Jim Dillon’s Early Days in Charlotte
Younger wrestling fans today mostly associate James J. Dillon with his stellar run as the leader of the “Four Horsemen” in Jim Crockett Promotions in the 1980s, or his time as an authority figure during the “Monday night wars” when things were so hot for WCW during the Nitro era. What those fans may overlook is that Jim Dillon, as he was known during his grappling days, was a fine pro-wrestler before his managerial and front office career got started.
He wrestled in Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Ohio before coming to Jim Crockett Promotions in 1971, and it was right here in the “Charlotte territory” (as it was known before the days of “Mid-Atlantic Wrestling”) that Dillon’s career really began to take off. Not only did he get the opportunity to learn here, he got noticed by other promoters as well. Many doors were opened that eventually led to one of the most fascinating, diverse, and successful careers ever in the pro wrestling business.
J.J. is now one of the Crockett Foundation’s “tag team partners” and so it got me to thinking about his early career and what his recollections were of the Charlotte office and Jim Crockett Promotions during the two years he wrestled there from 1971-1973. We recently had a chance to talk about Jim Crocket, Sr., the Charlotte territory, the bookers, and those people that made an impression on him and his career at the time.
Dick Bourne: You wrote in your book that one of the first impressions of Jim Crockett, Sr. was how well he related to his audience and his customers. For example, how he drove a Buick and didn’t have a big fancy office. There were none of the trappings of the wealth he actually had. Was Jim Sr. the same with the boys?
James J. Dillon: When I started as a full-time wrestler in Charlotte in 1971, I got to know Mr. Crockett. I only ever saw him in a suit and tie. The McMahons were also always dressed in suit and tie, but they didn’t interact with the fans. The big difference was that Mr. Crockett did interact with the fans … his customers. As I said in my book, Mr. Crockett clearly knew that a significant part of his fan base were ‘blue collar’ workers and not wealthy. He also realized that the Charlotte fans were very loyal and most attended every week and had regular seats. Mr. Crockett went out of his way to not flaunt his financial success. He related to the wrestlers in the same way and he was very highly respected by the fans and the wrestlers. However, everyone knew he was the ‘boss’ and treated him with the same respect he had shown everyone else. When I came to Charlotte I was approaching age 29, and I had already figured out that in wrestling and in life in general, you had to give respect to get respect. Mr. Crockett just reinforced what I had already figured out on my own.
Bourne: What are your memories of the wrestling office on East Morehead Street?
Dillon: I remember 1111 East Morehead Street quite well. Until I got an apartment, I stayed at the YMCA which was a few blocks from the office on the same street. Many of the boys worked out and played handball at the YMCA and many would stop by the office just to say hello. I don’t remember any signage indicating that it was the wrestling office. It was a nice house in the middle of a row of nice houses in a good neighborhood. I remember taking the driveway alongside the house and parking in the back. I remember a very long set of stairs up to the office which was on the top floor. Mr. Crockett would usually be there seated behind a very large executive desk.
Bourne: Who were some of Jim Sr.’s “lieutenants” in the years you were there that you might have seen around the office?
Dillon: You would see the referees around the office with regularity, Lucky Roberts, Angelo Martinelli, and Sonny Fargo and others whose names escape me. “Bunk” Harris, too. The running joke was that George “Two Ton” Harris would bring donuts to the office every day for Mr. Crockett to stay in Mr. Crockett’s good graces. I don’t recall who else had offices there. I would see Johnny Weaver, but seldom saw George Becker.
Bourne: You wrote about booker George Becker making you a babyface when you first came to Charlotte.
Dillon: My autobiography was published in 2005, and as time passes some memories fade. Asking me today, I recollect that when Jim Grabmire called me from Charlotte after having left the Pittsburgh area, he told me that they were looking for talent, but I thought it was Grabmire that told me they were short on the ‘babyface’ side. I had been working the Pittsburgh territory, and Detroit on some weekends, and had been pretty much just a ‘heel’ that whole time. However, I told Grabmire it didn’t matter to me, that I felt confident that I could work either side. Grabmire may have mentioned that came from George Becker. I don’t remember for sure.
Bourne: Becker wasn’t booker for too much longer during your two-year stint in Charlotte, leaving in October 1971. What are your memories of George Becker?
Dillon: I saw very little of Becker. I remember hearing that George had a brother and the Becker Brothers were very successful in the territory years earlier. When he did work during my time there, it was in tag team matches with Weaver. Johnny did all the work and George would get the hot tag and the match would go home. George was much older than Weaver. Funny how one remembers the little things: when George got the hot tag he would throw a punch and his hair would fall in his face and he would keep brushing it aside and keep going. I don’t remember the circumstances of George leaving and he may have just retired. That would explain my recollection of doing almost all my dealings with Johnny Weaver during my two-plus years in Charlotte.
Bourne: I want to ask you about Weaver, who took over the book when Becker left. You wrote that it was Johnny Weaver that gave you a huge break putting you in a short program with Dory Funk, Jr. on TV setting up your first ever NWA world title shot in Norfolk, VA in 1972. What are your thoughts on Weaver?
