Originally published at https://www.postwrestling.com/2023/12/27/living-with-grief-the-story-of-the-von-erichs-wccw/
As the long-awaited release of “The Iron Claw” occurs, a new generation is going to learn of the Von Erich family’s story, tragedy, and fate.
For others, it’s revisiting one of wrestling’s darkest tales that even Hollywood had to downplay and temper the level of grief and casualties.
To explore the Adkisson/Von Erich family is to undertake an exercise in the dangerous cocktail of fame, fortune, drugs, ambition, disappointment, pressure, and ultimately, death.
It’s hard to sugar coat a story that saw five of six brothers dead before the age of 35 and the sole survivor in Kevin who, miraculously, has lived as full a life as possible surrounded by his family, perhaps compensating for the lives his brothers failed to enjoy.
Jack Adkisson a.k.a. Fritz Von Erich was the central nervous system of the family, a Jock Ewing-like patriarch that set a tone of ruthless ambition and an unwavering desire to meet one’s goals instilled in his progeny while wrapped up in a cloth of religion for the adoring public to fawn over the All-American family.
After attempts to play football at the highest level, Adkisson was relegated to the Edmonton Eskimos (a team that has since abandoned that name due to societal advancements) of the Canadian Football League. While his CFL career was a footnote, his proximity to promoter Stu Hart was the legacy of that foray to Canada and his entryway into the industry that gave life to the character Fritz Von Erich but quite the opposite for the man behind the persona.
The first in a macabre series of tragedies occurred in 1959 when Jack and his wife, Doris, were stationed in Niagara Falls and working in the Buffalo territory where Jack held an ownership stake. It was here that their firstborn, Jackie Jr., died in a freak occurrence where the child was playing outside and was electrocuted before falling into a puddle and was pronounced dead at the age of six.
What degree of impact and psychological damage Jackie Jr.’s death had on Jack and Doris is unanswerable, but such emotional scars don’t get exorcised with time; they remain, and they cut deep. In the era, mental health was not a dinner table discussion, and often when trying to explain the unexplainable, the only answer for this generation was relying on their religion and that God had a plan that they could not comprehend.
Kevin was just shy of his second birthday when his older brother died, leaving him with barely a memory of his brother – something as difficult to grapple with as the juxtaposition of holding a lifetime’s worth with his younger brothers.
David was born in 1958 – less than a year old when Jackie Jr. died.
Nearly a year later, Kerry entered the world in February 1960, followed by Mike in 1964, and finally, Chris in 1969.
One of the quotes in the trailer that jumped out was when Jack was explaining how Kerry was his favorite, followed by Kevin and David, “But the rankings can always change.” This was not hyperbole or a line to conjure added drama, it was well-known among the sons that their father had a hierarchy, and every day his affections were up for grabs.
While pro wrestling was presented as being Jack’s true religion, there was a time when he was a fledgling wrestler that he was ready to call it a day, relocate to Texas, and exit the industry. Fate had other plans and Jack ended up becoming a power player in the Texas scene and would partner with, and later succeed, Ed McLemore.
McLemore started as the Sportatorium’s concession director for the boxing and wrestling events at the venue and was running the entire thing by 1940.
In 1966, Adkisson joined McLemore in Southwest Sports but it was a short-lived partnership as McLemore died three years later with Adkisson inheriting the territory. Texas was divided up into unique sections run by Adkisson, Paul Boesch, and Joe Blanchard. Adkisson had firm ties with the NWA through 1986 while Boesch exited his membership in 1981. Blanchard was under Von Erich’s Southwest Sports banner until breaking off in 1978.
The shift from Jack Adkisson to “Fritz Von Erich” came in 1954 after he struggled under the former and accelerated with the Nazi-inspired heel that played off the still-fresh effects of World War II. The name was inspired by a family link to the name “Fritz” while “Erich” was his mother’s maiden name.
