The characters the pro-wrestling universe has spawned have risen to mythic proportions in American history — but some myths are even more notorious than others. The rumors and gossip surrounding the many tragedies that befell the Von Erich wrestling family continue to spark controversy within the industry, with some even believing occult forces were at play. The events which almost felled the clan are the subject of an episode of Vice's newest docu-series, "Dark Side of the Ring."
The lineage of the Von Erichs begins with Jack Adkisson, originally a Texas football player in the 1950s, according to the Houston Chronicle. As noted by David Shoemaker in "The Squared Circle: Life, Death, And Professional Wrestling," a direct pipeline from more mainstream athletics to the pro-wrestling world was established during that decade, with Adkisson as a prime example.
It was Stu Hart, father of iconic grappler Bret Hart, who first took note of Adkisson. Hart was especially struck by the footballer's immense size and stereotypical German features. Although he had no real history or connection to Germany, Adkisson was packaged as Fritz Von Erich (paired up with Walter Seiber, who was renamed Waldo Von Erich), a loathsome Prussian Nazi who garnered "heat" (wrestling slang for purposefully attracted hatred) everywhere he went. It's hard to say whether the ire he evoked was due to his nefarious in-ring deeds (both in and out of the ring he had a reputation for being a bully) or sparked by wrestling fans outraged a promoter would stoop as low as to include post-war animosity as a plot point for low-brow entertainment.
"Like so many tropes in the wrestling world," Shoemaker wrote, "the Nazism was a lie told to advance a greater truth about the existence of evil in the world and the need to overcome it with headlocks and such."
The Nazi aspect of the Von Erich gimmick would fade into the background as his sons became some of the most beloved athletes in the sport, but it's precisely this feature of his character that would inspire several apocryphal stories about what ultimately would happen to the Von Erich descendants.
In the most widely disseminated version of the spooky tale, Shoemaker explained many people believe a ghost of a Holocaust survivor put a curse on Adkisson (aka Fritz Von Erich) as revenge for making light of Nazism.
"He told Fritz that he'd lost all seven of his sons in the death camps, and — here's where it gets good — he said ominously that he sincerely hoped nothing like that would happen to Fritz," wrote Shoemaker. Then, the man vanished into thin air. Whether that fable is fabricated or not is clearly up for, uh, debate, but what occurred after the spectral story supposedly took place is so unfathomable, it makes sense that some would seek otherworldly explanations.
In 1959, Adkisson's first son, Jack Junior, died at the age of 6 years old after he was electrocuted, causing him to fall into a puddle and drown.
David Manning, a former referee and booker, explained the specifics of the death in "Dark Side of the Ring."
"Jack was actually coming home from school and it had snowed," Manning says. "As he was trying to step over the tongue of the trailer he touched it. Somehow it electrocuted him. He fell in the snow face first."
The death haunted the family for decades, but the other children moved on into wrestling themselves. As Fritz advanced in age, he got further away from the ring and became a promoter rather than a performer of wrestling. Through his federation, World Class Championship Wrestling, he was able to raise up his sons, Kevin, David, Kerry, Mike, and Chris, as major celebrities in their own rights.
The small league — which rose to prominence through the kids' star power and presented them as authentic fighters — couldn't contain their charisma. With the fascist background of the family summarily forgotten by the public, the young Von Erichs became symbols of goodness and light, amassing what Shoemaker described as "Beatles-level" fame. Comic books, board games, and endless public appearances established the handsome Von Erich boys as heroic beyond belief.
“I think people realized we were human. You could guarantee we had pure hearts, and we had good motives. Maybe that was something real about us. We were family, we loved each other. We regarded our fans as people, not tickets," reflected Kevin Von Erich, the only living Von Erich brother, in "Dark Side of the Ring."
The extent to which the Von Erich children were actually as noble and valiant as their reputation is another hotly debated issue, although many who work in the wrestling business fear reproach for speaking poorly about the family.
"Carniest family of all time — they were so dumb they would get lost on the way to shows. They would just turn around and go home," an individual in the pro-wrestling industry who asked to remain anonymous told Oxygen.com. "Much like the Kennedys, you can read certain books or watch certain documentaries that paint them as the all-American family. The truth is something far different. At the time, the lies were to protect the business and the reputation of the Von Erich family. You couldn’t have stories get out about drug overdoses, arrests and other such things about these kids running wild. I think certain people have lied so much over the years that they now believe those lies regardless of the truth."
