By Jim Phillips, Columnist
There were several notable territories that thrived before the demise of the system in the late Eighties. Five major companies that were under the N.W.A. banner led the way. The St. Louis Club, the A.W.A., the Crocketts and their Mid-Atlantic promotion, Championship Wrestling from Florida and Big Time Wrestling, which would eventually evolve into World Class Championship Wrestling. Every worker that went on to any acclaim in the wrestling business worked in one, or several of these major markets. Legends like Ric Flair, Harley Race, Andre, Wahoo McDaniel, and the Funks, just to name a few, worked them all. It was Fritz von Erich that dominated Big Time Wrestling for a decade in the mid Sixties until he stepped back from the limelight of the ring to promote his own brand, transforming his sons into a powerhouse, and securing their legacy as one of the most influential families in the professional wrestling business to date.
The patriarch of the Von Erich dynasty was born under the big Texas sky in August of 1929 to the Adkisson family, in the small town of Jewett. The family named their boy Jack, and he grew up to be a mountain of a young man. He threw discus and played football in Dallas for SMU, which eventually led him to Edmonton, Canada and a stint with the Canadian Football League. It was during his time there that his life took a turn ,and would be forever changed when he met Stu Hart. After seeing his size and ability to be agile with that build, Hart knew he needed to train this young man, and promote him in his Klondike Wrestling company. He teamed Jack with Walter Seiber and the two took on the heel monikers of Fritz and Waldo Von Erich. The two German giants were instantly hated, and created a huge draw for themselves as they traveled the territorial system honing their craft. They won the N.W.A. Southern Tag Team titles, and returned to Dallas to capture the N.W.A. American Tag Team Championship on two occasions at BTW. The team would split up after the loss of his first son, Jack Addison Jr. in 1959 to accidental electrocution. The boy was seven years old. This would mark a dark cloud of early death that would hang over the family for many years to come, and many in the business would speculate if there was a “Von Erich curse.
Fritz continued to wrestle and would work as far away as Japan, where he became famous for the “Iron Claw” finisher, and his feuds with Antonio Inoki and Great Baba. His drawing ability helped to revitalize the popularity of the sport, after the tragic stabbing of Rikidozan in 1963, who died from peritonitis a week later. Fritz returned to Dallas in 1969, after the death of his partner Ed McLemore to assert ownership over the Dallas Sportatorium. He would also subsequently would take over the N.W.A. branch of operations in Dallas and oversee the Houston and San Antonio branches as well with the backing of President Sam Muchnick from St. Louis. For the next several years Fritz would trade talents with Gene LeBelle’s Los Angeles based promotion to keep a steady flow of workers coming into his Dallas territory. The Seventies would see everything change for Big Time Wrestling, and it would give birth to a true wrestling monster.
One by one throughout the mid to late Seventies the Von Erich boys would enter into the family business, and onto the worldwide wrestling scene. As in their succession of age, they also entered into wrestling professionally as such, Kevin in 1976, David in 1977 and Kerry in 1979, into their father’s promotion. Their path and legacy in wrestling was laid out before them and they achieved superhero status, not only in the Dallas area but all over the United States and Japan. All the boys found their individual success and would also wrestle as a unit on many occasions winning tag team gold. Kevin was known for wrestling bare foot in the ring, the high flying work he pulled off and always wearing his heart on his sleeve while taking no lip from anyone. He went on to face the likes of Ric Flair and Chris Adams in singles competition in long running feuds.
David, who garnered the nickname “The Yellow Rose of Texas”, was the diamond in Fritz’s eye to take the family name to the next level and capture the N.W.A. title after defeating Harley Race in a non-title match in Missouri in 1979. Later that year he decided to make a name for himself outside of Dallas and prove that his fame in the business wasn’t exclusive to his father’s promotion. He traveled to the WWF with some success, and then moved onto Florida where he met Jimmy Garvin and worked as a heel under the management of J.J. Dillon. He also came under the tutelage of Dory Funk Jr. during his time in Florida and teamed up with him and his brother Terry Funk, as well as working in singles competition. David is credited with helping bring in the team that would be nemesis for their family for many years to follow: The Fabulous Freebirds. He was also instrumental in getting his old friend from his Florida days, Jimmy Garvin, to come to Dallas and take part in the eruption of the W.C.C.W. brand. The two had one of the hottest feuds in the history of the company upon his arrival. It culminated in the amazing set of vignettes where Garvin, and his valet Sunshine, had to be David’s slave at the family ranch and do all his bidding. It was the stuff of greatness.
Kerry Von Erich rose to the most visible success of any of his wrestling brethren. It was his cage match in 1982 with Ric Flair that started the feud between his family and the Freebirds, and herald in the “Golden Age” of wrestling for W.C.C.W.. In June of 1986 he suffered multiple injuries, including the loss of his right foot as the result a motorcycle accident. He continued to wrestle with a prosthesis, but kept this a secret from fans and most of his fellow wrestlers. Some said he even went so far as to shower with his boots on to conceal the fact. He worked several territories throughout his career but his time in the WWF as The Texas Tornado cemented his legacy as a worldwide wrestling star.