Adkisson became a commodity both domestically and in Japan with achievements that included setting the St. Louis gate record in October 1964 with Lou Thesz, a December 1966 match with Shohei “Giant” Baba that sold out Budokan Hall, and establishing the Iron Claw in the country, and drawing over 26,000 fans to Texas Stadium as he challenged NWA Champion Dory Funk Jr. in 1972.
Fritz Von Erich rebranded himself as a born-again Christian and blanketed his image with the American flag, a well-to-do family that served the Lord, and in Texas, that worked really, really well.
But, Fritz had his eye toward his progeny and took a step back from his in-ring career to focus on his role as promoter, and over the next phase of his career, his business was his children and his children became his business.
The territory became his pulpit and the idols were his sons – primarily Kevin, David, and Kerry, with others to follow. This led to resentment and claims of nepotism, but it became clear the kids were the stars and would be the pipeline for a younger audience making World Class the “in thing” once the territory took off after 1982.
The ingredients for the surge were not limited to the Von Erich kids. The distribution was key with a partnership that saw the show broadcast on the Christian Broadcasting Network-owned KXTX Channel 39 beginning in 1981 and the hiring of producer Mickey Grant, who brought the production values to the state-of-the-art in the industry. It included multi-camera shooting, placing camera operators inside of the ring, and venturing outside of the arena for personality-driven vignettes and segments to give the viewer a 360-degree look at the stars on television, literally and figuratively. Producers for World Class included Keith Mitchell, who went to work for years in WCW and later, AEW.
The glue of the program was radio and television institution Bill Mercer, who had risen to fame calling football and baseball when he added pro wrestling as a side gig. Mercer called games at North Texas for thirty-four years, was among the voices of the Dallas Texans of the AFL, began calling Dallas Cowboys games in 1965 including the famous “Ice Bowl” game of 1967, and started with wrestling on KRLD-FM and Channel 4 where he made $75 per week. Mercer began working for Fritz when he needed a voice for the Saturday night shows on Channel 11.
During the early to mid-’80s boom, World Class would be airing on dozens of affiliates around the country with a sign of things to come through the proliferation of cable. This placed the Dallas-based promotion into markets that included Boston, Chicago, Atlanta, and Minneapolis and threatened the imaginary borders of rival promoters.
But the meat and potatoes were the television product that elevated the Von Erichs as the hometown heroes chasing the elusive NWA Worlds Heavyweight Championship which had escaped Fritz. This became the compass the territory followed with the question of which son would reach the ultimate destination. The booking of Gary Hart brought them to Christmas night in December 1982 and a transformative angle that dropped the gasoline on the flame and led to the boom.
In the lead-up to Ric Flair defending the championship against Kerry Von Erich inside a steel cage, fans were given the power to vote for the special referee and opted to go with the Von Erich family friend, Michael Hayes.
Earlier in the night, Hayes & Terry Gordy needed a last-minute replacement when Buddy Roberts “missed his flight”, prompting David Von Erich to step in as the three won the territory’s newly-created Six-Man Tag Titles and showcasing the bond among the Von Erichs and Freebirds.
Inside the cage, the moment was etched in everyone’s memory when Hayes was sent outside and Gordy proceeded to blast Kerry in the head with the door. With official David Manning assuming the rest of the match, he waved off the bout minutes later with Kerry unable to continue and the championship hopes slipping through the family’s fingers on behalf of the Freebirds’ actions.
It lit the territory on fire and for the next two years, the Sportatorium in Dallas became the hot Friday night tradition as the Von Erichs vowed revenge.
The big shows of the era were the “Star Wars” events that saw World Class running Reunion Arena four times in 1983 and three more times the year after. The biggest shows were reserved for the Cotton Bowl.
It was on the back of the Von Erichs vs. Freebirds that these shows were anchored, along with the Friday night cards which were taped every other week to air on Sundays on Channel 39 and syndicated throughout the country. This was in addition to the Ft. Worth tapings that were held each Monday at the Will Rogers Coliseum and airing on Channel 11.