Dillon: Johnny was very good to me. That NWA title match, my first ever, was a big moment for me. I had great respect for Johnny and all that he did to help me in my career. He was the top challenger when the NWA World Champion came in to the territory and I don’t feel that Johnny gets the proper credit for being the great performer he was in the ring. The fans loved him.
Bourne: You also had a memorable “scientific” match with Johnny Weaver on Charlotte TV in August of 1971 where you went hold-for-hold with him, which further elevated you in the eyes of the fans, going against a top star like Weaver. Weaver, as booker, obviously allowed you to get that rub from him. You certainly came though and held your end up. Do you recall that match?
Dillon: Funny that I don’t remember that TV match with Weaver. If fans remember that match and the fact that Weaver had me match him move for move until the finish, well that would have been vintage Weaver. He did so much for me. It was a sad day when I heard of his passing.
Bourne: Who else made an impact on you working the Charlotte territory at that time?
Dillon: I have such fond memories of Charlotte and all those that helped me grow professionally. Les Thatcher, Art Nelson, Gene Anderson, Ole Anderson, Sandy Scott, Jerry Brisco, Danny Miller and so many more. I hate to start naming names for fear that I will forget to name someone. If you asked me if there were any that didn’t go out of their way to help me, I could probably count them on one hand and have fingers left over. Gerald Brisco and Les Thatcher remain close friends forty-plus years after that first night I walked into Park Center in Charlotte.
Bourne: Your first match in Charlotte was with Gene Anderson, right?
Dillon: Yes it was, in 1971 at the old Charlotte Park Center. Gene was a man among men. We worked together many years at Jim Crockett Promotions, including behind the scenes in the 1980s, and we became friends. He was a good man.
Bourne: Just weeks before you left the territory in the spring of 1973, Jim Crockett, Sr. passed away. His death obviously had a huge impact on the territory and the community. He founded the family business and ran it for nearly 40 years. What do you remember about that time?
Dillon: I remember wrestling in Spartanburg, SC on that Saturday night when Mr. Crockett died. We had heard that he was in the hospital but there was no indication of anything major. Mr. Crockett was a big man physically, but always appeared to be in good health. The news of his passing was shocking. It was front-page news in the Charlotte newspaper and the lead story on the local TV news. The Crockett family name was highly respected in Charlotte. The Monday night matches at Park Center were cancelled. I attended the funeral and everyone that was anyone in the wrestling world attended.
Bourne: It has been generally reported that his son-in law John Ringley was thought to be his successor to run the company. He was a big part of promoting the company’s non-wrestling events such as the Harlem Globetrotters, concerts, etc. But he had his hand in the wrestling side of the promotion as well. He was very forward thinking, and is credited by David Crockett as the one who came up with the name “Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling” in 1973. What were your interactions with Ringley during your time in Charlotte on the wrestling side of things?
Dillon: I don’t remember there being any fanfare as John Ringley became the successor to run the company. I had never met him before he assumed his new position. My first impression was that he was bright and had a handle on things. As saddened as we all were that Mr. Crockett was gone, John Ringley put everyone at ease that everything was going to be fine. Life goes on and we were in good hands.
Bourne: Is it fair to say that your two years in the Charlotte territory were the real foundation of your career? You obviously had several years under your belt in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Detroit as a referee and wrestler. But it was in Charlotte where you made some of the connections that really opened other doors in your career. I’m thinking of Halifax and Amarillo here, and then the opportunity to tour Japan with the Funks. Is it fair to say that Charlotte was the “gateway” that led to bigger and better things for a young Jim Dillon?
Dillon: Anyone that has spent any time with me has heard me say over and over that I am the luckiest guy in the world. I was never the biggest or the best, but no one wanted it more than me or was willing to work any harder than I did. Charlotte and Jim Crockett Promotions was the perfect place for me and was indeed the gateway for all the bigger and better things that followed in my career. Every step of my journey I had many people willing to mentor me and to help me there. Without that help I don’t know if I would be standing where I am today.
Bourne: It’s all about timing, isn’t it?
Dillon: I had the good fortune several times to be the right place at the right time when an opportunity presented itself. Many talented people who loved this business and paid their dues never have that right moment come their way.
Bourne: Wrestling fans were certainly always supportive of you, and you have a large group of fans still loyal to you to this day.
Dillon: As I look back, it wasn’t about me or all those people that helped me along the way … it was about the fans. Thank you for supporting me and professional wrestling throughout my career. Wrestling fans are the greatest in the world.
Bourne: You recently signed on to help out with the charitable efforts of the Crockett Foundation as one of their “tag team partners.” Are you excited about that opportunity?
Dillon: Very much. The Crockett Foundation does great work and I am very happy to be able to “tag in and help out.” It is also very satisfying to be able to be connected to the city of Charlotte again. I have such fond memories of working there over many years.
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Dick Bourne publishes the Mid-Atlantic Gateway (midatlanticgateway.com), which celebrates the history of Mid-Atlantic Wrestling and Jim Crockett Promotions in the 1970s and 1980s. He is the author of “Ten Pounds of Gold” and other books on pro-wrestling.