Dancing into the night: Ricky Morton recaps WWE Hall of Fame career
Ricky Morton might have thought the phone call was never going to come. The Rock ‘n’ Roll Express in the WWE Hall of Fame? That day had passed.
And then it happened.
“To be truthful with you, I cried. I mean, it was … it caught me really off-guard. I waited all my life, I waited my whole career, for that moment. And I actually cried. I’m not ashamed. I admit it. I did. I cried,” said Morton, who was inducted, along with tag team partner Robert Gibson, into the WWE Hall of Fame in March.
Born into the business
Morton, 60, is a 44-year veteran of the pro wrestling business, but he’s basically spent his entire life in wrestling. His father, Paul, was a longtime referee who took his son with him on the road as soon as Ricky could walk and talk.
He spent his first few years in the business trying to figure out what he was supposed to be, in a sense. He alternated between runs in singles and tag teams before Jerry “The King” Lawler paired him with Gibson to form the Rock ‘n’ Roll Express in the Memphis Mid-Southern Wrestling territory in 1983.
We know now that Morton and Gibson were destined for gold, but it didn’t seem that way at the time.
“We were a tag team that was never supposed to get over. The Midnight Express was a tag team that was never supposed to get over. I’m talking to you, really, if we had stayed in Memphis, we would have never got over,” Morton said.
That’s because the motivation behind forming the new team was to feed off the popularity of another babyface tag team, The Fabulous Ones, Steve Keirn and Stan Lane, to give Lawler and the bookers in Mid-Southern more flexibility when The Fabulous Ones weren’t available to work certain dates on the schedule.
It wasn’t until the Rock ‘n’ Rolls went to Mid-South in Louisiana to work for promoter Bill Watts that they were able to flourish.
“Bill Dundee took the book over in Louisiana, and he wanted to change the system, because you had the big guys. Bill Dundee was telling Bill Watts, Man, look at your top babyface. I mean, it’s Jim Duggan. I mean, when you draw girls, you draw guys, then you sell out. We went to Louisiana, and that was our first break in the business,” Morton said.
Their work in Mid-South caught the attention of Mid-Atlantic promoter Jim Crockett, who brought the Rock ‘n’ Roll Express to the East Coast in 1985, and booked them to win the NWA world tag team titles.
“We win the NWA world tag team titles for the first time in Shelby, N.C., and you’re thinking to yourself, you can never do better than that. You know what I’m saying? What else can you accomplish in this business?”
The money pit
At their height, Morton and Gibson were as big as anybody else in the wrestling business, their popularity bringing tag wrestling to the top of the card.
Not that the guys generating the cash came to benefit from their fame. Morton said the most he ever made in salary in a year was $125,000, a far cry from the millions that top draws like world champion singles wrestlers like Ric Flair and Hulk Hogan were bringing home.
“I can’t blame nobody but myself,” Morton said. “This is what I try to teach my kids at my school, how important your education is. I wasn’t educated enough to know that I was getting robbed. I didn’t know that. Dude, when you have a Rock ‘n’ Roll package with a life-size poster, a record and the fan club that sells for $19.95, and they sell over a million copies, and you don’t get a dime, see, that’s my fault. I let that happen,” Morton said.
“Take advantage of me? Gosh, yeah, they took advantage of me. Yes, I’m not trying to hide nothing. Yes. Actually, they robbed us blind. I didn’t know this right here, but even the Midnight Express, I didn’t know, Jimmy Cornette, Bobby Eaton, they had a $250,000 a year contract. They had a contract, and I didn’t even know they had a contract.
“I’m not here to blame the Crocketts, I’m not here to blame nobody. I’m only here to blame myself,” Morton said. “Because if you’re out there, and you’re listening, get your education. Understand business. I didn’t. I just knew that we were selling out every night, and I was running like a you-know-what. Time went by so quick, and you were just running, because you wrestled every night.”
The next NWA champ
The meteoric rise of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Express had not yet reached its ceiling. Morton, viewed by Crockett, Flair and “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes, the head of the booking committee in Mid-Atlantic, as the driving force behind the duo’s popularity, was slated for a singles series with Flair for the NWA world title.
And you’ve probably not heard this story before, but Morton actually won the belt from Flair.
More on that in a minute.
First, to how it got there.
“Dusty had built so many plans for Magnum TA. They were grooming Magnum for the world title, to work with Flair. Magnum had the car wreck, broke his neck. Well, that’s gone. They’d seen Dusty and Flair. It’s just going to be another Seinfeld rerun. At the time, Flair was looking for somebody to wrestle. Robert had hurt his knee, so he was out, and I had to work a single match on TV in Rock Hill. I wrestled, and Flair watched the match, and he told Jimmy Crockett, Man, I want to work with him. He’s over.”
That’s how the story begins behind the scenes. For TV viewers, the Flair-Morton feud got going over an improvised spot involving a broken pair of designer sunglasses.
“Nowadays, everything is scripted. You’re at the TV shows at 10 o’clock in the morning, you’re going over your matches. You’re going over every word you’re going to say. When I shot that angle with Flair, it wasn’t even scripted. Nothing,” Morton said.
“I’m out there in the ring, Flair is cutting that interview, the teenyboppers and everything, and he’s going, Take my glasses off. Break them. Then he’s talking again, blah blah blah blah. So he’s talking, that’s when I reached up and grabbed them and stopped on them. Then he slapped me, threw me in the ring. If you notice, he’s outside the ring, and I punched him, and he’s going, suplex me, suplex me. Ba-boom. I suplex him into the ring, and boom, it went from there.”
A detailed program was then put in place to get Morton over as a legtimate singles competitor.
