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A Gift and a Curse: The Tragic Tale of the Von Erichs.

A Gift & A Curse: The Tragic Tale of The Von Erichs. From the film to the family that inspired here is the real story of the Von Erichs.

Image credit: WWE

On Dec. 22, 2023, domestic cinemas saw the release of sports-bio-drama The Iron Claw. The film stars Zac Efron as the film’s main protagonist, Kevin Von Erich. Based on the real lives of the Von Erich Wrestling Family, this film starts off with the vision of triumph. However, it begins to take a very dark turn as the film progresses.

This, of course, mirrors the real-life “Rise and Fall” of the Von Erichs and their wrestling federation, World Class Championship Wrestling. How did a family create one of the most influential wrestling companies ever to experience endless tragedy within their family?

This is a gift & a curse, the tragic tale of the Von Erichs.

Who was Jack Adkisson, Sr. “Fritz Von Erich”?

Born on 16 August 1929, Jack Adkisson, Sr. was a prolific athlete in the state of Texas. He was an alumnus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX. During his tenure at the prestigious university, Adkisson played football for the SMU Mustangs. After a failed attempt at joining the National Football League and then the Canadian Football League, Adkisson began a career in professional wrestling.

(Credit: YouTube)

While in Canada, Adkisson befriended Stu Hart, the patriarch of the Hart Family Dynasty. Stu, known for his brutal training methods, decided to make Jack Adkisson his pupil. Ahead of Jack’s debut, the former football standout took the ring name “Fritz Von Erich.” This name change has proven to be fateful, for better and worse. Adkisson would enter a team with his kayfabe (scripted) brother Waldo Von Erich, and as a result, wrestling history was made. However, unbeknownst to Fritz and his wife Doris, tragedy loomed near.

The Genesis of the “Curse”

Fritz and Doris (Nee Smith) would have a total of 6 (not 5 as the film portrays) sons. Their firstborn was known as Jack (Jackie) Adkisson, Jr. Born at the beginning of Fritz’s wrestling career, the young lad would not be long for this world. At just six years old, the oldest child of Jack and Doris accidentally electrocuted himself by touching a live wire.

He subsequently drowned and lost his life. Even though he was distraught at losing his son, Fritz would soon get back on the road and continue touring; but, would no longer travel to the East Coast. This allowed Waldo to use the Von Erich name while in the World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF, now WWE).

Two years before Jackie’s death, Fritz and Doris welcomed their second son. Kevin Adkisson, although their second born child, would assume the mantle as the oldest child in the wake of Jackie’s death. Kevin followed in his father’s original footsteps and played football.

A fullback for North Texas State, his dreams of playing in the NFL were dashed after an injury. What does Kevin do? He joined his father as a pro-wrestler in 1976. It wouldn’t be long before he’s joined by his brothers Kerry and David. From there, wrestling history would be made.

The Second Generation

David, who’s named after his uncle Eugene David Smith, was the family’s star. With his explosive promo (talking or interview) style, he instantly got over with the Texas Audience and placed himself in the forefront of pro wrestling. He executes technical prowess with a captivating stage presence. He came out as one of the best in the world at this time. As he continued to gain experience, he, Kevin and their younger brother Kerry would comprise The 6-Man Team known as “The Von Erichs.”

Back in 1966, Fritz founded the now iconic World Class Championship Wrestling in Dallas, Texas. This would be the scene (or federation) of one of professional wrestling’s most beloved feuds. On Independence 1983, at the “Star Wars” event, an “incident” occurred between The Von Erich Brothers and The Fabulous Freebirds. After an illegal double-team move from The Freebirds, an altercation between the teams ensued and gave birth to the feud.

The Von Erichs and The Freebirds

In a Pro Wrestling Stories article, Matt Pender along with Michael “PS” Hayes and Kevin Von Erich, recall the legendary feud. “The Von Erichs and Freebirds had one of the wildest feuds in wrestling,” he wrote. “When it was time to go, these two teams obliterated each other.” Inside the ring, the competition between the teams was fierce. However, outside the ring, maybe the people took things too far.

Youtube/The Freebirds

With the Von Erichs being from Texas (Denton, TX) their pull locally was magnetic. PS Hayes discusses this matter in the Pro Wrestling Stories article. “The people saw these kids grow up,” Hayes told Pender. “These kids were over like rover.” Hayes remembers when the Von Erichs were seen at an amusement park. “They went to Six Flags one time,” he said. “They had to shut the park down because of the mob scene.

With all of the love going to the local babyfaces (good guys), a lot of scorn went to the heels (bad guys). To clarify, the babyfaces in this situation were the Von Erichs. While the heels were The Freebirds. As a result of their moral stances and the fact that the Adkissons are from Texas, the heat was on the Freebirds. “The people wanted us to get at PS Hayes or Terry Gordy,” Kevin Von Erich said. “But it always seemed to be always against Buddy.” For those who do not know, Freebirds member Buddy Roberts was known as “the bump guy.” This means he’s the member of the team that takes the most damage.

Like the Von Erichs, each member of The Freebirds had their roles. PS Hayes was the promo guy who had a ton of charisma. Not to be outdone by his teammate, Terry “Bam Bam” Gordy was the bruiser. While Buddy Roberts was indeed the bump guy, he was also a bit of a technical wizard.

The “Curse” Continues

David Von Erich was the undisputed star of The Von Erichs. While some may argue that Kerry and Kevin were world-class workers, David emerged as the next big star. He faced former 8-time NWA, Heavyweight Champion Harley Race. The controversial finish saw both competitors’ shoulders pinned to the mat for the count of three. For a moment, David was the NWA World Heavyweight Champion. However, the call was overturned, and Race was rehanded the championship.

