Thirty-one years ago, through the magic of ITV picking up a regional deal for WCW television, I was introduced to Robert Lee Eaton. Three men strode the aisle, line astern, in perfect motion as The Midnight Express walked to the ring and their manager James E. Cornette, someone who would have a complicated legacy over the next thirty years, announced their presence; “Ladies and gentlemen, every mother’s nightmare and every school girl’s dream, Beautiful Bobby and Sweet Stan, The Midnight Express.”. While that would now be considered historically awful misogyny, the tag-team work that followed would be sublime. Closing out the match with their traditional Guillotine finish featuring Eaton’s perfect Alabama Jam Legdrop, the pair were tag team perfection. While The Midnight Express would be the high point of Eaton’s fame, there was a lot more to Beautiful Bobby than just being a tag team wrestler, a role he was cast as for a large part of his career. Incredibly generous, he was known for carrying a full set of spare equipment for anyone who needed it in his car, and a noted helper of homeless people according to long time driving partner Mick Foley, he was in fact a classic southern wrestler built of the territory era who began his career in the late seventies.
Having been a fan of Nick Gulas’ NWA Mid America promotion based in and around Eaton’s hometown of Huntsville, he would be trained by future longtime Dallas manager Tojo Yamamoto. His work in opening matches did not last long, Gulas recognising Eaton’s athleticism and youthful good looks pushing him hard against the resident bad boy tag team of the original Hollywood Blondes Jerry Brown and Buddy Roberts. Taking on various partners it would be a moneymaker for the promotion. When the Blondes moved on, local boy Eaton had his first major feud victory and was portrayed as running them from the promotion in a similar way as to how Jeff Jarrett would be portrayed in his early Memphis career.
After a turn as a heel, following his trainer Yamamoto to the dark side, and back to being a babyface, his run ended ignominiously as Gulas’ territory ran out of steam largely due to the promoter’s reliance on his unathletic and uncharismatic son George Gulas who happened to be Eaton’s long term tag team partner. Moving on to find work he ended up in Georgia Championship Wrestling building to contention for the TV title, but finally found a home in Memphis were Jerry Jarrett was trying to build a major title of his own.
Having struggled to get NWA title shots for his protege Jerry Lawler, Jarrett had moved Memphis to align with the AWA in the hopes of getting a recognised world title around the waist of perennial Southern Champion Lawler. After renaming the Memphis territory the Continental Wrestling Association after a split with the Alabama side of the office still run by Gulas, Jarrett formed the CWA world title in an effort to build a champion vs champion match with whoever was AWA Champ. He also brought in some heavy-hitting names to give the title some credibility like Superstar Billy Graham and Billy Robinson. Lawler would of course hold the belt, but it would be Robinson who would dominate the title. Eaton in perhaps his biggest matches of note at the time would beat champion Austin Idol in October of 1980 for his first major championship run. It would only last a week, dropping to Robinson a week later, but it showed how much Jarrett thought of him even at a young age.
He would move on to tag with Sweet Brown Sugar working as a heel under Jimmy Hart. They would go on to be Southern Tag Team Champions and feud with territories top face team The Fabulous Ones, Steve Keirn and Stan Lane. Lane and Keirn were a foreshadowing of the future of tag team wrestling. Good looking athletic, not afraid of being photographed in a thong, they would be the prototype for teenage girl appeal that would be the basis for the hot tag teams of the 80s and as Eaton’s run in Memphis came to an end, in a hot feud with Sweet Brown Sugar, he was placed to be part of that future.
When your card was played out in the territories there were always other places to go, and Eaton landed in Bill Watts’ Mid South, the biggest and best territory in the South. Supercharged by oil money and a main event steam roller called The Junkyard Dog, Mid South was the place to be in the early eighties. Displacing Randy Rose and Norvil Austin, Eaton became the fourth member of the Midnight Express with “Loverboy” Dennis Condrey. Technically adept, and with heat machine Cornette steering the ship, they started at the top and stayed there. Picking a fight with Magnum TA, tarring and feathering him in the middle of the ring, they took the tag titles when TA’s partner Mr. Wrestling II turned and left Magnum to defend the Mid South Championships by himself. An insurmountable task.
