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Rock-n-Roll Express, Midnight Express, and Jim Cornette: 30 Years Of Greatness To Be Honored At Charlotte Fanfest!
It's been 30 years since two of the greatest teams in the history of professional wrestling first embarked on a journey that would be fondly remembered three decades later by a generation of fans.
Those two teams will be honored at the Mid-Atlantic Wrestling Legends Fanfest in Charlotte.
The Rock-n-Roll Express (Ricky Morton and Robert Gibson) and The Midnight Express (Bobby Eaton, Dennis Condrey and Stan Lane), along with manager Jim Cornette, will be inducted into the Hall of Heroes on Friday night, August 2.
Lane, who took Condrey's place in the Midnight Express for a four-year-period, will be unable to attend due to a prior commitment.
In addition to signing autographs and posing for photos with fans, all five will be taking part in the planned "Mid-Atlantic Memories" documentary project, and Cornette also will be hosting a late-night Q&A session titled "Jim Cornette: Unplugged and Uncensored."
And you can bet your bottom dollar that Cornette will be wielding his signature "Louisville Slugger" tennis racket. It's the same racket that the outspoken manager used to swat Morton and Gibson with more times than he can remember. Cornette figures the two teams locked horns on several hundred occasions, and that's probably the number of times he whacked his team's archrivals over their heads. "I don't know that there might have been a match where I didn't slap one of them with the racket," he laughs.
The opinionated but entertaining Cornette, who has taken time off from the wrestling business since last November, will be making his only wrestling-related appearance of the year at Fanfest. He says he'll give an amusing account of when "I finally realized I needed to get away from the wrestling business for my own health and sanity."
It promises to be an event that very well could be remembered for another 30 years. "I'm really looking forward to this. Being inducted is a great honor," says Gibson. "It's a chance for us to give back to the fans. We've always put the fans No. 1. It's good to come back and see old friends where grudges are forgotten."
"I love the fans," says Morton. "That's what I like so much about Fanfest. People come from all over ... even different countries. It's a great event."
The Rock-n-Roll Express and Midnight Express collectively held more than a hundred tag-team titles and can legitimately lay claim to one of the greatest and longest-running feuds in pro wrestling history. "What makes this so special is that we're the first tag team in history to go this far," says Gibson.
Cornette says it would be difficult for fans to ever forget The Midnight Express. "The crowds were so big at that time, that if anybody is going to remember anything, they're going to remember that. The matches also always delivered. Nobody ever went and saw The Midnight Express and thought their match was bad."
Just what makes a group of performers so beloved (and others once so hated) all these years later? If you're a longtime fan, and particularly a follower of the popular Mid-Atlantic variety, you can probably still remember the pulsating chant that reverberated off the walls of every building where Mid-Atlantic wrestling was held during the '80s. "Rock and Roll! Rock and Roll! Rock and Roll!" Fans still chant their names. It became an anthem for one of the most popular teams of that era.
Ricky Morton and Robert Gibson were The Beatles of the wrestling scene as they combined sex appeal with high energy and talent in the ring. Thirty years later, their hair is thinner and those adoring teenybopper fans have children of their own, but Morton and Gibson are still entertaining wrestling crowds and keeping the memories alive.
"I can still perform as good as I did years ago. If I couldn't perform, I wouldn't do it," says Morton, 56, who still proudly sports his familiar blond mullet. He even has a shirt in his collection with "MWO" (Mullet World Order) emblazoned on it. "I've had my share of injuries, but nothing I couldn't recover from. But you never know what tomorrow brings. I'm not a bodybuilder. I've got a little belly. And I gave up my modeling career years ago," he laughs.
Gibson, 54, also sees no end to their 30-year run - the longest continuous tag-team run in wrestling history. "Age is just a number. It's how you keep yourself in shape that counts," he says.
They still remember how the business was when they first started teaming in 1983. "Everywhere we went we drew money and broke records," says Gibson. "(Rock-n-Roll vs. Midnight Express) was the longest feud in history. It was amazing."
Gibson recalls the night he and Morton pulled up to the front door of an arena in Lafayette, Louisiana, where the two were wrestling that night. A news station was on hand, and a reporter asked them who they were. A puzzled Gibson asked the newsman what he meant by the question. The reporter informed Gibson that fans had been camping out for days trying to score tickets, and he merely wanted to know what this phenomenon was all about. Gibson answered simply: "We're Ricky and Robert ... The Rock-n-Roll Express."
The Rock-n-Roll Express phenomenon started in Memphis in 1983 when promoter Jerry Lawler, looking for a young babyface tag team, paired up Ricky Morton and Robert Gibson. Morton had been working in San Antonio for promoter Joe Blanchard, while Gibson was working in Pensacola for promoters Ron and Robert Fuller.
The R&R Express (standing for Ricky and Robert) was considered as a name for the new team before it eventually evolved to The Rock-n-Roll Express. The new moniker, says Morton, was a collaborative effort between Lawler and Jimmy Hart, who helped produce the team's first music video, Joan Jett's "I Love Rock'n Roll." "They were friends, and Jimmy was into the rock and roll. Lawler put us together, and Jimmy Hart really came up with the name. It worked out great for us."
Their first arena show as The Rock-n-Roll Express was on March 13, 1983, at the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis. Their second bout the following week was against The Galaxians (Danny Davis and Ken Wayne), a masked team managed by, no less, a young James E. Cornette.