So, what went wrong?
If the ride of World Class was marked by a youthful demographic growing up with the Von Erich kids, then the fall of the territory was those same fans unable to cope with the macabre specter of the deaths of those same children.
On February 10, 1984, the “phone call” came. In pro wrestling, this term was frequently used when it rang at an unusual hour and was met with a serious tone, and usually, all that was required was the name and the rest was self-explanatory. In this instance, it was “David”, who had been found dead in his Tokyo hotel room the morning of the start of a tour with All Japan Pro Wrestling.
Over the days and weeks, numerous reasons and theories were posited with the family maintaining that David died due to enteritis – an inflammation of the small intestine. Those who found Von Erich’s body included Frank “Bruiser Brody” Goodish, who relayed information that he flushed drugs down the toilet. In the 2006 documentary by Brian Harrison on WCCW, long-time family friend and official David Manning confirmed that Von Erich was on prescribed pain medication. The Von Erichs always stated enteritis was listed on the death certificate, however, when journalist Irv Muchnick was writing a 1988 feature on the family, Fritz reneged on his initial promise to show the certificate to Muchnick.
David was 25 years old and left behind a wife. Lost in the sea of tragedies in the family was the couple’s lone child, Natosha Zoeanna, who died before the age of one in a tragic crib death in 1978.
The death of David was treated like the passing of an iconic figure in North Texas. Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter was working as a reporter during this era in Wichita Falls and has shared that the media missed the boat on the story, undervaluing the magnitude of David’s death before covering it properly for the antsy public that was openly grieving in malls and public spaces. The funeral was estimated to have been attended by more than 3,000 people including luminaries of the pro wrestling fraternity.
David was seen as the frontrunner to become the first Von Erich to hold the NWA Worlds Heavyweight Championship and was set to challenge Ric Flair after David had just held the Missouri Heavyweight Championship – typically, an audition for the person on the periphery of getting the major run with the big belt.
World Class presented one of the most unique shows of its era with a tribute special to David featuring as close to “out-of-character” reflections as you’d see in 1984 including comments from the family’s rival, Michael Hayes. Sadly, this became a template in the industry when other tragedies struck Owen Hart and Eddy Guerrero.
While one has to sympathize with Fritz’s grappling with the loss of a second son, it is hard to dismiss the wheels openly turning in his promoter’s brain of keeping the train on the tracks and the business booming. In a segment that aired on television, Fritz is seen grieving with his sons and remembering David when he segues into his observation that younger son Mike is the “image” of David and as one Von Erich was gone, another was set to take his place. The pressure placed on Mike was daunting.
With the loss of David, affectionately referred to as “The Yellow Rose”, the bloom was coming off in the wake of his death as it rocked the family, the company, and the audience. Decades later, Kevin would state a part of him died when David did and was the first blow of many, having been too young to remember Jackie Jr.’s death.
Following David’s death, the family catapulted the grieving into commerce with the story of Kerry going for the prize that was supposed to be David’s, the NWA Worlds Heavyweight Championship.
On May 6, 1984, the Parade of Champions became the David Von Erich Memorial in front of 32,123 at Texas Stadium and a gate above $100,000 to see Kerry reach that destiny and unseat Flair for the championship under the scorching Texas heat. It was emblematic of the Von Erich story, the NWA Championship in their hands under the shadow of death.
The movie altered timelines to fit its constraints and presented Kerry’s highest of highs and lowest of lows in a singular night, winning the championship and going out for a late-night motorcycle ride that ended in the destruction of his foot and body. Kerry’s crash didn’t occur until June 1986 – more than two years after the NWA title victory. A title reign that lasted a mere eighteen days and Flair began his third run as champion on May 24 in Yokosuka, Japan.
