J.J. Dillon Reminisces About A Wrestling Career That Began and Ended In Pittsburgh

September 25, 2013
by Trapper Tom, Ring Announcer/Wrestling Journalist

James J. Dillon walked with determination just before noon through the crowded Horror Realm convention floor on September 21. He wanted to say a quick hello to “Chilly” Bill Cardille. The longtime Pittsburgh broadcasting legend was to arrive at 12:00 sharp and horror movie, as well as professional wrestling fans would be lining up to see him. “I haven’t seen him in 42 years,” said Dillon.

Dillon wrestled his first singles match on WIIC TV’s “Studio Wrestling” against Walter “Killer” Kowalski on December 7, 1968. On broadcasts Cardille called Kowalski “The Methodical Monster,” and he was fearsome. “I thought I was going to die,” said Dillon with a snicker. “I couldn’t believe [I was in the ring]. I was living the dream.” He adds, “And I was fidgeting with my tights.”

At 6’7”, and 290-lbs., Kowalski was still as spry as a cat—even at 42—and Dillon, about 6’ and 230 lbs. then 26, had a difficult time keeping up. “It was the closest to the death I ever was in the ring,” he remembered. But he got through that match. “I was very proud of that.”

He wouldn’t return to Pittsburgh for two years.

Born James Morrison in New Jersey, the rebranded “Jim Dillon” worked in pro wrestling as a referee for around five years in his home state and eastern Pennsylvania before deciding he’d try his hand as a wrestler. He started to wrestle for the “original Sheik” Eddie Farhat in the Detroit area. Dillon worked for a trucking company during the day, and like many burgeoning wrestlers, performed on the weekends. Soon he was to be transferred. Dillon asked for Detroit, but because of union strife, he was stationed in Niles—just outside of Youngstown, Ohio—instead.

That 80 mile trip was manageable so Dillon wrote a letter to “The Living Legend” Bruno Sammartino, looking for work. The letter went unanswered, but Dillon was undaunted. He called and talked with promoter Ace Freeman, who ran the day-to-day operations with Rudy Miller. Dillon was unsatisfied with that telephone conversation so he planned a trip to the Civic Arena for a “Big Show” that was coming up. He also penned a second letter to the World Champion.

Dillon drove to Pittsburgh in hopes of meeting Sammartino face-to-face. He ran into Freeman, who remembered their conversation but did little about it. Freeman went inside, returned a few moments later and waved Dillon inside. “Bruno met me like a long-lost brother,” Dillon remembers. “He apologized for not getting back to me.” What Sammartino did next took Dillon by surprise. “He turned to Ace and told him to book me every week.” Sammartino told Freeman to make a spot for Dillon to wrestle, even if it meant adding a match. “I did that for a year and three months,” Dillon added.

Dillon’s first match back in Pittsburgh was April 25, 1970 against Bobby “Hurricane” Hunt. The next day Dillon took on Frank Durso in neighboring Ohio. He would wrestle “Jumpin’” Johnny DeFazio, Frank Holtz, and John L. Sullivan among others. Sullivan would later go on to great wrestling acclaim as “Luscious” Johnny Valiant.

The trucking company job was a good, steady pay check but the wrestling business was really picking up and Dillon didn’t have any obligations holding him down. An opportunity to wrestle in Charlotte, presented itself and Dillon took it. He regretted leaving the trucking job without two week notice, but he was worried that he would be fired and out of work after giving notice. He left a message in Niles, took off and called back some time later to find a supportive boss. “That made me feel worse,” he continued. The boss mailed Dillon’s final check.

Since the move to Charlotte, J.J. Dillon wrestled the bulk of his 3,000 career matches and won 10 different titles along the way. He would later mostly retire from active competition and in 1986 become the legendary leader of the “Four Horsemen”—originally Ric Flair, Tully Blanchard, Arn Anderson and Ole Anderson. Their exploits in the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) in the 1980’s are still all the rave for wrestling fans today. From that time forward, Dillon’s wrestling career would be defined by “The Horsemen.”

Dillon would work with the NWA, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) and even Total Non-stop Action (TNA) in some capacity until around 2003.

