“Beautiful” Bobby Eaton, who died this week at age 62, devoted nearly his entire life to pro wrestling. Best known to most fans for his 15-year run in World Championship Wrestling (WCW), Eaton served as the longest-tenured member of manager Jim Cornette’s Midnight Express tag team. But Eaton’s most notable accomplishment must be the high regard in which peers ranging from the hypercritical Cornette to the easygoing Mick Foley hold him, respecting Eaton both for his work in the ring as well as his gracious demeanor outside of it.
“Bobby Eaton was absolutely one of the greatest guys you could ever know, one of the most lovable guys you’d ever meet in your entire life,” says WWF veteran Koko B. Ware, who partnered with Eaton early in both of their careers. “And all Bobby ever wanted to be was a pro wrestler. He was pro wrestling when he was just a kid. Some people come to pro wrestling from other sports—amateur wrestling, football. Bobby came to pro wrestling from pro wrestling. He was always in pro wrestling.”
Born in Huntsville, Alabama, in 1958, Eaton grew up a pro football fan, following the exploits of the Green Bay Packers because their star quarterback, Bart Starr, had played at the University of Alabama. But as soon as Eaton saw pro wrestling on Saturday-morning television, he put aside his other interests and formulated a plan to become a wrestler.
In the short documentary The Beautiful One—a series of interviews with Eaton interspersed with clips of other wrestlers and fans praising him—Eaton explained that he started skipping school around the age of 13 to help local promoter Nick Gulas’s crew assemble the wrestling ring. And after he had assembled the ring, he told writer Greg Oliver in The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Tag Teams, he and a friend would climb in and practice wrestling moves. “We were practicing holds that we’d seen the other guys do,” Eaton said. “Now, thinking about it, we probably halfway killed each other.”
Gulas obviously saw something in Eaton, using him as a wrestler before Bobby’s 18th birthday. Eaton discussed his first match in a 1999 DDT Digest interview. “I actually hadn’t been formally trained by anyone,” he recalled. “I’d worked out with a number of the guys and learned some stuff, but nothing formal. One night, Bearcat Wright’s opponent didn’t show up, and someone asked me, ‘You want to get out there and wrestle?’ I was like, ‘Hell, yeah!’ I don’t even remember the match. I was probably 17 years old at the time. I’m sure I got beat, though.”
Eaton proved a quick study, figuring into major story lines by the time he was 20. He feuded against the likes of Jerry Brown and future Freebird Buddy Roberts, and alongside partners such as “Pistol” Pez Whatley and trainer Tojo Yamamoto.
“Tag team wrestling suited Bobby,” says Koko. “He would tee off what you were doing, work with it, build his style around it. Before we got together, he wrestled with [Randy Savage’s brother] Lanny Poffo and then with [promoter Nick’s son] George Gulas in a team they called the ‘Jet Set.’ The Jet Set got over pretty well and they had some good matches thanks to Bobby.”
In 1980, Eaton’s first big break came after financial difficulties forced Nick Gulas to close his NWA Mid-America Promotion, leading to Bobby’s signing with Jerry Jarrett and Jerry “the King” Lawler’s Continental Wrestling Association. There, Bill Dundee—a short, stocky Scotsman who moved from Australia to America, where he became a CWA mainstay and, eventually, Eaton’s father-in-law—decided to partner the budding tag team specialist with Koko B. Ware, who was wrestling for Jarrett and Lawler under the name Sweet Brown Sugar.
“Dundee, you have to give him credit for everything that came after for me and Bobby,” says Koko. “He took a look at us and decided to put us together for one night only in Nashville. We were both in the best shape of our lives. I was strong as I ever was and Bobby could move as well as he ever did, and we tore down that house. Dundee and his partner put us over, made us look great, and that’s how we started our tag team run.”
“The whole thing was a big deal because you have to remember that even though we were often the bad guys, a very big percentage of audiences in places like Memphis were Black,” remembers Koko. “And here we were, probably the first great interracial main event tag team there ever was, and you have a white guy kicking butt with a Black guy. Now, our talent got us over everywhere, but the Black fans loved us because you had a Black guy and a white guy going around and beating people up.”
