AS I SEE IT 10/11: A trip down memory lane with the Midnight Express
by: Bob Magee
Back on October 2, I had the privilege of seeing an old friend again, as longtime friend Jim Cornette (who I met back when he worked independent shows for Philadelphia promoter Joel Goodhart in 1990...and spent two of the best summers of my life with at the SMW Fanweeks, typically held during August) returned to Philadelphia for the first time in 15 years, along with the re-united Midnight Express (es) of Stan Lane, Bobby Eaton, and Dennis Condrey to appear at the Ring of Honor show at the Philadelphia National Guard Armory.
Even with a day featuring blowaway matches like Samoa Joe-American Dragon and Low Ki against the rapidly rising Jay Lethal; my personal highlight was seeing Corny return and with both modern versions of the Midnight Express. It also gave my younger brother, who's even a bigger Midnight Express mark than I am, a great 40th birthday present.
Just their segments alone were worth the price of admission, separately and together for the afternoon Q&A and the segment during the evening show. It gave all of us of a certain age who remember those golden moments live at the Philadelphia Civic Center, live at the Baltimore Civic Center, as well as watching the Midnight Express on TV via WTBS and syndicated TV....one more chance to go down memory lane.
Apart of their WCW days, some of us who are even older remember watching tapes of Cornette and the Midnight Express in Bill Watts's Mid-South Wrestling and even in Fritz Von Erich's world Class Championship Wrestling. More on that later.
So last Saturday...to the traditional music...Bobby Eaton, Dennis Condrey, Stan Lane, and Jim Cornette all came out, and talked to the crowd about how they'd loved to work Philadelphia because the crowd seemed to truly appreciate what they did in the ring, and how Philadelphia may well have changed the face of wrestling by it being the original heel town in North America back in the early 1990s.
In the segment featured in the evening's show..Cornette and the Midnight Express talked to the crowd and brought up Ray "Big Bubba/Big Bossman" Traylor, who had died earlier in the week.
As the Midnight Express were ready to leave, they were interrupted by heel manager Prince Nana and a face from their past...Ricky Morton, whose appearance brought a surprisingly strong reaction. Morton and Cornette fired shots at each other on the mike until Jimmy Rave and the rest of "The Embassy" attack the Midnight Express, who fought them off...including all of their trademark moves, finished off with Eaton delivering a top rope knee drop and Cornette hitting Nana with his tennis racket.
The segments ended with the crowd going absolutely nuts.
Of course, like any good Southern wrestlers or wrestling personalities know, autographs and gimmicks have to be sold at a wrestling show. Needless to say, they were being sold last Saturday.
The most notable one that I'd like to shill...bigtime... to all the readers of this column is a six-volume (12 hour) VHS set of the best of Jim Cornette and the Midnight Express. The set takes you from the first match of Jim Cornette and the Midnight Express on November 23, 1983 (taped at the Irish McNeil Boys Club in Shreveport, LA) as Dennis Condrey and Bobby Eaton took on Rick Rude and Mike Jackson all the way through their final WCW match on October 27, 1990 against Ricky Morton and Tommy Rich.
The set features such memorable moments (please note that this is a partial list, and that you can see a full list of matches, as well as purchase this 12 hour set at the Ohio Valley Wrestling website) as the first ever Midnight Express vs. Rock and Roll Express match on February 29, 1984.
Footage is then featured from January and February 1984 with the first major Midnight Express program, where they worked with Magnum TA and Mr. Wrestling II, including a tar and feather job on Magnum TA on Mid-South TV. A taped match in the series is also featured, with a near riot in Houston, TX as Jim Cornette jumped Magnum TA, only to be pulled off by Houston promoter Paul Boesch when Boesch saw that there was too much heat.
Several excerpts are featured from the legendary "Last Stampede" program, which started at Mid-South Pro Wrestling's TV (as always, taped at the Irish McNeil Boys Club) on March 14, 1984, with an interview between Cornette and Jim Ross after which Bill Watts interrupts and slaps Cornette, calling him a "sissy" and a few other not-too-politically correct phrases. Later in the taping, the Midnight Express blackjacks Bill Watts and leaves him a bloody mess.
