Chad D. Aaron takes a look back at the career and influence on the wrestling business of WWE Hall of Famer Ricky Morton.
There are accepted terms in wrestling nomenclature. Babyface. Heel. Mark. Work. Shoot. In tag team wrestling, another prominent one is Face in Peril. And the poster boy, the ultimate personification of that phrase, is Ricky Morton.
Morton started wrestling in the late 1970’s. He spent time in a number of southern territories, including Memphis, San Antonio, and Tri-State, the forerunner to Mid-South. He was often put in tag teams and quickly became popular with the fans due to his athleticism, and his teen heartthrob-like good looks. Paired with another young wrestler in Robert Gibson, The Rock & Roll Express was formed in Memphis, building on the success of The Fabulous Ones. Soon afterwards, they were sent to work in Mid-South, where in 1984, their legendary feud with The Midnight Express was born.
The Rock & Roll Express and Midnight Express sold out arenas all over the south, breaking box office records along the way and getting both teams noticed by the biggest promoters in the business. And soon enough, they were on the move again, this time to the NWA and Jim Crockett Promotions.
The success of the team skyrocketed in the Carolinas, winning the NWA World Tag Team Titles a number of times, including trading the titles with the likes of the Four Horsemen, The Koloffs, and old foes The Midnight Express.
It was here where the team, and Morton in particular, shined. With national television, the team got more exposure than ever before. Morton’s natural charisma stood out to the camera. Not only did the team get to look good on TV, Morton would talk almost every week. And here he really excelled.
He possessed the same wild eyes, intensity, and passion you would see from someone like Ric Flair. He also had the everyman southern drawl to go along with that, much in the vein of Dusty Rhodes. His blonde, spiked mullet and boyish looks made him as popular as anyone else on the roster, rivaling that of Rhodes, Barry Windham, or later on, Sting.
And his ring work was on that level as well. Despite the Rock & Roll still being a functioning tag team, Morton was given a main event spot across from Flair in the Spring of 1986. They worked great program back and forth. It allowed Morton to shine and allowed the tag team division reset after Ricky & Robert were on top for so long. Flair noted in his book working nine hour-long matches with Morton in a single week.
Now, I have mentioned Morton’s abilities a couple of times. The 1980’s had a slower, more deliberate style compared to modern wrestling. And in that time, Morton stood out. He was able to work fast-paced spots and showed real energy in the ring. He was believable, and the audiences got caught up in it every time.
And those reactions led to one of the things Morton is most known for. As previously mentioned, the Face in Peril spot has been around as long as tag team wrestling has existed. But Morton’s facial expressions, his smaller stature compared to most of his contemporaries, his connection with the fans, his fiery comebacks, they all led to the Face in peril spot becoming commonly known as “Playing Ricky Morton” He basically perfected the role. And once he got the hot tag to Gibson, they would clear the ring of the heels and the crowds would go crazy.
Eventually, the team got older and their run slowed down. The Rock & Roll Express floated around some, spending time in the AWA, doing some tours of Japan. Morton turned heel on Gibson in WCW for a short time, but it did not amount to much. The team bounced in and out of WCW after the buyout of JCP and worked for old rival Jim Cornette in SMW. A spot here and there for the WWF and early TNA seemed to wrap up their run.
They were featured in one of the Matt Hardy Deletion ‘matches’ in Impact and were honored with an induction into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2017. Then suddenly, kind of out of nowhere, the got one more run with the NWA World Tag Team Titles this past winter. Rock & Roll seemingly, will not die.
I believe that if you drop the 1986 version of Ricky Morton into the late 1990’s WCW Cruiserweight division, he could easily fit right in alongside Chris Jericho, Eddie Guerrero, Rey Mysterio Jr., Billy Kidman and Dean Malenko. You could do the same with him in the Modern NXT and WWE rosters. His in-ring style could easily adapt to the current day and seeing him alongside similarly sized guys like AJ Styles, Daniel Bryan, Seth Rollins, and Adam Cole, he would not look out of place at all.
Morton’s legacy in wrestling is his perfecting the Face in Peril role. I believe The Rock & Roll Express were clear forerunners to other babyface teams with flashy ring gear, like the Hardys, The Naturals, Usos, and The Young Bucks.
Ricky Morton stood out in his prime. In an era where bigger was usually better, he succeeded with his athleticism and spirit. The fans were drawn to his good looks and top-level promos. It was a formula for sure, but a formula that worked then, and still works today. People usually credit the WWF with ushering in the era of the smaller, athletic wrestler in the mid 1990’s with Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels. But the groundwork for that was partial laid out for them in the mid 1980’s with Ricky Morton.
Until next time, watch some wrestling this week, stay safe, and never forget to #UseYourHead.