Texans love their larger-than-life heroes, and few icons have towered as large in the state’s imagination as the Von Erichs, the troubled family dynasty who dominated professional wrestling in North Texas during the sport’s territorial era. To their many devotees, from Dallas to Japan to the Middle East, the Von Erich brothers—especially Kerry, Kevin, and David—represented archetypal American heroism. They were the muscled heartthrobs on your bedroom wall, the brothers who had each other’s backs through thick and thin, the modern-day warriors who embodied impossible athletic ideals.
But if you know the story of the Von Erichs and of World Class Championship Wrestling, which the family ran from their home base in the Metroplex, then you know that the wholesome image was just another wrestling gimmick. Director Sean Durkin’s new film The Iron Claw makes it clear that the trauma and tragedy endured by the Von Erich clan was maybe the only thing realer than the bumps and bruises they withstood in the ring.
While The Iron Claw lingers on the suffering of the Von Erichs and finds a potent metaphor for generational trauma in the family’s “curse,” the film puts less effort into recreating what made the Von Erichs such electric performers. To fans in North Texas, the Von Erichs weren’t just action heroes on a distant screen, they were the boys next door. The film’s wrestling sequences are well-crafted—thanks to the consultation and stunt work of real-life wrestlers like El Paso native Chavo Guerrero Jr.—but like almost any biopic about great performers, the facsimile pales in comparison to the real thing.
It’s not just the thunderous support from crowds that made Von Erichs matches feel momentous, but the ferocity of their wrestling, which took good, old-fashioned Texas ass-whooping to new levels of mayhem. The Von Erichs’ story is certainly bleak, but revisiting their in-ring work reminds us that this family isn’t known only for its curse; they are beloved because they captivated the hearts and minds of anyone who saw them wrestle. Between the down-and-dirty brawling and the titanic spectacle of it all, rewatching these four matches will give fans of The Iron Claw a taste of the Von Erich family in all of its North Texas glory.
Giant Baba vs. Fritz Von Erich (Japanese Wrestling Association, 1966)
Though family patriarch Fritz Von Erich began his wrestling career playing a goose-stepping Nazi heel, by the 1960s, he was mostly working as a fan-favorite babyface—at least in the United States. For generations, working in Japan has been a sought-after honor for American wrestlers, a symbol of credibility that proves you can hang in a wrestling culture where the hits land harder and wrestling is generally taken more seriously as an athletic pursuit.
Though Texan wrestlers like the Funk brothers would later become pop culture icons to Japanese fans, in an earlier era, Americans were booked as invading brutes to be conquered by patriotic Japanese heroes. Few wrestlers played that role better than Fritz Von Erich, a relentless bully who towered over crowds with a hateful sneer.
Fritz’s signature rival in Japan was Shohei Baba, better known as Giant Baba, a gangly former baseball player who would go on to found All Japan Pro Wrestling, one of the country’s top promotions and a regular home for Texans like Terry Funk, Bruiser Brody, and Stan Hansen. Their first meeting in 1966 is startlingly violent for the time, with the action spilling over into the crowd and Fritz getting in a few hits with a chair, a routine prop in contemporary matches but a weapon that was practically unheard of at that time. Fritz completely brutalizes Baba, throwing the hometown fighter against the ring-post like an oversized rag doll, while batting away the referees. Even in the grainy, 57-year-old footage, you can hear the sound of hard chops against flesh as the two giants slug it out.
The white-hot rivalry between Fritz and Baba was in some ways carried on by the Von Erich boys after their father had largely retired from in-ring performance; on their own Japanese tours, Kerry and Kevin frequently wrestled Baba’s pupils Jumbo Tsuruta and Genichiro Tenryu.
Kerry, Kevin, and David Von Erich vs. the Fabulous Freebirds (WCCW Independence Day Star Wars, 1983)
If there’s one wrestling feud that most defined the Von Erich family, it was their endless war with the Fabulous Freebirds, a years-long rivalry that entailed almost every kind of violent stipulation match imaginable: steel cages, anything-goes “Come As You Are” street fights, and even “Country Whipping” matches, in which the combatants take turns flogging each other with leather belts. In the words of Kevin Von Erich, it was a battle between “decency and filth” as much as Texas against Georgia, with the good-natured, raised-right Texan Von Erichs on one side and yellow-bellied Confederate cowards draped in Rebel flags on the other.