This set up one of the most lucrative wrestling programs and tours in wrestling history, with Bill Watts coming out of retirement for the "Last Stampede", in which Watts goes searching in a certain neighborhood to find "Stagger Lee" (aka Junkyard Dog) and to challenge Cornette's Midnight Express. Stipulations were then decided consisting of Watts "having to work for Cornette for six months" and Stagger Lee unmasking against a stipulation of Cornette having to wear what may well have been the single ugliest dress ever created.
A series of TV promos and matches, set up the 14 date tour which drew $1.2 million in 1984 ticket prices ($2,184,000 in 2004 dollars using the US Consumer Price Index, and probably far more given the real state of ticket prices), setting gate records in every city but one... New Orleans and the New Orleans Superdome, where it fell only $6,000 shy of the record, drawing over 20,000 paid.
The set then moves on to the first Midnight Express-Fantastics match on July 29, 1984 at the Myriad in Oklahoma City, OK, then sees the Midnight Express conclude their stay with Bill Watts with a scaffold match against the Rock & Roll Express that concluded a series of match that only trailed The Last Stampede for higher grossing houses.
The Midnight Express debut for World Class the next evening at TV in Fort Worth, TX, doing a promo, and then take on the Fantastics in a year long program with several matches on the tape from Dallas and Ft. Worth from WCCW TV, ending up with a six man match with The Midnight Express and Jim Cornette against The Fantastics and Little John at the second annual David Von Erich Memorial, which drew over 20,000 fans and a $250,000 gate at Texas Stadium.
The tape set moves on to the Midnight Express's move to Jim Crockett Promotions in the summer of 1985, as they debut on June 29, 1985 in the TBS studios in Atlanta, GA, as The Express and Cornette debut both on the Superstation and for Jim Crockett Promotions as they take out Larry Clark and Dale Williams in quick order.
Another featured match is the February 2, 1986 match from the Omni in Atlanta, GA with the Express against the Rock & Roll Express in which the Midnights win their first NWA Tag Team Titles on the first-ever TBS prime-time wrestling special, one that foreshadowed the Clash of the Champions series.
The tape set shows The Express as part of another historic first, when the Express goes against the Rock & Roll Express at the Charlotte Coliseum on April 12, 1986 for the NWA World Tag Team Titles with Jim Cornette suspended in a cage above the ring. On this night, 12,000 paid $100,000 to see this card live, and another 1,000 more watched down the street on closed circuit, which also aired on Japanese television.
As a historical note, this match was the conclusion of a four-match series in Charlotte which set attendance and gate records. On February 2, 1986, the two teams main evented the show and sold out the Coliseum for the first time in eight years, drawing 12,000 fans and $100,000 to see the Rock & Roll win a reversed decision. On February 23, the Expresses were in the co-main event and again sold out the building, drawing another 12,000 and $100,000 to see the R&R win by DQ in two out of three falls. On March 2, over 7,000 paid $73,000 to see the Midnights win two of three falls, with the series concluding on April 12 with a sell-out plus 1,000 fans viewing via closed circuit.
More footage in the set features the recently departed Ray "Big Bubba Rogers" Traylor first appearance with the Midnight Express in May 1986 in Greenwood, SC.
I remember the night where Dusty Rhodes nailed Traylor with a chair shot (the chair was supposed to be gimmicked, but someone forgot) and left Traylor there, horsecollared by the chair... who as the monster bodyguard couldn't sell a thing, even though his head had to hurt like hell. The visual of Traylor doing one of the best no-sell jobs ever, and watching him just stare at Rhodes was priceless.
Summer 1986 footage sees a six-person match with the Express and Jim Cornette vs. Dusty Rhodes, Magnum TA, and Baby Doll from Charlotte, NC's Memorial Stadium as a part of the fourteen-city Great American Bash Tour, which drew over 20,000 paying $234,000 (it is noted on the original list of matches that copyguard protection distorts some parts of this match). Additionally featured from summer 1986 is the Raleigh, NC match from the Dorton Arena for the NWA Tag Team titles with the Express against the Road Warriors, which drew a sellout/city gate record of $75,000.