"Their first program was against a team managed by me," says Cornette. "It was actually the best team I ever managed besides The Midnight because Danny Davis and Ken Wayne were incredible as a team."
"I remember the first day we did this," says Morton. "We really weren't prepared ... we didn't even know what kind of outfits to wear." Lawler had a pair of skin-colored tights that he suggested for Gibson. "He looked like he was naked," laughs Morton. "But then we went to a flea market behind Mid-South Coliseum and bought some bandanas, feathers, all kinds of stuff."
For Morton, a conventional wrestler who wasn't accustomed to a lot of bells and whistles, there was a definite feeling of uneasiness sporting the new rocker getup. "I was kind of embarrassed. I was used to wearing regular wrestling stuff. But when they played our music, we went out and those people instantly bought it. The fans went crazy."
That is, adds Morton, all but one. "One of the fans stopped me out back and said, 'Hell, I didn't know whether y'all were Indians or Gypsies," laughs Morton. "But from there we smoothed out all the rough edges."
The Rock-n-Roll Express was a spinoff of another successful Memphis-based team, The Fabulous Ones (Stan Lane and Steve Keirn), who had been a takeoff on the Fabulous Fargos team from a previous generation. That team had set the Jerry Jarrett promotion on fire, drawing the biggest crowds that area had ever seen.
Lane, who years later would join Cornette's Midnight Express, had been a heel in Tennessee where he was managed by Jimmy Hart, but turned babyface in 1982 and was billed as the protégé of area legend Jackie Fargo. With Fargo's endorsement, Lane and Keirn dubbed themselves The Fabulous Ones.
"Stan Lane and Steve Keirn were great workers, but they were in the footsteps of Jackie Fargo. And they got the push. Robert and I were playing second fiddle," says Morton.
Enter Mid-South promoter Cowboy Bill Watts. Watts and booker Bill Dundee brought Morton and Gibson to the sprawling Louisiana-based circuit. The team immediately popped the territory. "We were selling out every night," says Morton.
But, he adds, they needed a strong heel team to get them over. They made fans take notice when they defeated the much larger duo of Nikolai Volkoff and Krusher Khruschev. But Watts had bigger plans for the popular pair.
Virtually untested as a team when they arrived in Watts' territory in 1984, Morton and Gibson became a main-event act as crowds picked up to see them do battle with a team they would forever be linked with - Cornette's Midnight Express.
With Cornette's early Midnight version consisting of "Beautiful" Bobby Eaton and "Loverboy" Dennis Condrey, a well-oiled team made even better by Cornette's natural ability to infuriate fans, Morton and Gibson found the perfect opponents. Cornette and his team had arrived in the territory shortly before Morton and Gibson, and were beating opponents on a nightly basis.
The two teams were no strangers. "I had worked with Dennis and Bobby all my life," says Morton. "Dennis had been with Norvell Austin and Randy Rose. And then he and Phil Hickerson were partners. Bobby and Dennis were both great workers. We had been around each other for years."
The Mid-South territory became unglued when the two "Express" teams first locked horns. "It went to a whole new level. The time we were there Bill Watts made more money than he ever did while owning his territory," says Morton.
"Watts had never used smaller guys. But we were pushed. There were such great workers at that time. Everybody knew how to do their job and they knew how to get us over. It worked out great."
Few teams, though, had as much chemistry working together as Rock-n-Roll and Midnight. "It was The Express vs. The Express. Plus, Jimmy Cornette was one of the greatest interviews ever," says Morton. "Every wrestling fan in the world hated him. He did his job so well. It was just something that clicked and clicked ... not only during the Bill Watts era, but all the time after. I loved it there. It gave us so much experience before we went into the Carolinas."
A famous series of scaffold matches between the two teams in November 1984 literally took the action to new heights. For Morton, the experience was nothing short of terrifying. "If you watch tapes of those matches, you can see that I'm just trying to hold on. It was an experience that I wouldn't recommend. And I'm scared of heights. I wouldn't even get on top of my house."
"We didn't do the thing where you took the big bumps off the scaffold," he adds. "We just did the thing where you'd drop and land on your feet .... because at the time bumps like that were unheard of."
While admitting it was "very scary," Gibson says he was much more relaxed on the scaffold than his partner. "I was more or less the crazy one out there. I was jumping around. Thank God I never got hurt up there. Everybody else was like a cat trying to get a grip of everything."
"You get on top of that and it's unbelievable," adds Morton. "It was so high. But we got through it and we got over it. Every time we had that scaffold match we sold out. I gave it the best I could."
For Cornette, the scaffold matches were the "lowlights" of their program. "You can't do much in a scaffold match. I couldn't really have any involvement so it wasn't that much fun for me." It wasn't any fun for Cornette two years later, either, when he suffered a serious knee injury after falling from the edge of a 20-foot-high scaffold at the "Night of the Skywalkers" event at Starrcade '86. Cornette made the mistake of landing with his legs locked and extended, and his bodyguard, Big Bubba Rogers, was out of position to catch the manager in mid-air and prevent any damage. He still has knee problems to this day.