"More than anything, they're remembered as pioneers. Unfortunately there's a lot of stigma there — all the tragedies. It overshadows everything else," Jones told Oxygen.com. "They were one of the first families of wrestling that took off, I would say. They could do nothing wrong. It's amazing what they were able to accomplish ... A lot of people just harp on the negative. I don't know first hand what they did. I can only say that what I know: My family had the highest praise for them. They've been nothing but good to me. I guess for some people it's kind of fun to talk about — with the conspiracies — inside of a business that's much more transparent nowadays."
Either way, word of the Von Erich name at the time garnered global excitement, but during the family's first tour of Japan in 1984, tragedy would strike again — David Von Erich was the victim of fate this time. The morning he arrived, he was found dead in his hotel room.
In "Dark Side of the Ring," it's Manning who says he was the one who informed Fritz of his son's passing. Manning recalls that Fritz simply asked, "Which one?!" when Manning arrived at the trailer, preternaturally aware that one of his children was gone.
What exactly happened to David is yet another mystery.
"The Japanese coroner eventually called it acute enteritis, a disease of the intestines, which may or may not have triggered a heart attack, depending on who you listen to," Shoemaker wrote.
Rumors persist about David's proclivity for painkillers which may or may not have led to the death, with some suggesting that Bruiser Brody (another legendary wrestler whose untimely death continues to mar the wrestling world), having such immense respect for the reputation of the family, hid any evidence of addiction before authorities arrived on the scene, according to Rick Flair's autobiography "To Be The Man."
In a shoot interview now available on YouTube, wrestler Wild Bill Irwin espouses yet another theory of the death: He says David suffered from bulimia.
Kevin Von Erich appears to have finally settled on his version of the story: "There's no doubt that he didn't [overdose]," he says in the Viceland documentary. (In earlier documentaries, including the film "Heroes of World Class: The Story of the Von Erichs and The Triumph and Tragedy of World Class Championship Wrestling," Kevin refused to admit drugs had anything to do with David's demise.)
Records from the time indicate far less certainty.
“Nobody knew what it was,” Fritz Von Erich told the Dallas Morning News in 1984. “He had a flu-type condition for about six weeks. But in our business, if you can walk, you go out there. You’re expected to go out there. People have paid to see you. At least in our family it’s that way."
David's funeral was attended by thousands.
After a failed attempt at conscripting an unrelated wrestler to play a long-lost Von Erich brother evoked ire from audiences who felt they were being lied to, Mike Von Erich took over David's slot. But Mike's lack of natural talent for wrestling was evident to almost everyone, especially after faith in the brothers had waned. After suffering toxic shock syndrome following surgery on his injured shoulder during a 1985 tour of Israel, Mike was reduced to "a shadow of his former self," according to Shoemaker.
“It was just a nightmare,” said Kevin to D Magazine of Mike's post-recovery career. “A damned nightmare. I thought, ’It’s all going. We’re all finished.’ I’d look out and watch Mike trying to wrestle, knowing how badly he felt, and I knew how much he wanted to keep up the family name, and I just couldn’t believe how sad it all was.”
Mike's behavior appeared more erratic after the surgery, as well, according to Kevin's testimony in "Dark Side of the Ring."
"I wondered if there was brain damage," said Kevin. "That's when he attacked a stop light. He attacked a parked car one. Just rages. There was no one even in the parked car."
A year later, in April of '87, police found him with a bottle of non-prescription pills. A few days after that Mike failed to show up to an event. After a days-long search, Mike's body was found in a wooded area of Denton, Texas, according to UPI. He was determined to have died of an overdose. His suicide note to his brothers, according to Shoemaker, read, "PLEASE UNDERSTAND I'M A F--K UP! I'M SORRY."
A note he left for his parents was more tender: "Mom and dad, I have gone to a better place. I'll be watching," it read, according to UPI.
“I don’t think Mike was ever really sure he felt good enough to take on the Von Erich role,” said Kerry. “I mean, it churned him up inside that he wasn’t as quick or as strong as the rest of us. And after the toxic shock, when he started losing his balance on the top ropes, or missing a hold or something, he thought he had lost part of himself, you know what I mean?”