It was the rule of the day to bring in a new team hot and keep them hot for as long as possible and Watts lined up plenty of challengers, the main one being the new team of Robert Gibson and Ricky Morton, which would be the quintessential southern duos feud. The Midnights vs The Rock ‘n’ Roll Express would be the talk of tag wrestling for the next decade. After a brief stop in Dallas to feud with another pin-up tag team of their generation The Fantastics, Bobby Fulton and Tommy Rogers, they found the place that made them internationally famous; Jim Crockett Promotions. Picking up where they left off with the Rock ‘n’ Roll Express they played hot potato with the tag titles until they ran into an entirely different breed in the Road Warriors. Losing their second title to them in an infamous scaffold match in 1986 which ended Jim Cornette’s serious bump taking career.
In 1987 Condrey left the NWA for undisclosed reasons, something even Cornette has been at a loss to explain, and he was replaced with former rival “Sweet” Stan Lane and perhaps the most athletically gifted version of the team was born. They would win the US Tag Team titles not long after forming and use them as a stepping stone to upend The Horsemen team of Tully Blanchard and Arn Anderson turning them face in the process. Dropping the titles to the Road Warriors in a brutal match. They would then run into themselves as Paul E. Dangerously took up the reigns of Dennis Condrey and Randy Rose who had been tagging in the AWA as The Original Midnight Express. In an intriguing move, the promotion brought in the team and Dangerously to feud with their version of the team ending with a thrilling scaffold match that secured Eaton’s reputation as a daredevil high flyer.
Their babyface run ended not long after Cornette began to manage the Dynamic Dudes and led them like lambs to the slaughter into a trap set by The Express. Back on the bad side of the street, they would pick up another US Title only to be upended by The Steiners and what would be the end of the road for The Express. Cornette and Lane would be gone to Memphis were they would reform The Fabulous Ones, Eaton chose to stay in WCW and realise some of that singles potential.
He would be rewarded for his hard work and effort with a babyface turn, and a World Television Title run that was short-lived but included a shot at World’s Heavyweight Champion “Nature Boy” Ric Flair. He would lose the title to young upstart “Stunning” Steve Austin. Austin would note in his book “The Stone Cold Truth” that wrestling Eaton was like taking a night off. He would turn heel again and ironically end up joining The Dangerous Alliance with Austin. He would start as a solo assassin, running blocker for TV Champion Austin and US Champion Rick Rude, but then handed that role off to Larry Zybysko and formed a team with Arn Anderson, a dominant force that would soon be managed by Freebird Michael Hayes. Fired by Bill Watts in 1993 as a cost-cutting measure, he would head to Smokey Mountain for a short run with his old manager Jim Cornette’s promotion and then head back to WCW and New Japan Pro Wrestling when Watts had been fired and WCW realised it needed well-qualified veterans fast. Trying to pull the Dream Tag Team card one too many times, they put Eaton with Steve Keirn but it never really got anywhere. What did hit pay dirt was a seemingly makeshift team with Lord Steven Regal. With John Paul Levesque moving to Stamford to become HHH, Regal was left without a high falutin partner with which to team. Eaton hanging out in the stands at the Centre Stage would be brought in as Earl Robert Eaton which was automatically funny; the southern raised Eaton trying to be the upper-class snob at the behest of Regal. Eventually, David Taylor would be brought into the Blue Bloods and Eaton would feel pushed out, turning on his teammates and challenging Regal for his World Television Title.
That would be the last push Eaton would receive as he moved into production and the occasional TV appearance where he would dominate over enhancement talent. With the end of WCW, so came the end of his major league career. After WCW’s closure, he would tag with Condrey as The Midnight Express on a limited and exclusive schedule and settled down into semi-retirement. Having his final match against his greatest enemy, Ricky Morton, in 2015 ending the thirty-year feud that made both their names.
Eaton was a kind man, a superlative worker and most importantly worked to keep himself safe and over. He was not plagued by long term injuries despite his high-risk style and protected his opponents at all costs. A highly influential grappler, he passed away in his sleep during a hospital stay for treatment after a fall. A truly unique talent, and very much of his era, the world should not forget “Beautiful” Bobby.
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