David Von Erich/YouTube

Sadly, tragedy again hit the Von Erichs, this time in Japan. Indeed, David became the number one contender to the NWA Championship. This time, Nature Boy Ric Flair stood as his opposition. Unfortunately, the match never happened. While in Japan, David died from what has been listed as enteritis at age 25. The NWA then manages to find a replacement for the title bout. A coin flip determined that Kerry would battle Flair on May 6, 1984. The event in question is known as “The Parade of Champions.”

A coin flip chose Kerry as David’s replacement against Flair. Although Kerry carried a heavy heart to the ring, he walked away as the NWA Champion. In a feel-good moment after David’s tragic death, seeing Kerry hoist the elusive championship brought smiles to everyone in attendance. Despite the victory, Flair won the title back 18 days later. As for the Von Erichs, tragedy was again on the horizon.

See the first 20 entrants in Trill Mag’s 100 Most Influential People of All-Time here & here.

Mike Von Erich

Mike Von Erich/Youtube

In the electric world of WCCW Wrestling, a young Mike stepped into the ring for the first time on November 24, 1983, at the iconic Reunion Arena. The crowd held its breath as Mike clashed with Skandor Akbar, emerging victorious in a moment that marked the beginning of a remarkable career.

However, this was just the opening chapter in Mike’s story. The wrestling arena became a battlefield as he found himself entangled in a series of intense encounters with The Freebirds. A memorable brawl unfolded on October 17, 1983, in Ft. Worth, where Mike faced off against Michael Hayes. Tensions soared when Hayes, in a fit of fury, tore a jacket gifted to Mike by his own brother, Kerry.

December 25, 1983, witnessed a tag-team spectacle as Mike joined forces with his brother Kevin to take on the formidable duo of Terry Gordy and Buddy Roberts. The chemistry between the Von Erich brothers was palpable as they showcased their wrestling prowess in a gripping showdown.

Tragedy struck the wrestling world with the untimely death of Mike Von Erich. Despite a successful wrestling career, Mike faced inner demons. The cause of his death was a self-inflicted gunshot, a heartbreaking end to a life marred by personal struggles. A prior shoulder injury had haunted him, pushing him to the brink. Following surgery, he battled toxic shock syndrome, compounding his anguish. The wrestling fraternity mourned the loss of a promising talent, grappling with the somber reality of Mike Von Erich’s demise.

Living Up To The Family Name.

In the complex tapestry of the Von Erich family’s wrestling legacy, the story of Chris Von Erich unfolds as a poignant chapter marked by both resilience and tragedy. Chris battled health demons from an early age, grappling with asthma and brittle bones. His fragility contrasted sharply with the robust world of professional wrestling, yet it was precisely this dichotomy that fueled his determination to step into the ring.

Furthermore, Chris found solace in the squared circle. Wrestling wasn’t merely a family tradition. For Chris, it was a lifeline, a way to transcend the physical limitations that seemed to conspire against him.

Chris Von Erich/Youtube

However, the journey proved arduous. Chris’s struggles with asthma and brittle bones persisted, testing his mettle at every turn. In the face of these challenges, he pressed on, fueled by an inner fire that refused to be extinguished.

Tragically, on September 12, 1991, the wrestling world lost Chris Von Erich to a devastating end. The cause of his death was a self-inflicted gunshot, a haunting conclusion to a life marked by physical pain and emotional turmoil. Wrestling, for Chris, was both a passion and an escape. Yet, the weight of his health struggles and the pressure to live up to the family’s legacy became almost impossible.

The Modern Day Warrior

Kerry Von Erich entered the squared circle with an undeniable charisma and a passion for the sport that would define his life. Although Kerry is more famous for teaming with his brothers, it is arguable that his career peaked during his tenure in the WWF. Vince McMahon gave Kerry the ring named The Texas Tornado. The persona showcased his prowess, captivating audiences with a tornado of energy and a relentless fighting spirit.

However, behind the scenes, Kerry grappled with personal demons. The star’s life took a dramatic turn on June 4, 1986, when a motorcycle accident struck the wrestling legend in agony. Riding his motorcycle on a rural road in Ellenton, Texas, Kerry lost control and crashed, resulting in severe injuries. The accident led to the amputation of a portion of his right foot.

Undeterred by the challenges, Kerry demonstrated resilience in the face of adversity. He was determined to continue his wrestling career and refused to be defined by his amputation. He returned to the ring with a prosthetic foot. Despite the physical limitations, Kerry’s comeback showcased his unwavering spirit and determination to overcome obstacles.

Sadly, being fired from the WWF and the mental effects of the motorcycle accident weighed on Kerry. The Modern Day Warrior tragically took his own life on 18 February 1993. As a result, Kerry’s death would leave Kevin as the sole surviving son of Fritz and Doris Von Erich.

The Legacy of the Von Erichs

The Von Erich family has left an enduring imprint on the landscape of professional wrestling, transcending the squared circle to become synonymous with both triumph and tragedy. Rising to prominence in the 1970s and 1980s, the family’s charismatic and athletic members, including Fritz, David, Kerry, Kevin, and Mike, became icons in the sport. Their contributions to World Class Championship Wrestling (WCCW) and later ventures such as WWE (formerly WWF) have solidified their status as wrestling legends.

However, the Von Erich legacy is full of heartbreak. The family endured a series of tragic losses, with several members meeting untimely deaths. This blend of success and sorrow has etched the Von Erich name into the annals of wrestling history, creating a narrative that resonates with fans as both a symbol of triumph and a poignant reminder of the human struggles that accompany fame and fortune.

Written By

Shane Kidd-Walker is a Graduate Film Student at Florida State University. He is also an alumnus of Hinds Community College and THE Alcorn State University.

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