By 1990 Kerry had accepted an offer to go to the WWF, according to Shoemaker. An elaborate cover-up had been pulled off to convince audiences that he was in working condition despite having had his foot amputated following a medical complication from a 1986 motorcycle accident, perhaps exacerbated by in-ring work. Now exposed to a wider audience and without the protection of his father's company (by this point Kerry wasn't even using the Von Erich name), rumors about Kerry's drug addiction began to flourish, according to Shoemaker.
By 1992, after winning and then losing an Intercontinental championship, Kerry moved back to Texas to be with his family.
At the same time, the youngest of the brothers, Chris, attempted to shoot his shot in the wrestling world in the hopes of reviving his family's shine. But a plethora of persistent medical problems, including asthma, that had impacted his growth made him largely unconvincing in the sport filled with oversized men. A broken arm may have been the last straw for Chris. In "Dark Side of the Ring," Kevin recalls attempting to talk him down from suicidal behavior — to no avail.
Kevin was the one who found Chris' body on September 21,1999. He had shot himself in the head while staying at the family's ranch. He was 21 years old at the time.
Kerry, too, suffered wildly at the time. He was arrested in February 1993 and faced considerable jail time.
Bret Hart states in his biography "Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling," that Kerry, despondent as his marriage fell apart, had begun discussing suicide months before he took his own life, saying that his brothers were calling to him from beyond.
Kerry's family ultimately found him at the ranch with a gunshot wound to the chest under the tree the boys used to play on February 18, 1993.
"He couldn't handle the disappointment it would mean to his fans, or his family, or whatever," Shoemaker wrote. "When they held his memorial service, his name was still on the marquee outside the venue where he was scheduled to wrestle that weekend. His opponent, in perfect wrestling tragicomic irony, was the Angel of Death."
In a testament to the Von Erich commitment to kayfabe, it was only after his death that Fritz was able to tell the true story of Kerry's foot.
"No one knew. It was extremely painful at first," said Fritz to The Baltimore Sun at the time. "Kerry's had a drug problem since that accident, and no one was ever about to tell why. Fellas might think he was weaker ... Kerry could never learn to cope with the loss of any of his brothers. Because when one in the family does it, it makes it a whole lot easier for another one to do it. We learned that the hard way."
Kevin absconded from the world of sports entertainment to raise his children in Hawaii shortly thereafter.
"I wanted to get away from wrestling. I wanted to get out. I wanted to be anonymous," Kevin explained in "Dark Side of the Ring."
Fritz would live for a number of years after the fifth death of one of his children, but ultimately succumbed to brain and lung cancer in 1997, according to Shoemaker.
In 2009, WWE officially recognized the entire Von Erich family's impact on the sport by inducting them into the Hall of Fame. Kevin, introduced by Michael Hayes of the Freebirds (who long ago had fought against Fritz), accepted all six rings on behalf of his fallen brothers and father.
At the award ceremony, Kevin beamed.
"Times got tough and wrestling has changed ... My brothers and my dad, I wish they were here to absorb this great moment with me. But I don't think I'm alone — because we all call each other brothers. The wrestlers. We're all family," Kevin said in front of the ovational Texas audience. "It makes you really close just to beat the hell out of each other ... The Von Erichs are not dead and gone."
Indeed, Kevin has been raising his sons Ross and Marshall as inheritors of the family's name and iconography. The two have appeared as a tag team and as individual brawlers at various federations around the world, including Pro-Wrestling NOAH in Japan and Total Nonstop Action Impact in the United States.
"Growing up we wanted to be just like him ... We saw that fearlessness in every situation, not only in the ring, but in life. That's what we wanted to be like. We're just grateful to God that we can follow in the footsteps, and doors are opening in wrestling. We get to pick up where the Von Erichs left off," Marshall Von Erich said in "Dark Side of the Ring."
Meanwhile, Lacey Von Erich, daughter of Kerry, had a successful run on TNA Impact as a tag team champion with partner Velvet Sky before retiring in 2010, according to Cagematch.net.
As with all stories in the world of pro-wrestling, separating the fact from the fiction has become a task of gargantuan proportions. Where the myths end and reality begins is a delineation no one seems willing or able to make. Having survived the highest heights of fame and the deepest pits of suffering, the truths behind the Von Erich family's tragedies may never entirely be known.
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