Professional wrestling and Greek tragedy may appear to be
When Aeschylus was facing off against a rival playwright for
the golden laurels, surely he never imagined bouncing his
opponent off the ring ropes, leg-whipping him to the canvas,
and then extracting submission and sweet victory from the
pain-riddled victim with a Figure Four Leglock.
Nevertheless, one of the major schools of classical drama
is the downfall of the beloved hero, and here's where pro
wrestling and Greek tragedy intertwine in the DNA of the Modern
Day Warrior, Kerry Von Erich the late, great Achilles
of the Texas wrestling ring.
The Von Erich Wrestling Dynasty that peaked in Dallas in
the late '70s was the
product of Jack Adkisson, a strongman athlete who in the 1950s
donned a Kaiser helmet and declared himself to be Fritz Von
Erich, the villainous sauerkraut on the frank 'n' beans circuit
of underworld wrestling.
A showbiz innovator whose style prefigured the mystery powers
of 1970s Kung Fu movies, Fritz blitzkrieged his opponents
with the ferocious Iron Claw, a temple-crushing submission
hold that instantly vaporized all enemy resistance. Hundreds
of Fritz's unfortunate opponents crumbled like the Maginot
Line under the Claw's awesome, some said supernatural, power.
Year after year everyday folks lined up in droves to fork
out their greenbacks and heckle this goose-stepping fascist
in the late 70's, as his sons grew old enough to break into
the family business, Fritz's image changed dramatically. The
offspring kept the Von Erich name, but buried the Kaiser helmet
for a family image more in line with the silver hat of #12,
Dallas Cowboy immortal QB Roger Staubach. Unfortunately the
hard-wrestling, hard-partying Von Erich brothers also shared
some of the same self-destructive appetites as the notorious
#56, Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson.
But at the time nobody had a clue about that. They just knew
these boys were wild men. It didn't take long after fans got
a gander at these fired-up young grapplers, their rock and
roll hair and their ripped physiques for the Von Erich name
became a source of "state-riotic" pride for Texans.
This ascension was engineered mostly by Fritz's vision of
what TV could do for wrestling and by his formation of the
World Class Championship Wrestling league, in which his sons
were the main draw. At its height, WCCW was seen in 66 U.S.
television markets, Japan, Argentina, and countries in the
First to claim his father's mantle was 6' 2", 220-pound
Kevin in 1976. Soon to follow was 6' 6", 235-pound
David. Then in 1979, the 6' 3", 255-pound Modern Day
Warrior, Kerry, made his debut. The three would go on to win
about every Championship Belt there was to win in the heavyweight,
tag-team, and three man tag-team divisions.
In time Chris and Mike Von Erich would join the fold, but
it's the original trio of Kevin, Kerry, and David that formed
the monumental pyramid of league popularity that would eventually
be gobbled up by Vince McMahon's McWrestling empire.
Inside this triad, as soon as he turned pro, it was Kerry
who captured the most attention. Fans flocked to watch
the brothers wherever they wrestled, whether it be at Dallas's
dilapidated yet venerated Sportatorium, or a Rotary Club show
in a high school gym in Mount Pleasant, Corsicana, or Longview.
From the first instant Kerry's entrance theme, "Today's
Tom Sawyer," launched out of the PA, wrasslin' Beatlemania
was sure to strike. Thanks to Kerry and the woozy sci-fi idealism
of Canadian power trio Rush, youth power had taken hold in
a sport that was once the reserve of winos, fugitives, old
timers and bowery bums. It was electric.
With good reason. If during the Carter years you were to
create from scratch a
futuristic new prototype of professional wrestler, he would
be young, wild and possess the insanely cut, "He-Man,
Master of the Universe" build of Kerry Von Erich (He-Man
actually capitalized later on the very look Kerry brought
to the public eye). From the buzz-cut, barrel-bodied brawler
Fritz to the Absolom-maned V-cut torso of Kerry, pro wrestling
had been reformed.
At the vanguard was a local phenom coming into his own, his
and vindications painted across Texas and the world on grainy
Philco TV sets that required pliers to change the channels.
Saturday night UHF exposure further fueled the fans who followed
Today's Tom Sawyer from venue to venue.
When Kerry vaulted into the ring in his white boots, brown-blond
mane flying wild, flash cubes popped in a chorus of hormonal
excitement. Grandmothers and little kids alike knew the chant
that preceded the ritual power chords: "Today's Tom Sawyer,
Mean, Mean, Pride."
strong was his bond with his public, that it was often only
the exhortations of the fans that revived Kerry from the effects
of many a deadly Sleeper Hold. It had to be the fans that
did it, didn't you see that Kerry was unresponsive the first
two times the ref lifted his hand and it dropped lifelessly
to the canvas?
