The Clock Strikes Midnight: The Life & Career of "Beautiful" Bobby Eaton

Originally published at https://www.postwrestling.com/2021/08/07/the-clock-strikes-midnight-the-life-career-of-beautiful-bobby-eaton/

It’s actually a pretty funny story how my wife Donna and I met. Bill Dundee was the boss in the territory in the time. The number-one rule he had for his daughter was that she was never, ever to go out with a wrestler. Heck, she wasn’t even allowed to talk to them.

Well, one day I called up about getting a booking changed, and Bill was in the shower. So, against orders, rather than let it ring, Donna picked up her dad’s phone. She and I got to talking a bit, and she said she be at the matches and she’d wave to me.

Well, she never showed up that night, and I wound up calling her two weeks later to ask her out for beer and pizza. So, without her dad knowing, we went out.

We kept going out and she kept it a secret from her dad for nine months. When she finally told him she was dating a wrestler, it was at dinner. He dropped his fork, started cursing, and yelled, “Who is he??!! I’ll make sure he never works again!!!!”

She told him it was me, and he didn’t say a word, he just started eating again. Donna was like “So?”, and her dad said that out of all the boys, she had picked the best.

So, maybe nice guys don’t finish last after all.

-Bobby Eaton, May 1999

There is no shortage of praise one can heap on the memory of Bobby Eaton, generally considered one “the good ones” in an industry where few leave unscathed by their peers.

Bobby Eaton was a professional wrestling fan that never stopped being one even while making hundreds of thousands of dollars while performing state-of-the-art matches that mortgaged his body in the long run.

He was born in Huntsville, Alabama on August 14th, 1958, and sought out professional wrestling at a young age.

By the time he was 12, he was assisting the ring crew for Nick Gulas’ promotion and finding any “in” available at a time when doors were shut to outsiders.

Alongside high school friend Arvil Hutto, he attended the matches and made himself familiar with the Mid-America crew.

So often, luck and timing usurp all factors and for Eaton, that combination occurred when he was sixteen years old and Bearcat Wright needed an opponent with a no-show on the card.

Without any formal training, Eaton was thrown head-first into the industry. It was not lost on people that one of the most gifted talents of any generation was one whose own training came through what he saw and taking the elements his heroes implemented.

Suddenly, Eaton and childhood friend Hutto were working under masks as The Brown Bombers in the wrestling interpretation of “Almost Famous” as they traveled Northern Alabama and into Tennessee.

Area stalwart Tojo Yamamoto took a liking to the teenager and provided mentorship for Eaton, who would unmask just after his nineteenth birthday and introducing the fanbase to Bobby Eaton.

As a tag specialist, Eaton would find success being paired with various partners during this stretch of his career including Lanny Poffo. It was a sign of early confidence in the performer when promoter Nick Gulas paired his son, George, with Eaton as they formed “The Jet Set” in the spring of 1978.

George was not well-regarded as a worker but with the undeniable skillset displayed by Eaton out of the gate, he was considered the right man to bring the best out of George. Together they won the Mid-America tag titles three times and forming trios with Jerry Barber, The Mexican Angel (Francisco Flores), and Arvil Hutto to win the six-man championship in the promotion.

When Eaton was 20 years old, he was stunning the wrestling world along with Randy Poffo a.k.a. Randy Savage with the two tearing down the house wherever they worked and becoming must-see matches. The respect Savage held for Eaton was evident years later in 1997 when Savage was a main event star in WCW and worked a Worldwide taping against Eaton and gave his contemporary everything before going over.

It was against Savage that Eaton won the Mid-America heavyweight title for the first time at a house show in February 1979. Eaton held the title eleven times often feuding with Dutch Mantel for the belt. In June 1980, he defeated Robert Gibson for the title as a prelude where the two would be on opposite sides of the preeminent tag team feud of the decade.

After a brief move to Georgia Championship Wrestling, Eaton was back in Memphis and a member of Jimmy Hart’s First Family allowing Eaton’s in-ring skills to be punctuated by one of the best managers in the business, a trend that would continue on a national level for Eaton.

While it was brief, his team with Koko Ware was a tandem people raved about for the chemistry the two instantly displayed as a unit. Later, they broke up and feuded with Ware a.k.a. Sweet Brown Sugar losing a Loser Leaves Town Match.

