July 5 2009
With the passing of Ted Kennedy, many people will reflect on the pathos, the baffling twists and turns, and the elements of shame and redemption that make the story of the Kennedy Curse so compelling.
Lest we see the fate of the Kennedy family as a singular anomaly, it’s worth contrasting the equally tragic—and most thoroughly American—story of the Von Erich wrestling dynasty. Most people associate the 1980’s with the WWF ‘cartoon’ era of wrestling and Hulkamania, and perhaps don’t realize the wider popularity of pro-wrestling in this time. The story of the Von Erichs exposes a deeply rotten core at the heart of the ‘sport’ – a deadly nexus where fanaticism, drug abuse, and televised fame combine to produce a frenzied lifestyle that is perhaps unparalleled in other areas of American society.
The patriarch of the Von Erich family was Jack Adkisson, a talented high-school athlete who entered the world of 1950’s Texas pro-wrestling after leaving behind a promising football career. Adkisson quickly assumed the ring identity of Fritz Von Erich — the ‘German bulldozer’, a brutal Nazi sympathizer and all-round bad guy, known for his stiff style of brawling and a penchant for dishing out beatings that were not necessarily fake.
The first major tragedy in Adkisson’s life occured in 1959, when his oldest son Jack Jr. was electrocuted in the bathtub in a freak accident. The death greatly affected Adkisson, and he began to channel his suffering into agression against his ring opponents.
Through the 1960’s, Fritz Von Erich became one of the most recognized figures in Texas wrestling — a popular heel who crowds loved to hate. As his career matured and he won championships, Fritz was able to leverage his charisma and skill to steer himself into the media spotlight as a God-fearing, straight-talking Texas hero. It was natural for him to take the next step to run the whole show with his purchase of the Dallas based Big Time Wrestling promotion. In 1982, he changed this name to World Class Championship Wrestling — the company that would propel his family into the media spotlight and later be the stage for their destruction.
After each of Adkisson’s sons graduated college, they entered the wrestling business, one by one, all of them assuming the Von Erich alias as their ring identity. Kevin and David Von Erich were the first, and their in-ring talents quickly led to their rise in fame. 6 foot 5 inches tall and athletically gifted, David was nicknamed the ‘Yellow Rose of Texas’ and gained a huge following amongst younger fans in the Southern States. By the time the third and equally talented brother Kerry arrived, the family was already a sensation, so popular that beyond the wrestling, they were able to launch their own TV show titled simply ‘The Von Erichs’.
It was at this point that things started to unravel, from wrestling empire to a macabre body count:
Indeed, in the figure of patriarch Fritz Von Erich, this ten-gallon tragedy, rife with Texas-size scandal, becomes a melodrama of Shakespearean proportion. In addition to being one of the top powerbrokers in wrestling—that bizarre amalgam of sport and theatre rooted in the nineteenth-century carnival tent—Fritz is a born-again Christian, a respected member of the nation’s largest Southern Baptist congregation, a pillar of the community with ties to everyone from former presidential candidate Pat Robertson to Forbes 400 oilman H.R. “Bum” Bright, owner of the Dallas Cowboys. In those capacities, he airbrushes his sons’ image, exploiting not only their bodies but also their misfortunes. The fall of the house of Von Erich is Jim Bakker with a dropkick, a combination of pseudoathletic zeal and quasi-religious righteousness, a farcical footnote to the sleazy legacy of televangelism.Irvin Muchnick
In February 1984, at the height of the family’s popularity, David ‘The Yellow Rose’ was found dead in a Tokyo hotel room. Circumstances surrounding his death remain shrouded in mystery but a drug overdose was widely suspected at the time, despite the official coroners report stating the cause of death as gastroenteritis. Soon afterwards, a tribute wrestling card at Texas stadium drew a crowd of more than 43,000 people.
