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 Nick Gulas’s Nashville 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.
“You go on through, and I’ll catch up to you, OK?”
—Billy Hayes, in Midnight Express
No matter how good Condrey was in the ring, he needed a little something extra. And he got it when Bobby Eaton and Jim Cornette came to Mid-South in a talent trade between Bill Watts and Memphis promoter Jerry Jarrett.
“Bill saw brilliance in Corny,” Jim Ross said during an interview, “and he knew that there was something there, because Corny, as a TV character, was very easily disliked. And by the stereotypical ‘pro rasslin’ fan,’ he was everything they did not want to be.”
With Condrey’s veteran professionalism and Eaton being possibly the best young in-ring talent in the country at the time, pairing them with the baby-faced trash-talking Cornette was a stroke of genius. It meant the team had instant heat. But Watts went even further. He put the Midnights over the team of Magnum TA and Mr. Wrestling II for the Mid-South tag team titles, and then set up an angle that would draw sellouts and set records around the territory, and it worked on multiple levels.
After dethroning Magnum and Wrestling II, Cornette “threw a party” on Mid-South TV to congratulate Condrey and Eaton. As the heels celebrated, walking away from Cornette, Ricky Morton and Robert Gibson, the Rock & Roll Express, ran out and smashed Cornette’s face in the cake. An amused Watts asked for the clip to be shown again. An incensed Cornette began to verbally dress down the Cowboy. But he made a mistake by putting his hands on Watts. Once that happened, Watts decked him with a slap. But that was still just the start. Later on, Watts was interviewing top singles heel Butch Reed when Cornette interrupted, distracting the promoter so that Condrey and Eaton could jump him from behind.
Watch Bill Watts slap the taste out of Jim Cornette’s mouth:
The angle was carefully booked by Watts. He wanted to come out of retirement for a series of shows, teaming with Junkyard Dog (Sylvester Ritter), who had lost a loser-leaves-town match and was working under a hood as Stagger Lee.
“Now we’re getting into death threat territory—we’re gonna bust Bill Watts open and leave him laying,” Cornette told his podcast co-host, Brian Last. “He’s making our careers here in this one fucking angle. It was amazing … (Watts) thought of a way to fill up every little hole in the logic, and everything was totally legitimate.”
Fans bought in big time. They turned out in droves to watch the Midnight Express (and especially Cornette) get their comeuppance. The feud resulted in a match the promotion billed as “The Last Stampede.” And the original plan was that when the Midnights put over Watts and JYD, they would be done in the territory. Only it didn’t work out that way. Booker Bill Dundee was instrumental in keeping the group around after the blowoff to the feud, and the Midnight Express began their most hotly constested feud—a rivalry that would span years and territories, when they got into the ring with the Rock & Roll Express.
With the Midnights vs. the Rock & Roll, tag team wrestling had reached its apex. While other teams like the Road Warriors, the Koloffs, or Demolition were powerhouses, all five people involved in the Midnights-Rock & Roll feud were tremendously talented and worked on an almost psychic level with one another. Ricky Morton sold the Midnight’s offense better than anyone, and fans responded to Robert Gibson as the ass-kicker who received the hot tag to clean house.
“I sell,” Morton once told an interviewer before pointing to Gibson, “and then I tag him.”
It seems like such a deceptively simple formula, but it worked constantly. And the addition of Cornette turned out to be the straw that stirred the drink for the Midnights. He was reliably funny and over-the-top during interviews, never at a loss for words. Fans would pay to see Condrey and Eaton get beat up, but what they really wanted was to see a babyface make Cornette shut his pie hole. The Midnights-Rock & Roll feud raged through Mid-South, and only got hotter when Gibson and Morton lost a 90-day loser-leaves-town match to Condrey and Eaton.
The promotion brought in the Fantastics, Tommy Rogers and Bobby Fulton, to face Condrey and Eaton, but the crowds wanted the Rock & Roll Express. Despite the fact that the Fantastics were more athletic and could work a wider variety of matches than Morton and Gibson, the feud between the two was limited by the fact that the Rock & Rolls were coming back to the territory. It got to the point that fans posted countdown signs in the arenas for when their favorites could return.
“Athletically, we probably had better matches with the Fantastics than we did with the Rock & Roll,” Cornette said. “It’s just that the Rock & Roll came first, and as so they were more over. The only place the Fantastics got over better than the Rock & Roll was in Dallas for World Class when they had not seen the Rock & Roll there, the Fantastics came first.”
The Midnights went from Mid-South to World Class. But while things weren’t stagnant there for the Midnights, it was tough to follow a feud like the Freebirds vs. the Von Erichs. So in 1985, the Midnights made a deal with Jim Crockett Promotions and went national. Along the way, they’d again light things up with the Rock & Rolls—and stake their claim as the greatest tag team of all time.
But controversy was about to strike.
“I know it must all sound crazy to you, but this place is crazy.”
—Billy Hayes, in Midnight Express (1978)
Dennis Condrey took his ball and went home.