Concluding 1986 with the set is the "Night of the Skywalkers" match from Starrcade 1986 at the Omni where a scaffold match of the Midnight Express against The Road Warriors main evented the highest-grossing wrestling event ever by Jim Crockett Promotions with the dual venue event (Atlanta/Greensboro SC) seeing over 15,000 paid/$300,000 in Atlanta and a sellout of 16,000 at the Greensboro Coliseum for over $300,000, with an additional $70,000 was paid for a closed circuit showing in Greensboro, and eight more closed circuit locations in 6 states bringing the total gate to nearly $1,000,000.
In these days of revisionist wrestling history by certain wrestling companies that buy up history (then try sell it to you on tape, but alter it according to their own way of thinking) would have you believe that they invented the wrestling boom, it should be noted that the home video of the Starrcade 1986: Night of the Skywalkers show was the first wrestling tape to ever go gold....not a tape by Vince McMahon and WWWF/WWF/WWE, but the tape headlined by Jin Cornette and The Midnight Express working The Road Warriors.
The Midnight Express tape set then turns to 1987, beginning with the April 4, 1987 debut (from the WTBS studios) of Stan Lane as the new member of the Midnight Express, after Dennis Condrey left to deal later with (as he described it at the Q&A) "his demons".
Following are three matches from the April 10th/11th Jim Crockett Sr. Memorial Cup from the Baltimore Civic Center with the Midnight Express against Ronnie and Jimmy Garvin, The Road Warriors and Dusty Rhodes and Nikita Koloff. The two day event drew over $300,000 and over 18,000 fans.
Other features from 1987 included the match from the Great American Bash tour at Charlotte Memorial Stadium that was the only straight tag team match ever between the Midnights and the Freebirds (Michael Hayes/Buddy Roberts)
Moving on to 1988, the tape set shows The Midnight Express against the Fantastics on the first Clash of the Champions special on March 27, 1988 from the Omni, better known for the Ric Flair-Sting classic. The Express-Fantastics match was voted among the Wrestling Observer Matches of the Year, and achieved the highest rating to date for a cable wrestling event and highest ever on WTBS.
The Great American Bash 1988 tours featured the first NWA PPV with national coverage, The Great American Bash 1988 on July 10, 1988, from the Baltimore Civic Center, as the Midnights took on the Fantastics with Jim Cornette in a straitjacket in a cage over the ring, which drew a record $206,000 Baltimore gate and was the first NWA PPV with national coverage)
From 1988, the set also features a July 16th 3 on 2 bunkhouse match from the Greensboro Coliseum with the Express and Jim Cornette against The Fantastics. The Bash became a national tour that year with 38 shows in 42 days, with bunkhouse matches on 31 of those cards, with the Express also working the Fantastics as well in 3 regular tags and 4 scaffold matches to complete what Cornette describes as the most grueling tour in NWA history.
The set then shows the program against the Four Horsemen began in August 1988 with a Jim Cornette promo regarding The Four Horsemen, developing into a confrontation between Cornette and J.J. Dillon. It then moves on with more Midnight-Horseman confrontations, and a tape of Lane and Cornette find Eaton attacked in locker room. The program was all too abbreviated, though...because a title change came far sooner that it was planned for.
In the first major title change I ever saw live...back at a time when that still meant something...I saw The Midnight Express defeated Tully Blanchard and Arn Anderson for the NWA World Tag Team Championship on September 10, 1988 at the Philadelphia Civic Center before about 7,000 paying $72,000. The event was non-televised (although there IS one bootleg out there of the match...and before you ask where, I prefer not to have that person making money off of it...so we'll all have to wait for Jim Cornette to find his copy of the match to include it on a subsequent set...and he IS looking for it) with the live crowd not knowing that Tully Blanchard and Arn Anderson were leaving the next day for the WWF.
The finish was a double pin, with Tommy Young awarding the match to the Midnight Express. If/when you see the bootleg version, you'll see the stands shaking as the crowd goes absolutely ape@t, realizing that they'd really just seen a title chance, and not one more Dusty finish...which we'd all gotten very used to.