The pair engaged in some early merchandising, selling T-shirts branded “Ebony and Ivory” to capitalize on the popularity of the 1982 Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder single. Their run wasn’t nearly as long as Eaton’s tenure with the Midnights, but it was impactful nevertheless: When Memphis wrestling historian Mark James conducted a fan poll in the late 2000s ranking the top Memphis-area tag teams, Eaton and Ware finished first, ahead of the likes of Jerry Lawler and Bill Dundee.
“It was a great partnership, and we did more high flying than most other teams at that time, and we also came up with tag-team moves, which Bobby would keep doing throughout his career,” says Koko. “Our best match was against the Fabulous Ones, Steve Keirn and Stan Lane, and all four of us looked as good in there as we ever looked. But the powers that be had to go and break us up, because I was getting popular and had to be turned so I could feud with Bobby [along with the rest of Jimmy Hart’s “First Family” stable]. My heart wasn’t in it because I was so used to tagging with Bobby. Once you’ve tagged with him, there wasn’t anything better, because he made it so easy.”
As their feud wound down in 1983, Eaton received overtures from Mid-South Wrestling promoter “Cowboy” Bill Watts, who was looking to pair him with Dennis Condrey, another skilled tag team specialist, as well as young manager Jim Cornette, an erstwhile ring photographer turned manager after he cultivated a whiny, “mama’s boy” persona that infuriated fans. Cornette and Condrey had been involved in a different iteration of the Midnight Express from 1981 to 1983 that worked wrestling territories throughout the South—Norvell Austin and Randy Rose were the other members—and they thought another tag team veteran like Eaton could take the group to the next level. (As an aside, the team’s nickname had nothing to do with the movie Midnight Express, Condrey told historian Greg Oliver, but instead arose from the fact that the team members dressed in black and drove black cars.)
“When Bobby was getting ready to go to Mid-South, he came over and talked to me, asking me what I thought about maybe making a move,” says Koko. “I told him I hadn’t thought of it and chose to stay where I was. But that was the kind of man Bobby was. A lot of folks in the business would just take off, but he wanted to see if he could take me with him. I didn’t go, but I knew he was going to be successful for a really long time.”
Successful ended up being an understatement, particularly in the world of 1980s tag team wrestling. Eaton went from strength to super strength, trading Koko Ware’s best-of-the-era dropkicks for Condrey’s veteran approach to ring psychology and Cornette’s dead air–filling microphone skills.
“The thing about Bobby, and some of the rest of us too when you think about it, is that he didn’t ever like to talk much,” Koko says of the pairing with Cornette. “So having someone who could talk for him, that helped Bobby a lot, whether it was Jimmy Hart or Jim Cornette or whoever else. But, you know, when you look back on it, talking was about the only thing Bobby was missing, the thing he didn’t have that kept him from being a masterpiece, from being like Ric Flair.”
Fortunately, the Midnight Express found itself batting 1.000 as it entered the mid-1980s. The Midnights transitioned from one main event feud to another during the heyday of tag team wrestling, starting with a feud that broke up the popular Mid-South tandem of mentor Mr. Wrestling II and chiseled protégé Magnum T.A. and won them the territory’s tag titles in the process. From there, they entered into a blockbuster feud against the similarly talented Rock N’ Roll Express that crisscrossed the country and lasted half a decade.
That pairing constituted tag team gold: Condrey and Eaton wrestled like consummate heels, with loads of quick-tag double-team offense in the corner, imperiling handsome, slender Ricky Morton—sporting a blond mullet every bit the equal of Eaton’s—until the battered good guy could slip away to make the “hot tag” to partner Robert Gibson, who would then proceed to clean house with the Midnights.
The Midnight Express truly hit the big time when they signed with Charlotte-based Jim Crockett Promotions in 1985, setting them up for an extended main-event run in a national promotion later acquired by Ted Turner and renamed World Championship Wrestling in 1988. There, the Midnights continued their feud with the Rock N’ Roll Express, losing the NWA World Tag Team title to their hated rivals in 1986.