In 1981, Eaton traveled to the Knoxville territory that Ric Flair and Blackjack Mulligan had invested in, but the stay was brief, and returned to Memphis.

The turning point of his career was the famous talent swap of November 1983 that saw Bill Watts select Eaton and Dennis Condrey to come to Mid-South while being paired with Jim Cornette to form The Midnight Express.

It wasn’t the first version to use the name as the movie title also served as the tandem name for Condrey, Norvell Austin, and Randy Rose in Alabama and Tennessee. Years later, Jim Crockett Promotions would lean on this idea for a battle of the Midnights in 1988.

The swap between Memphis and Mid-South included The Rock ‘N Roll Express, the team forever linked with The Midnight Express.

Eaton & Condrey debuted as The Midnight Express on November 23, 1983, defeating Rick Rood (Rick Rude) & Mike Jackson. Their first main event was in January 1984 against Mr. Wrestling II and Magnum T.A. and would wrestle Ricky Morton & Robert Gibson for the first time on February 29, 1984, in Shreveport, Louisiana.

For the history books, The Midnight Express erased any doubts regarding their ability as a top act when they were the central heels positioned against area legend and promoter Bill Watts coming out of retirement for a series of matches promoted as “The Last Stampede”.

It was kicked off by a legendary angle where Watts replayed footage of Cornette getting his face put into a cake and they had an all-time classic confrontation. The big announcement was that Watts needed a partner and while Junkyard Dog had lost a Loser Leaves Town match, his replacement would be the masked “Stagger Lee” a.k.a. JYD.

The major event was at the Louisiana Superdome on April 7, 1984, drawing 25,000 people and a gate of $176,000. Cornette outlined the business figures in The Midnight Express & Jim Cornette’s 25th Anniversary Scrapbook noting that the match went around the circuit drawing $807,000 over five weeks on fifteen shows.

The Midnights would be featured on three more Superdomes in 1984. On July 16, they lost to the Rock ‘N’ Roll Express in a No Disqualification Match in front of 20,800 with JYD vs. Butch Reed in the main event. On August 24th, the Midnights beat Dusty Rhodes & Sonny King in front of 18,000 with Ric Flair vs. Kerry Von Erich in the main event. Their Mid-South reign wound down with a Scaffold Match, losing to the Rock ‘N’ Roll Express at the Superdome on November 22nd in front of 14,000 underneath Magnum T.A. vs. Ernie Ladd.

While the group was eyeing a move to Jim Crockett Promotions with an open door provided by booker Dusty Rhodes, they were moved to World Class Championship Wrestling and agreed to the placement and debuted in time for their Christmas night event at Reunion Arena.

World Class had been hot for the previous two years after the Christmas angle of 1982 when The Freebirds turned on Kerry Von Erich and cost him the match with NWA champion Ric Flair, sparking the territories’ hottest feud.

In late 1984, the company was still reeling from the death of David Von Erich in February, who was considered a lock to become NWA champion. After his death, brother Kerry won the title in May at Texas Stadium but only held the title for several weeks. In late 1984, the Freebirds and Von Erichs had run their course and Freebirds were moving on, so there was an opening for Condrey & Eaton.

The Midnight Express arrived and beat The Fantastics (Tommy Rogers & Bobby Fulton) on Christmas night. They spent six months in the territory and worked the David Von Erich Memorial show on May 5, 1985, losing to The Fantastics. Their run wrapped up at the end of June and made the biggest move of their careers moving to Jim Crockett Promotions.

The three appeared on TBS on June 29, 1985, but were designated to Georgia, which had been bought by Crockett. The team was strategically kept away from the Carolinas with Cornette stating in the 25th Anniversary Scrapbook that Rhodes wanted to keep them apart from The Rock ‘N’ Roll Express, who were also in JCP. By August, the Midnights began working the Carolinas.

This was the golden age of The Midnight Express as they were having outstanding matches and their exposure was massive on TBS with a red-hot territory.

Their first Starrcade was in November 1985 losing to Jimmy Valiant & Miss Atlanta Lively (which was Ronnie Garvin dressed as a woman).

Cornette has cited 1986 as the group’s hottest year with their biggest rivals being Morton & Gibson throughout the year.