The next tragedy to occur involved the fourth son to enter the business, Mike Von Erich. Lacking the physical size and natural talent of his older brothers, Mike struggled to fill the enormous hole left by the death of David, until bizarrely, in 1987, he was rushed to hospital with a severe case of toxic shock syndrome. His resulting recovery stripped his body of muscle bulk, and weakened his resolve to be a successful wrestler. The resulting exploitation of Mike’s illness by his father is considered by some observers to be one of the most disgusting and reprobate incidents in the history of wrestling promotion:
The extent of Mike’s physical and mental deterioration became apparent during the production of a TV special entitled “The Von Erich Trilogy.” At a taping session at a local health club, Mike was shown working out and getting himself back into fighting shape. The only problem was that after almost an hour of takes, the crew couldn't get a coherent interview out of Mike. Never one of the best “stick” men in wrestling, he was now hopelessly incompetent at the microphone. He fidgeted, complained about the heat, took his jacket off (revealing a stringy upper body), mentioned his wife (a no-no, for as a teen idol he was supposed to make the boppers believe he was eligible), and trailed off into a rambling monologue about the biblical character Hezekiah and his attending physician, Dr. William Sutker (“a great man who saved my life – he’s Jewish, by the way, but he told me this has meant a lot to him spiritually and everything”). When the production crew finally gave up on the shoot, Mike retreated into the corner with a young friend, and the two of them bragged loudly about gang-banging a girl the night before. The others at the gym turned away in revulsion. This wasn’t wrestling. This wasn't religion. This was sickness.Irvin Muchnick
After the embarrassment of this unsuccessful comeback, Mike spiraled into further depression and eventually committed suicide by overdosing on prescription drugs.
As if this wasn’t enough, the youngest and fifth son, Chris also entered the business under the Von Erich alias. Asthmatic and underdeveloped at just 5 feet 5 inches tall, Chris had no real chance of popular success amongst the giants of the ring. Overshadowed by the enormous success of his older brothers and his larger than life father, Chris could not come to terms with his failure to become a successful pro-wrestler (and probably in no small part, sadness at the deaths of his brothers). At age 21, he committed suicide with a gunshot to the head.
Worse was to follow. Through the course of this tragedy and drama, Kerry Von Erich, ‘The Texas Tornado’ had continued to build his career, and had survived through various personal hells to become one of the great names within the wrestling industry by the end of the 1980’s. Few fans knew at the time, but in 1986, Kerry was involved in a serious motorcycle accident that resulted in his right foot being amputated. A matter of months after the surgery, at the behest of Fritz, and despite hardly being able to walk, a heavily sedated Kerry reappeared in the ring and ‘won’ a carefully sold match during which, he broke his ankle again. It would be almost a year before he could return, and he would never match his original speed and physicality, yet he was still able to join the WWE in 1990 and enjoy a short period of success before the years of cocaine and prescription painkiller abuse caught up with him. In early 1993, facing the breakup of his marriage and the likelihood of prison for drug possession and forging prescriptions, Kerry shot himself, becoming the fourth brother to die.
The final end of the dynasty came when Fritz died of cancer in 1997. A strangely peaceful end to a tragic and turbulent life.
This is not a moral tale, and there are no lessons to be learned aside from the screamingly obvious. It’s just a true story and it doesn’t have a happy ending, nor the element of final redemption. If any traces of redemption are to be found, it’s just the loving memories of a dying father talking about his sons. Nobody will ever understand what sense of guilt and responsibility he held for their fate, and likewise, nobody will really know whether his Christian beliefs were real or just another part of his cultivated family image.
Aristotle declared that true tragedy must involve people who have power and high status, but the age of mass media has inverted this dictum. We find stars in the media spotlight are often powerless, trapped by addiction, dependent on the rush they get from their performance for a mass audience. In the case of the Von Erichs, this insatiable drive to continually sell themselves to their fans had deadly consequences. More than just the story of a father who lost his sons, it is a deep insight into the darker side of modern American culture.