They sandwiched other rivalries between that ongoing one, most notably a feud with the Road Warriors that culminated in a memorable scaffold match at 1986’s Starrcade: Night of the Skywalkers. The bout could’ve ended horribly but was redeemed thanks to Condrey and Eaton’s ability to deliver a good story under any circumstances as well as Jim Cornette’s willingness to fall 14 feet straight down into the ring, tearing the ligaments in one of his knees and breaking a leg in the process.
Eaton’s willingness to alter his style to suit the needs of his opponents and the constraints of the match format goes at least part of the way toward explaining why so many of his colleagues revered him. “Bobby Eaton, to me, was the greatest tag team wrestler when he was active,” veteran WCW and WWF wrestler Terry Taylor told Greg Oliver. “He wanted to do for the other person so the other person would do for him.”
In 1987, Eaton had to alter his style again after Condrey left the Midnights, disappearing without any explanation. Unlike Eaton, who had informed Ware about his impending departure to Mid-South, Condrey vanished for the better part of two years. But Dusty Rhodes, who was booking WCW at the time, directed Cornette to “Stunning” Stan Lane, who was finishing up a successful run alongside Steve Keirn as one half of the Fabulous Ones.
Lane, who would later have stints as a commentator in the WWF and elsewhere, could work his arrogant bad guy gimmick on the microphone, which distinguished him from the more taciturn Condrey and Eaton. He was a very different performer in the ring; he was capable of flashy karate-style strikes but also needed Eaton to carry more of the offensive load. “Stan lifted me up a little bit with his showmanship,” Eaton told Greg Oliver.
Even though this incarnation of the Midnight Express won the NWA World Tag Team titles in 1988 from Arn Anderson and Tully Blanchard—who departed for their run in the WWF as the Brain Busters—Cornette, Eaton, and Lane were no longer performing in main events and co-main-events like they had with Condrey. They were still trading the tag titles and performing at the highest level, as evidenced by their 1988 feud against young manager Paul Heyman and his “old” Midnight Express pairing of Randy Rose and a returning Condrey, their incredible WarGames match at The Great American Bash in ’89 against the Samoan SWAT Team and the Fabulous Freebirds, and several classic matches in 1990 against equally skilled tandems such as the Southern Boys (Tracy Smothers and Steve Armstrong), the Rock N’ Roll Express, and Brian Pillman and Tom Zenk.
“Condrey and Eaton were main-eventers who had to draw old-fashioned heat to make money,” Jim Cornette said in an interview. “Bobby and Stan were a more high-spot-oriented team, because instead of the actual main event, their spot was to go out and have the show-stealer.”
Ware recalls the evolution of Eaton’s top-rope offense and other unique spots. “Bobby was always coming up with things, and he would do them perfectly,” he says. “His big high leg drop looked awesome. He was always real safe with moves like that and even if it was a big move, he executed it safely and didn’t rush. You watch his matches and you’ll see he didn’t rush, he just kept up the pace and helped you wrestle the best match you could have. … He always wrestled a different match and got his moves in.”
In October 1990, Cornette and Lane left the WCW in search of greener pastures and less front-office drama, but Eaton—ever the consummate professional—stayed behind. Although the man many consider the best tag-team performer of all time was no longer part of the team that made him a national star, he still had a decade’s worth of contributions to make, both as a singles wrestler and in new tag teams.
Following Cornette and Lane’s departure, Eaton received a modest push as a singles performer. He challenged for the World Television title, eventually winning it from Arn Anderson in May 1991. Although he dropped the belt two weeks later to a young “Stunning” Steve Austin, Eaton rebounded with a spot in the most important singles match of his career. In June 1991, he lost a best of three falls match to WCW World Heavyweight champion Ric Flair at Clash of the Champions XV. The match, which saw Eaton in the absolute best shape of his career, a far cry from the somewhat fleshy gym-teacher physique he boasted during his 1980s heyday, unfolded in a carefully paced manner, with Eaton outwrestling Flair to score the first pinfall, only to succumb to “the dirtiest player in the game’s” underhanded tactics in the second and third falls.
