By Jonathan Williams
While the wrestling manager is almost a lost are these days, it wasn’t that long ago that a good manager could help create the next wrestling star or faction. As the leader of the original Four Horsemen (Ric Flair, Tully Blanchard, Ole and Arn Anderson), James J. Dillon played just as big a role in what went on in the ring as his wrestling stablemates. A fixture in the National Wrestling Alliance territories of the ’80s (and a wrestler in his own right prior to that), Dillon maintained manegerial roles on and off camera for the World Wrestling Federation (now WWE) and World Championship Wrestling before retiring from the business in 2003. Though he’s no longer actively invovled in wrestling, he will be returning to his one-time galloping grounds in Atlanta this weekend for the NWA Wrestling Legends Fanfest Weekend.
The NWA Fanfest is being held in Atlanta for the first time. You obviously have a lot of history with the NWA both in Atlanta and in Charlotte, where this fanfest is usually held. What are your thoughts on returning to Atlanta this weekend?
I’m excited for a lot of reasons. I’ve been to almost all of these fanfests and I’ve seen a tremendous growth in this whole thing that Greg Price has done. I come from the original days when it was typical for fans to meet one of their idols and be able to take a Polaroid picture. Now digital cameras are able to print out quality 8 x 10s that people can get signed while the individual is still there.
I was born and raised in New Jersey, so my original exposure to professional wrestling was in the Northeast. When I actually started my professoinal career, it was in Charlotte with Jim Crockett, Sr., and I saw a whole different approach to the profession largely because you didn’t have the huge population centers. So I wrestled in the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida and Tennessee. I’ve had a tremendous career and have made a lot of friends over the years, so the fan in me comes out at this fanfest.
I spent a lot of time in Amarillo with Dory Funk, Jr. and Terry Funk, and I’ve remained very close friends with Terry to this day. Both of them had a big influence on my career, so anytime I can see them, let alone together, is a big deal. Tully is one of the original Four Horsemen and I’m always excited to spend some time with Tully. Baby Doll will be there and, of course, anytime you have a list of icons, Roddy Piper is on everybody’s list. I don’t get to see him all that frequently anymore, so I’m excited that he will be there as well.
A lot of today’s fans may not remember or even realize that you were a wrestler before you managed the Four Horsemen. By the time you came to Atlanta, you mostly just managing wrestlers, right?
I had well over 3,000 professional wrestling matches and I’m very proud of what I accomplished as a wrestler. I actually started as a referee, so being a referee on a part-time basis for seven or eight years prepared me to be a better wrestler. And my wrestling career, along with my time as a referee, enabled me to be a better manager. So it’s all been part of a total learning experience. I had a wonderful career and I’m very proud of it.
Ole, who was another original member of the Four Horsemen, has had some serious health issues and it’s great that Ole is going to be there. Mr. Wrestling II was in Charlotte last year and I was not there. Then he suffered a heart attack and was hospitalized, but he’s back and is going to be there as well. Paul Orndorff - who I got to know very well, especially during the closing years of WCW, where he was the running the Power Plant – has had some serious health issues and it will be good to see him. Of course, I haven’t seen Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, who I’ve always acknowledged as the greatest manager there ever was and the guy that set the bar by which all the rest of us are measured, in a while. He couldn’t be there at the last few, so I’m really looking forward to seeing Bobby after a number of years.
I also haven’t seen Haku in years and I was in Japan when he first started his career. Then I was in Amarillo when he came to America for the first time and, of course, watched him develop into a huge star in our business. I haven’t seen Haku in years and I’m excited he’s going to be there. Pampero Firpo is about 80 years old and when I first started on a part-time basis in the late ’60s, he was around Detroit. And when I started in the Carolinas in the early ’70s, he was there teaming with Rock Hunter. I haven’t seen Pampero Firpo in all of these years. One guy that I’m really excited to see after a long time is “The Mongolian Stomper” Archie Gouldie. I first met him up in the Canadian Maritimes when I got a break up there in the early ’70s. After Amarillo, I went to Florida and he was wrestling in Florida, so I was around him quite a bit then. Archie left and went to Tennessee with Bearcat Wright as his manager and for some reason it didn’t work out. I was still in Florida when I got a call asking if I’d ever given any thought to managing, which I hadn’t. So we went to Dallas and that was the beginning of a significant chapter in my career. Archie’s been somewhat of a recluse and has had some serious health issues of his own. He’s been kind of reluctant to do any kind of appearances, but they’ve talked him into coming to the fanfest in Atlanta, so I’m really excited to see him. I haven’t seen him in 35 years.
Aside from seeing old friends and meeting fans, will you be part of any panels or other events?
Jim Cornette was supposed to host the Hall of Heroes dinner banquet this year, but he wasn’t able to make it. Of course, there’s no such thing as replacing Jim Cornette, but I’m happy to pitch in and host that. Everybody that’s being honored certainly is Hall of Fame worthy and deserving of the recognition. The one that really got my attention this year is that they’re honoring Ted Turner. He really was a friend of wrestling for so many years. When he started the Superstation way back in 1976, an integral part of the programming was Georgia Championship Wrestling with Gordon Solie, which became World Championship Wrestling. Anybody that’s been in the business as long as I have knows that there’s nothing more valuable than a show with a consistent time slot. I know it was on for more than 25 years and there are still people that talk about how they used to schedule their Saturdays around being home in front of the television at 6:05. It’s certainly deserving that Ted Turner, who has been so good to wrestling, is finally getting the recognition for being a friend to wrestling. He’s been very successful with other ventures, but what he’s done with the Superstation and just the fact that he has given away so much of his wealth for charitable things, it’s just great that he’s getting this kind of recognition.
You’ve been out of wrestling for a few years now. Do you think you’ll ever return to the business in any capacity?
Well, the profession has changed so much. Everything changes in life and change is not always for the better. I participated when WWE did the Ric Flair & The Four Horsemen DVD, I was at Raw when Flair was recognized for what was then to be his retirement match after WrestleMania with Shawn Michaels and I’ve also participated in some of the Legends of Wrestling roundtable discussions that WWE has on its Classics On Demand channel because we’re talking about the very things being emphasized this weekend, and that’s the tremendous history. Unfortuantely, unlike baseball, which is so statistical, and some other professional sports where the history is preserved, the only thing we have is our memories. A lot of times at functions like this, I end up seeing some of these guys for the last time. We lost Sir Oliver Humperdink, who was a dear friend, so it’s great that he’s being recognized at the Hall of Heroes this year, too.
NWA Wrestling Legends Fanfest Weekend. $20-$224, free for children ages 10 and younger. Aug. 4-7. (Hall of Heroes Dinner & Awards. $75. 7:30 p.m. Aug. 5). Atlanta Airport Marriott, 4711 Best Road, Atlanta, Ga. 404-766-7900, www.jjdillon.com, www.nwalegends.com.