Championship Wrestling from Florida meant so much to WWE Hall of Famer and Four Horsemen manager J.J. Dillon.
This is why he is making it a point to fly from his home in Delaware to Tampa for a super fan fest fundraiser 6:30 p.m. EST Thursday, June 11 at the Tampa Jewish Community Center & Federation.
Jody Simon, son of the late Great Malenko, is spearheading the effort to preserve the pro wrestling history of the Fort Homer Hesterly Armory, which is being renovated with plans to reopen as a JCC campus late next year. Proceeds from the event will go to helping pay for a permanent display of photos and memorabilia at the facility.
Dillon saw Simon at the NWA Legends Fanfest and Hall of Heroes in Charlotte. He was happy to help when he learned about his colleague’s efforts.
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“I don’t know if I know anyone who doesn’t have really, really fond memories of wrestling in Florida,” Dillon said. “The Armory in particular on Tuesday nights, it was a very unique venue. It has been referred to often as the Madison Square Garden of the South…I think it’s great something productive is going to happen with that building and someone like Jody is leading the charge on this project to try to raise money, so there can be some part of that building that will honor the history and heritage of all those wonderful years of Championship Wrestling from Florida and Tuesday nights at that Armory. I mean every great wrestler that there ever was had been there one time or another.
“I called Jody and said, ‘I’m not a wealthy man, but I want to buy my ticket, and I want to come down there, and I want to participate in this thing and do everything I can to help this thing come to fruition.’”
The legendary figure is part of a stellar lineup including fellow Horsemen’s own Ric Flair, Chris Jericho, Rocky Johnson, Roman Reigns, Dory Funk Jr. and Terry Funk, Kofi Kingston, Kevin Sullivan, Sheamus, Jerry Brisco, Steve Keirn, Brian Blair, Dean and Joe Malenko, Robert and Ron Fuller, Danny Miller, Paul Orndorff, Greg Valentine, Ricky Steamboat, Ron Bass, Hector Guerrero, Brutus The Barber Beefcake, Tiger Conway Jr., Bugsy McGraw, Fred Ottman (a/k/a Big Steelman, Shockmaster, Tugboat, Typhoon), David Penzer, Bray Wyatt and more.
Dillon was a fan born and raised in Trenton, N.J. Some of his earliest memories were going to MSG in New York City to see, among others, Dr. Jerry Graham and Eddie Graham, who became a famous promoter and booker for Championship Wrestling from Florida.
“Even though Jerry Graham was the more gregarious and flamboyant one, I come to find out years later after getting into this business, Eddie was really the genius behind it,” Dillon said. “He was a genius. He understood the psychology and nuances of the business. He had such an affect. I always refer to him as my mentor.
“He meant more to me, and I learned more from him than anyone else. I think that influence went on to Dusty Rhodes, Cowboy Bill Watts…What he accomplished there with the American Dream Dusty Rhodes, with Jack and Jerry Brisco, just the prestige that was developed in the state of Florida around Championship Wrestling from Florida.”
The upstart finally got his chance and started as a referee, which gave Dillon a foot in the door. He was breaking into the business, which was not easy to do in those days. This was a time where wrestling schools weren’t prevalent.
“Everybody was an independent contractor, and the old-timers looked at the young guys as somebody who could potentially take their place, so they weren’t overly anxious to help you,” he recalled.
“I had a lot of help from a lot of people along the way. I ended up spending a year in Amarillo. Finally, my dream came true. I got a chance to go to Florida and spend a year in 1975 there and was around Eddie Graham and Mike Graham. It was such a fabulous place to wrestle. A lot of the guys went there because of the Florida weather, the beach. The trips weren’t totally ridiculous. You were home most nights.
“Wednesday was a little tough because they would tape the old television program at the old Sportatorium. Then it was a 265-mile drive. Most of the guys would charter a plane or go commercial and stay over in Miami. That was the one night you were away from your family. Florida had such a rich history. I had such fond memories. The business changed dramatically since I retired, and all the regional territories at the time cease to exist. Cable television made that happen…”
It’s virtually impossible for Dillon to choose a most memorable moment from the historic Armory. However, he does have a good rib (practical joke).
“I’m very close friends with Kevin Sullivan, and I managed Angelo Mosca, who was an outstanding football player and wrestler. He was there at the same time,” Dillon said. “Angelo Mosca used to really take pride in his dress. He wore these very expensive leather Italian shoes. One week in our dressing room Kevin Sullivan was getting ready to go on. He was all dressed, put his head down and nodded off. Angelo Mosca crawled across the room, opened a book of matches and stuck it into the crease of his boot. He lit it and scampered across to the other side of the room.
“There was this delay of about five or eight seconds where all of a sudden the heat hit Kevin Sullivan, and he woke up. He looked at Angelo, who was roaring laughing. All Kevin kept saying was, ‘I’ll get you! I’ll get you, you S.O.B.!’ And then a week or so went by in that Armory dressing room again, the second floor behind that balcony. Only this time Mosca was on ahead of Kevin Sullivan. They used to have a single stall shower with a frosted glass door. Mosca got in there to take his shower, Kevin went over there, took the socks out of Mosca’s extremely expensive Italian shoes, sent them to the middle of the floor, took an old can of lighter fluid they put in those Zippo lighters.
“He put it in both shoes. Right at the time the shower water turned off and the door was about to open, Kevin flicked the match in there and flames shot about four-feet in the air. Angelo Mosca looked and says, ‘Those are my shoes!’ Kevin Sullivan was roaring with laughter. Those were the kind of things the people never saw and some of the kind of behind the scenes memories we certainly will never forget.”
Dillon is looking forward to catching up with old friends and meeting fans on this special evening for a good cause.
“It’s just a wonderful building,” he said. “It would be a shame if after Jody had this idea and worked so hard to put it together, it doesn’t happen for him. Terry and Dory Funk were both world champions, the only two brothers to hold the NWA world championship. Dory still trains guys in Ocala. He is coming over. Terry Funk has had a recent bout of pneumonia, where he was really sick to the point where he was scheduled to go to Japan and wrestle a special match. He canceled all his appearances that were scheduled and all appearances going forward. He called Jody saying, ‘If there was one appearance I would suck it up enough if my health will allow me, I’m coming to Tampa because I want to be part of this.
“There are a lot of guys stepping forward. Where can you go for $60 to get all of this? When you go to a fan festival and there’s fees charged for autographs and entrance. All the autographs at this are free. Everybody that is coming and participating is giving of their time. Nobody is getting paid. It’s a way of saying thank you to the fans, thank you to Championship Wrestling from Florida and the wonderful opportunity that was given to us to appear before the great fans and to do something that will help preserve and honor those memories going forward.”
- Tickets will be $60 adult and $38 children for the CWF fan fest fundraiser, which starts 6:30 p.m. EST Thursday, June 11 at the Tampa Jewish Community Center & Federation.
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