Cornette says it didn't get any bigger than, as a 22-year-old, working main events in Houston and at the Superdome in New Orleans. "I loved Houston. Those fans would go ballistic. We had a six-man one night with The Rock-n-Roll and Jim Duggan against The Midnights and Ernie Ladd. The people were crazy off the charts. I was 22 years old and worked four times in the Superdome in the main event that year in front of a combined total of more than 65,000 people. It was so big that we had to take a golf cart to the ring."
But working that area also had it dangerous drawbacks, says Cornette. "The fans in Lake Charles, Louisiana were crazy. The Freebirds would get their tires cut, so they started driving to the police station and having the police bring them to the show. The fans then cut the tires on the police car that brought The Freebirds.
"They put Drano in water guns and tried to squirt (Skandor) Akbar in the eyes. We'd have a dozen cops circle us in a flying wedge and walk us to and from the ring, so fans had to get inventive to get at people. They shot glue into the keyholes of our cars. They lipsticked the headlights. If I was by myself and not traveling with the boys, I'd do drive-throughs. I wouldn't even get out of the car."
One night while driving down the interstate out of Lake Charles, says Cornette, fans tried to run them off the road. "There were three lanes. We're in Dennis' van and he's driving. Two cars full of Cajuns come up on either side of us. Dennis pulled out the biggest handgun I'd ever seen from under the seat and just held it up in front of his face, and those cars hit the brakes, and we were gone."
As quickly as they achieved success in the Mid-South territory, it was even quicker when promoter Jim Crockett scooped The Rock-n-Roll Express up the following year and they arrived in the Mid-Atlantic area. In an auspicious debut, to say the least, Morton and Gibson won the highly coveted NWA world tag-team title their first night in by defeating Ivan Koloff and Krusher Khruschev in June 1985 at a TV taping in Shelby, North Carolina.
"We were still working in Louisiana when they brought us in," says Morton. "We gave our notice there and came in and did their TV on a Tuesday night in Shelby. We won the world belts and the next morning went back to Louisiana. We wrestled there for two weeks and then came back to North Carolina."
Outsized by most of their opponents, the heartthrob duo made up for any lack of bulk by featuring non-stop, precision-like teamwork in the ring. And with youthful good looks and featured in snappy music videos produced by Watts' son, Joel, Morton and Gibson were babyfaces of the first order.
"Nicky (Nikita Koloff), Krusher (Khruschev) and Ivan (Koloff) had beaten everybody. They had beaten Dusty and Magnum T.A., Dusty and Manny Fernandez. They beat everybody," says Morton. "We came in as All-American kids, and the match went nearly 58 minutes of the TV time. We beat them at the end. And it just exploded."
Just like in Mid-South, it was the same result in the Carolinas. The towns continued to sell out.
Over the course of a career, The Rock-n-Roll Express would hold dozens of regional and world tag-team titles. It was that first world tag-team title victory, however, that Morton cherishes the most. "That was a big deal. Winning that first world tag-team title was the greatest of all."
Despite their tremendous popularity and solid drawing power, Morton and Gibson often found themselves on the "B" team that was sent to the territory's smaller arenas. The "A" team, which routinely featured NWA world champion Ric Flair and other top-tier talent, performed at the major buildings.
An interesting pattern, however, began to develop. The "B" cards, highlighted by The Rock-n-Roll Express, were outdrawing the loaded "A" shows in the big cities. "Practically the whole territory was in Baltimore, Maryland. They had almost everybody you could imagine in Baltimore - Flair and all of them," says Morton.
He recalls one main-event match with The Midnight Express at the old Independence Arena in Charlotte. "The semi-main event was The Italian Stallion against Manny Fernandez. You also had Denny Brown and George South. That was the card we had. We sold out the arena. At the big show in Baltimore they didn't even draw a thousand people."
It may have been called the "B" show, but to Gibson, there was no mistaking which show was better. "To me it was the No. 1 show. He could put us out there with the underneath guys, and we'd still sell out the Charlotte Coliseum. We broke record after record. We broke a record in Raleigh that Blackjack Mulligan and Ric Flair held. Two weeks later we came back and broke the record again."
"I loved being on the 'B' shows," adds Morton. "Dickie Murdoch (ticked) Dusty off, and Dusty put him on the cards with us. Dusty later asked him if he had learned his lesson, and if he was ready to go with the 'A' team instead of the 'B' team." Murdoch's response: "Hell no! I make more money with the 'B' team. We sell out, y'all don't."
Morton and Gibson also were summoned to the booker's office. "Dusty said, 'Listen boys, there's two things you don't do around here. You don't sell out a building when I'm not on the card." They continued, however, blowing the roof off building after building with every team they faced.
And when Stan Lane replaced Dennis Condrey in The Midnight Express, the team - and their ongoing program with Morton and Gibson - didn't miss a beat. "They (The Midnights) were great workers. There was always something new to do," says Morton. "And when Dennis left, they picked up right where they left off. That's something hard to do. But Stan was also a great worker. He was that good body, good-looking heel that everybody wanted to be.
"Dennis was great. I don't know the reason, I never asked, why Dennis left. It was none of my business. But I know that Stan came in and took his place and got over huge. It started a whole new thing with them."
"I don't know of any bad matches between those two teams," says Cornette. "We had some matches that, grading on the curve, were not as good as others. We had a match in Charleston at Clash of the Champions with The Rock-n-Roll Express. It just didn't jell at all, and I was depressed in the car on the way home." Making it worse, says Cornette, was that it took place on a Clash of Champions special. "But in hindsight, nobody noticed and nobody said it wasn't any good, and it was probably better than most of the regular tag matches. We just held ourselves to a higher standard. That's probably the only match with The Rock-n-Roll that I was ever depressed about."
