It takes a truly special talent to perfect a genre of entertainment. Bobby Eaton was exactly that. No one did Southern tag team wrestling as well as The Midnight Express and, with all due respect to both Dennis Condrey and Stan Lane, The Midnight Express could not have worked without Bobby Eaton.
News of the legendary worker’s passing has already sparked a deluge of tributes and remembrances from fans of various generations. Such was the influence he had on the industry and the legacy that he left behind. The very best wrestling remains timeless, it speaks to fans of any generation with clarity and confidence. Bobby Eaton’s work through the years spoke to such universal ideas that it endures as some of the finest wrestling ever produced in the history of the business.
Tag Team Specialist
Despite proving his capabilities as a singles wrestler at many points in his career (just look at his matches with Ric Flair in 1990 or Arn Anderson in 1991), Eaton will always best be known for his accomplishments as a tag team wrestler. Fans of his time with The Midnight Express or even later on with the Dangerous Alliance will note that his efforts in this particular brand of wrestling seem almost effortless. But as with anything else, it’s a craft that Eaton spent years honing.
Much of his Eaton’s career in the 70s and early 80s was spent teaming with a variety of partners. He cut his teeth teaming with the likes of “Pistol” Pez Whatley, his trainer Tojo Yamomoto, and even won his first tag team championship with Leapin’ Lanny Poffo. In Memphis, he partnered with Sweet Brown Sugar (better known to most as Koko B. Ware) as well as Sugar’s masked alter ego Stagger Lee. Eaton worked in these teams as both a babyface or a heel, mastering the ins and outs of tag team wrestling from every possible angle.
By the time Bobby Eaton came to Mid-South Wrestling in 1983 to be part of The Midnight Express with Dennis Condrey, Eaton was already a skilled and confident tag team worker, the likes of which seem to only come once every generation. Together with their brash and cowardly manager Jim Cornette, The Midnight Express terrorized Mid-South Wrestling’s favorite sons in Magnum TA, Mr. Wrestling II, Bill Watts, and Junkyard Dog (who also took a turn as Stagger Lee).
It’s also in Mid-South that The Midnight Express first crossed paths with their most iconic opponents, The Rock ‘N’ Roll Express of Ricky Morton and Robert Gibson. A run in Texas for WCCW brought The Midnight Express into contact with another beloved pair of opponents in The Fantastics with Bobby Fulton and Tommy Rogers. The high quality of these rivalries soon caught the eye of even larger and more prominent territories, and soon The Midnight Express were bound for Jim Crockett Promotions.
The Definitive Midnight Express
In 1987, after Dennis Condrey vanished from the company overnight, Eaton was partnered with Stan Lane. Lane brought a more vibrant tone to the team with his melodious voice and karate kicks, but the glue holding things together, as always, was Bobby Eaton. The pairing of Eaton and Lane are known in most circles as the definitive iteration of The Midnight Express and the one that saw the most recognition and success.
This new formation of the team essentially codified the structure and tropes that many fans associate with tag team wrestling. The quick paced babyface shine, a cut off leading into an extended heel heat filled with cheating and interference from Cornette, and then the hot tag that goes straight to the finish.
Watching his matches back decades later, one can’t help but get the sense that Eaton had near impeccable control of everything he did in the ring. Easily one of the most fundamentally sound American workers in history, he brought so much to any team he was in simply by doing everything well. It’s this sense of control and timing that also made him so effective at organic in-ring comedy. A common occurrence in Midnight Express matches is the babyfaces making such fools Lane and Eaton that the two heels often bumped into each other in perfectly coordinated moments of slapstick.
(Ed. note: The above Midnight Express/Fantastics match is not the one discussed below, which can be viewed here. As noted, these teams worked a formula, and more often than not, that formula worked.)
The late 80s saw the new and improved Midnight Express continue their legendary feuds with both The Rock ‘N’ Roll Express and The Fantastics. 1988 was a particularly significant year in the Midnight Express/Fantastics rivalry as the two teams wrestled on the inaugural Clash of the Champions. Early on, the match devolved into a wild and brutal brawl that ended in a disqualification.