The company was still running well in 1984 but the fractures were setting in after David’s death. They ran the Cotton Bowl in October and drew approximately 12,000 to the stadium off the backs of the Von Erichs’ feud with the “turncoat” Chris Adams and Gino Hernandez. The Cotton Bowl event saw Kevin plead to Adams to dump Gary Hart and be welcomed back to the babyface side, but they shot a big angle where Kevin was taken out by Adams with a weapon. This led to Thanksgiving night at Reunion Arena with Kevin vs. Adams, and a Christmas night with the two having a Lumberjack Match, along with Kerry going for the NWA title in a rematch with Flair and both shows drawing over 15,000.
Mike Von Erich was barely out of the gate in his wrestling career when David died but given his surname and the company running so many shows, it was a guarantee he would be thrust into the deep end and well beyond his capabilities as he lacked the natural athletic gifts of Kevin, David & Kerry. In some ways, his story is the saddest, as one can argue that the older three may have found themselves in pro wrestling regardless of who their father was and at the very least, would be competitive athletes and forced to navigate the trappings those industries see. In contrast, Mike, and later Chris, would never have entered the front door of a wrestling school without the last name, much less garner the attention and fame without it. You cannot accurately assess “what if” questions but, to a person, those involved in the scene have acknowledged the impossible task that the two youngest sons were attempting and the pitfalls that they were invariably going to encounter.
In August 1985, Mike suffered a severe shoulder injury on a tour of Israel where World Class was exceptionally popular. He returned to Texas and worked one match at the Sportatorium before undergoing shoulder surgery and contracting toxic shock syndrome – a rarity among men – causing a 107-degree fever leaving Mike on the brink of death. Mike would survive but not without the ramifications of such a high fever and its obvious effects on his mental faculties. He returned to the ring in July 1986 with the tagline of “The Living Miracle” but those around him saw the impact of his ordeal, his inability to cope, and the “square peg in a round hole” misery of trying to become the athlete his older brothers were.
The company’s last major show at the Cotton Bowl was in October 1985 where the show drew 26,000 fans for a Double Hair vs. Hair main event with Kevin & Kerry defeating Chris Adams & Gino Hernandez. One year later, attendance was under 6,000, and 4,000 in 1987.
In 1986, Gino Hernandez became the latest casualty of World Class, dead at age 28 and a noted cocaine abuser who was known throughout the territory for having a candy dish on display in his home filled to the brim with powder.
Later that year, Kerry suffered his motorcycle wreck and would be gone for eight months – returning in February 1987 and keeping it hidden that a portion of his foot had been amputated – a combination of the devastating effects of the wreck and pushing himself far too fast to recover when the family business relied on his presence. By the time he turned 27, Kerry’s most productive years as an athlete were in the rear-view mirror and the lingering effects of the injury led to enhanced self-medication and the beginning of a downward spiral that would hit rock bottom six years later.
Mike’s descent continued into 1987 as he was arrested twice for DUI – the second when he was found with prescription pills in his possession. Days later, Mike went missing and after the discovery of a suicide note, a hunt was on to find him. He was found dead on April 16, 1987, after an overdose of alcohol mixed with Placidyl. His final message to those he left behind was that he going to see his brother, David, describing himself as a “f—k up”.
By now, the audience was starting to feel beyond uneasy and losing trust in this company. In 1985, the wool was pulled over their eyes with the introduction of “cousin” Lance Von Erich (Ricky Vaughn), a journeyman wrestler presented to the World Class audience as the son of Fritz’s former partner Waldo Von Erich (Walter Paul Sieber). It was Fritz’s call and he overruled the family to introduce a new Von Erich to meet the demand of the public. When Vaughn ventured to a rival group, the family disowned him on its programming and revealed he was not a real cousin, and the audience felt duped after having been lied to.
The audience saw the condition of Mike after his bout with toxic shock syndrome. Unlike David’s death, which was a gut punch no one saw coming, Mike’s was a slow descent of a man fighting for his health and well-being and marred by arrests, erratic behavior, and ultimately, succumbing to unbearable pressure and ending his life. The public was starting to question why so many young men were dying at this alarming rate.