Cornette says the fact that the teams enjoyed working with one another was reflected in the quality of their matches. "We had fun doing it. You could tell that we enjoyed what we were doing."
That "fun" didn't stop at the arena. Their road trips, says Cornette, were both educational and entertaining. "Some of the trips we made and some of the things that we encountered were definitely not fun at the time, but overall, whether it was me and Bobby and Dennis or me and Bobby and Stan, we were just giddy silly in the car a lot of times. We would pull up to the building and laugh to where people thought there was something wrong with us. And most of the time, unless it was one of those nights where it was a bad experience at a show or whether we were being chased by angry fans, most of the time we were laughing when we got in the car. And we were still laughing when we got out of it."
It was on those long trips that the threesome came up with many of their ideas. "We talked about a lot of things obviously, but we spent a lot of time in the car talking about what we were doing," says Cornette. "Especially on the way back when we would come up with a lot of stuff."
Leaving the Carolinas in 1988, Morton and Gibson worked briefly in the Continental Wrestling Association where they feuded with The Midnight Rockers (Shawn Michaels and Marty Jannetty) over the AWA world tag-team title.
When they returned to the NWA in 1989, the wrestling scene had begun to change. Crockett Promotions had been sold to Ted Turner, and the tag-team scene was now dominated by power duos such as The Road Warriors and the Steiner Brothers. Morton, however, had proven himself to be a more than capable singles performer.
A series of intense, bloody matches with NWA champion Ric Flair during the 1986 Great American Bash tour had established Morton as a credible world title contender. The program was set up when Morton was working a rare singles bout in Rock Hill, South Carolina while Gibson was recovering from an injury.
Flair was so impressed with Morton's singles work that he told booker Dusty Rhodes that he wanted to work an angle with him. "We started it (the angle) when Flair rubbed my face in the floor. I wrestled Flair 17 nights in a row. Two matches on Sunday. Every match we had went the time limit."
Like others, Morton found that Flair was practically inexhaustible in the ring. "The first couple of matches I started feeling it at about the 45-minute mark, and about the third night I was hanging. But it was great. We could have gone on from there, but it turned into politics and I got caught in the middle of it. That's all I can say about that."
His program with Flair remains one of his fondest memories of his days in the Mid-Atlantic area. "Just having that great run with Ric Flair ... knowing that I wrestled the best in the world. I'm saying that from my heart. I wrestled them all. Back then you had a lot of great workers. But Ric Flair with his charisma ... and Ric Flair being Ric Flair. Ric Flair was always Ric Flair. He was never nobody else. The limousine ridin' and all that (stuff) was for real. I had a great time doing that."
By 1991, The Rock-n-Roll Express had been moved to the middle of the card. In June of that year, Morton turned on Gibson for a brief but largely forgettable feud. They finally left the promotion for good, but their run as tag-team favorites was far from over.
They joined forces again in Cornette's Smoky Mountain Wrestling promotion in the early '90s, and held the Smoky Mountain tag-team belts 10 different times. "We did the same thing over again in Smoky Mountain and sold out everywhere we went," says Morton. "It got over again the same way. We just did it with new people. Everybody today thinks they know everything but they don't. Jimmy (Cornette) got caught up in the situation with the corporate life. But Jimmy's like me. If he didn't like something, he'd let you know. He got a lot of heat for that."
With both well into their 50s, some might ask why Morton and Gibson are still out there on the road performing in front of crowds that don't come close to approximating those during their glory days. It's for the love of the business, both say. It's in their blood.
The Rock-n-Roll Express is still rolling. "I'd do it all over again ... and twice on Sundays," quips Gibson.
For Morton, he couldn't imagine a life without wrestling. After all, the two have been together as a team for three decades. And like with most partnerships, it all hasn't all been rosy. There have been disagreements over the years, some more serious than others. But they're still together whenever a promoter calls and a booking comes open.
"The first 20 years I was with Robert more than my wife," says Morton. "We were with each other a lot, but we never let it get to the bad part. What we would do when we felt that part coming was to not travel with each other. We wouldn't have to be in the car all day with each other."
"You'd get in a different car and go a different way," echoes Gibson. "You'd go out and do your job and go your separate way."
"Then after about a month, we'd have brand new stuff to talk about. It never got to the real bad part," says Morton. "If we did (have a problem), we'd man up and respect each other," adds Gibson.
Morton says their 30-year run represents a bond and a commitment that is rare in the business today. "I see a lot of guys in this business that did come to blows and fighting and arguing, but it never got like that with us. I wouldn't let it get to that. We were business partners. It worked out in the long run. Don't get me wrong ... we had our arguments. But it wasn't anything that extreme. We're the longest tag team ever."
Morton loves talking about and reliving some of those glory days. It makes him feel good when performers like Tommy Dreamer send him a text and say how much they appreciate what he gave to the business.
"He had watched some old tapes and wanted to thank me for making him love our business and making him believe our business. There's no better compliment than that."
When the day does come that Morton must hang up his boots, he'd like to continue to contribute in some capacity. "I do think about it. I'd like to be in a position to get a job somewhere with one of the big companies. I'm not asking for a big job. Wrestling is all I know."
