IN MEMORIAM: Bobby Eaton (1958-2021)

It has been confirmed by numerous sources that Bobby Eaton, who went by his real name in the ring, has died.  He was 62.

Eaton was born and raised in Huntsville, Alabama, and brought into the sport at age 13, volunteering to be in ring crew for NWA Mid-Atlantic.  After being trained by Tojo Yamamoto, Eaton had his first match at age 17 — against fellow legend Bearcat Wright.  His first major feud in the promotion — in fact, his star-making turn in the territory — was a tag feud featuring Buddy Jack Roberts during his incarnation of the Hollywood Blonds.  This success led to him getting his first tag team gold alongside Lanny Poffo, but it was with George Gulas that he had his first great tag team, The Jet Set.  Among their rivlaries was one with Terry Gordy and Michael Hayes — a regular duo, but not yet the Fabulous Freebirds.  A singles run later in his career — ironically, containing a feud with Dennis Condrey — set the stage for a move up the charts.

From there, he had success in the Continental Wrestling Association that was run by the Jarrett family.  Again, he was a tag team specialist, this time teaming with Sweet Brown Sugar (aka Koko B. Ware) as the New Wave.  An eventual split led to Eaton defeating Sugar and banning him from the promotion, only to have to deal with Stagger Lee, who was in no way Koko under a mask trying to circumvent the ban, trust us on this one.  Eaton and Lee eventually re-formed a team, kick-starting a rivalry with the Fabulous Ones.

It was in 1983 that the stars aligned for Eaton as he moved to Mid-South Wrestling.  Bill Watts teamed him with former rival Condrey and, under the tutelage of James E. Cornette, they carried on the mantle of Midnight Express (one that Condrey had had with Randy Rose).  They soon won the Mid-South tag titles from Mr. Wrestling II and Terry “Magnum” Allen, although they did so because the championship team broke up mid-match.

Without a ready-made opponent in the territory, Watts was forced to look to Memphis again, this time bringing in a pretty-boy team of Ricky Morton and Robert Gibson.  With those first matches in 1984, one of the greatest and most iconic tag team rivalries in history began, as the Midnight Express and Rock’N’Roll Express battled in just about every territory imaginable.  When the Rock’N’Rolls couldn’t get brought in — as was the case with World Class in Texas — the Fantastics usually took the opposing spot.  Either way, the Darksiders beating up a pair of good-looking fan favorites never got old.

It was in 1985 that Eaton and Condrey jumped to Jim Crockett Promotions and became the big names thanks to TBS’ national reach.  They won the NWA World Tag Titles (from the Rock’N’Roll Express, of course) in February of 1986 before losing back to them in August.  Soon after, they shifted to a feud with the seemingly-invincible Road Warriors, and their dirty tricks led to the two teams being a part of one of wrestling’s most famous matches: the Night of the Skywalkers scaffold match.  It’s a testament to all four men that it’s fondly remembered as the best scaffold match of all time.

When Condrey left the promotion, Stan Lane was brought in to continue the Midnight Express name with Eaton.  They were NWA US Tag Champions several times, finally capturing the big gold again in September 1988 by beating Arn Anderson and Tully Blanchard and chasing them off to the WWF.  The Express, now popular with fans, soon faced an interesting opponent: their earlier incarnation of Rose and Condrey.  With Paul E. Dangerously heading the flashback duo, the big feud seemed imminent… until Condrey walked out on the promotion again.

Rivalries followed with the Samoan SWAT Team and the Freebirds, but one in particular caught fans’ attention: the Dynamic Dudes of Shane Douglas and Johnny Ace.  The Dudes were painted as fans of the Midnight Express and asked Cornette to manage them, too.  When Cornette agreed, the Express became furious, and arguments soon followed.  The matter was finally settled at Clash IX, where Cornette was in theory in a neutral corner forced to watch his two squads fight it out.  In practice, Cornette sided with the Express, and the legends rode again.  They’d remain a team throughout 1990, facing the Steiner Brothers and Brian Pillman/Tom Zenk, before Cornette and Lane left what had become WCW.

