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Midnight special

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Part one of a three-part series

Nearly as much a fixture as Jerry Lawler, Jimmy Hart, Jimmy Valiant and Bill Dundee in Memphis wresting in the late ’70s and early ’80s was the bespectacled young man from Louisville at ringside taking photographs that would appear in the territory’s Action Ringside programs as well as the newsstand Stanley Weston publications (a.k.a “Apter mags”). Often his photos would appear along with stories he’d written for the arena mag The Wrestling News and, later, Championship Wrestling Magazine, devoted solely to the Memphis territory.

A voracious reader and an avid fan growing up, I quickly became familiar with Cornette’s work, as I was a regular reader of each publication in which his work appeared, with the lone exception perhaps being Japan’s Gong Weekly. Often, I’d use my saved-up allowance money to purchase both Action Ringside and the latest issue of the News and read them during the intermissions at the Coliseum. Looking back on his writing, the young man’s style—while not as polished as Apter’s fiction writers—certainly had a knack for describing the Memphis stars and their matches in a way that told the story of the angles and, in some cases, helped advance those storylines. Among his most memorable work: the famous shots of Lawler piledriving Andy Kaufman, which appeared in the August 1982 issue of The Wrestler and dozens of other publications over the years. lawlercorm1


Action ringside: Cornette photographed the first AWA World title match between Jerry Lawler and Nick Bockwinkel on Aug. 21, 1978. These photos appeared in Gong Weekly.

Action ringside: Cornette photographed the first AWA World title match between Jerry Lawler and Nick Bockwinkel on Aug. 21, 1978. These photos appeared in Gong Weekly.

Wrestling magazines had a huge impact on me, fueling not only my passion for the business but also for reading and journalism at an early age. Comic book and wrestling mags led to reading newspapers and novels in my early teens. By the time I was in high school, I had two possible career goals: a journalism career or the NWA World title. My first print bylines were Memphis match reports in the Weston/Apter mags Inside Wrestling and The Wrestler. Two years after graduating high school, a journalism class assignment at the University of Memphis got my foot in the door as a wrestling referee.


But it was Cornette who truly lived every young wrestling fan’s dream, gradually cultivating his childhood obsession into a money-making hobby and, eventually, into a career as one of the most successful, entertaining performers of the ’80s and ’90s.

The Louisville Slugger relives his amazing ride from 13-year ride from mark to money-making manager in The Midnight Express and Jim Cornette 25th Anniversary Scrapbook. The book is packed with color photos, including those of Memphis stars he snapped himself backstage and at ringside before his transformation from mild-mannered photographer to the dastardly, spoiled  mama’s boy we all love to hate.

The 230-page book includes bios—“Before and After Midnight”—of the stars who made up one of the best acts in the history of the business: Cornette, “Beautiful” Bobby Eaton, “Lover Boy” Dennis Condrey and “Sweet” Stan Lane as well as the manager’s bodyguard in Jim Crockett Promotions, the late Ray Traylor (“Big Bubba Rogers” and, later, WWE’s “Big Boss Man).

In addition to reprints of souvenir programs and magazine covers featuring himself and the various incarnations of the Midnights, Cornette includes the houses (money drawn) and notes of many of his appearances throughout his career, directly from the thorough records he kept over the years, which the author chalks up to his OCD tendencies.

Most fascinating, we get insights into his Memphis days, including the fateful day promoter Jerry Jarrett tapped him on the shoulder at the WMC-TV Studio on Union Ave. to inform him of his plans to mold him into the spoiled brat character that manager Gary Hart had played so well years earlier. Cornette, who usually didn’t photograph the studio show, was there that day to document the classic Lawler angle with NWA World champ Ric Flair, who was making his first and only TV appearance in his birthplace. (I’ve often wondered if the course of wrestling in the area would have changed had Flair, who was adopted in Memphis but raised in Minneapolis, had grown up in the area and become a fan of the local show like he did in Minnesota. Yeah, yeah, it’s a stretch, but I have to mark out over the thought of Flair and Lawler, my two favorite all-time performers, coming up at the same time in the territory in the ’70s.)

Midnight madness: A 1982 card in Memphis featuring the Midnight Express (Condrey, Austin and Rose), with future Express members Bobby Eaton and Stan Lane in single bouts underneath.

Midnight madness: A 1982 card in Memphis featuring the Midnight Express (Condrey, Austin and Rose), with future Express members Bobby Eaton and Stan Lane in single bouts underneath.


Like both Lawler and Flair, Cornette was a huge wrestling fan at an early age. It all started when his mother stayed up late one night watching Dick the Bruiser’s promotion out of Indianapolis. The following week, Cornette was hooked when his mama allowed her young son to stay up past his bedtime to watch along with her. By the time Cornette was 13, he and his mother were regulars at the Tuesday night shows at Louisville Gardens, which didn’t go unnoticed by Christine Jarrett, the mother of the Memphis promoter. In 1975, he began taking photos of the wrestlers from his ringside seat with an instamatic camera. His first subject: prelim worker Dennis Condrey, who even posed for the little squirt.

The Cornette scrapbook recalls the young photographer’s sentimental memories of the Saturday morning meeting with Jarrett that would change his career and his life forever: “I shit my pants. I thought I had heat.” Jarrett had learned from Christine that Cornette was smart to the business, which was hardly a surprise since the young man had spent so much time at ringside. Still, the business was far more protected in those days, and Cornette wisely never tried to infiltrate the dressing rooms or ask the boys questions about wrestling’s authenticity despite his access—he wouldn’t have dared.

Cornette made offers to fan favorites Lawler and Bill Dundee, both of whom rejected and ridiculed him. Embarrassed, the rebuffed manager offered an “incentive” funded by his mother to any wrestler who could injure the King and the Superstar. (The Cornettes were too sophisticated to offer a bounty, hence the term “incentive.”) One wrestler finally had faith in Cornette: Sherri Martel. Shortly after, Cornette had a brief stint managing oft-tweener Dutch Mantel, who fired him after his interference resulted in the native of Oil Trough, Texas, being disqualified in a Southern title match with Lawler on October 4, 1982. (Dutch was playing the role of a tough-guy babyface/borderline heel who only cared about titles and money. Think Steve Austin, who got over huge in that way, culminating in a full-fledged babyface turn against Bret Hart at WrestleMania XIII.)

Mantel had Lawler pinned, but referee Jerry Calhoun was (shockingly) knocked senseless. Cornette entered the ring to help the ref regain his senses and guided him over to make three count; instead, Calhoun called for the bell. A good finish that made sense, playing off Cornette’s inexperience. As Cornette recalls in his book, “My second time at ringside, I was in the main event with Jerry Lawler before 5,000 fans. I was scared shitless and almost had a stroke.” 


To read the rest of part one, click here.

  1. June 7th, 2009 at 02:35 | #1

    Great column, Scott…looking forward to the next two parts. That finish to Mantel-Lawler sounds great. Was that during the series with the Barbed Wire match or did that come later?

  2. Dave R.
    June 8th, 2009 at 10:48 | #2

    Great stuff Scott, can”t wait for parts 2 and 3. Midnites vs. R-n-R was about the time I became a huge fan of NWA wrestling being from the Norfolk area. Damn I miss that era of wrestling.

  3. June 10th, 2009 at 09:58 | #3

    Great story Scott. Looking forward to the next two parts. I tweeted your story at http://twitter.com/WrestlingTweets/status/2111482455

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