This all led to April 26th, 1988, when Eaton alongside Lane took on The Fantastics in what might be one of the greatest American tag matches of the decade. Part of what makes this match so excellent is the way it toys with the Southern tag formula. Most of the match follows it to the letter. The Fantastics make fools of Eaton and Lane with their superior athletic ability, Eaton scrapes some eyeballs and nails some closed fist punches to go into the heat.
Rogers plays the face in peril for much of the match until he finally gets the hot tag to Fulton. Fulton rushes into the ring, the proverbial house of fire, only for a well-timed distraction from Cornette to allow Eaton to knee Fulton in the back. Fulton tumbles out of the ring into the waiting arms of Stan Lane who drives him throat-first into the ringside guardrail. With that, the heels have regained the advantage and started the heel heat segment anew.
The severity of the guardrail bump is played for maximum drama. Fulton sells as though barely conscious. This only gets compounded by Stan Lane cornering him and wailing on him with punches. The referee gets close to calling the match a knockout victory for The Midnight Express and it’s only both Fulton and Rogers begging him off that allows the match to continue. Eaton tags in for his team then, looking to put down the Fulton once and for all. Eaton is the perfect worker for this moment, his signature crisp punches look brutal enough to knock an already loopy Fulton out once and for all.
When Fulton refuses to drop, Eaton takes him to back to the middle of the ring to finish the job. It’s here when Rogers soars off the top rope to nail Eaton with a missile dropkick who then gets rolled up by Fulton for the three. It’s an amazing moment of perfect timing and positioning by Eaton that could have so easily been sullied in the hands of a lesser worker. But Eaton could always be relied upon to make it work.
Though the match with The Fantastics excels for how it subverts the Southern tag formula, The Midnight Express would create another masterpiece just a few years later. At WrestleWar 1990, Eaton and Lane were yet again faced with their most iconic rivals in The Rock ‘N’ Roll Express. The ensuing match up might just be the most textbook example of the Southern tag formula there’s ever been.
The match represents the culmination of years of both teams travelling from territory to territory, adding to and perfecting this genre of professional wrestling. With this pay-per-view platform, and a healthy runtime, both teams unleash all the tricks they’ve learned through the years. Morton and Gibson bring the quick and energetic offense that Lane and especially Eaton are all too happy to sell. Jim Cornette gets his moment in the sun, haranguing referee Nick Patrick and getting beaten back for it.
Then there’s Eaton and Lane dominating the heel heat segment. It’s in these slower and more controlled moments of a match when Eaton really shines. In what’s meant to be a lower energy segment of the match, he brings such brutality with his wonderful punches and an array of backbreakers that still hold up to this day. In the end though, Robert Gibson gets the hot tag and The Midnight Express lose soon after. Just as it should be.
The Supporting Role
Something that stands out upon revisiting Eaton’s work is the generosity he brings to his matches. Though we can all sit back and point to him now as the glue that held these matches together, the matches themselves rarely ever tells Eaton’s story. He always plays the supporting role, making the heroes shine.
Outside of short stints in Smoky Mountain and New Japan, Eaton would spend the rest of the 90s in WCW. He mostly served as enhancement talent providing the rub to the next generation of workers. He would remain with the company until 2000. From there, he would become a regular of the wrestling convention scene, often reuniting with Stan Lane and Jim Cornette and taking on The Rock ‘N’ Roll Express in nostalgic throwbacks to their respective peaks.
Eaton never really stopped giving back to wrestling in the end. To hear other workers tell it, that’s just how he was as a person. In Mick Foley’s Have a Nice Day, he tells of a time at a road stop that Bobby Eaton bought a homeless man a new shirt, a bottle of wine, and handed him ten dollars after.
“[Stories] of Bobby’s generosity were commonly recited in the dressing room,” writes Foley. “It was damn near impossible to pay for anything when Bobby was around…”
Bobby Eaton understood that to make wrestling work, one needs to give. It is sacrificing of one’s own time, one’s body, for the entertainment of others. It’s selling to make heroes of the men standing across from you. Generosity might be what made Eaton such a great tag wrestler.
At the end of the day, it’s all teamwork.