As their name might indicate, the Fabulous Freebirds were one of the first acts in professional wrestling to use pop music for entrance themes, strutting to the ring to “Free Bird,” by Lynyrd Skynyrd, or sometimes even to Willie Nelson’s “Georgia on My Mind,” as they did before a match versus the Von Erich boys in 1983. While the Von Erichs were white-bread-and-corn-fed, they weren’t afraid to scrape up, and were known for battering opponents with everything from cowboy boots to belt buckles. (Kevin, in particular, was notoriously “stiff” with his punches, throwing performative blows with as much force as for genuine ones.) In a 1983 bout in a cage, which featured an additional stipulation that the loser would never wrestle in Texas again, one of the Freebirds even pulled the Ace bandage off of his leg and used it in an attempt to choke out Kerry.
Kerry Von Erich vs. Ric Flair (WCCW 1st Von Erich Memorial Parade of Champions, 1984)
Though Kerry Von Erich’s reign as NWA Worlds Heavyweight Champion was short-lived, his title matches against long-reigning champion Ric Flair are a testament not just to Kerry’s superhuman physique, but to the passion the Von Erichs inspired in their fans.
The crowd was on fire for Kerry’s violent 1982 cage match with Flair, footage of which became among the most-sought-after videos by wrestling tape collectors in the eighties. But the 1984 meeting between Flair and Kerry at Texas Stadium, in which Kerry pins Flair for the title, vibrates with another level of fan fervor, as all 32,000 in attendance screamed their lungs out as Kerry entered wearing a glittering robe with “In Memory of David Von Erich” printed on the back to honor his brother, David, who died earlier that year while on tour with All Japan Pro Wrestling.
Kerry’s long-awaited championship coronation is an absolutely euphoric moment for the fans and family alike who swarm the ring after his victory, but there’s a bittersweet lining to it all. Kerry had entered the ring to Tanya Tucker’s “Texas (When I Die)” that night, and the lyrics “When I die, I may not go to heaven / I don’t know if they let cowboys in” couldn’t have been more melancholy, in retrospect.
Kerry and Kevin Von Erich vs. Gino Hernandez and “Gentleman” Chris Adams (WCCW Cotton Bowl Extravaganza, 1985)
As tragedy continually rocked the Von Erich wrestling dynasty throughout the eighties, professional wrestling was itself in a state of turmoil. The then–World Wrestling Federation (now WWE) was rapidly expanding to become a nationwide promotion, and old territorial outfits like the Von Erichs’ World Class Championship Wrestling couldn’t compete. By decade’s end, WCCW’s once-robust business was in decline, but the Von Erich boys still had one superheated feud left in them.
The promotion’s signature storyline throughout 1985 and 1986 pit the Von Erichs against the Dynamic Duo of Gino Hernandez and “Gentleman” Chris Adams. Both men were agile performers—Adams is regarded as an innovator of the superkick—but they were also brilliant heels, weaseling out of fair fights with the Von Erichs on several occasions. At the Cotton Bowl in 1985, Kerry and Kevin wrestled the Dynamic Duo in a “hair versus hair” tag-team match—the losers’ locks would be shorn—and it’s genuinely hilarious watching Adams and Hernandez squirm as the entire WCCW locker room takes turns snipping off their hair.
Unfortunately, the tragedies of WCCW weren’t limited to the Von Erich family; the feud came to a sudden and unplanned conclusion when Hernandez died from an overdose in 1986. Chris Adams would also meet an untimely end, shot in the chest during a drunken brawl in Waxahachie in 2001. As with so much of the Von Erichs’ legend, the real-life losses have come to overshadow their marvelous wrestling, but their performances still feel as alive as they did almost fifty years ago.
video: inside the story
Staff writer John Spong profiled Kevin Von Erich in 2005. The 2023 feature film The Iron Claw has introduced new audiences to the family’s story. Watch Spong discuss those interviews and reflect on what’s at the heart of it all.