I remember watching Al Snow give aspiring wrestlers advice on various topics and one of them was tag team wrestling. According to Snow, much of what we’ve all seen over the past three decades or so (at least stateside) isn’t true tag team wrestling.
These so-called tag team matches have, in fact, been two singles matches going on at the same time. In other words, the gimmick or the art of the tag match has largely been lost in North America. To see what it looked like at its best, we need to turn the clock way back. That’s what we’re doing today: we’re revisiting a timeless classic that’s regarded as the standard-bearer for top-level American tag team wrestling match.
Today we look back at the tag title match between The Midnight Express of Bobby Eaton & Stan Lane and The Fantastics of Bobby Fulton and Tommy Rogers from April 28th, 1988.
As a reminder, I am reviewing Five Star and almost-Five Star wrestling matches as rated by Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. It goes back to the 1980s and I’m going to pick different matches from different eras to see how they look today. Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.
The Fantastics debuted for the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) about a month or so earlier. In their debut match, the Fantastics beat the ME in a non-title match, earning a title shot in the process. That started a prolonged series of matches and between the two teams that would last throughout 1988. Early on, though, the villainous ME kept retaining their titles by dubious means such as via count-out, DQ, or via draw. But the Fantastics kept trying and fighting until they eventually earned another opportunity.
These two sides knew each other very well. The Fantastics were very familiar with Eaton and his manager Jim Cornette. And while Eaton’s first partner Dennis Condrey was replaced with Stan Lane, the ME’s modus operandi was largely the same. They were brutal villains that enraged their opponents and used their manager Cornette as a ringside distraction and weapon whenever possible. The Fantastics were aware of this from their matches in World Class Championship Wrestling (WCCW) from years earlier, the ME’s continued success showed how much of a winning formula this was.
But the Fantastics were nothing if not persistent. They won several matches via controversy but the ME kept retaining the titles. It was about time they got a clean win and they were determined to make that happen at this show in Chattanooga, Tennessee. But could they do it? Could they finally get one over quite possibly the best tag team in North America?
This match originally took place on April 28th, 1988 and was taped and later broadcast on May 15th, 1988. It was rated five stars by Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter. Most official sites and records note that this match went 40 minutes, but all I managed to find were two videos at around 25 minutes each.
This is for the ME’s NWA United States Tag Team Championships. The crowd is insanely loud as Lane and Fulton start off. Fulton reverses a corner whip and hits a back elbow leading to an early stalemate. Fulton shoulder tackles Lane and then the two start chain grappling. Fulton drop toeholds Lane into a hammerlock but Lane tries countering, only for Fulton to wrestle right back into the same hold. Lane gets a ropebreak which leads into a commercial.
We return to find Rogers tagging in for the Fantastics and hitting a double hiptoss alongside Fulton onto Lane. Rogers applies an arm wringer but Lane fights out, ducks down and leapfrogs, and lands a hiptoss of his own. But Rogers kicks him away and throws him into a grounded armlock. Lane escapes and eats Eaton, who runs into an arm drag and gets pinned for a two-count. Rogers does another display of athleticism by avoiding a bunch of moves from Eaton and hits a standing dropkick. That’s followed by another one for Lane. The two fantastic to the Flair strut in the ring as the ME regroup ringside with their manager Cornette.
After a pause, Eaton applies a headlock but Rogers eventually gets a ropebreak. That leads to a shoulder tackle and yet another crisscross sequence but this one ends with Rogers hitting a flying headscissor. Fulton sees Lane going to the top rope to interfere so he shakes the ropes and Lane falls down. Then Fulton runs over Eaton’s gut as the crowd cheers wildly. Another commercial break occurs and when we return Lane is on the floor. After Cornette reminds them that it’s for the titles, Fulton tags Rogers and hits a double team dropkick. Rogers does more technical wrestling and works over Lane’s leg. Lane escapes via enzuigiri and tags Eaton but Rogers drop toeholds him, applies an Indian deathlock, and tags Fulton. Fulton continues the same submission hold but Fulton counters with a headlock and throws Fulton to the floor. Fulton blocks a punch and lands one of his own and then smashes Eaton face-first into the ringpost. They separate at ringside and when Eaton returns to the ring Fulton punches him back out. Meanwhile, Rogers also goes after Eaton and hits an atomic drop and a dropkick on another side of the ring.