Eaton’s singles career started off slowly, but by the first ever SuperBrawl he had defeated Arn Anderson and become WCW Television Champion.  His success led to a World Title shot against Ric Flair, and despite getting the first fall of a best-of-three contest, Eaton came up short.  Eaton would soon lose the TV title to a hot rookie named Stunning Steve Austin, and for a while seemed to be without direction.

Oddly, it was pairing with old rivals (Anderson, Austin, and Dangerously) that revitalized Eaton’s career.  He joined the Dangerous Alliance in 1991, and with the help of Paul E., he and Anderson defeated Ricky Steamboat and Dustin Rhodes to become WCW Tag Team Champions.  The Alliance — which included US Champion Rick Rude and TV Champion Steve Austin as well as Larry Zbyszko — was so successful they became the #1 enemy of WCW Champion Sting.  Sting eventually rounded up Steamboat, Rhodes, Nikita Koloff, and Barry Windham and, thanks to a mistake by Zbyszko that left Eaton open for an armbar submission, vanquished the Alliance in what is often considered the greatest WarGames match ever (including any spiritual successors in WWE or AEW).

While Eaton did have a reunion with Lane (as part of the Heavenly Bodies with Dr. Tom Prichard) in Smoky Mountain Wrestling, his Watts-ordered hiatus from WCW didn’t last long as Eric Bischoff brought him back in 1994.  During his second tour, he teamed with various other wrestlers such as Steve Keirn, a young Chris Benoit, and Steven Regal.  He also was on the undercard of the famous When Worlds Collide show, as he and Sabu beat Arn and Funk.  In WCW, though, his team with Regal was the most noteworthy, engaging in rivalries with the Nasty Boys, Harlem Heat, and the Stud Stable before falling apart as Regal moved on to TV Champion status.

Eaton was mainly used as veteran enhancement talent for the rest of his WCW run, mostly relegated to WCW Saturday Night — which by this point had become the third-string show behind Nitro and Thunder.  When WCW died, Eaton worked the independents, mostly doing reunion matches with Lane against the Rock’N’Roll express.  He did have one appearance in TNA in its formative years, losing to Kid Kash.  His final match was in 2015, a singles loss to — who else — Ricky Morton.

Eaton was World Tag Champion in NWA/WCW three times — once each with Condrey, Lane, and Anderson.  He and Lane were US Tag Champions 3 times, and Eaton is a 1-time TV Champion on his own.  The Express (either Eaton/Condrey or Eaton/Lane) won the Observer Tag Team of the Year honor three years running from 1986-88, and in 1987 PWI agreed.  Eaton himself was considered the Most Underrated on four occasions, although PWI considered him a high of #27 in 1992 on their PWI500 list.  All told in his career, Eaton won 11 NWA Mid-Americas titles, 5 other singles titles, an astonishing 23 tag titles, and 4 six-man titles — at one point he was so decorated by the NWA and its territories that he had to bring all the gold to the ring in a wheelbarrow.  The 1992 WarGames match is considered five stars by Meltzer.  The Express as a unit — covering Eaton, Condrey, and Lane — were inducted into the Observer Hall of Fame in 2009.

While all of this tells you that Eaton was incredibly successful in the ring, it was outside it that many people in the business hold him in even higher esteem.  Mick Foley mentioned that Eaton was always willing to pick up the tab if a wrestler needed something on the road.  It got to the point where he would carry a spare suitcase containing things a wrestler might need to borrow.  His ability to mesh his style with anyone and be a giving person led to Steve Austin saying Eaton was like a night off due to how easy it was to get over with and against him.

Eaton is survived by his three children.  His wife, Donna Dundee (daughter of Bill Dundee), passed away a month prior.

There was a time in the late 90s into the 00s when being a tag team specialist was more a curse than a blessing.  The WWE has never been too fond of tag teams, often trying to find someone who can succeed on their own, and it took TNA and later AEW to bring the art form back.  As such, calling someone the greatest tag team wrestler ever seems to be damning with faint praise.  But let there be no mistake: Bobby Eaton is on the shortlist for greatest tag team wrestler ever.  He understood the art, and he elevated tag team matches to the hottest thing on the card — whether with Condrey or Lane, whether against the RnRs or the Road Warriors.  If you’re like me and wish to be a wrestler, Bobby Eaton is one of the men to study and copy.