Seven buses rolled out of the hotel parking lot. Not minibuses. Full sized Greyhounds. Inside were the wrestlers, legends, families and friends of WWE owner Vince McMahon. Traffic was stopped in Miami as they rolled to I-95, then onward to the Miami Dolphin's Sun Life Stadium, alone, in a row, in the HOV lane.
Following behind was James J. Dillon. An industry lifer who has worked every job imaginable from VP to referee, Dillon was best known as the manager of the legendary Four Horseman. For his role in the group, a clique of champions that featured a rotating cast of wrestling greats like Ric Flair, Arn Anderson, Tully Blanchard and Barry Windham, Dillon was about to be recognized by wrestling czar Vince McMahon as a hall of famer.
His long time foe and backstage booking partner Dusty Rhodes would introduce Dillon and the gang.
It was the culminating moment of a long, proud career, and J.J. Dillon was scared. Not of the crowd. Not of the moment. But of those two icons, the men who had meant the most to him over his career. The men he was afraid he had done irreparable harm in his 2005 book Wrestlers Are Like Seagulls.
"With everything that had happened, if I was a betting man, I'd have never bet on this happening, me being inducted into their Hall of Fame," Dillon told Bleacher Report in an exclusive interview. "I was worried. What's it going to be like when I get there? Will there be a little chill in the air? I didn't know."
Dillon had been open and honest in his book. As a true WWF insider once part of McMahon's inner circle alongside the stalwart Pat Patterson, Dillon had plenty of knowledge about what went on inside the headquarters building in Stamford Connecticut. And he shared—and shared plenty—with fans. A lifetime of frustration poured out on those pages. Now, sixteen years after leaving the WWF, he was about to come face to face with Vince McMahon one more time.
J.J. had actually been to one previous WWE event after leaving the company, making the trip to Ric Flair's final match against Shawn Michaels. He had seen Vince from across the building, but never came into his orbit. Now he found himself at the run through for the WWE Hall of Fame television special, McMahon, as always, running the show. He was all business, but cordial.
"HHH was orchestrating everything, and we were the first one's out," Dillon said. "Tully was right in front of me, and Vince stood up, took his headset off, and in front of this room full of people, reached out, shook his hand. He made eye contact with me, saw me standing right behind him, reached around Tully and shook my hand. He said 'J.J, thanks for being here.' I said 'Vince, thank you for inviting me.' That was the extent of our conversation, our first in 16 years."
Later, each of the Hall of Famers had a chance to meet with McMahon individually. About 40 minutes before the Ceremony, each was brought into the presence of the closest thing we have to a wrestling god. He had already met with Vince's wife Linda and his daughter Stephanie (who heir apparent to the company business). Both had been gracious and kind. Vince though? That might be another story.
"He was going to personally present us our rings. I remember going in there, Flair first and then Arn, then it was Tully, me, and Barry Windham was last," Dillon said. "It was in a room where they were going to take pictures. And as I walked in, I didn't know. I said 'Vince, I don't have the words to thank you for this and what it means to me personally and my family.' He had a little smile on his face and he put his hand on my shoulder and said 'We had some great times together didn't we?' That was his reply. He handed me my ring, turned around and we took a whole bunch of pictures. I stepped away and Barry got his ring."
Just thinking about it was enough to make Dillon catch his breath.
"There have been lots of great bookers in the business, and every one of them had a shelf life," Dillon said. "Eventually their ideas would repeat themselves. And Vince has been the final say since day one. The fact that he's still there, still has the vision, still has the final say is amazing. The proof to me was seeing the scope of that event [WrestleMania], 78,000 people in Miami setting a record for that venue, and just seeing where he's taken the business. You can't have anything but respect for him."
But McMahon wasn't the only wrestling legend he had unfinished business with. Rhodes, who Dillon had battled in the ring and later worked closely with behind the scenes, had also taken some heat in Dillon's book. The two had parted on bad terms. Could they reconcile? Thinking about Christmas parties with Dusty and his wife Michelle, Dillon couldn't miss his chance to make things right with one of his oldest friends.
"There was that big question mark. It was never really talked out between Dusty and I," Dillon said. "My book came out in 2005. Fast forward to the weekend of the Hall of Fame. Dusty inducted us. There was a party after that. The McMahons threw in the hotel for WrestleMania weekend, first class all the way. Sushi bar, oysters on the half shell, open bar—it was as only they could do it.
"I was tired. It had been a very emotional few days. And I saw Dusty and his wife Michelle sitting four or five tables down. And I just went up and went down there and asked Dusty if he had a minute. I said 'Something has been bothering me for six or seven years. I've never had this conversation with you and I felt I should have.'
"It was very emotional," Dillon continued, breaking into tears. "It was just him and I one on one. And I basically told him that so much of my success, which was being showcased there that weekend, I owed to him. Going back to Florida...The two of us, in this huge room full of all these people, having a very personal conversation. He told me I was important to him too... Here's the two of us in this big room. Two grown men and I tell him I love him and he says he loves me. He told Michelle to come over and the three of us had a big hug. And I'm crying. It was like the weight of all those words, all the years, was released. Because he heard from me how I felt and he was very sincere about how he felt. It was a highlight of the weekend for me, this very personal thing."
Today Dillon is out of the wrestling business. But he still has plenty of expertise to share and stories to last a life time. His most recent project, a special DVD with Kayfabe Commentaries called Being a Four Horseman, was intended to expand the horizons of the "shoot interview." Instead of just asking Dillon a series of questions about his career, Kayfabe's Sean Oliver decided to focus in on a week in his life. There was one question in Oliver's mind: What was it like to run with the legendary Four Horsemen?
"Of my whole career, the one thing that is kind of a blur is that run with the Horsemen. One day ran into another, and we were working very hard," Dillon said. "I had these 'week in a glance' journals I used for tracking expenses on the road. So I knew what hotels, if there was a cab, a portion of a charter, we chipped in. It gave me some cues about where we were the night before and how we got there.
"How do you take one week, 25 years ago, and expound upon it? It was the most challenging interview that I've ever done. In the process we talked about a lot of things that were never asked before. What did [the] guys drink? What were their personalities really like? Things that had never come up in prior interviews. In the end, it's a general look at what it was like to be in the Horseman and on the road with the Horseman. And I was very pleased with the end product."
You can follow J.J. Dillon on his website. Jonathan Snowden is the author of Shooters: The Toughest Men in Professional Wrestling. He is a regular contributor to Bleacher Report.