texasmonthly.com: How did the idea to do this story come about?
John Spong: Earlier this year, a review copy of the book that Ron Mullinax wrote with Fritz showed up in my office, and it reminded me of one of the great, can’t-possibly-be-true rumors that had always been floating around the TM office—that we’d never done a big story on the Von Erich family. I checked a little further and found out it was true which, when you think about it, is kind of stunning. If you grew up in Texas in the eighties, like I did, you remember quite clearly how big a deal those guys were. It didn’t take much arm-twisting of the editors to get the okay to write about them.
texasmonthly.com: Did you ever see the Von Erichs wrestle in person or on TV?
JS: Not in person, but I did see them on television some. Besides their syndicated World Class show, they also were broadcast on Fort Worth’s Channel 11, KTVT. It was like a mini-superstation, which aired on cable systems all over the state. I saw them on that, and though I wasn’t any big wrestling nut, I was familiar enough with them, that when they started dying, I knew who they were.
texasmonthly.com: In the heyday of kayfabe, did the majority of Von Erich fans believe the storylines and fights were real?
JS: It’s hard to say, because presumably those fans who bought into all of it back then are old enough now to take a more skeptical view. But, in truth, whether it’s real or not is beside the point for most wrestling fans. Vince McMahon’s revolution notwithstanding, wrestling fans have always tuned in to be entertained, and for the fans that really eat it up, looking too closely and trying to find all the seams and nail holes gets in the way of the entertainment.
texasmonthly.com: Should Fritz have merged with McMahon? What could he have done to make the World Class brand finish on top?
JS: I kind of side with the cynics on this one. It’s really hard to imagine either McMahon or Fritz sharing their enterprise with a partner, and even if they’d tried to make a go of it, you’ve got to figure they would have tired of one another quickly.
And it’s worth noting that Fritz wasn’t being unrealistic when he initially figured to compete with McMahon. One thing that’s not in the story was the fact that production of the syndicated World Class show was paid for by Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network. They owned the Dallas station that Mickey Grant worked for.
So while Fritz’s old friends said Fritz was unwilling to merge with McMahon and put the rest of the old guard of promoters out of business, there’s another idea out there that Fritz might have been thinking that, by virtue of the boys’ born-again image and Fritz’s own frequent appearances on The 700 Club, that Fritz was jockeying to get World Class aired on CBN proper. That would have provided him with the kind of national platform that McMahon ultimately achieved.
texasmonthly.com: How important were the Von Erichs’ innovations to modern pro wrestling?
JS: Presumably wrestling would have evolved on its own. But the fact of the matter is that the Von Erichs were there; they did it first, and they were the model that was followed. It’s like the integration of pro baseball; it would have happened eventually with or without Jackie Robinson. But Jackie Robinson did it, and he’s the one who got the postage stamp.
texasmonthly.com: Why did you go to such lengths to explain the doctrine of kayfabe?
JS: The idea that that code was out there is fascinating, not the least because it was so effective for so long and that it wasn’t until fairly recently that even wrestling fans were aware of it. And non-ring nuts know nothing of it. Plus, it seems to have been so much a part of the Von Erich story that it seemed to need a thorough explanation itself before people could understand what happened to the family.
texasmonthly.com: Was it the pressures of kayfabe from an early age that prevented Fritz’s sons from solving their problems in an open, healthy way?
JS: I think it’s a little more complicated than that. Kayfabe didn’t kill those kids, nor did it keep them from dealing with their problems. But it did shield their problems from the world. So when they found themselves unable to deal with what was going on in real life, they were protected. Nobody saw what was really happening. It’s as if lives behind the scenes started to snowball until they blew right through the curtain.
texasmonthly.com: Why do you think Kevin finally opened up to you about his brothers’ deaths?
JS: A big thing to remember about that is that Kevin and I didn’t really attempt to go into that in any kind of in-depth way until late in the reporting for the story. But it seemed important that we develop a relationship before we went into it. We needed to trust each other.
But who knows. It may have had to do also with the fact that we were talking on Dave’s birthday. It may be that Kevin’s feelings on all that are more present on those anniversaries. But who’s to say how his mind works on those matters.
The thing that really struck me when he told me about drinking a shot to Dave on the anniversary of Dave’s birth and death was that Kevin has four other brothers with birth and death days to observe. That’s eight more heavy-duty days a year. I’ll never know what that feels like.
texasmonthly.com: Do you believe that any of Kevin’s responses to your questions about his brothers were, consciously or not, influenced by kayfabe?
JS: I think it’s easy, as a non-wrestler just learning about kayfabe, to get excited about this new concept and try to apply it to Kev’s whole story. I’m not sure that I understand wrestling, and certainly not Kevin, well enough to make that leap. But he was in fact very clear about how important is was to him to talk about the good that his brothers did. And he talked at length about all the hospitals they visited and all the sick kids they cheered up.
texasmonthly.com: Would you agree with the appraisals of many that Fritz was to blame for the Von Erich tragedies?
JS: That’s the kind of judgment I would never feel comfortable making. I didn’t ever get to meet Fritz, and certainly didn’t get to see him raising those boys. More to the point, the death of one of your kids is the hardest thing a person ever has to deal with, and it’s impossible to imagine being someone who has to deal with it as many times as Fritz and Doris did.
It’s worth noting too that wrestling is a strange business. The men involved—and they all were—are big, physical, aggressive, proud men, who operate in a world that most people never see. And they butt heads all the time, in a very real way. So a lot of the people who are ready to blame Fritz are people who are still pissed off at him for some perceived slight committed years ago. You can’t underestimate the strength of those old grudges either.
texasmonthly.com: What do you think Fritz’s reaction to your piece would be?
JS: I assume he’d give me the Claw.