Just three weeks after Mike’s death, the company staged its Parade of Champions event at Texas Stadium – now in honor of both David and Mike. It was a card that Mike had been scheduled to wrestle on and this felt “off” to the public with a mere 5,900 fans attending to see Kevin Von Erich defend the WCWA title (with World Class separated from the NWA affiliation and creating its own “world title”) against Nord the Barbarian, a Scaffold Match, and the final match on the docket being a six-woman mud pit match.
The line was forever crossed on Christmas night of 1987 when the company drew 2,600 people to Reunion Arena and those in attendance saw arguably the most exploitive angle in the territory’s history. Following an attack by the Freebirds, Fritz dropped down on the mat and although it was never identified on-air as a heart attack, it left the audience with the cliffhanger of whether they were bearing witness to yet another Von Erich tragedy. It was repulsive in tone, execution, and handling, allowing even the strongest supporters of the family to shake their heads in disbelief. It was playing with a level of emotional gravity that fans did not buy tickets to endure or support.
Then, there was Chris.
Born September 30, 1969, he was his most impressionable during the heyday of his older brothers who doubled as heroes with a desire to follow in their footsteps – sadly, he would in the darkest of ways.
He was asthmatic, with family members believing the prednisone medication affected his physical growth as he was incredibly undersized for the demands of the job in this era at 5-foot-5 and 165-175 pounds.
Chris debuted on June 22, 1990, one month before Kerry joined the WWF and in the dying days of the USWA/World Class alliance. He feuded with Percy Pringle III (William Moody a.k.a. Paul Bearer) and worked with a young Steve Austin – one of the few bright spots of the territory. With Jerry Jarrett being brought in to straighten out the business, he was lukewarm on the Von Erichs, believing their best days were in the past, and did not see the upside in pushing Chris.
Chris was frail and suspectable to injuries, which cut his in-ring career short. There was no question regarding Chris’ desire to make it, but his body didn’t provide him the tools to match that desire and failed him repeatedly. This frustration and a frightening track record of his brothers ending their lives gave Chris the only conclusion he could make sense of – succumbing to a self-inflicted gunshot wound on September 12, 1991, with the body discovered by his mother Doris, and brother Kevin.
He was 21.
The business continued to fall with booker Ken Mantell leaving to start another Texas operation in 1987 and follow-up bookers including Bruiser Brody, Dave Manning, and Eric Embry.
Mantell’s Wild West Wrestling would be brought into the fold of WCCW and Fritz would cash out his interest in World Class – allowing for Kevin and Kerry to hold minority stakes with Jerry Jarrett entering as a controlling member of the new World Class, which would migrate into the USWA and cross-promoting between Texas and Tennessee. The partnership ceased in 1990 as World Class limped to its demise.
On July 16, 1990, Kerry Von Erich made his debut as “The Texas Tornado” in the WWF with the Von Erich name slowly phased out. The writing was on the wall when Kerry finally left Texas. Within six weeks, he was Intercontinental Champion, defeating Curt Hennig at SummerSlam – holding the title for three months before Hennig regained it.
There was a period when Kerry was seen as a candidate to be a national star in the WWF with the physique and physical charisma that drew audiences to his personable demeanor and “aw, shucks” vibe that would be reminiscent a decade later through Jeff Hardy. By 1990, he was clinging to a career that his body was demanding he let go of. Drug problems persisted and adding the daunting road schedule of the WWF was only accelerating his breaking point.
One such stretch included Kerry wrestling three times at a marathon-length TV taping in December followed by house shows in Ohio, Minnesota, and Montreal over the next three days. It was taxing on all performers but especially for one concealing a foot amputation and relying on drugs to persevere.