For whatever reason—and there’s no end of speculation—the second iteration of the Midnight Express ended in March of 1987 when Condrey quit the company. Before that, things had been hot for the Express. They held the NWA world tag team titles for six months before dropping them to the Rock & Rolls, and they drew money with talented young tag team The New Breed, as well as headlining Starrcade 1986 against the Road Warriors in a scaffold match. But when Condrey quit, that could have been the end of the line for the Midnights. He was the only founding member of the unit that was left. By this time, Rose was working in Angelo Poffo’s ICW and making occasional forays into Japan. Norvell Austin had gone on to team with Koko B. Ware as the PYTs—the Pretty Young Things.
The Express were even in discussions to jump from the NWA to the WWE at one point, a secret Cornette didn’t talk about publicly until years later.
“Basically we went up there—Ernie Ladd had called us in Charlotte because we were the NWA world tag team champions back when you didn’t just win that all the time,” Cornette said during a shoot interview. “It meant that … you didn’t really win the title, but it meant that the promotion thought that you were the top team for business, so it was an honor back then to be the world tag team champions … Ernie Ladd called and said ‘Well, you ought to come to the WWF, they’re makin’ a fortune up here. They’re gonna take over the world.’”
But the meeting with Vince McMahon didn’t go as expected. Instead of talking about titles, or a push, or even how much money they would be making with the old-school heels, McMahon focused in on action figures of the Midnights that would be sold through the company. At the time, the Midnights and McMahon were speaking different languages, as they were thinking pro wrestling, while McMahon seemed to be thinking ‘entertainment.’
The Midnights chose to stick with the NWA.
Even with the founding member of the Midnights leaving, Jim Crockett Promotions wasn’t going to give up on one of its most successful acts. Partners for Eaton were proposed. Among the potential replacements were Tim Horner, Stan Lane, and Tom Prichard. Because Eaton and Lane knew one another from Tennessee, where Eaton had gotten his start and Lane was one of the original Fabulous ones, he got the job. And it was magic from the beginning. If anything, the Midnights were now having better matches than ever, and Lane brought a fresh (and good-looking) face that impressed many of the female fans. He was also able to work a more athletic style than Condrey. Soon the Midnight Express was rolling again.
Condrey would resurface—along with Rose and manager Paul E. Dangerously—in Verne Gagne’s AWA, winning the world tag team titles from Lawler and Dundee in October of 1987, dropping the titles to the Midnight Rockers, Shawn Michaels and Marty Janetty, a little less than two months later. But the best was yet to come. On a Saturday morning episode of World Championship Wrestling, the Midnight Express was wrestling a squash match while Cornette commentated the match with Tony Schiavone and David Crockett. When a telephone call came in for Cornette, a phone was brought into the studio.
As Cornette argued into the phone, Rose, Condrey, and Dangerously—you’ll know him better as Paul Heyman—jumped Lane, Eaton, and Cornette. Dangerously slammed Cornette in the head with his cell phone, causing Cornette to bleed profusely, and then the debuting team, calling themselves the Orginal Midnight Express, swaggered away. They had announced their presence in JCP, and in the process done what some would have deemed impossible: made the fans cheer for Jim Cornette. The Midnights vs. Midnights feud was one of the best things on TV in the late 1980s wrestling scene. It was must-see TV for the fans, even though a real resolution was never possible.
Watch the Original Midnights attack Eaton, Lane & Cornette:
Condrey again left the NWA, and Rose—who was not a favorite of new booker George Scott—soon left as well. The closest thing to a blowoff for the feud came through a tuxedo street fight between Cornette and Dangerously (which Cornette won). But the Lane & Eaton version of the Express rolled on. If you’re a wrestling fan from that period, you know the story: the only team to hold the world and US tag team titles simultaneously, the headlining feuds against some of the greatest talent in the world (and the underneath feud against the Dynamic Dudes) … nothing could knock the Midnight Express off the tracks.
Nothing except WCW, that is.
Repeated disagreements with management (specifically Jim Herd) left the Midnights unhappy. After a loss to Tommy Rich and Ricky Morton at Halloween Havoc 1990, Lane and Cornette quit the company. Bobby Eaton stayed, because he had a family and needed the steady paycheck. For his loyalty, Eaton received a singles push and won the NWA World TV Title, even getting a world title match against Ric Flair at a Clash of Champions event in 1991.
Lane would go on to be one of the original Heavenly Bodies with Tom Prichard in Cornette’s Smoky Mountain Wrestling. When he retired, Jimmy Del Ray took his place.
It took a decade, but the Midnight Express finally ran out of track, even though variations of the group have appeared together at independent or reunion shows from time to time. But for a little while there, the Midnight Express was the train to catch for wrestling fans in the 1980s. In 2017, the WWE inducted the Rock & Roll Express into its nominal hall of fame. But without the Midnight Express, any tag-team hall of fame is incomplete.
Reach Bobby Mathews on Twitter: @bob_the_writer_