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Midnight special Pt. II

June 12th, 2009 4 comments

Part II picks up from the end of Part I found at comics101.com.

From Memphis, Tennessee, Ricky and Robert, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Express

Robert Gibson honed his tag-team craft during the late ’70s in Memphis and Southeastern territories with his brother, Rick, feuding with the likes of The Heartbreakers (managed by journeyman eternal Chick Donovan), Stan Lane and Sweet Brown Sugar (Koko Ware), and the Cuban Assassin and Sheik Ali Hassan. Rick came off as the tough-as-nails older brother, while Robert was the high-flying, leaner little brother. In fact, Ricky had some great singles brawls with upstart Jerry “the King” Lawler over the Southern title in the mid-’70s before forming a team with Robert.

Cover boys: Their good looks and flashy style made the Rock n Roll and the Fabs two gimmicks hard to Teen Beat.

Cover boys: Their good looks and flashy style made the Rock n Roll and the Fabs two gimmicks hard to Teen Beat.

 

Announcer Lance Russell often referred to Rick as “Ricky” and the Gibsons collectively as “Ricky and Robert” – shades of things to come for young Robert. The Gibson boys complemented each other extremely well: The heels would get the heat on little brother Robert, who would eventually make the tag to big brother, who’d come in and clean house. And I’m not taking away from Rick’s ability to sell, because they’d occasionally switch roles, and the team wouldn’t miss a beat – the elder Gibson had a unique way of selling like a prizefighter.

At the time, virtually every mid-to-top babyface working for Jarrett Promotions was involved in a feud with members of Jimmy Hart’s “First Family of Professional Rasslin.” Hart frequently zeroed in on the Gibsons’ use of sign language, which they learned to communicate more effectively with their deaf mother. I recall Hart making some brutal remarks about the Gibsons and their mother, making the feud very personal. (Gibson would later drive fans insane when incessantly signing “five-time World tag-team champions” during his later WCW promos.)

The team was cut short when Ricky was injured in a car accident; however, Robert helped get his older brother a job years later for Jim Crockett Promotions. (Ricky worked JCP prelims as “Ricky Lee Jones.”)

Ricky Morton, son of longtime Memphis referee Paul Morton, used to attend the matches in the territory as a kid – he even helped set up and tear down the ring, years before he would tear the house down at the Superdome. Ricky was a natural for the ring, working prelims for Jarrett, before eventually earning his first major program with veteran Sonny King, a former WWWF tag champion. King took Ricky under his wing, acting as his tag partner and mentor. Of course, the relationship soured when King turned heel and abused his young protégé.

Ricky then teamed with another blonde second-generation Memphis product: Eddie Gilbert. Although neither wrestler had yet to reach their 20th birthday, Morton and Gilbert got over, beginning with their upset win over the dreaded Japanese contingent of Mr. Onita and Masa Fuchi for the AWA Southern tag titles. In a rematch in Tupelo, Miss., the same arena which housed the infamous Concession Stand Brawl between the Blonde Bombers and Lawler and Dundee, the action escalated out of the ring … and into the concession stand. From a brutality standpoint, the 1981 brawl with Gilbert and Morton vs. the Japanese may have topped the original. Cornette points out that the feud didn’t pop the houses like the original angle did; however, it did accomplish one thing: Any notion that some male fans had about Morton and Gilbert being soft daddy’s boys was squashed with that angle. As I told Steve Johnson for his tremendous book The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Heels, “They went into the ring pretty boys – they left men, fighting for America against the evil Japanese who had invaded their backyard.”

Morton went to make a name for himself teaming with veteran Ken Lucas and feuding with the Grapplers (the eventual Dirty White Boys, Len Denton and Tony Anthony) and manager Don Carson for the Southwestern tag titles. (You had to love those old SW straps, complete with cowhide.) Morton also had a memorable one-hour Broadway with AWA World champ Nick Bockwinkel for the promotion, which was owned by ex-wrestler “Joltin’“ Joe Blanchard, father of Tully.

After breaking his leg, Morton returned home to mend, and was attacked by Hart and the Family to set up his eventual return. When Morton recovered, though, he found himself floundering in prelims, as Memphis was peaking as one of the hottest territories in the country in 1982. In addition to Lawler’s feud with Hart and the King’s chase of the AWA World title, Memphis was on fire with the debut of the Fabulous Ones. Jarrett had taken two marginal mid-card babyface draws, Steve Keirn and Stan Lane, paired them together with a snazzy gimmick complete with rock music, and reaped box-office rewards throughout the territory.

