Corrigan’s Corner: J.J. Dillon Remembers Dusty Rhodes

Dillon is pro wrestling’s renaissance man. He’s wrestled over 3,000 matches, refereed Bruno Sammartino championship bouts, handled talent relations for Vince McMahon, and of course, managed the greatest stable...
J.J.Dillon is pro wrestling’s renaissance man.

He’s wrestled over 3,000 matches, refereed Bruno Sammartino championship bouts, handled talent relations for Vince McMahon, and of course, managed the greatest stable of all time, the Four Horsemen.

And you can’t think of the Horsemen without thinking their arch nemesis, Dusty Rhodes. But while Dillon and Rhodes were rivals in the ring, backstage they were business partners, and more importantly, friends for almost half a century.

I had the privilege of spending over an hour on the phone with Dillon last Thursday, a few hours shy of his 73rd birthday. We discussed his lengthy, varied career, the history of the business, and his memories of the late, great American Dream.

Here’s Part II of the interview.

First Meeting Dusty Rhodes:

“I met Dusty just when I was making an effort to break into the business. You started out working TV matches against guys that were established stars, guys with more experience. Basically, you got beat up on TV. (laughs) It was 1970, might have been Wolf Lake, Michigan. We were in a tag team match, I don’t remember who my partner was, but we went against the Texas Outlaws, Dusty Rhodes and ‘Dirty’ Dick Murdoch. Over 10 years later, in Florida, I was working in the office when Dusty had his first shot at matchmaking. I worked closely with him, and it was beginning of a very, very good relationship and the building of a friendship, too.”

Hired By Dusty:

“When I was in Florida, the promoter and announcer wanted to revive the Canadian Maritimes territory where I got my first break. They contacted me, and I got to live my dream of, well, everybody thinks he wants to be a promoter someday. (laughs) So it was a chance to take a shot at that, capitalizing on my name recognition without going into my pocket financially. I had tremendous support from Eddie Graham and Dusty. The problem was, which I learned pretty quickly, beyond producing great TV and having good talent, you had to have the eyeballs. We ended up on a cable station in the infancy of cable and didn’t have enough eyeballs. After three or four months, I realized the person who was putting up the money was at the risk of losing everything. So I actually picked up the phone and called Dusty. He told me my timing couldn’t have been any better. Dusty had just cut a deal with Jim Crockett to try and turn the Carolinas territory around. He said pack your bags and go immediately to Charlotte. So that’s what I did.”

Charlotte Days:

“One of the people I managed was Buddy Landel, who we sadly lost this week. He was a great guy, and a great talent. I also managed ‘Cowboy’ Ron Bass and Black Bart. Eventually, I got with Tully Blanchard and Baby Doll. It turned out to be the right place, at the right time as the Horsemen came about. Of course, I was with Dusty through all that until we hit some hard times around the end of ’88 when Tully and Arn left for New York to be managed by Bobby Heenan as the Brainbusters. Even though the Horsemen continued the name for some time after that, as far as I was concerned, the glory years of the Horsemen were never the same.”

Leaving NWA:

“I had a contract that had run out and there was no urgency to do anything. I wanted to keep all my options open because I saw some changes taking place that I questioned. Right around then, Tully called out of the blue and told me all the matchmaking and TV was being done by Vince McMahon and Pat Patterson and they needed help. They were interested in me, but I had to call them. That led to a meeting where I went to New York for the holidays. Vince sent a car to get me and I met him in his home. He gave me a job offer, which meant walking off camera which the timing was about right. I was having special attraction matches with ‘Precious’ Paul Ellering and there’s only so many of them you can have. At that point, I would have been 46. I started late, around 28 or 29. I knew because I started late that it would shorten my longevity unless I found other things in the business.”

Polka Dots:

“So when Ted Turner bought the company, one of the scapegoats was Dusty. A lot of people blamed him for business being down. He then went on to have a run in New York with a character that wasn’t the traditional, butt-kicking, American Dream, son of a plumber. I’m reluctant to use the word ‘comedic’ because I don’t think any time Dusty was in the ring you could classify him as ‘comedic.’ And you know, there’s been a lot of discussion that because Dusty had been so successful, that it was Vince’s subtle way of payback. But Dusty handled it well and turned what could have been a terrible negative into a positive.”

Dusty vs. Four Horsemen:

“I always said the Horsemen were so successful because we were just a group of guys already established in the business with incredible chemistry. But at the same time, people buy tickets to see that play out, which means somebody on the other side of the ring. And that was of course the American Dream Dusty Rhodes. And he surrounded himself with Magnum T.A., the Road Warriors, Jimmy Valiant, Ronnie Garvin. I call it the glory years of the business and I’m so thankful I was able to be a part of that scene.”

Dusty’s Family:

“I became close with not only him, but his whole family. His wife Michelle, and I mean, I watched Dustin and Cody basically grow up. We developed a friendship—it wasn’t the kind of thing where I would call him every week on the phone. Aside from being very opposite in the characters we portrayed on TV, we had one thing in common in we were private people. So I got to be very close to his family.”