After some more quick attacks around the ring, Eaton and Fulton locks-up inside the ring and Eaton gains control with an eye rake and a kick. He slingshots Fulton face-first into the corner and tries a second time in another corner, but this time Fulton lands on the second rope and hits a diving back elbow for a two-count. Fulton unloads with uppercuts in the corner. He follows with a hiptoss and a hurricanrana. That leads to yet another commercial break and when we return, Rogers hiptosses Eaton and goes for another headscissor but gets flung into the top rope throat-first. Lane tags in and lands a side kick to the gut. He follows with some simple takedowns and a throat chop. Then he and Eaton hit a double team move behind the referee’s back as the ref’s distracted with Fulton. Eaton tags in and gets a two-count and applies another hammerlock. Rogers tries fighting out but Eaton cuts him off and tyags Lane again. Lane lands more kicks and sends Rogers into a corner but Rogers sidesteps to avoid a charge. Lane kicks him down and tags Eaton who claws at Rogers’ face as Cornette taunts him from the floor. Fulton chases Cornette around the ring and then goes to save Rogers but the ref cuts him off for interfering as Cornette uses that distraction to slap a helpless Rogers in the face.
Eaton knocks Rogers down before he can tag his partner and pins but Fulton shows the referee Rogers’ leg under the ropes. Lane tags in and lands a Russian leg sweep for a two count and does an Irish whip but Rogers counters with a crucifix pin for a two-count of his own. That leads to yet another two-count and when we come back Eaton is legal and stomps on Fulton’s arm. Rogers makes it to his feet and escapes a hammerlock and lands a dropkick. Eaton reverses a corner whip but Rogers avoids his follow-up charge. Hot tag to Fulton who starts running wild. Eaton ducks down on an Irish whip and Fulton uses that chance to knock Lane to the floor. The ref gets distracted with Cornette as Lane trips Fulton and Eaton kicks him from behind. Fulton gets draped neck-first on the steel barricade and Eaton covers him in the ring but only gets two again.
Lane tags in and hotshots Fulton throat-first across the top rope. Lane gets a handful of two-counts and starts choking Fulton out of frustration. He throws Fulton to the floor and distracts the ref long enough for Cornette to whack Fulton in the back with his tennis racket. Minor chaos ensues ringside as Rogers checks on Fulton to keep the ME at bay. Back in the ring, Eaton pins Fulton for another two-count and then applies a chinlock. Eaton starts throwing Fulton around but Fulton starts trembling like he’s Hulk Hogan. Another commercial break occurs just as a tag takes place and when we come back Eaton slams Fulton and lands a top-rope splash for yet another two-count. Lane tags in and hits a barrage of strikes on Fulton in a corner. But no matter how many strikes rain on him, Fulton keeps shaking like he’s building up and ready to explode. Rogers comes in and begs the ref not to end the match. Fulton’s selling like he’s convulsing. The crowd leaps to their feet as Fulton shows signs of life and continues the match. Lane dumps Rogers to the floor as Eaton rains hammer fists down on Fulton some more. Cornette starts arguing with the ref saying the match should be over. Meanwhile, Rogers ascends the top turnbuckle and hits a missile dropkick. Eaton staggers backwards into a roll-up from Fulton. The ref turns around and counts one, two, and three! New champions! The Fantastics beat the Midnight Express! The fans are going wild!
Winners and NEW NWA United States Tag Team Champions after 40:00 (officially): The Fantastics (Bobby Fulton & Tommy Rogers)
When fans talk about the decline of tag team wrestling in the US they’re comparing it to its golden age which included matches like this one. Many people have sung its praises as a timeless classic and as the epitome and pinnacle of southern style ‘rasslin’. And now that I’ve seen it for myself…I can see why that praise still comes around to this day.
This truly was a tag team wrestling classic and it still is today. Even after all the changes and “evolution” in tag team wrestling, this one still holds up incredibly well. And the reason it does so is because of its simplicity. This is such a straightforward tag match yet all the basics are done perfectly and utilized to their maximum. Both teams got the absolute most out of what little they did. The match had a great mixture of classic wrestling with realistic brawling, all of which was done in a way to work the crowd into a frenzy. They were already white hot from the beginning but the ME’s dastardly tricks only made them wilder. And this wasn’t one of those cases where the faces get cheered loudly and the heels get booed very loudly. There was a consistent level of crowd noise that was like a single consistent cheer that peaked when the Fantastics were in control and dimmed ever so slightly when the ME was in control. It was incredible. The action here was so easy and simple yet it managed to keep 2,500 people screaming and cheering for 40 minutes.