If Kerry's hand had drooped to the canvas for the third time,
he would have been immediately disqualified! Get up, Kerry,
GET UP!!! Wait, his hand is moving, he's not DQ'd... and now
he's making his way to his feet, amazing... Rick Flair or
Kamala the Ugandan Giant or the Great Kabuki or one of the
Freebirds is looking really scared
now, (NO ONE'S EVER BROKEN THE SLEEPER), looking around like
jerks screaming at the crowd to shut up... but Kerry is now
back on his feet after being so close to losing moments
ago! and now he's broken free! He's fired up for payback!
After hurling his opponent to the ropes and connecting with
a devastating Discus Punch, it's a small matter for Kerry to
cover his semi-conscious opponent for the three count and
the victory. The crowd dissipates into the
cold Texas night, exhausted but fulfilled. Sure, the Greeks
might have had loftier plots in their dramas, but history
doesn't record anything about the audience screaming like
crazy at the actors during their performances, and actors
threatening to come out into the audience and thrash the hecklers
with folding chairs!
The triad dominated the sport through the early '80s. Still,
despite the career success, name recognition, financial security,
and popular adulation, life away from the cameras was less
generous for the Adkisson family. It even seemed that like
many of history's greatest warriors Alexander of Macedonia,
Abe Lincoln, Bruce Lee inside the flame of destiny
was revealed the red-hot iron of a curse. In the case of Fritz's
boys, now the true embodiment of wild and
talented Texas youth, it was family curse, a tragic one, and
a relentless one.
Back in 1959, Jack Jr. died after being electrocuted at the
family ranch. In 1984, David, age 25, stunned the wrestling
community when he was found dead in his Japanese hotel room.
While the original cause was attributed to an intestinal disorder,
there have since been reports indicating drugs contributed
to his death. A wrestling-fest at Texas Stadium dedicated
to David drew some 40,000 fans.
Mike Von Erich stepped forward to fill the shoes left by
David, but in 1987, Mike contracted Toxic Shock Syndrome after
undergoing surgery to repair tendons
in his arm. Though he survived the bout with Toxic Shock,
Mike, age 23, would commit suicide later that year by overdosing
on tranquilizers. Chris Von Erich replaced Mike, but his size
(5'6", 160 pounds) hampered his wrestling career. In
1991 at age 21, he shot himself, with fatal results.
As he buried his brothers one by one, Kerry was subject to
uncanny bedevilment all his own. In 1986, he was involved
in a serious motorcycle accident, which badly dislocated his
hip and caused the amputation of his foot. Amazingly, he continued
to wrestle with the use of a prosthetic replacement
a bionic foot and succeeded
in unifying the WCCW and AWA Heavyweight titles before moving
to the World Wresting Federation in 1990.
In the WWF, the now-titled "Texas Tornado" defeated
Mr. Perfect to claim the Intercontinental Heavyweight Championship.
The belt was his the peak of his career, it's true,
but at a price. By now, Kerry was heavily addicted to painkillers,
performing spectacularly for the public he served, only to
suffer the repercussions after the bout.
In 1992, he was arrested for forging prescriptions for both
Valium and the painkiller Vicodin. He pleaded No Contest and
was placed on ten years probation. The following year, he
was again arrested, this time for possession of cocaine. Since
he was already on probation, Kerry was looking at serious
On the morning of February 18th, 1993 the day he was
to be arraigned on his
cocaine charge Kerry drove to the family ranch, took
a .44 caliber Magnum and an old Jeep, found a quiet spot on
his father's land near Denton, Texas, and shot himself through
the heart. He was 33.
Though all the Von Erichs attained incredible popularity,
Kerry was the main draw, very much the heart of Fritz's wrestling
empire. After Kerry's death, the empire was no more. Kevin
quietly retired to ranching, the lone surviving Von Erich
brother of his generation. Fritz died of cancer on Sept. 10th,
Of his generation of wrestling heroes, it was Kerry who climbed
and fell the furthest. In high school, he broke the junior
world record for the discus. At Southern Methodist University,
he broke the school's discus record held by
one Jack Adkisson none other than his own father. He
was a likely discus candidate for the 1980 Olympics, until
the boycott short-circuited that goal. He went from outstanding
Olympic hopeful to forging prescriptions for Vicodin.
Nevertheless Kerry was born to be a hero. He killed himself
because he couldn't stand to be recast as the villain, the
jailbird, the loser, the town disgrace. His fall was tragic,
but it had the ring of fate, or perhaps genetics, in a uniquely
talented but troubled bloodline.
An eternity seems to have passed in the last decade, but one
thing's certain. No one who witnessed the Modern Day Warrior
in action will ever forget him.