The Midnights won the NWA tag titles from The Rock ‘N’ Roll Express on February 2, 1986, in Atlanta and held them until August losing them back to Morton & Gibson in Philadelphia.

It was also in 1986 that the group secretly met with Vince McMahon during one of their rare days off at a hotel in Stamford, Connecticut, so they would not be spotted at WWF headquarters. The meeting was taken despite The Midnights and Cornette being in a great position at JCP and didn’t come away impressed with McMahon’s presentation. Cornette has said that a lot of focus was placed on the “potential” money they could make and noting the merchandising arm of the company. It was decided that it was not a risk worth taking after assessing who they would work with and how they would be booked in WWF rather than the sure thing as a hot act in JCP.

One of the most famous matches of that era was the Scaffold Match at Starrcade on November 27th that year against The Road Warriors. The event was promoted as “Night of the Skywalkers” with the event split between the traditional home of the Greensboro Coliseum and another portion of matches from The Omni in Atlanta including the Scaffold Match.

The events drew huge gates with 16,000 and $307,000 in Greensboro along with a closed-circuit set-up while The Omni had 15,000 paid and a gate of $300,000.

The Scaffold Match had its roots in Tennessee wrestling with the idea that the wrestlers would be perched on top of boards hanging over the ring where the match would end when one person took the plunge.

The famous spot of the match culminated with Cornette hanging from the scaffold with Big Bubba Rogers strategically placed underneath to catch the falling manager. However, with the great distance between Cornette and the ring, he picked up so much momentum that Rogers didn’t provide any assistance and Cornette crashed and thus, destroyed his knee. The match was a hit and they sold a lot of VHS tapes through the promotion of the spectacle.

In March 1987, the team was fractured when Condrey took off and went home without providing a reason. In a pivot, they were able to recruit Stan Lane as the new partner for Eaton and didn’t miss a beat. The debate has always been which version of the Midnights was superior. Cornette is often asked and says they had different functions with the Condrey & Eaton iteration designed to get true heel heat and draw from those tactics. Eaton & Lane were put in the position to go out and have the best match possible and did so at a consistent level. In fairness, both versions would be in the conversation among the greatest teams of all time.

Eaton & Lane won their first of three U.S. tag titles in May 1987 and added the NWA tag titles in September after beating Arn Anderson & Tully Blanchard, who moved to WWF after dropping the titles. The reign was short with The Road Warriors taking the titles the next month in New Orleans.

The Midnights continued to defend the U.S. tag titles and had sensational matches with The Fantastics, reviving their program from WCCW. While most remember the first Clash of the Champions for the 45-minute draw between Ric Flair and Sting, it’s the tag match that will blow you away on the re-watch.

In November 1988, Condrey returned with another Midnight Express alumni in Randy Rose under the managerial talents of Paul Heyman for a Midnights vs. Midnights program. It kicked off with an explosive angle where the outsiders jumped Eaton, Lane & Cornette in the television studio and Cornette bled to really drive home the threat of the “other” Midnight Express and establish them instantly.

This coincided with the sale of JCP to Turner and the exit of Dusty Rhodes as the booker at the end of the year.

In their WON Hall of Fame bio, it is outlined that the three were on $225,000 per year deals and once Jim Herd arrived, he wanted to cut their pay down to $75,000 each for Eaton and Lane and Cornette to $100,000. They negotiated to figures of $125,000 for the wrestlers and $150,000 for Cornette. It was safe to say the bloom was off the rose and The Midnights not being treated as the top act they had become.

Cornette would have a role on the booking committee but the structure of the company was taking its toll. After extending their deals an additional year, Cornette and Lane would exit WCW in October 1990 while Eaton stayed.

It was a tough spot for Eaton, who did receive a singles push initially and won the WCW Television Championship from Arn Anderson at the first SuperBrawl in May 1991. However, two weeks later, he dropped the title to rising prospect Steve Austin at a Worldwide taping, which aired at the end of June. To this day, Austin always goes out of his way to compliment Eaton and was always transparent of his immense respect for Eaton’s work.

In June, Eaton challenged champion, Ric Flair, in a 2-of-3 Falls Match at the Clash of the Champions in Knoxville, Tennessee. The match saw Eaton score a fall on Flair before losing the remaining two by count-out and pinfall.