He's been in the business all his life. He had his first pro match when he was 16. "I grew up in the business. My daddy was a wrestler and referee. When I was a kid, I'd go with him at night to pull the wrestling ring and set it up. I'd sleep in the back seat of the car and I'd get up and go to school and do it again the next day. That's all I've ever known."
Morton still enjoys being recognized when he goes to a restaurant or, as he recently was, on a cruise when a Russian passenger immediately recognized him and told him what a big star he was in her country.
He now has seven children and three grandsons. His oldest, Jonathan, is 31 and is a country music singer in Nashville.
He's been married to his second wife Andrea "forever." "It seems live forever anyway," he laughs. "Of course I'm just kidding."
He's got a 12-year-old son that, like he did with his father, accompanies him to his wrestling shows. "He goes with me everywhere I go. He just turned 12 and can out-wrestle 90 percent of the guys in the business. He can outperform them, and that's a shoot. It really is. His dream is to someday be a wrestler, and I'm going to try to make it come true if I can."
It's hard not to notice how much Morton loves his profession. "I love this business. This business cost me wives. I was on the road a lot. That's the heartaches of the business that I love so much. You're gone every night."
Attending - and being honored - at an event like Fanfest, he says, is a thrill. "I love the fans, and I'm looking forward to being put in the Hall of Heroes. It's a great honor to know that someone thought enough about you to do something about it. That means a lot to somebody, especially like me, after you put all your time into this business."
Is tag-team wrestling dead? Ricky Morton doesn't necessarily think so. But he does agree that it's becoming a lost art. "It's not dead," says Morton. "They just don't know how to do it."
What made The Rock-n-Roll so special, he says, is that they both knew how to work. To old schoolers like Morton and Gibson, who represented the best of their craft, tag-team wrestling was an art form. "It was an art. I did a lot of flying, but I didn't have to. My thing was selling. I'd sell and give Robert a hot tag. That was what it was about."
Whether it be in singles of tag-team competition, there were few better than Morton when it came to "selling." With good looks and of small stature, Morton was the ideal candidate to take a beating at the hands of the heels. "When I was selling, I was telling a story. All we got was the finish from the referee. We'd go to the ring and have the match. It wasn't like we started off with this move, this move and that move. It all happened when you got in the ring. When they'd get the heat on me, I'd have to go into the stage of telling a story, to give Robert the hot tag and make people believe I was really getting killed. It's a lost art these days. I'd love to help people learn that. But the business has changed."
There was no planning matches from A to Z. "It's like the guys today have a playbook. I do not do that. I do not call anything in the back. I go out and I listen to the people and give them what they want."
"We were young, rock-and-roll guys at that time using music that people knew," says Morton. "We'd come out to the ring with our music. Nowadays they play the music and guys come to the ring, and really it's over. But we had great matches."
Both Morton and Gibson grew up in the business.
"Robert and I were both brought up in wrestling families," says Morton, who was trained by his father, Paul, and started wrestling in 1978. "When we got our break, we took advantage of it. The things that we did in the ring were different."
Gibson, now 54, turned pro in 1977 when he was only 17 years old. He was trained by his older brother, Ricky Gibson, who was a popular star in the Southeastern states. "We didn't train in a ring," says Robert. "We trained in the front yard."
"Ricky Gibson was incredible," recalls Cornette. "When he worked with Lawler in '74, nobody did the big vertical suplexes then. He'd run and jump over the top rope outside the ring to chase the manager. He was just so athletic. Of course the big bumps and the big backdrops are what shortened his career."
"I met Robert when he first came into the territory," adds Cornette. "He had wrestled a little bit in Mobile and then came up here to team with brother Ricky. I took their first publicity picture. Before Ricky (Morton) started wrestling, he rode up to the matches a time or two with his dad, Paul Morton, who had refereed here since Hoover was in the White House."
Ricky Gibson, who passed away in 2006 at the age of 54, also was helpful to Morton, says Robert. "That stuff me and my brother did together is basically what me and Ricky Morton did. We were the Gibson Brothers first."
In the early 1980s, an automobile accident put an end to Ricky Gibson's wrestling career.
Morton, who lives in Bristol, Tennessee, remains a weekend warrior on the independent circuit. On special occasions, he will bring The R&R Express out of mothballs and team with Gibson, who splits his time between homes in Atlanta and Pensacola. It's a routine Morton enjoys for the most part, and it provides him a way to stay current. And every once in a while, he says, there's a big turnout that will bring back memories of how it once was. "Last week we had a hell of house in Gastonia, North Carolina. We wrestled The Powers of Pain - Warlord and The Barbarian."
More importantly, Morton can still sell like nobody's business and, along with Gibson, the two can still throw a pretty mean double dropkick. And, chimes in Gibson, "I'm still doing a flying head scissors."
"I'm 56 years old, but believe it or not, I'm in better shape than I was 25 years ago," says Morton. "I'm not a bodybuilder. But I know how to sell, and that's what the people still buy." The formula still works. "They get the heat on me and I give Robert the hot tag, and the roof comes off the building. Then the double dropkick, and it's all over but the crying and the dying and the flying. It always worked and it still does."
As for the blond mullet, it's not going anywhere as long as Morton has any control. "Because of my hair, I'm recognized everywhere I go," he says. Gibson once asked him why he didn't cut his hair. "Dang, Robert, if I cut my hair I won't be me anymore. And I never will cut it. Mullet World Order forever!"