Because the company was doing such outstanding business in small Southern towns outside of Memphis, Nashville and Louisville, Jarrett was successfully splitting up crews on Friday and Saturday nights, with Lawler typically headlining one show, and the Fabs the other. To bolster the non-Fabs shows and give Lawler the occasional night off and more freedom to work AWA and Florida cities, Jarrett wanted a second babyface team with a similar rock-music gimmick to appeal to the young set.

Like the catchy “Stan and Steve” of the Fabs and “Ricky and Robert” of the Gibsons, Jarrett and Lawler decided to pair up Morton and Gibson as the R ‘n’ R, which evolved into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Express. Jarrett, Hart and Lawler have all claimed credit for the gimmick, and in a way, all three are correct. I believe it was Jarrett’s idea for the second team, while Lawler had the most input on their appearance, and Hart came up with the name and helped produce the team’s first music video: Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Lawler told me he gave Ricky and Robert issues of CIRCUS and other rock magazines featuring David Lee Roth and other rockers in spandex and headbands, and instructed them to buy similar outfits. Initially, Lawler went on to tell me, Morton and Gibson hated the gimmick, saying they felt “ridiculous” in the rocker getup.

The Rock ‘n’ Roll Express had some initial success and great matches with two other area wrestlers reinventing themselves: the great team of Nightmare and Speed, Danny Davis and Ken Wayne, respectively, who were now known as the Alpha and Beta, the Galaxians, managed by B-show manager Jim Cornette. In his book, JC credits the experience gained with tag-specialists David and Wayne as solid groundwork for his eventual run with the MX.

Set phasers to stun: The timing of tag specialists Danny Davis and Ken Wayne was out of this world.

Set phasers to stun: The timing of tag specialists Danny Davis and Ken Wayne was out of this world.

 

Although Ricky and Robert quickly gelled, most fans recognized their B-team push, i.e.., the Rock ‘n’ Rolls only got a run with the Southern tag titles around the time the Fabs were busy with the CWA “World” tag champion Assassins (Roger Smith and Don Bass). Morton and Gibson got a shot at AWA World tag champs Ken Patera and Crusher Blackwell, while the Fabs worked higher on the card in the main event, winning a loser-leaves-town match with the Moondogs for the Southern titles. The natural match-up between the two teams was saved for the last night of the Fabs’ initial run—and even though Keirn and Lane were leaving, the Fabs went over.

Eventually, though, the “imitators” became the innovators. Morton and Gibson left Memphis for Mid-South later in 1984, shortly after the MX had done the same. Longtime Jarrett performer/sometime booker Bill Dundee pushed the Express as if they were the Fabs, making them the number-one heartthrob team in the Louisiana area. (The Fabs, meanwhile, went on to languish in the AWA, where they were booed out of the building in most arenas when booked against the Road Warriors in Chicago and Minneapolis.)

Mid-South owner Bill Watts initially had to be convinced by Dundee that the formula of young, smaller babyfaces feuding with larger heels could work. The territory had never seen anything like it, and it clicked with Mid-South fans. The Rock ‘n’ Rolls got over huge, as they were pushed like rock stars, featured in music videos produced by Joel Watts, Bill’s son, who took the Memphis art form to a new level with his videos set to the hottest music at the time.

To further distinguish his team as the anti-Rock ‘n’ Roll Express, Cornette often introduced his boys as being from the “Dark Side” before bouts in Mid-South. The chemistry between the Rock ‘n’ Rolls and the Midnights resulted in state-of-the-art matches for the time, further cementing the cool aura of tag wrestling in U.S.  The five former Memphis mid-card castoffs had become bona-fide drawing cards. Along the way, Cornette also lost his hair—twice in the same week in fact. (The book has the whole story, but leave it to Dundee to milk that stipulation for all its worth.) The two teams traded the Mid-South tag titles, drawing great, consistent money around the area.

