Stealing the show (part 2)
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, Md. 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.”
Great run with Flair
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, S.C., 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.”
In their blood
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 this (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.”
A lost art
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 (real name Ruben Cain), now 54, turned pro in 1977 when he was only 17 years old. He was trained by his older brother, Ricky Gibson (Cain), 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.
Formula still works
Morton, who lives in Bristol, Tenn., 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.
“We might not draw some of those huge houses anymore. We don’t draw the 10,000 people we once did. But we recently wrestled Kevin Nash and X-Pac up in Waynesville, Va. The fire marshal came in and almost shut the show down because they put 600 more people in the building than they were supposed to.”
And sometimes, their opponents are familiar faces from those days in Crockett Promotions.
“Last week we had a hell of house in Gastonia, N.C. 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!”