell rang it was something they wanted to see. Dusty was the catalyst across the ring and was surrounded by the Road Warriors, Magnum TA before his accident, Ronnie Garvin, Jimmy Bang, and just a whole lot of talent. It was the chemistry with all those people that made it successful and Dusty was the driving force behind it.
War Games was his brainchild, the Great American Passion in the outdoor ballparks where we drew crowds in excess of any of the buildings we were going to. He was an innovator and his in ring persona was great. He wasn’t just big in Florida or the Carolinas, he main evented in Madison Square Garden. Everywhere he went he was a main eventer. So when I say that I look at the American Dream Dusty Rhodes and Rowdy Roddy Piper as being iconic legends, that’s a definition that I reserve for very few. We lost two of the greatest in such a short time and it’s sad that they are gone forever.
Ring Rust Radio: A lot of wrestlers jumped between WWF and WCW during the Monday Night Wars, but you were unique in that you worked mostly backstage in addition to your on-screen authoritative role in WCW. Having been in the trenches with both companies, what were the biggest differences between them during that time period, and what do you believe ultimately put WWF over the top?
J.J. Dillon: I worked for some of the greatest minds and since I started late in the business, I was like a sponge. I knew father time wasn’t on my side, and if I wanted longevity in the business I loved so much, I would have to become more knowledgeable and informed. I became more educated in match making, television production, management of talent, and how the travel aspect of it worked. Even when I first started, every territory I went to, I got involved with wanting to know more about the behind the scenes details. Some guys would go to the arena and just learn about their match and nothing else. I wanted to learn about the whole picture and that helped give me longevity in the business. When it came to dealing with talent, I had the advantage of I walked a mile in their shoes and knew what I was dealing with. Once contracts became the norm in the business, most of them just gave an opportunity. The logic was the wrestling promotion was established, we had a time slot, and an audience.
You as the talent comes in so we give you the chance to be part of that program, get the exposure, and what you do with it is yours. When I worked all the small territories, I would wear ten hats and deal with multiples aspects. Compared to when I worked with the WWF before they went public, I all of a sudden worked for this huge company that had ten full time professionals doing what I used to do myself on a smaller scale. They weren’t necessarily all huge wrestling fans either. They were experts in their field and the whole operation was on a much larger scale than anything I had seen anywhere else.
The other thing that was eye opening was that Vince McMahon was hands on with every single aspect. He would be in the office like I was with the suit and tie on Monday through Friday. If there was a poster for an upcoming PPV or a DVD with Hulk in the ring tearing the shirt, the attention to detail was amazing. If you ever took a picture of someone in the ring with the audience behind him, you will never see the background completely full of people. Either there is someone going to the bathroom or getting popcorn and there are empty seats. When you look at that poster, every seat was full and filled in. Keep in mind his was back before photoshopping and airbrushing. Hulk was made to look the absolute best that he could look and Vince was hands on with that. The creative was done on the weekends in the comfort of Vince’s home while dressed casually. Pat and I would be there all day on a Saturday pass the point of exhaustion. Most of t hose nights we would sit at the dinner table with his family and work late into the evening and come back Sunday to do it again depending on what the urgency was. Vince and I had times when I had frustrations with him.
Vince didn’t believe in people taking vacations and I thought they were something healthy for people. Sometimes people need to be able to get away, to get a chance to clear their heads, and come back with a fresh perspective. Vince was 24/7, 365 days a year. He would have a pen and notepad by his bed at night in case he woke up with an idea to jot it down. There was times we weren’t in agreement with the direction he took things but you can’t argue with success. He has built a global empire with the WWE universe and now a bigger step with eliminating the traditional PPV with the network. It’s a work in progress but if there is one person that can make the network work its Vince. He is tireless and he is demanding.
At TBS we didn’t have that figure that was a third generation person whose whole life was centered around the wrestling business. That was part of the demise of WCW because you had all these people that worked at the North tower of CNN working with the broadcast company but knew nothing about wrestling. Most of them looked their nose down at it and would have been happy if it wasn’t part of their products. Ted Turner though was a huge fan of it though. When he started the station and made it the superstation, it wasn’t on very many clearances.
The three things it had was the Andy Griffith show, the Atlanta Braves who were drawing horrible numbers to the point you could fire a shotgun in the outfield and not hit anybody, and the third thing was wrestling. If you asked Ted to give them in order, wrestling was number one to him. He always had a passion for it and protected it so it was sad when it came to an end. There was a pool of 70 some odd guys that earned a full time living from the business and when it ended Vince was able to draw from that pool. Guys like the Undertaker, Chris Jericho, Mick Foley, Steve Austin, all these guys came from WCW but Vince made them into Superstars in the business. Even when Bischoff came in it was all smoke and mirrors. He had carried coffee for Verne Gagne and talked his way into a job at WCW. He could sell himself and I give him credit for that. He enjoyed some success but he wasn’t spending his money. He had an open checkbook and because of his success nobody questioned it. Even if they did question it and looked over his shoulder they had no idea what they were looking at it anyway. I’m not saying Vince didn’t lose some sleep when they were losing in the ratings, but during that time WCW was not successful running Pay-Per-Views and live events. Vince had pioneered licensing and merchandising as a profitable source of income for talent which WCW couldn’t do. When you stand back and look at the big picture, Vince just had to ride it out long enough.
The production budget that WCW was spending kept growing leaps and bounds. When the company was looking at a loss of 80 million dollars projected, somebody said it was time to cut, cut, cut. Because Eric Bischoff had given out all these high dollar contracts, they cut all the low level guys but were still looking at a 60 million dollar loss and another projected 60 million dollar loss. When you have partners like AOL Time Warner, they see it as just another division and they don’t need to be in the wrestling business. They were successful at other things so they pulled the plug and WCW ceased to exist. It was a sad day for wrestling and a sad day for Ted Turner. He no longer had the power to stop it and it was a shame for someone who loved the business as much as Ted did.