“I’m in Charlotte, N.C. I’m going to meet Flair on the third show there for the world title. First time in Charlotte, I’m wrestling Abdullah the Butcher. Abdullah is a businessman when he gets paid, you understand me? I beat Abdullah right in the middle of the ring with my finisher. Nobody knows that. It’s a house show. It’s not on TV. Boom, I beat him. Abdullah says, Thank you, kid, I hope you make us a lot of money.
“Go out the next show, I’m wrestling the Midnight Express, back in with Robert. We’re going to beat them, but Dennis Condrey told me, Bobby’s going to hit you with our finish off the top rope. He said, Kick out on one. I went, one? He says, Kick out on one, son, you’re fixing to wrestle Flair. You got to make us some money.
“Now I’m back around, we’re in Richmond, and it’s the same thing. It’s just different people. The next show, I’m wrestling Flair, but this show, I’m wrestling Dick Murdoch in a single match. We’re tearing the house down, buddy, I ain’t kidding you. He stops me, hits me with the brain buster, Dick Murdoch’s finish. Right when he picks me up, he says, You kick out on one. And he drops me down, boom, and I kicked out on one. And he rolled over at me, and he goes, Make me a lot of money, son.”
Loyal to a fault
Then it was on to Morton vs. Flair for the belt.
“Ric, being Ric, we did 17 straight hour matches. It was called Broadway in our day,” Morton said. “You notice when I was on the Hall of Fame show, I said, Me and Ric went down Broadway many a nights. I don’t know if you remember that. That’s where I got my PhD. The boys knew what I meant. I walked down Broadway. That’s an hour time limit.”
Finally, at the end of the series, Morton defeated Flair for the title on a house show. And then … he gave it back.
“It’s not that I didn’t want it. It was, I’m with the boys. They wanted to fire Robert.”
Yeah, wow. Morton gets to be NWA world champ, and Gibson gets the door.
“I beat Ric for the belt, and I went into the back room, and they say, This is what we’re going to do. And I said, No, I’m not going to do it. And I gave it back to them.”
Let that sink in. Three decades later, Morton still takes as many bookings as he can get and struggles to get by on that and what he makes from his wrestling school, School of Morton.
He could have been the next Ric Flair, if he’d played his cards a different way.
“It would have changed my whole life and world. And if you heard me say on the Hall of Fame, and only a few people understood that, that if I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t change one thing. Because (Robert) was more important to me. I’d never change a thing.”
The Rock ‘n’ Roll Express were headliners before the Monday Night Wars, before the Internet and social media.
The teenyboppers that sold out arenas in the 1980s to chant their names are well into middle age themselves today.
The phone call that set things into motion leading to the WWE Hall of Fame induction took a lot of people back in time, Morton included.
“When you’re away from the business like that, from the big companies, for 20 years, and they call you, and you go there, I mean, you think, man, am I going to feel out of place going here. But guys, let me tell you, the WWE family, five minutes … not five minutes, five seconds, I will say that, I felt like I had never, ever left the business,” Morton said.
Being in Orlando for WrestleMania week gave Morton a glimpse into how well the business is doing these days.
“They flew me and my family down first class. Pick you up at the airport. When you get to the hotel, the room was bigger than my house. Serious, dude. It’s on the top floor of the Marriott. And my kids are the same way. And the food. I told them, my God, I’d live 500 pounds if I lived around here. Everywhere you went, somebody was cooking, and I’m not talking ham and cheese. I’m talking crab legs, I’m talking steaks this thick. Gosh, man, it was unbelievable.
“The only sad thing about it was that it ended,” Morton joked.
To Morton, there is one bit of unfinished business regarding the Rock ‘n’ Roll Express Hall of Fame induction.
There was no Rock ‘n’ Roll Express, after all, without the Midnight Express as the foils.
“When you see Jimmy Cornette put us in there, what is that telling you?” Morton said. “My opinion, the Midnight Express is the greatest heel tag team ever. Jimmy Cornette, greatest heel manager ever. Jimmy Cornette, if you listen to his podcast, has said many times that they will never put us in the Hall of Fame because I got so much heat with Vince McMahon. He said, Hell will freeze over. The big saying at WWE is, anything can happen at WWE. And hell didn’t freeze over, either.
“You know damn good and well that the Midnight Express is going in the Hall of Fame next year. Nobody has said that, but you know they are. What do you think Jimmy Cornette was there for?”
The past, and the future
“I was born in the wrestling business, raised in the wrestling business. And when I train, I let these guys know, it’s no joke. It’s no game. This is me. This is my life. This is what I do.”
Morton came up at a time when wrestlers lived the gimmick.
“We lived in a sacred business. We kayfabed,” Morton said. “When we wrestled these guys, Bobby Eaton is one of my best friends, but I’d only see him in the ring. You didn’t share dressing rooms together. You didn’t go over matches.
“There was many a times, I’d be walking to the ring, and Tommy Young would go, You’ve got a one-hour time limit. With the Midnight Express, too. You’ve got one hour. I didn’t know until I was walking to the ring. You weren’t out back or in a room going, I’ll do this to you, and this to you, and you do this to me.
“We were like drama class. We’d go out there, and we told a story. We danced all through the night. And we did it every night for years and years.”
Morton emphasizes that point to his students at his School of Morton training school.
“I’ve been wrestling for 44 years, and I still learn every day. You’ve got to have that mind,” Morton said. “When you’ve got a kid that you can’t teach, thinks he knows everything, that’s the kind I like. Because I can show him so much that he don’t know, I can really spin his head around quick. Learn our business, you can’t learn it all. If you keep an open mind and learn and learn, you can get better.
“Our business isn’t about being a great wrestler. It’s about being at the right place at the right time. And when you’re at the right place at the right time, if you’re able to do what they want you to do that, if you can fill those shoes and do what they want you to do, you’ve got to be prepared to do it.”
Story by Chris Graham