His lone appearance on a WrestleMania card was in March 1991 at the seventh installment beating Dino Bravo. Kerry stayed with the WWF until the summer of 1992. The run included Kerry requiring rehab after being suspended by the company for a forgery offense for prescription medication.
In February 1993, an arrest warrant was issued for Kerry after a January arrest for possessing 1.3 grams of a substance believed to be cocaine. Already on probation, Kerry suspected there was no escaping jail time for this latest offense.
It was hardly Kerry’s first brush with the law after an arrest in June 1983 at the Dallas-Ft. Worth International Airport where drugs were discovered. It underscored a prevalent culture among the Von Erich children. Kerry landed a misdemeanor charge for marijuana possession.
Two weeks after his 33rd birthday, Kerry ventured to his father’s ranch and retrieved a gun that he gave as a Christmas present to Fritz in 1991 and drove out on the property ending his life with a gunshot to his chest and leaving behind two children.
As Kevin would repeat over the years, he used to be the oldest brother and now he wasn’t even a brother.
Wrestling made and destroyed the Von Erichs, with the remnants felt long after so many of Jack and Doris’ children took their final breaths.
The tragedies forced Doris to place blame on Jack, with the couple ending their 42-year marriage in 1992. Jack was left alone while Kevin navigated a path that no individual should need to endure – reconciling the loss of all his brothers while welcoming four children into the world with his wife Pam.
Jack’s final years were not kind, with brain and lung cancer riddling his faculties and Kevin sharing several horror stories of his relationship with his father in those final years.
Kevin blames it on the cancer, stressing that he loved his father when he shared in the Heroes of World Class documentary that Jack taunted his son, stating he didn’t have the guts to end his life like his brothers did, and even pulling a gun on Kevin. The lone son’s love for his father never wavered.
The effects of cancer ended Jack’s life in September 1997 when he was 68.
Kevin sold the World Class tape library to the WWE in 2005, allowing a new generation to have access to the territory through its 24/7 on-demand service. The relationship saw Kevin appear on an October 2005 “Homecoming” edition of Raw in Dallas. Surrounded by a who’s who of legends in the company, it was Kevin who received a gigantic reaction when introduced and later, applied the Iron Claw to Rob Conway.
In 2009, the entire family was inducted into the WWE’s Hall of Fame when WrestleMania 25 was staged in Houston, Texas.
In October 2015, Doris Juanita Smith (formerly Adkisson) died at the age of 82 after spending her final years living with Kevin and their extended family in Kapaa, Kauai in Hawaii.
Recently, the family uprooted from Hawaii and made the trek back to Texas, where they are stationed today.
There are few glimmers of hope from such a tragic tale as the Von Erich story elicits. It forces an examination of the culture surrounding fame, drugs, and pressure, all mixed with youth in men who were barely scratching the surface of the lives they were set to live out.
This is not the story of a curse because that would suggest that their fates were predetermined, and unlike their vocation, that was not the case. The sons of Jack Adkisson were not perfect and fell into many of the trappings that fame at a young age forced upon stars. They made reckless choices and were held to a standard and expectation that few sons could live up to. It was a cocktail of disaster and one that developed into a deadly pattern.
While it was Mike who was given the moniker, with time and tragedy such a constant, the “Living Miracle” is Kevin, who has said “goodbye” too many times for any brother or son to endure.
Kevin put it best when interviewed for the 2006 documentary by Brian Harrison, “The bad thing about grief is that it doesn’t get better, it gets worse. You just learn to deal with it.”
Special thanks to Neal Flanagan for his editing assistance
– Wrestling Observer Newsletter (March 1, 1993)
– Wrestling Observer Newsletter (July 24, 2006)
– Heroes of World Class: The Story of the Von Erichs and Rise and Fall of WCCW
– Play-by-Play: Tales from a Sportscasting Insider (Bill Mercer)
– Before the Iron Claw: The Origins of Fritz Von Erich (SLAM! Wrestling)