“Everybody wants to work with the world champion. … Well, Ric Flair was [not] only the booker but the world champion, and he wanted to work with Bobby,” Jim Cornette explained in an interview, noting that Flair’s insistence on wrestling Eaton “gave WCW president Jim Herd fits.”
Not long thereafter, Eaton would return to his scaffold-match roots during The Great American Bash tour, teaming with heavyset rapping wrestler P.N. News against Terry Taylor and Steve Austin in arguably the worst match of Eaton’s career, a sloppy debacle that won Wrestling Observer’s “Worst Worked Match of the Year” award for 1991.
Despite that disappointment, Eaton would again return to a prominent position, serving in Paul Heyman’s “Dangerous Alliance” that loomed large over the WCW main event scene from 1991 to 1992. The stable—comprised of Eaton, Arn Anderson, “Ravishing” Rick Rude, Larry Zbyszko, “Stunning” Steve Austin, and Madusa—eventually came to hold all of the promotion’s major belts at one time, with the exception of Sting’s WCW World Heavyweight title. Eaton returned to his tag team roots alongside fellow tag-team expert Arn Anderson, winning the WCW World Tag Team belts from Ricky Steamboat and Dustin Rhodes.
In his autobiography, Steve Austin reflected on this period of his career. Both within the Dangerous Alliance and without, Austin was surrounded by arguably the best crop of top technical wrestlers in WCW’s history, yet Eaton stood apart from the rest. “He couldn’t really tell you why he did anything, plus you couldn’t understand hardly a word he said with his Alabama drawl and his ‘mouth full of marbles,’” Austin wrote. “But he had incredible timing. He couldn’t explain it, but it was a pleasure and an education going out there and working with him.”
Austin and his colleagues benefited from Eaton’s generosity in other ways, as Mick Foley explained in his autobiography, Have a Nice Day. “It was damn near impossible to pay for anything when Bobby was around,” Foley wrote, a detail echoed by Jim Cornette in an interview during which he described the time Eaton bought $50 worth of groceries and alcohol for an unhoused person he saw on the street. Cornette added that Eaton carried extra clothes, food, and toiletries in his overstuffed luggage, which he eagerly shared with anyone who needed them. “The Steiners got to where they were asking him for stuff just to see if he had it, because he had everything,” said Cornette.
Eaton’s generosity extended to taking the pinfall in the greatest WarGames match of all time, a blow-off bout between the “Dangerous Alliance” and Sting’s allies Ricky Steamboat, Nikita Koloff, Dustin Rhodes, and Barry Windham. Eaton received an accidental blow to the head from Larry Zbyszko, allowing Sting to score the win in a match that received a full five stars out of five from Wrestling Observer Newsletter’s Dave Meltzer—an extraordinarily high rating for a domestic match during a period when the hardest-hitting and fastest-paced bouts were occurring in Japan, but not unusual for Eaton, who routinely received three- and four-star grades from Meltzer during his first WCW run.
That run, unfortunately, came to an end at the hands of incoming WCW booker “Cowboy” Bill Watts. Although Watts’s clever storytelling had ignited Eaton’s career roughly a decade earlier, Bobby’s six-figure contract now made him an easy cut for an incoming executive tasked with reducing costs.
Lacking a full-time role as 1992 drew to a close, Eaton reconnected with Jim Cornette, who was now running Smoky Mountain Wrestling. There, he worked with Stan Lane and Tom Prichard as an early incarnation of the “Heavenly Bodies,” also winning the promotion’s Television championship before incoming WCW executive producer Eric Bischoff re-signed him, initially using him in lower-profile matches as the tag partner to young performer Chris Benoit and veteran Steve Keirn, another longtime tag team specialist.