Easily one of the most interesting aspects of his new book, Cornette’s meticulous records details the result and houses as the Express wars heated up around the territory, peaking with a June 16, 1984, bout for a card at the Superdome that drew 20,000 fans paying $166,000. The feud had staying power, as the Express rivals also helped draw a sellout of 11,000 fans paying almost $90,000 for a scaffold match on Nov. 23.  Legendary Houston promoter Paul Boesch had a phenomenal year in 1984: a total of 175,000 fans paying $1,150,000 for 24 events, of which, Cornette, Condrey and Eaton appeared on all but three.

As good as the money was in Mid-South, the territory had started to decline, especially for the big Superdome shows, after the departure of Junkyard Dog to the WWF.  The Rock ‘n’ Rolls left for Jim Crockett Promotions and the national stage, winning the NWA World tag titles from Ivan Koloff and Krusher Krushchev in their debut. JCP booker Dusty Rhodes had wanted to bring in the Midnights as natural rivals, but Watts instead sent the Cornette and the boys to World Class as part of another talent trade, much to the chagrin of the MX. Cornette later explained they went along with Watts’s mandate as they didn’t want to burn any bridges just in case the eventual gig with Dusty and Crockett didn’t work out. The distance between the teams actually worked out for the best, as it gave time for the R ‘n’ R to get over huge as World champs before the clock struck Midnight on their title reign.

The Midnights floundered on the sinking ship that was World Class in 1985, with the lone highlight being excellent matches with the Fantastics (Fabulous Ones rip-offs Tommy Rogers and Bobby Fulton). A Midnights feud with Kevin and Kerry Von Erich, which could have been huge, never materialized. Writes Cornette in his book, “The MX had been in the same ring with the Von Erichs only a handful of times, and the VE’s and their opponents were the only talents on the cards that got paid main-event money. Gino Hernandez, Chris Adams and One Man Gang had those spots locked up…and other heels were not being given a chance. With the booking haphazard, leadership from the office almost nonexistent, the prospects of a program with the Von Erichs nil…the MX decided there was no money to be made here…and considered their $1,000 a week average checks a paid vacation. [We] got our start date from Jim Crockett and gave our notices.”

In July 1985, the MX took their dastardly act to the big stage: NWA World Championship Wrestling on TBS. Condrey and Eaton got over with the fans and their colleagues alike, especially high-flying “Beautiful” Bobby, whom NWA World champion Ric Flair crowed about on the air not long after the Midnights’ debut: “That Bobby Eaton does things off the top that even the Nature Boy can’t do.” (Though considering the fact that Flair’s top-rope repertoire consisted only of getting slammed from it, that wasn’t much of a compliment.)

Gold standard: The MX raised the bar of tag-team wrestling with innovative bouts with Morton and Gibson, including their NWA World tag-title win on the SuperStation.

Gold standard: The MX raised the bar of tag-team wrestling with innovative bouts with Morton and Gibson, including their NWA World tag-title win on the SuperStation.

 

After a string of squash wins, the Midnights were eventually booked into a feud with Morton and Gibson, whom they defeated during SUPERSTARS ON THE SUPERSTATION, a taped prime-time special on TBS and a forerunner of the CLASH OF THE CHAMPIONS specials the NWA/WCW would run on a fairly regular basis on Ted Turner’s network in the late ’80s, early ’90s. As usual, the foursome had a great match, ending with a finish typical of the time: the R ‘n’ R have the MX reeling and nail Eaton with their double-dropkick finisher. Beautiful Bobby collides with ref Pee Wee Anderson, who takes a bump outside the ring. Morton has Eaton pinned, but there’s no ref to make the count. Condrey blasts Morton with Cornette’s loaded tennis racquet. (Cornette would occasionally doctor the racquet by wrapping a thick chain around a horseshoe—he’d then purposely drop the racquet on the floor and the resulting sound would get tremendous heat with ringside fans. Trouble was, Condrey sometimes forgot when Cornette loaded the damn thing, nearly breaking Morton’s back with it in the process more than once.) Gibson and Condrey tumble out of the ring, Cornette places the groggy Eaton on top of the prone Morton and shoves the ref over to the make the count: 1, 2, 3—and we’ve got new NWA World tag-team champions.

 

Next Week: Ladies and Gentlemen, the Sultan of Swing and the Gangster of Love, “Beautiful” Bobby and “Sweet” Stan, the Midnight Express