MOONEYHAM COLUMN: Rock N Roll and Midnight Express: Three decades of greatness

The Rock N Roll Express (Ricky Morton and Robert Gibson) helped revolutionize tag-team wrestling.

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. They 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.

New Midnight Express

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 did 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, Va., 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 Pineville, Ky. 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-a-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, Pa., 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, Ky., 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.”

Reach Mike Mooneyham at 843-937-5517 or follow him on Twitter at @ByMikeMooneyham and on Facebook.