Eaton had one final story line left in him, a high concept that arguably resulted in career-best character work from the man Steve Austin generously called “marble-mouthed.” After proposed partner Paul Levesque jumped to the WWF to become Hunter Hearst Helmsley, British wrestler and current NXT general manager William Regal—then known as “Lord” Steven Regal, and every bit as good on the microphone and in the ring as he would be later in his WWF career—needed someone to fill Levesque’s shoes.
“We can do the My Fair Lady thing, where I’ll turn Bobby from an Alabama redneck into a nobleman,” Regal wrote in his autobiography. “Gimmicky stuff I know, but I thought it was a good idea. They sent us out with a film camera. We went to Disney’s Epcot Center in Orlando, where we turned Bobby from a redneck into a moody nobleman. He eventually became Earl Robert of Eaton and we became the Blue Bloods.”
The team worked strong WCW World Tag Team title matches against the likes of the Nasty Boys and Harlem Heat, but never won the straps. “The main WCW tag teams then were the Nasty Boys, Harlem Heat, and Bunkhouse Buck and Dick Slater. Apart from the Nasty Boys, the rest of us were all heels. And out of those four teams, we were the only ones who didn’t end up with the tag titles at any point. We were the carrying force in that group of guys. We worked with everybody—and worked well, too. The titles … would have been nice as recognition for what we were doing.”
The pair indeed did interesting work, especially outside the ring. Eaton took elocution lessons in one vignette. “Bobby would repeat ‘how now brown cow’ as though his mouth was full of marbles, which really was the case,” Regal wrote. In another, Eaton was supposedly knighted by the queen. And in the most surreal video of all, Regal and Eaton drove around Los Angeles in a limousine, visiting notable places such as the spot where Hugh Grant had recently been arrested with a sex worker, the Viper Room where River Phoenix died, and O.J. Simpson’s house.
But “Earl Robert of Eaton,” interesting as it was, took a backseat in a WCW increasingly focused on the goings-on of Hulk Hogan, Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, and the rest of the nWo. Eaton was no longer an earl, but he certainly was WCW Saturday Night royalty, showing up to wrestle the likes of Kendall Windham and Wayne Bloom in short, technically sound matches disconnected from any ongoing stories. This is the Eaton many fans raised on the Attitude Era will remember, working in the shadows of a great but doomed promotion, a mulleted throwback to a recent yet irrevocably dated period in WCW’s history, when the promotion still retained many of the traditional elements of Southern wrestling that contrasted sharply with the Connecticut-based WWF then awash in cartoon characters and supersized bodybuilders.
Eaton was released from the WCW in 2000 at the age of 41, an event that pained but didn’t surprise him. “I am sad, though, because I felt like I had been very loyal to them,” Eaton told wrestling journalist Mike Mooneyham in 2000. “I’m just sorry that nobody ever talked to me. Nobody told me that I was going to be released. I never even got a letter in the mail. I had to ask them, and I was kind of sad about that. I guess I was still working shows while I was being released.”
“Beautiful” Bobby’s later years took him to independent wrestling events, wrestling conventions, and other meet-and-greet functions. During this time, his health declined, and the Montgomery Advertiser reported in 2013 that he had surgery to have a pacemaker inserted. Bobby’s heart took another blow in June 2021: His wife of 38 years, Donna Dundee—Bill Dundee’s daughter—predeceased him by a month. However, with Jim Cornette’s resurgence in the podcasting world and his affection for Eaton’s salt-of-the-earth manner, the tag team star has experienced his own modest career revival, serving as a mythical figure on the Jim Cornette Experience, where he is the subject of innumerable shaggy-dog stories.
I asked Koko B. Ware how his friend and tag team partner would want to be remembered.
“Bobby was fun to be around, talented in the ring and quiet outside it,” says Koko. “You know, I can’t think of anybody who wanted to be working in that ring as much as Bobby. He got to do what he wanted to do, even though I know he loved it so much that he’d have wanted to do it for a lot longer.”
Oliver Lee Bateman is a journalist and sports historian who lives in Pittsburgh. You can follow him on Twitter @MoustacheClubUS and read more of his work at www.oliverbateman.com.