In 2009, local Pittsburgh wrestling icon Ken Jugan, known throughout the professional wrestling industry as “Lord Zoltan,” was aligning talent for his annual Deaf Wrestlefest fundraiser at the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf. “Zoltan” reached out to J.J. as they are both frequent patrons of the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame in Amsterdam, New York as well as the Cauliflower Alley Club in Las Vegas. Zoltan also knew of Dillon’s unique history with Pittsburgh. “He said, ‘I’d like to have you as a special guest,’” stated Dillon. “Then it was, ‘we want you to wrestle.’”

Dillon agreed once he realized that Dominic DeNucci was also slated on the card. On May 3, 2009, the six-man contest featured DeNucci, Cody Michaels and Shane Douglas (accompanied by Missy Hyatt) on one side, with Dillon, “Beef Stew” Lou Marconi and “Handsome” Frank Stiletto (accompanied by Count Grog) on the other side of the ring. “What did I agree so,” questioned Dillon. “I wore dress pants, shirt and tie to the ring.” The match was not a display of technical wonder, but it was inspirational nonetheless. DeNucci was 74 when he entered the ring, Dillon was 67, but he didn’t fidget with his ring wear.

The “last match” had special meaning to Dillon as it was the first time that his son, Geoffrey, was able to attend a live event with his father. “He rode with me 300 miles (from their home in New Jersey),” Dillon commented.

Appearing in Pittsburgh was also a kind of favor to Studio Wrestling rival Frank Durso, who remained active in wrestling as an “Advisor” to the Horsemen-themed stable called “The VIPs” with Shawn Blanchard and Lou Martin in Pittsburgh’s Keystone State Wrestling Alliance (KSWA).

DeNucci would slap a sleeper hold on Dillon toward the conclusion of their Deaf Wrestlefest match. Geoffrey, who has Cerebral Palsy, loved the adventure (Geoffrey’s twin sister “Missy Miss” didn’t make the trip).

More than a year later on December 10, 2010, Dillon would return and pack the KSWA’s annual “FanFest” extravaganza. Here Dillon served as an adviser to young wrestlers and tag team champions Kris Kash and Shane Starr, against the villainous VIPs and longtime rival Durso. However, temptation would be too much for Dillon and he would turn on his wards with brass knuckles, thus helping Blanchard and Martin win tag team gold. At the end of the night, Dillon would celebrate with Durso, Blanchard and Martin.

On March 31, 2012 Dillon would once again join the Four Horsemen—with Barry Windham replacing Ole Anderson—for the WWE Hall of Fame celebration in Tampa, Florida.

A few weeks later, April 14, 2012, Dillon would travel to Toronto, Ontario, Canada for the popular Wrestle Reunion. He admits to being concerned that Sammartino—who was set to appear in his last visit to Toronto—would look unfavorably on his WWE induction. Sammartino’s drift from the company was decades old and renowned in the industry. Instead, Sammartino was complimentary and understanding. “I couldn’t have been happier,” said Dillon, who still gets emotional about the relationship he has with the wrestler some call “The Champion” in 2013. “He is still the same guy he always was.”

According to Dillon, it was Sammartino who approved of him seconding an all-Pittsburgh contingent of Shawn Blanchard and Lord Zoltan in a spirited tag team match with DeNucci and Shane Douglas, with Bruno in their corner. Blanchard noted later that the entire crowd chanted “This is old school” throughout the match. Dillon and Sammartino continue to talk about once a year and he talks with DeNucci more often, mostly at conventions.

Dillon praises Pittsburgh as the home of “core” wrestling fans. “There are a special group of fans in Pittsburgh. “I am proud to have started and ended my (active) wrestling career in Pittsburgh.”

When Dillon met with Cardille at Horror Realm, it took the “Studio Wrestling” announcer a little while to remember the wrestler. Cardille, who on Sept. 1, 1957, was the first person to broadcast on what is now Channel 11 WPXI, still plays music five days a week on WJAS 1320 am. Cardille, who greets his fans with great enthusiasm and vigor, will be 85 in December. They exchanged a few pleasantries before Dillon left Cardille with his legion of fans.

This won’t be the last time Pittsburgh sees J.J. Dillon. His youngest daughter, Nicole, is a Biomedical Engineering student at Pitt.