As Cornette reminds fans in the tape set notes, the Express became the only team ever to hold both the World and United States Tag Team Championships at the same time, capping an NWA reign of World Tag Champs from February 2-August 16, 1988, U.S. Champions July 10-September 10, 1988 when they vacated the belts after winning the World Tag Title, World Tag Title September 10-October 29, 1988, and U.S. Tag Champs May 19-August 24, 1990.
1988 rolled on as the set shows the Express dropping the NWA Tag Team Titles on October 29, 1988 at the Municipal Auditorium in New Orleans, LA to a newly heel Road Warriors.
November 1988 saw the pseudo-shoot angle (as much as that was ever done in 1988) on the November 5th WTBS show of the "Original Midnight Express" of Dennis Condrey, Randy Rose...and Paul E. Dangerously jumping Cornette, Bobby Eaton, and Stan Lane...with Cornette going nuts on the air with a mild profanity, with Cornette acting like "this isn't supposed to happen" and Jim Ross going off with "they don't even wrestle here" before such angles were turned into a cliche.
In the final Starrcade appearance by the Midnight Express at Starrcade 1988 at the Norfolk Scope
the Express (with Jim Cornette) vs. the "Original Midnights" (with Paul E.) .
1988 ended with a Clash of the Champions from Chattanooga, TN as the Midnight Express (with Jim Cornette) were paired with Ric Flair and Barry Windham (with JJ Dillon)> This was the only match ever held between the Midnights against Flair and a partner.
At the February 20, 1989 Chi-Town Rumble (better known for the classic Ric Flair- Ricky Steamboat ***** match) the Midnight Express and Cornette took on Randy Rose, Paul E. Dangerously, and a fill-in Jack Victory with a Loser Leaves NWA stipulation. Dennis Condrey had walked out due to a dispute with management, with Victory filling in his slot.
September 1989 sees a program with the Dynamic Dudes as an TBS interview on September 30, 1989, as the Dynamic Dudes, for whom he is "an advisor", begin to come between Cornette and Midnights...for long enough, that is, to set up the November 15, 1989 Clash of the Champions match from the RPI Fieldhouse in Troy, NY with the Express against Dynamic Dudes (Johnny Ace & Shane Douglas, before Cornette, as all good heel fans knew he would, betrays the Dudes and returns to the Midnights.
Philadelphia fans were merciless on Douglas and Ace for the Dudes gimmick
Two Bobby Eaton-Ric Flair matches are featured from the renamed Sunday edition of WCW called TBS Main Event featured a November 20th match from Columbus, OH for the NWA title with Bobby Eaton vs. Ric Flair, the first of only two singles matched ever held between Eaton and Flair. The last such match, also from TBS Main Event is also featured, taped from Peoria, IL, airing on December 14.
1990, the last year of the Midnight Express, sees three matches on the set, including the February 25th Wrestlewar PPV match from the Greensboro Coliseum between the Rock & Roll Express and the Midnights that Cornette describes himself as "the best broadcast (televised) match of their careers on this national pay per view, even 6 years after their first match.
The set also includes the Express against Brian Pillman and Tom Zenk from February 28, 1990 out of Altoona, PA, with the storyline of The Midnights "injuring Pillman's throat" playing off of the real-life childhood multiple surgeries that Pillman was forced to undergo.
The final Great American Bash PPV match for the Midnights from the Baltimore Arena (the former Civic Center) from the 1990 Great American Bash PPV is shown with the Express against Southern Boys (Tracy Smothers and Steve Armstrong. The match was seen by many as the best tag team match of 1990 with the Southern Boys. Given the logic of WCW at the time (and forever after), the two teams never wrestled each other again.
The six-tape set concludes with the final match ever of the Midnight Express, which took place on October 27, at Halloween Havoc 1990 at the UIC Pavilion in Chicago, with the Midnight Express vs. Ricky Morton and Tommy Rich (filling in for an injured Robert Gibson).
All six volumes of the series (and again, there's much more than I've spoken of in this column...plese check the OVwrestling.com link for a complete list) are packaged together in one set of six VHS tapes for one low price (that includes $5.95 shipping) of $105.90.
Until next time...
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