In Professional Wrestling, most tag-team matches follow a similar formula: one member of the face team gets the snot beaten out of him for most of the match by the heel team, then - with his last ounce of energy - makes it back to his corner and tags in his partner, who (having spent the match thus far standing around) is fresh and ready to kick some ass. The wrestler who takes the majority of the beating is said to be "playing Ricky Morton". The trope is named after Ricky Morton, one half of the legendary Rock N Roll Express tag team, who raised this formula to an art form.
Usually, members of a team will take turns playing Ricky Morton in different matches; however, if one partner is noticeably larger than the other, the smaller one will usually be in the Ricky Morton role. This is done for three main reasons:
- The smaller wrestler will often be able to sell his opponents' offense more spectacularly, bouncing around the ring from the impact of each blow.
- The larger wrestler's offense is often more visually impressive; it's easier to buy him creaming both members of the other team due to his size and the apparent force of his blows.
- Larger wrestlers tend not to have the level of stamina that smaller wrestlers have; getting in the offense at the end of the match enables the wrestler to keep his involvement to a minimum, and thus avoid becoming tired (or "blown up" in wrestling terminology).
Gifted, more talented wrestlers will often play the Morton, since this covers the weaknesses of his partner(s) and makes the heels look good at the same time. Sting would do this when teamed with Lex Luger and Randy Savage in the mid-to-late 1990s, since both men were aging and not able to sell as well as they could in their respective primes.
The climactic tag of a Ricky Morton to his partner (also known as the "hot tag") is usually teased several times before it comes to pass in what is known as a Hope Spot; sometimes, the tag will even be made, but it will be negated by an Easily Distracted Referee who did not see the tag and forces the Ricky Morton back into the ring as the legal man.
You might see heels get to play Ricky Morton too, which sets up a story where the face beats the heel around to make the fans happy, the heel tags in his fresh partner (who creams the tired face), and the face finally tags in his partner (who creams the heels and wins the match). This has a pretty good narrative flow to it. Another twist is for both sides to play Ricky Morton at the same time — the match eventually becomes about whether the face or the heel will tag their partner in first, getting the advantage.