Published on May 6th, 2017 | by Bobby Mathews0
Unstoppable: THE MIDNIGHT EXPRESS Defined Tag-Team Greatness
Call it stoking the engine. When longtime Southern tag-team talents combined in the Pensacola territory, they started something that none of them knew would last, a highball train that laid its tracks through wrestling history as it went. The membership changed over the years, but the train kept rolling, from Pensacola to Mid-South, to Texas, and finally all the way to Jim Crockett Promotions.
The names and faces changed over time, but the train kept rolling. They were The Midnight Express, and this is their story.
“The bad machine doesn’t know he’s a bad machine.”
—Ahmet, to Billy Hayes, in Midnight Express (1978)
Dennis Condrey had made his name as a tag team wrestler all over the South. In Tennessee, he worked as part of the Bicentennial Kings with Phil Hickerson, running roughshod over George Gulas’s Memphis promotion. The Kings headlined the territory in the mid-1970s, with hot feuds against Don Carson and Jackie Fargo, Jerry “the King” Lawler and Australian import “Superstar” Bill Dundee, and the Gibson brothers, Ricky and Robert.
“Dennis Condrey’s work, there’s never been anyone (who) worked anything like him,” longtime Midnight Express manager Jim Cornette said when asked about the difference between Condrey and Stan Lane during a shoot interview. “He was so precise, no wasted motion, everything crisp. He was in the right place at the right time. He never made a false step.”
The Kings would trade the Mid-America tag team titles back and forth between themselves and the babyface contingent, but the pair eventually split up, with Hickerson taking a babyface role and Condrey leaving the territory in 1979. But Condrey didn’t go far, heading back to his native Alabama to team with Carson in the last few months of the older wrestler’s in-ring career as “the Big C’s.” When Carson retired, Condrey found himself looking for his third partner in less than a year.
He didn’t have to look far.
Tennessee native Randy Rose turned pro a year after Condrey, and they crossed paths in dressing rooms across the Volunteer state. Rose had gone to Pensacola during the last few years of the Gulf Coast Championship Wrestling promotion, working for Lee Fields. Rose was paired with Leon “Tarzan” Baxter, who worked as masked wrestler “The Wrestling Pro.” Baxter was a veteran who had headlined shows in Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Mississippi for year. Rose came in as the Pro’s partner: The Super Pro. It was a time of transition as Fields sold out to his cousin, Ron Fuller, and the promotion switched its emphasis from touring eastern Louisiana and coastal Mississippi to the panhandle of Florida and the entirety of Alabama.
Eventually, Rose and Baxter broke up, with Rose moving on as the Super Pro and teaming with “Outlaw” Ron Bass to win the Southeastern tag team titles, while being managed by Carson and feuding with Bob and Brad Armstrong. Eventually Rose lost the mask to the Armstrongs, and Bass left the territory.
Rose and Condrey were a natural fit as a tag team, and the first thing they did was relieve Bob and Brad Armstrong of the Southeastern tag team titles. The elder Armstrong was still actively working shots in Georgia and Florida at the time, so Brad—a rookie at the time—recruited multiple partners to defeat Rose and Condrey. One of those partners was the original Junkyard Dog, Norvell Austin.
Norvell Austin rose to prominence as the tag team partner of Sputnik Monroe, the man largely responsible for integrating wrestling shows across the South. Austin and Monroe headlined cards from Tennessee to Florida, working for Gulas, Eddie Graham, Bill Watts, and Fields. In a famous angle, the pair painted Robert Fuller—then a young babyface—with black paint. Afterward, Monroe would say “Black is beautiful,” and Austin would reply: “White is wonderful.”
But at this point, Austin was a babyface, a partner of Armstrong, whose solid in-ring skills and sincerity had the fans behind him 100 percent. But instead of claiming tag team gold, Austin turned on Armstrong and joined Condrey and Rose. The three men used the newly defined “Freebird Rule” where a three-man tag team unit could use any two members of the team to defend in a match.
Thus, the Midnight Express Inc. was born.
“Which came first, the chicken or the egg? If it hadn’t been for Randy Rose and Dennis Condrey teaming up in Pensacola, and then hooking up with Norvell Austin—look at the record books—original Midnight Express,” Rose told Bill Apter. “Of course the other Midnights went on and on, and we went on to go against them in WCW, and that was one of the hottest feuds (at the time), I believe.”
But let’s keep the express train on its tracks.
From 1980 to 1983, Condrey, Rose, and Austin blazed a path of viciousness and lawlessness throughout the Southeastern territory. They were not the stereotypical cowardly heels, either. Condrey and Rose, especially, were presented as dangerously tough wrestlers with a mean streak a mile wide. The pair hung on to the Southeastern tag straps, no matter what, feuding with the Armstrongs, Robert Fuller and Jimmy Golden. But a defining moment that put the Midnights into another stratosphere for local fans was the day Randy Rose was left bloody and injured on TV by Ken Lucas and Eddie Boulder (Ed Leslie, long before his Brutus Beefcake days). Fans were convinced that Rose would be out of the picture and that Condrey would have to defend the tag titles against the babyfaces by himself.
At bell time, the Houston County Farm Center in Dothan, Alabama, was packed. And for fifteen minutes, Lucas and Boulder bounced Condrey from pillar to post, but were unable to put him away. And then from the heel dressing room, a blonde flash raced toward the ring. It was Rose, his head bandaged and bloody, carrying a two-by-four. He beat down the babyfaces, and Condrey was disqualified. The Express lived to fight another day.
When Dennis Condrey moved on to work for Bill Watts at the end of 1983, the Midnight Express finally ran out of steam in Southeastern. They dropped the tag team titles to Brad and Scott Armstrong, and Condrey left the territory. So did Austin. Rose stayed around for a while afterward, teaming with his cousin, Pat, to again capture the tag titles. It looked like the Midnight Express was done.
The truth was, they were just getting started.