The original Midnight Express had its origins in 1981 when Condrey, Norvel Austin and Randy Rose formed a stable under that name in the Alabama-Tennessee territory. Several wrestlers rotated in and out of the group.
The team took real shape in 1983 when Condrey, a skilled tag-team specialist, joined forces with the younger Bobby Eaton, a steady hand still in high school playing linebacker and fullback for his football team when he stepped into the ring for his first professional match.
By 1983, though, the 24-year-old Eaton had already logged seven years as a pro and was an established worker.
A touch of magic was created when Jim Cornette, a young ringside photographer-turned-manager, was enlisted as the team's mouthpiece. "When we first got together, obviously I was brand new," says Cornette. "I could talk, but a lot of times I didn't know whether I was saying the right thing or not. Dennis, who had been on top longer than any of us, taught us first about some psychology and how things worked and why things would go a certain way."
Cornette, meanwhile, came up with names for their finishers. "Because I was either a child prodigy or idiot savant, they let me tell them moves because I was the 'move inventor' and the 'move namer.' I had a thing for words and a thing for names because I used to watch all the wrestling tapes and I watched them."
"Dennis had the psychology, and he was kind of our mentor," says Cornette. "Bobby was the workhorse. As soon as he got in the ring the place blew because everything was action. And I could (tick) them off because of whatever I said."
The Midnights, with Cornette at the helm, set Watts' Mid-South territory on fire in 1984. The trio were leading villains when the promotion, which ran shows in Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi, broke one gate record after another. "That was one heck of a year," recalls Eaton. "They gave us a big push, and man, we were fighting every night. I got beat up (by fans) six or seven times down there."
"Watts had flown us down from Nashville to do a couple of his TV tapings before we actually started in the territory in November of '83," says Cornette. Looking back, Cornette says he had no idea that The Midnight Express would become as successful as they did.
He recalls Watts coming to Memphis in late 1983 to see a show at the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis.
"I was Jimmy Hart's second banana. I was lucky if I was on the Memphis card. Usually I was at the spot show instead of the big town because they were running two towns a night a lot. But I never even spoke to Watts because I was young and wasn't going to walk up to him.
"It wasn't like now when everybody, including the ring announcer, comes in and finds everybody - up to the owner of the company - and has to shake their hand. You minded your own business back then. You walked to the locker room and shook everybody's hand, but if Bill Watts and Jerry Jarrett were in the corner talking, you didn't walk up to them."
For some reason that night, he says, Jarrett had Cornette in three different key matches, including being a part of the finish in all of them. Little did Cornette know at the time, but he was auditioning for Watts.
A few days later at a spot show in Tennessee, Condrey told Cornette that he needed to talk to him. "He called me out in the hallway. I didn't have an idea about what he wanted. I thought I might have had heat."
"Bill Watts wants us to come work his territory," Condrey told Cornette. "There was no 'us' at that time," notes Cornette. "Bobby was a babyface, Dennis was a heel and I was helping Jimmy Hart manage all of his heels."
Cornette thought Condrey was ribbing him. "I told Dennis that I had never even spoken to Watts." Condrey said Watts had asked him it that kid (Cornette) could talk, and Condrey told him he could "talk his (behind) off."
"He told us we were going to make between 150 and 200 thousand dollars. I said, 'Each?' At the time I was averaging 290 bucks a week. Dennis said he was flying us down to TV the next week. And son-of-a-gun, it was basically you'd make 50 grand if business didn't go anywhere, and if you made 100 grand, that meant it was a record year. We made 90-something grand because it was a record year." Watts saw big money in Cornette and The Express, and they delivered.
Watts even amped up the trio's blazing heat. At a match at the New Orleans Superdome, Watts and The Junkyard Dog ripped Cornette's clothes off, dressed him in a diaper and fed him a baby bottle. "He got juice on Bobby and Dennis, beat both of them in convincing fashion, stripped me down, put me in a dress or a diaper, and we're still fighting fans on the way back," recalls Cornette.
"That kept us another eight months," laughs Cornette, who lost his hair twice in one week as a result of stipulation matches.
Jim Crockett saw the business Cornette and The Midnights were drawing for Watts. He wanted them for the Carolinas.
"Once we were in Louisiana, Flair would come in and tell us that we had to come to Charlotte," recalls Cornette. "Once we got to Charlotte and saw what they wanted to do and the size of the buildings, along with the national TV, it got me thinking. This might not be a flash in the pan."
Jim Crockett Promotions signed the trio in the summer of 1985.
Just as the team was peaking, though, Condrey disappeared without a trace after a match in 1987. With Stan Lane's longtime partner Steve Keirn looking at retirement, the former Fabulous Ones star appeared to be an ideal choice.
"We (The Fabs) were the first tag team to use videos to promote ourselves. We were more like rock stars. It was a great period for us," says Lane, whose reputation as an ultimate "party guy" translated well to his new role as a member of a team built around two wrestlers with blond hair, well-developed bodies and youthful good looks, but with ring ability as well.
