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The following is Bruce Mitchell’s feature column published 20 years ago this month in PWTorch Newsletter #459 (cover dated Sept. 27, 1997), a look at the life and impact on pro wrestling of Fritz Von Erich, the father of the Von Erich brothers who headlined the red hot World Class Championship Wrestling territory in the 1980s.
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BRUCE MITCHELL COLUMN
HEADLINE: Fritz Von Erich and World Class Wrestling’s Tragedies (or American Champion – Jack Adkisson)
Jack Adkisson, better known as Fritz Von Erich, the scion of the wrestling Von Erich dynasty died of lung cancer at the age of 68. With him died an abject lesson in the excesses of pro wrestling, a lesson paid for in ruined lives and needless deaths.
The pro wrestling business changes so quickly in this modern cable age that no doubt there are millions of fans weaned on the Monday Night Wars who have no idea that Fritz’s son Kerry was the Modern Day Warrior who almost was picked for the marketing push that went to Hulk Hogan, that another son David main evented all over the world in his early ’20s and was scheduled for an NWA World Title run, and that his oldest son Kevin was one of the first high-flying superstars.
These new fans may not know that Fritz Von Erich was the promoter and absolute ruler of World Class Championship Wrestling, the Texas-based promotion that pioneered the youth movement of the early ’80s. World Class was, in many ways, the Extreme Championship Wrestling of its day. WCCW stood out from its staid competition with its ahead-of-its-time production values and heated rock music intros. “Freebird” and Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” may be lame classic rock war horses today, but those songs lit a fuse for the explosion that was the seminal Von Erich Brothers-Freebirds feud.
Today’s bookers haven’t forgotten the money that feud drew. Every time a cage door gets slammed (Ric Flair and Mankind recently come to mind) promoters are hoping for at least a pale shadow of the pandemonium that ensued following the famous moment when Freebird Terry Gordy turned on Kerry Von Erich by slamming the cage door on his head during his 1982 Christmas Day challenge for Ric Flair’s NWA World Hvt. Title.
WCCW even pioneered a six-camera production set-up that utilized the new MTV style fast-cut approach to television.
And then there were the Freebirds. Veteran Buddy Roberts (the sleazy comedic foil) joined the most exciting tag team of the day, Terry Gordy, the ’80s Sandman (except Gordy was a great wrestler) and Michael Hayes. It seems almost impossible that the corpulent Dok Hendrix, the cliché-ridden pitch-master who makes Gene Okerlund seem sincere, was actually the Shawn Michaels of his era, the impossibly wild badboy whose charisma made the women scream and the little girls cry in fury.
The Freebirds are the one act of the time that, Confederate flag or no, could translate perfectly into today’s ECW Arena. The Jack Daniels drinking ‘Birds were the perfect nemesis for the milk-drinking Von Erich Boys.
Promoter Fritz Von Erich was perfectly poised for the wrestling wars and expansions of that decade. Von Erich himself had a long, successful career as an international main eventer. He was, briefly, AWA Hvt. Champion. He was NWA president. He was the quintessential foreign big man heel in Japan, feuding with national heroes Giant Baba and Antonio Inoki. He was the top star for arguably America’s top wrestling city, St. Louis, and the protégé of NWA president Sam Mushnick. Only his phony German name kept the more conservative promoters of the ’60s from making him NWA World Champion in a day when that title main evented around the world.
Von Erich was intelligent to the ways of the wrestling business and had a personal dynamism shared by many of the major promoters and stars of the time. Promoters like Von Erich, Mid-South’s Bill Watts, the AWA’s Verne Gagne, and the WWF’s Vince McMahon Sr. and Jr. ran their promotions like kings. They were all-knowing rulers whose personalities dominated anyone around them. They knew exactly what they wanted and listened to no one who disagreed with their vision of the world.
When their vision was in tune with their audiences they ruled as if by royal decree. These were men for whom doubt was but a shade to be ignored.
Watts, Gagne, and Adkisson all came from a world where the Holy Trinity was Football, Business, and Jesus. Adkisson could do all the rest one better.
Jack Adkisson was from Texas. Texas was where High School Football, the Dallas Cowboys, and the Oil Bidness define a man. Fritz Von Erich was able to make himself a big man in a big man’s state by the force of his gravel voice, his dramatic presence, his great wrestling work, and most importantly, his single-minded vision for his family. For a while there Fritz Von Erich was able to make his family a local media phenomenon on the order of the Cowboys themselves.
And if Fritz Von Erich wasn’t really a German, if he won all of his matches only because he booked the finishes, if the Iron Claw really couldn’t make Danny Hodge bow down, if he made millions in real estate only because he was cut into inflated deals during the Dallas boon years, if he found the Lord only because his wife Doris was going to kick him out of the house if he didn’t, if his All-American boys didn’t really drink milk, well, those were just details.
And details hardly mattered, because Fritz Von Erich had Jesus on his side. Not the weak Jesus who said to give your alms to the poor — this was Texas Jesus, the one who Tom Landry prayed to before every Cowboy game. Evangelist Pat Robertson, who carried WCCW on his fledgling Christian Broadcast Network, knew Texas Jesus. Texas Jesus was for a strong national defense, even if Robertson got his senator daddy to pull strings to get him out of combat during the Korean War. Texas Jesus was against premarital sex, even if Robertson married his wife when she was seven months pregnant. Texas Jesus rewarded his followers with more than just a place in Heaven. He preached the prosperity gospel so Robertson amassed a 100 million dollar media empire just like that other religious icon Rupert Murdoch. Texas Jesus was a staunch Republican, so Pat Robertson harangued politicians who he felt owed their offices to him.