You won’t find something like this today. Even the biggest recent crowd pops like Cody’s WWE return or Steve Autin’s final match lack this match’s atmosphere. Those ones had big pops which then descended into background noise; this match had a nuclear crowd that stayed consistent until the very end. Like the famous Kobashi/Samoa Joe match from 2005, this small crowd was so invested into the match that they made themselves sound like ten times their number and amplified this match’s big fight atmosphere into something special.
But crowd noise is only one element of a great match. As I said earlier, this match was so simple yet the wrestlers got so much out of everything. The ME were awesome at working the gimmick of the tag match and isolating the Fantastics from each other. Rogers and Fulton had their moments of control to pop the crowd, but they were on defense for the most part. They had a bit of control early to establish themselves, but by the end of the match’s second act they were both in serious peril. The ME’s tactics and brutality were causing them to fall behind in a major way. All of their tag team dynamism and clever counters struggled to keep them afloat against the ME’s more vicious attacks and Cornette’s constant interference. It reached the point that Fulton took such an ungodly beating that he started selling like he couldn’t continue the match. The fans were behind the Fantastics all match but it was at that point that they came unglued. The heroic Fantastics showed true babyface grit by refusing to give up and Fulton started swinging like a wild man while trying to survive the ME’s merciless assault.
And then there was the ending, which was both unexpected and refreshing. When Fulton started begging the referee to continue the match, I already had a prediction of what was going to happen. Fulton would hulk up, beat up both Eaton and Lane, punch Cornette, and have a dominant comeback like a WWE-style superhero babyface. But that didn’t happen. Instead, Fulton continued to struggle to stay conscious while his partner Rogers prepared a big move. Cornette’s constant involvement in the match, which was critical to helping he ME stay dominant, blew up in the ME’s faces at that point. The ref was so distracted with the ME and Cornette that Rogers used the ME’s own MO against them with his missile dropkick. Rogers made the heroic move by dropkicking Eaton into Fulton who did a simple roll-up to win the match and the titles. It was cathartic as it was brilliant. There was no phoney ‘I-m-not-actually-hurt’ comeback from Fulton here; he didn’t insult the fans’ intelligence by pretending he was fine and suddenly had all the power in the world. Instead, his fresher partner landed a huge move and Fulton did the only thing he could under his limited strength.
This was what the gimmick of the tag match was all about: infusing the two-man element into the match as much as possible. It truly felt like a tag match and not two singles matches taking place side by side. Everything was so smooth and crisp here. The tags made sense and didn’t really follow the same tired old formula. These two sides infused a sense of logic designed to weaken each other gradually and carefully instead of doing things in a “blatant” sort of way. And by the end, Fulton was in such immense pain that his struggle to stay in the match both came across as real and struck a deep emotional chord with the audience. That’s why they jumped for joy when he got the pinfall. Had Rogers come in like and cleaned house, it would’ve made sense but it would’ve lacked the emotional depth. Instead, Fulton got the surprise win in a way that not only sold the severity of the ME’s beat-down, but it was done in a way that basically necessitated a rematch. All the minute details in this match made perfect sense and came together in a truly satisfying contest.
Final Rating: *****
This really is one of the best wrestling matches of all time. It’s study material for any aspiring tag team looking to understand what being a team is all about. Everything was done right here from beginning to end. And while a lot was missed due to the commercials, the exciting atmosphere never faltered one bit. The wrestling had the right balance of athleticism, realism, and emotion to it. It was structured perfectly and played to the crowd in a way that very few tag matches have done before or since.
Even with about ¼ of the match cut out due to commercials, this is still amazing. It’s likely that most of what was cut were just standoffs and very simple moves that just furthered the story. We got the meat of the action in these clips and those 26 minutes were fantastic (pardon the pun).
With wrestling becoming something very different over the past three decades it’s important to see what things were like in the past. Some matches don’t hold up well to time but others do, and this is without a doubt a case of the latter.