The new MX version of "Sweet" Stan Lane and "Beautiful" Bobby Eaton, behind one of the greatest managers in the business, held the NWA tag-team belts on several occasions and was named tag team of the year in 1987-88. Lane possessed more speed, was flashier and had far greater charisma than his predecessor. "Stan brought a better look," says Cornette. "There was more cosmetics for the TV era. Dennis was great in the ring, but Stan could hold his own. Bobby was the glue, and I was still talking."
The business had changed, though, to where it was no longer as much about how much heat Cornette and The Express could get. "We went from the guys being expected to draw the house at Mid-South or even on top in the NWA in '86, to the guys who were expected to be the perennial tag-team champions or challengers, and have the good match. It was the competition. Who's going to have the best match? Midnight Express or Ric Flair? And if we came in second, we came in second to Ric Flair. There's nothing bad about that. And every once in a while, we'd push him a little bit. But as long as everybody was behind us, we still felt like we were succeeding."
Their matches with The Rock-n-Roll Express, The Fantastics, The Original Midnight Express (Condrey and Randy Rose), The Road Warriors, Arn Anderson and Tully Blanchard, and Barry Windham and Ron Garvin were among the best area fans had ever seen. The two were innovative, and created maneuvers like the Rocket Launcher, Alabama Jam and the Veg-O-Matic.
Contract problems in 1989, however, resulted in the NWA front office trying to break up the trio, feeling the act had outlived its shelf life. But the group refused to be intimidated, quitting once to show unity and threatening to do the same when management wanted to split the trio up again.
Cornette says they never took themselves too seriously. "We lost way more matches than we ever won. We didn't have a problem with doing jobs. We knew that if we went out and were allowed to do what we could do, we could get the team over, we could get ourselves over and we could probably sell some tickets. The only problems we ever had with management were not our schedule and not our money, but when we were not allowed to go out and do that. We couldn't get anybody over and ourselves over or sell tickets in the position we were being put in just because they didn't understand what was going on."
It all came to a head, he says, when some of the higher-ups in the company questioned why Cornette and The Midnights were making top-level pay. "What doomed us was The Road Warriors, Midnights, Flair, Luger and Sting were the highest-paid guys in the company when Turner bought it. And they could figure Flair and figure The Road Warriors and even Sting and Luger because ... look at them. But then they looked at the three of us and went, wait a minute, why are we paying them all that money?"
To Cornette, and many others in the company, the answer was simple. "Well, because we actually drew more money than the rest of them put together except for Ric," he says. "It galled me to no end when we had drawn the all-time record gate in the state of Virginia in September of '88 against Tully and Arn, with Flair and Luger in the double main event. Two months later they buy the company and wonder who was this tag team that was hanging around?"
"George Scott came in as booker and said, 'I just don't know what I'm going to do with you boys,'" recounts Cornette. "Well, we'll relieve you of that burden, and we'll just give our notice," replied Cornette.
"The only reason we didn't leave is because they fired him (Scott) before we finished up. But we had already promised Dundee we'd work in Continental, and we were looking for a couple months off. So Jim Ross, on behalf of the new booking team, made the deal that we could take our two months off and come back in the summer for the world tag-team tournament, and we'd pick up where we left off."
That's exactly what they did, says Cornette, "except we left off without Herd and we picked up with Herd. So it wasn't exactly the same place."
The group returned and stayed another year-and-a-half. "We couldn't wait until our contracts came up. We knew there was no way in the world they were going to re-sign us. They would have re-signed me, but they didn't want to re-sign Bobby and Stan, and I wasn't going to stay without them."
They were in Norfolk, Virginia with two weeks left on their contract when Wahoo McDaniel, an agent at that time, informed Cornette about a meeting the committee had held. "It was everybody but (WCW boss) Jim Herd ... it was Wahoo, it was Jim Ross, probably Jody Hamilton, Terry Funk, whoever that was around. They all said that they had to re-sign The Midnight Express." Herd was outvoted.
"Me and Stan both threw our bags down at the same time. We were leaving on the theory that they weren't going to offer us anything anyway. But now they offered us all six figures each. We had been ready to go."
Two weeks later in Indianapolis, Cornette had a fateful encounter with Herd. "I hadn't seen Herd since Wahoo gave us that information. Herd had a manila envelope in his hand. He walked down the hallway, and I'm looking at him. He walks up to me, sticks it out and hands it to me. His first words were, 'You know I was against this. Here's your contracts.'" Cornette, who had quit the booking committee two months earlier, replied: "You know, I was, too."
Cornette explains how he left the committee. Returning 10 days later from a wedding vacation in Hawaii, Cornette was approached by Ross in Canton, Ohio. Herd, Cornette was informed, had "ixnayed" the deal.
Ross asked Cornette to attend a booking meeting two days later to plead his case. Cornette had other ideas. "No ... how about this instead? How about you tell Jim Herd to take his booking committee and shove it up his (behind). If I come to that meeting, it will be for the express purpose of crawling across the table and sticking these two fingers, two knuckles deep, in his eye socket."
"That's how I quit the booking committee," he says. "When I think about it now, I can't believe I didn't have a heart attack when I was 30."
Cornette says the company brass tried its best to break up the team. "They had actually pried us apart. I would do color commentary and the hotline, and the boys would join Ric and Arn as The Horsemen with Woman. That way they'd have spots, and we'd break up. I'd sell the contract to her. And that way we'd all stay here and get back together at some point."
