IN THE SUMMER OF 1983, the center of the pro wrestling universe, in terms of time and space, was indisputably Friday night, Dallas, Texas, in a white, corrugated-tin coliseum called the Sportatorium. Grandfathered out of city building codes thanks to the political connections of Fritz Von Erich, the imperious don who ran Texas wrestling, it stood defiantly—exposed wiring, iffy plumbing, no AC—in an increasingly sketchy area near where Industrial Boulevard runs under Interstate 35. At one time it had housed the Big D Jamboree radio broadcasts, and Elvis Presley played there in 1955. But even then the stage was a converted ring. The Sportatorium was a wrestling arena, and the frenzy that greeted the King seemed sleepy compared with the bedlam wrought in the eighties when Fritz’s three golden-boy sons, Kevin, David, and Kerry, would stride into battle.
The matches were taped every other week for the Von Erichs’ internationally syndicated show, World Class Championship Wrestling, and on TV days, producer Mickey Grant and his team would be the first in. They’d park their $450,000 network-caliber production truck outside the old barn, while inside crew ran cables, set up cameras, and miked the ring. In the Sportatorium lobby, concession stand workers stocked a state fair menu—cotton candy, popcorn, corn dogs, Jack’s Famous French Fries, and sodas—and then undertook the all-important count of the beer: Three thousand cans of Bud, Schlitz, and Coors, something for everybody, that would later be poured into plastic cups so they’d do less damage when hurled to the ring.
Fritz would show up in the late afternoon. In his mid-fifties, he was still built like that piece of lumber that Buford Pusser clubbed hillbilly mob bosses with in Walking Tall : long, blond, solid, and unforgiving, with jug ears and a foghorn voice. He jumped into the ring on occasion, sometimes in the aid of his boys and sometimes to fight his own matches, but most Friday nights he’d just work a little color commentary with announcer Bill Mercer, the former Dallas Cowboys broadcaster who was the voice of World Class .
The card started at eight o’clock, and the doors opened at seven, but fans got in line as early as five. It was not a traditional wrestling crowd. Beat-up pickup trucks shared the parking lot with Mercedes, Lincolns, and Cadillacs, and scalpers walked between them selling $12 tickets for upwards of $50. As the crowd grew, Grant would seek fans who made good TV, smartly dressed professionals or smiling females, to fill the front rows.
There were all manner of females. Junior high girls who wrote about the Von Erichs in their diaries, high school girls with photos taped up in their lockers, young moms wanting out of the house, recently reborn divorcées, even grandmothers. Of the 3,700 people who’d fill a sold-out Sportatorium, fully 70 percent were female.
It was Von Erich beefcake that they came to see. Kevin was 26, the barefooted acrobat with a comic book superhero’s body, who did things in the ring no one had ever seen. He could fly off a turnbuckle, land with his legs in a scissors hold around an opponent’s waist, and hold himself there, his body parallel to the ground. He was like a buck knife thrown and sticking in a tree. David, 25, was a tall, redheaded cowboy and the trio’s true leader. His mind worked like his dad’s, and he was the best technical wrestler and talker on the mike. But Kerry, 23, was by far the fans’ favorite. With long blond hair, green eyes, and a body cut like a stone pyramid stood on its tip, he looked like Conan the Barbarian, but bigger. (So much bigger, in fact, that Arnold Schwarzenegger, who played Conan on-screen, once refused to be photographed shirtless with Kerry.) And he had a brilliant streak of dumb-jock charm. One night, he was spotted in a dressing room putting black shoe polish on his feet before a televised match. His dad had forbidden him to use Kevin’s barefoot gimmick, and Kerry hoped that by painting his feet black, Fritz wouldn’t notice.
After spending the afternoon playing video games, they’d sneak in a Sportatorium back door around seven to dress in their dad’s cavernous office upstairs. They’d do short warm-ups around Fritz’s desk, muscle-against-muscle stuff, with one brother trying to do curls while another pressed down on his hands. Their two younger brothers would always pop in. Mike was nineteen and a dead ringer for David but fresh out of Lake Dallas High School, where shoulder injuries had kept him from playing sports after the tenth grade. Thirteen-year-old Chris was the baby, the brother who didn’t look like a Von Erich. Treatment for chronic asthma had left him stunted and round. He stood a puffy five feet five. The five of them were one another’s best friends, the three overgrown kids who were hooked on the fans’ adulation and the two younger brothers who looked on with envy.
The boys would head downstairs to the main dressing room a little before showtime. The scene was surreal: a good-sized room with wood panels, some benches, and eighteen or so huge men in Speedos, some playing cards, others oiling their bodies, doing push-ups, or receiving injections of painkillers into aching joints. All of them were slipping into personas that matched their ring names: Bruiser Brody, Abdullah the Butcher, the Great Kabuki, King Kong Bundy, Gorgeous Jimmy Garvin, and the Von Erichs’ mortal enemies, the Fabulous Freebirds—Southern-fried muscleheads Michael Hayes, Terry Gordy, and Buddy Roberts.
There was a TV in the dressing room to monitor the ring, but the wrestlers didn’t need it to sense the crowd building; motorists on the highway could hear the noise in their cars. About an hour into the taping, the house lights would go down, and the darkness would be dotted by the cherry tips of hundreds of lit cigarettes.
There were two doors into the arena from the dressing room, so that opponents appeared