Texas Jesus was someone Fritz Von Erich could work with. Texas Jesus would allow Fritz to keep his wife and half of their community property. Texas Jesus would enable Fritz to promote his sons as Christian Warriors nationwide on Robertson’s television network, TBN. Texas Jesus was like a wrestling promoter in that he knew image was reality. Texas Jesus didn’t sweat the details.
But in the end for World Class Championship Wrestling the details became a litany of horror, almost as if the promotion brought down on itself an Old Testament style vengeance. Ring announcer Ralph Pully died of AIDS. Bruiser Brody was murdered. Gino Hernandez died of a cocaine overdose. Buzz Sawyer died of a drug overdose. Terry Gordy never fully recovered from two massive overdoses. Sunshine had a history of mental illness.
And, of course, there were the Von Erich sons themselves. David Von Erich, by all reports the most stable of the brothers, drank and pilled himself to death at the age of 25 one night in Japan. This was the turning point for the promotion and the family.
Fritz Von Erich, the grieving father, promoted the drug overdose of his own son as a wrestling angle. In World Class lore, David died from a kick to the stomach which he received during a courageous performance in a wrestling match, which of course he won. Fritz promoted a memorial to his son and sold tickets.
In Texas Stadium.
World Class Championship Wrestling set an all-time Texas gate record of $400,000 the day of the David Von Erich Memorial show. Brother Kerry won the NWA Title that had been promised to David, the title the family had chased for decades.
And Fritz had found the formula that would fill stadiums — the memorial show. The sons got the message. Death was the final way to get over.
Mike Von Erich was picked to be the heir apparent to his brother, David. Never mind that Mike had no talent for the sport. He took his steroids and Fritz took care of the rest. This gawky, awkward kid had NWA champ Ric Flair out cold in a sleeper at the end of a 10 minute televised match within a month of his debut. Flair was used to this kind of stuff from the Von Erichs. One night in Ft. Worth, Flair had to carry a half-conscious Kerry, who had overindulged in the parking lot before the show, to a 60 minute draw.
This time, though, even the most ardent Von Erich fan didn’t buy the work. Mike Von Erich, the Wrestler, was a painful failure. Mike’s body couldn’t stand the strain of the steroids-induced muscles and his spirit couldn’t stand the pressure of following a saint, a saint he knew was fake. Treatment of constant shoulder separations caused Mike to develop toxic shock syndrome.
Despite a fever of 105 degrees that caused brain damage, Mike was trotted out for the annual Texas Stadium “Parade of Champions” event as the Living Miracle, then within months was rushed back into the ring.
A year later his name was added to the title of the annual memorial show because Mike took a month’s supply of sleeping kills to the lake and committed suicide.
Unfortunately for World Class the promoting formula wasn’t working like it used to. Attendance was down. The oldest son Kevin lost interest in anything but getting high. He even collapsed in the middle of the ring one night during a match and had to be revived via CPR. In true World Class fashion, his collapse was blamed on his opponent Brian Adias’s heretofore unrevealed secret weapon, the Oriental Tool (no, not what you’re thinking; it was a simple thrust to the throat with an open hand).
And Kerry? The most marketable Von Erich, whose physical appearance Kevin Sullivan once likened to Cochise, had enough problems just dealing with every day life. One night Kerry, whose wife had left him hours before, announced to a baffled Sportatorium crowd that he was now free to collect women’s phone numbers in the back. Kerry was also in a bad motorcycle wreck, made worse because he was wearing shorts and no shoes. He, too, was rushed back to the ring by his anxious father. Enough additional damage was done to his ankle during his comeback match that his foot had to be secretly amputated, leading to the incredible scene where Col. DeBeers accidentally pulled Kerry’s boot off during a match in Las Vegas, revealing the amputation to sharp-eyed fans at ringside.
Dogged by drug addictions and arrests that aborted a WWF run where he was billed as the Texas Tornado and facing jail time for cocaine possession, Kerry Von Erich shot himself in the chest.
The youngest son, Chris, who had idolized his brothers and who was the subject of drug rumors even during adolescence, had even less of a wrestling career than his brother, Mike, because of his short stature and his asthma condition. He only wrestled Percy Pringle, the current Paul Bearer, in a much smaller World Class promotion.
The last national impression of the family together may well have been an appearance after Mike’s suicide, on CBN’s anchor show, Pat Robertson’s 700 Club. Years later it’s a creepy reminder of the dangers of piety without heart. There’s Chris explaining how all he wants to be is a professional wrestler. There’s Kerry telling the host that Mike was the “best athlete of us all.” There’s an unctuous Fritz with that flawlessly gruff delivery detailing his Born Again experience for the umpteenth time. And there’s the Von Erich matriarch, Doris, beaming with pride at her family’s faith not recognizing the danger and the tragedy to come.
Finally, though, Doris lost her faith in the Texas Jesus and her husband Fritz. She left her husband for good after the final death.
To the end, however, Fritz stayed true to his own character, complaining to a long time business associate that his wife left him when he needed her most and that his problems were her fault. Fritz never saw any reason to take any responsibility for anything that happened to his family or to his promotion. Fritz, bitterly, knew that image counted more than reality.
“(After disbarment and the AIDS diagnosis) he talked to Tom Bolan and then cried and then from that day on wouldn’t eat. ‘I had to force him and feed him from then on.’ Roy Cohn had turned his back to the world and his face to the wall.”
— “Citizen Cohn,” by Nicholas Von Hoffman
Bruce Mitchell of Greensboro, N.C. has been a Pro Wrestling Torch columnist since September 1990. Mitchell co-hosts a wrestling talk show on WKEW 1400 AM in Greensboro, N.C. Tuesdays from 6-7 p.m. He recommends the King James Bible for your reading pleasure.