Cornette's fiery temper continued to clash with WCW's front office, and he left the company for good in 1990 after a series of disagreements, culminating with a falling out with Herd. Cornette took Lane with him, but Eaton decided to stay. For the first team in a decade, there was no Midnight Express.
"We never even fought with Herd about the money. We just fought with him about the fact that he was wiping his feet on us when we could still outperform everybody else on the roster. It didn't make sense," says Cornette.
Lane helped Cornette start the Tennessee-based Smoky Mountain Wrestling promotion in the early '90s and formed yet another top team with Dr. Tom Prichard as The Heavenly Bodies. Lane left the company after two years. "It was so darn dangerous," says Lane. "Cornette was hot-shoting the territory in towns like Harlan and Pikeville, Kentucky. I wasn't going to get stabbed up there."
Cornette, booker and creative genius behind the old-style territorial promotion, kept Smoky Mountain afloat on a shoestring budget. But, like other regional promotions that existed a decade before Smoky Mountain Wrestling, it eventually fell victim to the changing times and the much deeper pockets of the major national wrestling companies.
Cornette helped revive the careers of many older stars and knew what the people wanted to see. In the end, though, it wasn't enough.
Cornette, 51, who has been on a self-imposed hiatus since leaving his job at Ring of Honor last year, says he's feeling better than he has in a long time. "I haven't yelled, screamed and cussed at anybody since November ... except, well, my wife, but we're married," he jokes in rapid-fire fashion.
Stepping aside from the pro wrestling pressure cooker for the first time in years, Cornette has used the time off to recharge his batteries and implement a healthy eating regimen. "I went on a diet and went from 248 pounds to 211. I celebrated the (Louisville) Cards winning the (NCAA basketball) tournament a few weeks ago, so I'm back around 215. But I'm shooting for 200 by the middle of summer."
The man who once proclaimed he was always "as busy as a one-legged man in a butt-kicking contest" now actually finds free time. He's spent much of that time combing through his vast wrestling and comic book collection, and has been attending numerous comic book and horror show conventions with wife Stacey.
The stress of the wrestling business, he admits, had taken its toll. "I love wrestling, but I don't love whatever the (heck) wrestling has become now. Everybody in the business, especially from my generation, is either dead, crippled, broke, in bad health, in rehab or regularly making a (fool) out of himself." Cornette didn't want a spot on that dubious list.
"I was obsessed with that company (Ring of Honor) for three years, doing a 13-hour-day producing television. In three years - between November 2009 and November 2012 - I was on the road, in a hotel room, over 300 nights and put almost 150,000 miles on my vehicle. It never turned off and it never stopped because there was always something, whether it was creative or whether it was administrative or whatever it was."
And then, he says, the light turned on. "I had an epiphany. I would rather be home looking out my office window at my beautiful dogwood trees and doing some (stuff) that I enjoy, instead of having a heart attack somewhere in Belle Vernon, Pennsylvania at an ice rink."
Three hectic years in TNA had preceded his ROH stint.
"The combination of Jerry (Lawler) and Brad (Armstrong) and everybody else's mortality rate, along with my father and family history, and the stress level of this job, and the travel, and the hotels and the bad diet, I asked myself just what was I doing? It got to the point that as much as I wanted this thing to succeed, not only was I not enjoying it, I was dreading having to put (stuff) together.
"I didn't have the passion and enthusiasm I had always demanded of everyone else. I was always the first one in the building and the last one of the talent to leave. I was starting to dread it. I was either going to jail or the hospital."
There was a never in time in Cornette's life when he hasn't been involved in the wrestling business - as a fan, writer, photographer, manager, booker, promoter or producer. But he's also had another passion, and that's collecting comic books and horror movie memorabilia. He boasts a collection of 10,000 comic books, 4,000 wrestling tapes and thousands of wrestling magazines and programs.
"From the time I was 5 years old, I collected comic books. When I got into wrestling and I turned 17 or 18 years old, there wasn't enough time, but I still kept everything. I have 10,000 Silver Age comic books - all bagged and boarded and catalogued. Basically every Marvel and DC from the Super Hero Silver Age era is sitting in my vault."
He's been doing well peddling some of his considerable wares at various specialty shows. At a recent event in Lexington, Kentucky, he discovered that Felix Silla (Cousin Itt on television's "The Addams Family") was a wrestling fan. "He turned out to be a Midnight Express fan. He got one of my books."
"It's cool and you meet cool people," says Cornette. "I'm now a celebrity dealer. I'm not going as Jim Cornette the wrestling guy. I'm going as Jim Cornette Collectibles."
Cornette, however, will forever be linked with The Midnight Express. "The reason so many people remember those matches is because the buildings were always full and the matches never disappointed. As far as the NWA tag-team wrestling of the '80s - and I know you're talking some heavy hitters there - the first thing people will always say is The Midnight and Rock-n-Roll Express. We invented things as we went along that people had never seen. It was always different. And it was always good."
Ricky Morton, too, looks back with pride at what was accomplished those many years ago. "Since then they have built bigger coliseums all over the place. It's something to know that we beat Elvis Presley's record for attendance. Robert and I did that in many, many buildings." Most of those buildings are gone now, but the memories remain.
"We were rock stars and we didn't really know it."
-Mike Mooneyham, a writer and editor with Charleston's The Post and Courier since 1979, is one of the nation's foremost authorities on professional wrestling, and his weekly wrestling column has been in continuous publication longer than any other in the country.
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