Eaton’s next chapter was as a member of The Dangerous Alliance with Rick Rude, Steve Austin, Larry Zbyszko, Arn Anderson, Madusa, and mouthpiece Paul E. Dangerously. It was an all-star group and became a highlight of 1992 programming for the company.

While everyone will instantly think of Eaton’s partnerships with Condrey & Lane, during this era he teamed with Anderson pitting two of the best workers in the company together. The duo won the WCW tag titles from Ricky Steamboat & Dustin Rhodes in January 1992 and held them until losing to The Steiner Brothers in May.

Eaton had a brief exit from WCW, working for Smoky Mountain Wrestling at the beginning of 1993, and made several tours of New Japan Pro Wrestling during this time. Eaton teamed with Tony Halme, who would become Ludvig Borga in the WWF later that year. They challenged Road Warrior Hawk & Power Warrior (Kensuke Sasaki) for the IWGP tag titles on June 14, 1993, in Osaka.

In WCW, he was teaming regularly with a young Chris Benoit and then, formed Bad Attitude with Steve Keirn, who was coming off a forgettable run as Skinner in WWF.

In 1995, they formed The Blue Bloods and took the Alabama native and transformed him into Earl Robert Eaton for the easy comedy of the Southerner outside his element. He teamed with Lord Steven Regal with Squire Dave Taylor added to the mix.

The group challenged for the WCW tag titles on back-to-back pay-per-views at the Great American Bash against The Nasty Boys and the next month at Bash at the Beach in a three-way match with Harlem Heat and The Nasty Boys.

In the summer of 1996, they tried a unique concept for a house show loop in the Carolinas where Eaton & Taylor teamed against Eddy Guerrero & former rival Robert Gibson. It was designed for the local market with shows in Rock Hill, Columbia, and Greenville in South Carolina.

The Earl Robert character was dropped in 1996 and he was back to “Beautiful” Bobby and was essentially in an enhancement role for the remainder of his WCW tenure that lasted until 2000.

He was rarely showcased on the major television programs but frequently occupied Saturday Night and Worldwide against a wide array of young talent.

In July 1999, on an episode of Thunder from his hometown, he was used to put over David Flair who was being presented as the “undeserving” United States Champion, and beat Eaton.

His last match listed in WCW was against Chuck Palumbo in March 2000, one year before the company shut its doors.

In 2001, Cornette and Danny Davis brought him to OVW where he spent some time as a coach and wrestled a series of tag matches teaming with Randy Orton and Ron “H20” Waterman. One of those matches was Eaton & Orton against John Cena & Rico Constantino.

He appeared once for NWA TNA in August 2002 where he lost to Kid Kash on a Wednesday night pay-per-view.

In 2005, there were a series of reunion matches involving The Midnight Express on the WrestleReunion cards reuniting Eaton with both Condrey and Eaton.

His last match was listed as a 15-man battle royal in March 2016 for the RWA group in Fayetteville, North Carolina.

Eaton struggled with many health issues over the years and required a pacemaker to be installed and dealt with heart problems.

In June, he lost his wife Donna and is survived by his children Taryn, Dustin, and Dylan.

Eaton will be remembered as one of the best to ever perform with no ego and a penchant for the industry he fell in love with at a young age and never looked back on. He had a dream to make a living in this bizarre industry and was able to take his talents across the world.

While he was not the most famous wrestler, his reputation among those he shared rings and locker rooms with for all those decades is untouchable.

Bobby Eaton was 62 years old.

A Go Fund Me campaign has been launched to help assist the Eaton family with Bobby’s funeral expenses.

NOTES:
Wrestling Observer Newsletter, Sept. 28, 2009
-The Midnight Express and Jim Cornette 25th Anniversary Scrapbook by Jim Cornette & Tim Ash (Out of print)
An Exclusive Interview with Bobby Eaton, DDT Digest (May 1999)

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This was an excellent read John. So much interesting stuff. Thank you.

I remember as a child, I really liked Bobby Eaton. You wouldn’t think he would be someone who would stand out to a child, but I was always a fan of the heels and I just enjoyed seeing him whenever he was on my TV.

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Fantastic read, John.It’s more amazing that his kind-hearted demeanour is parcelled to his astonishing career.

R.I.P ‘Beautiful’ Bobby!