Originally published on Fanbyte as “FTR Finally Wrestled the Rock ‘n’ Roll Express, the Fathers of Their Style” on February 18, 2022
There’s a danger to making one’s influences so well known. Since they first burst onto the scene in late 2010s NXT as The Revival, FTR have never made any secrets about who they were trying to be. In their aesthetic, their ring work, and their dedication to classic tag team wrestling tropes, it was obvious from the word go that FTR took much inspiration from the great heel tag teams of the south from the 1980s.
Teams like The Brain Busters and The Midnight Express immediately come to mind when one watches FTR, for better and for worse. In their AEW run, they’ve leaned further into that influence than they ever did in the WWE. With Tully Blanchard as their manager, they have a direct link to the history that FTR pull from, and their entrance music intentionally evokes the sound of The Midnight Express’ classic theme.
For all this, there’s a certain subsection of fans that level the “cosplay wrestlers” accusation at FTR. The implication is that they’re leeching off the good will of a beloved era of wrestling instead of actually having good matches on their own. I don’t particularly subscribe to that particular criticism: at their best, FTR have shown that they have a good enough understanding of the style they emulate to stand on their own as workers.
No, the real danger of being so knee-deep in that style is that there’s many settings where FTR just don’t fit.
This was especially a problem early in FTR’s run in AEW. Their first few months in the company seemed marred by placing them in situations that couldn’t maximize their strengths. For one, they were trotted out deep into the pandemic era which meant no genuine crowd reactions for a team whose entire act is built around garnering heat in their matches. Then, they were forced into odd stylistic clashes with Kenny Omega & Hangman Page, then later The Young Bucks, whose maximalist approaches to wrestling diluted so much of FTR’s best qualities.
That’s what makes FTR’s dream match against The Rock ‘N’ Roll Express from Big Time Wrestling on January 22nd so intriguing. It’s a chance for FTR to finally work with one of the true masters of the style they love so much. The modern southern tag heels against the most popular babyface tag team of all time. A dream match, even in these less than ideal circumstances.
Of course, there’s concessions that have to be made.
The ideal version of this match sees these two meeting as equals, but time moves only in one direction. That’s the main mitigating factor in all of this. Morton and Gibson are old men now, they can’t bump like maniacs or move with the same speed. It means that Rock ‘N’ Roll have to play a little smarter and a little more deliberate—not just as kayfabe competitors, but also as performers.
Time is also compounded with contractual obligation in this scenario. FTR are not only the hotter, younger team, they’re also roster members of the second largest wrestling promotion in the world. There’s no way they can lose, which is a shame. The truest experience of the southern tag is seeing the heels get their comeuppance, and that satisfying moment simply can not come.
But both teams are smart enough to understand how to work around those limitations. The match doesn’t shy away from the difference in age at all. For example, that signature Rock ‘N’ Roll Express babyface shine doesn’t come easy to them. In the opening moments, Rock ‘N’ Roll’s age is on full display with Harwood easily overpowering Morton early; Morton even struggles to get the right bump on a side headlock takeover.
This only creates more adversity for our heroes to overcome though, and that makes their eventual comeback so much sweeter. Morton doesn’t get the advantage by being a stronger, faster competitor, he does so by playing a little trickery. When the referee blocks a Morton punch to Harwood in the corner, Morton just uses his other hand to punch Harwood, and then nails a charging Wheeler with another punch as well.
It acknowledges that having Morton and Gibson just run roughshod on these two just wouldn’t feel right or honest. But they still have some fight in them, and, combined with good old-fashioned teamwork, maybe they can make a miracle happen. There’s a very real, simple joy in watching Morton and Gibson bounce FTR around the ring with simple punches. This also means that when the Express do pull out something a little more spectacular, like Morton hitting a sweet and crisp hurricanrana, it’s a massive moment.
To FTR’s credit, they understand their role in this perfectly. They bump and sell for the babyfaces wonderfully, really acting as the solid foundation that makes this whole thing work. But it’s more than just the physicality of putting the moves over, it’s the small character moments in between as well. In this match, FTR fully express the frustration of young men realizing that they might just have bitten off a little more than they can chew. It’s a classic part of the southern tag formula for the heels to be flustered to near breaking point, but it’s given even more gravitas here because of the distinct age difference.
This should be a walk in the park for FTR, but they’re being put on their asses.
As with any great tag match though, the heels eventually gain control. Noticeably, it’s not cheating that gets FTR their way, but a well-timed blind tag. Again, time has already done most of their work, FTR just have to pick their spots. It’s Morton playing the face-in-peril, it can’t be any other way. It’s in control that FTR play dirty, scraping their boots against Morton’s face and eyes. The unnecessary meanness of it all makes it all the more compelling.
It’s during the heel heat segment that I find my favorite moment of the match. It’s a moment that fully justifies the match’s existence, a small thing that shows why The Rock ‘N’ Roll Express are masters of tag team wrestling.
At one point, Harwood tags into the match and goes to help Wheeler double team Morton with a double slingshot into the bottom rope. It’s a simple enough piece of offense, and anywhere else in the world it would have just happened, everyone moving on just fine. What elevates the spot here is that seeing FTR go in for the double team, Gibson steps into the ring to try to save Morton. This draws away the attention of the referee who had been trying to break up the double team. In doing so, it allows FTR to execute their attack with impunity behind the referee’s back.
It’s such a wonderful thing. I could never tell you if it was a carefully planned moment or just Robert Gibson making a small little improvisation to add to the tightness of this spot. But I just recall being in awe when I first saw it happen, realizing that this kind of thing just flows through Morton and Gibson’s blood. Tag team wrestling to them is as natural and reflexive to them as breathing.
From there, it’s not hard to figure out how this proceeds. Of course, there’s the big hot tag and a fun finishing stretch. The final act of this goes far longer than any traditional southern tag would, which is to say it’s more than just an immediate win for Rock ‘N’ Roll since they’re not meant to win on this night at all. In some ways, a crazy disqualification or count out might have felt more spiritually in tune with what’s happening.
But time only moves in one direction so eventually, FTR get the victory.
I love that we have this match. Even beyond the things that I’ve detailed here, it’s filled with joys big and small that will delight most wrestling fans. It harkens back to an era of professional wrestling that, in many ways, codifies just what is essentially pro wrestling for entire generations of fans.
This match doesn’t ever touch those peaks, of course not. But it just feels right on an emotional level. The lights are dimmed down, the crowd is hot for all of this, and if you squint just a little bit, you could imagine that you’re tuning into NWA Worldwide in the mid-80’s to see The Rock ‘N’ Roll Express work their magic.
In the past, I’ve used the term “chicken soup for the wrestling soul” to describe wrestling that I find not just excellent but also charming and, most importantly, comforting. Personally, it’s a descriptor I associate most with 80s NWA or the super indie boom of the 2000s. It’s a label that I’m happy to place on this match as well.
There are many matches from January 2022 better than this one in a lot of different ways. None of them are quite so soothing.