Finding Out Dusty Died:

“I was already going to Florida on Thursday the 11th for a fundraiser to build a memorial wall at the Tampa Jewish Community Center to preserve the memory of all the great wrestling in that area. Jody Simon wanted to put together some type of fan fest thing for it. A lot of guys already live in Florida, but I called him up and said I live in Delaware, but I’d like to go down and be a part of it. So I was flying down and of course my phone was off. Well, Pedro Morales, who was a great champion, has been very, very ill. I’ve been concerned that he may not be on this Earth much longer. So when I landed and turned my phone on, it lit up like a Christmas tree. I thought this was the news I had not been looking forward to, the passing of Pedro Morales.

But when I turned my phone on and read the message that Dusty Rhodes had passed that morning, I mean, when I say I was in shock…I was shocked. I sat on the plane, the whole plane emptied and I was still sitting there trying to process what I was reading. You know, Dusty had lost a lot of weight, and it was my understanding that he had been treated for something. He would lose weight, then they would build his strength back up. He was on a very strict diet. None of the rumors that he was really, really sick were true. He was still actively working at the developmental center. He passed on a Thursday, and Gerald Brisco told me he saw him over there on Tuesday. It was totally unexpected, totally shocking.”

Why Was Dusty So Popular?

“He was a unique character. He was from an era in which, my roots come from as well, it was before contracts. We basically had a lot to do with our own personas. As we would travel around and see guys do different moves, we’d gather them up and incorporate them into a new character. It wasn’t copying, because everything has been taken from somebody else. And Dusty, you know, when he started out with Dick Murdoch, they were no fan favorites by any stretch of the imagination. They were just two fabulous talents. I spent a whole year in Amarillo where Dick had moved to and oh God, he was such a talented guy. Here I was, the brash, loudmouth guy from New Jersey, and he was the homegrown boy, and he made me. We had a phenomenal run for a whole year.

Dick and Dusty went their separate directions, so Dusty landed in Florida in ’74 and was teamed with Pak Song. I guess Gary Hart had seen Dusty in Australia and thought he’d do well in Florida. When they turned on Dusty, this whole speaking from the heart, common man, hard times, because he really was a son of a plumber, so all the things he talked about in his interviews, were drawing from his own experiences in life. The fans really related to Dusty. And he didn’t have what you think as the classic physique of a wrestler. He was overweight, and later on, he’d joke about his belly being too big, his butt being too big. I think that further endeared him to the fans.

He could wear a suit with a pink tie unable to fit around his neck. He could wear his jeans and cowboy boots. It was him, the person, that just related to the audience. And it wasn’t just Florida, because everywhere he went, he was a star.”

Favorite Memory Of Dusty?

“Oh God, there were so many great matches. He was a dreamer. He was a big fan of the movies, especially John Wayne. He liked being the John Wayne of wrestling. I was right there in the midst of when we did the War Games. The first War Games was in the Omni in Atlanta on the Fourth of July. The most severe injury of my career happened that night at the hands of the Road Warriors. I didn’t break my shoulder, but drew so much money.

And the Great American Bashes, the outdoor theme, that was Dusty’s dream, too. Throwing these great spectaculars. Recently, it’s unbelievable what you can see on Youtube, somebody posted a Texas Bull Rope match of me against Dusty. That was his specialty. Our deal was Dusty wanted me in the ring, but I only agreed if he faced Ron Bass first. Bass attacked Dusty, beat him up 95 percent of the match, then out of the blue, Dusty cradled him for the quick 1, 2, 3 and collapsed in the middle of the ring, covered in blood. So I rushed in and wanted to quickly capitalize on the situation. I beat on him and beat on him, but as only Dusty could do, he slowly got up, shaking his head, shaking his fist, next thing I know, he’s beating on me, I’m covered in blood, and as he goes for one more punch, I step aside and he cold clocks the referee. So Ron Bass comes back in, piledrives Dusty, and drags my arm over Dusty for the 1, 2, 3. You can just imagine how much I exaggerated the next week on TV, telling Gordon Solie I’m the new bullrope champion and how Dusty isn’t worthy of a rematch. (laughs) It just was a time in the business that involved emotion, involved logic.

Another time Dusty got a present from Willie Nelson, it was a cowboy hat. Somehow I was able to get a hold of it, so then Dusty got a package from me. He opened it and it was the hat cut up in a million pieces. It was a time when simple things like that drew money.”

Click here for Part II as Dillon discusses WCW, Bruno, MSG, and more. editor John Corrigan can be reached at . Follow him on Twitter at .

2 Comments on this post.
  • Corrigan's Corner: J.J. Dillon, Part II Of Q/A | Wrestledelphia
    1 July 2015 at 12:46 PM
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    […] Corrigan's Corner: J.J. Dillon Remembers Dusty Rhodes […]

  • Corrigan's Corner: Greatest Wrestler/Manager Rivalries | Wrestledelphia
    31 July 2015 at 7:47 AM
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    […] They were great friends off-screen, but inside the squared circle, Dusty and J.J. clashed up and down the East Coast for a decade. Starting in Championship Wrestling from Florida, the wealthy, sniveling mastermind set out to eradicate the lovable cowboy from wrasslin.’ Dillon sent Ron Bass after Rhodes, and when that backfired, he ended up in Dusty’s specialty: a Texas Bullrope match. Their grudge continued into the Carolinas as Dillon managed Tully Blanchard, and later, the Four Horsemen against the “American Dream.” To read about their rivalry in Dillon’s own words, click here. […]

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