Gary Hart had been with the company since the mid-sixties but took over the role of booker in 1976. He was manager for a stable of heels that would be waged in battle against the Von Erich clan until the Eighties. He worked the role of booker, off and on, during these years before his eventual departure to the Mid-Atlantic territory, where he would finish out his career. Gary Hart was a visionary, who had one of the best minds on how to execute the heel gimmick, and more-so, his forte’ as the brains behind a maniacal machine, hell bent on destroying the virtuous Von Erichs. He commanded such heel talents as The Great Muta, Bruiser Brody, Killer Khan, Abdullah the Butcher, The Great Kabuki, Nord the Barbarian, The Dingo Warrior, and the team of “Gentleman” Chris Adams and “Gorgeous” Gino Hernandez, among others. These were just during his term at W.C.C.W., he also managed Dusty Rhodes and Pak Song during the famed face turn of Rhodes in Championship Wrestling from Florida in the Seventies. It was also during this time that he was nearly killed in an airplane crash into Tampa Bay during a severe thunderstorm. He proved himself a hero that night, and the harrowing story of that crash can been seen in the video link at the end of this article as told by Hart himself. It was Hart that was the booking brains behind the monster we eluded to earlier, when the Freebirds went against the Von Erichs in a feud that would embroil all of Texas and beyond.
It was 1982 when everything was turned on it’s ear in W.C.C.W.. The Freebirds had been working in the Mid-South territory for Bill Watts when they got the invite from David Von Erich to come down to Dallas. They arrived just as things were getting really hot in the territory and Gary Hart had the perfect way to use them. Kerry Von Erich was having a title match with Ric Flair in the Von Erich stronghold of Dallas, Texas. Michael Hayes, who was over nearly as much as the Von Erichs with fans, had been chosen as the special guest referee in the match. Hayes had his teammate, Terry Gordy, guarding the door to the cage. At some point in the match Hayes had interfered on Kerry’s behalf and tried to count the pinfall. Kerry’s Texas pride wouldn’t let him win that way and incensed, Bam Bam Gordy slammed the door on Kerry’s head when he refused their assistance. This singular event sparked the feud that would last between the Von Erichs and The Freebirds for years to follow. The Freebirds were also the self-proclaimed inventors of using entrance music for coming out to the ring and creating that pop.
In the fall of 1983 W.C.C.W. had launched its flagship weekly tv programming that I loved and remember so well. This was the first time that I had been exposed to their product, and was instantly taken in by it. The abundance of great heels that made their way through every week kept me coming back for more. I did love to jeer the Von Erichs and praise the works of Gary Hart and his henchmen. Fritz and Hart used this format to get their product out to as many homes and fans as possible. May the Gods bless them for it, because it totally changed the way I looked at professional wrestling. It was hard hitting, gritty, and there was always color on their programming. Someone was always getting busted open. I loved it!
Over the next eight years World Class flourished in their market and showcased many talents that passed through their doors. Gino Hernandez gained great acclaim at this time working as a heel under the guidance of Gary Hart. He also rose to heights at that time as one half of the Dynamic Duo with Chris Adams. Great stars such as The Fantastics, Rick Rude, Jake Roberts, Manny Fernandez, Sunshine, Missy Hyatt, John Tatum, Buddy Roberts, and many, many others grew the promotion during this time.
After the lack luster performance of the Super Clash III pay per view event, put on by the union of W.C.C.W., the A.W.A, and the C.W.A., Fritz began to back away from promoting anything outside of the Dallas area. Some of this was also due to a dispute between himself and Ken Mantell, who left to become the booker of the Universal Wrestling Federation. Longstanding tensions between the two companies would lead to talent transitions and eventual buy outs by outside parties. Mantell eventually returned to World Class after his solo ventures went by the wayside. Fritz and Mantell sold their interests in the company to Jerry Jarrett and his Continental Wrestling Association in 1990. The two companies would merge to become the United States Wrestling Association leaving Jarrett as a sixty percent majority owner, and new leader going into the future. The U.S.W.A. would carry on where World Class had left off.
Fritz passed away at the age of 68 on September 10th, 1997 from complications of brain and lung cancer. He was preceded in death by five of his six sons. He was inducted posthumously into the St. Louis Wrestling HOF in 2007, followed by the WWE HOF in 2009 and the Professional Wrestling HOF in 2012. David was on course to fulfill his father’s and his own dream by winning the N.W.A. title from Ric Flair in 1984, but this was cut short when he passed away suddenly during a tour of Japan with the All Japan Pro Wrestling promotion on April 10th, 1984. The official cause of death was ruptured intestines as a result of acute enteritis, and possibly a massively large meal before he went back to his hotel room to go to sleep. A cloud of mystery hovered above his death for many years. Some fellow wrestlers eluded to the possibility that his death may be drug related, and still others maintain that he had a heart attack. Whatever the cause, a great wrestling career was cut short, and another son was taken from the Adkisson family. Mike followed his brother David on he committed suicide on April 12th, 1987. He had suffered a debilitating case of toxic shock syndrome following emergency shoulder surgery in Israel. The youngest of the brothers, Chris, was very close with Mike and the loss of his brother would weigh on him, ultimately causing him to take his own life in 1991. After the amputation of his foot, Kerry steadily developed an addiction to prescribed pain killers. This led him down a dark road of bad decisions that finally led to his suicide on February 18th, 1993 at his father’s home in Texas. The combination of prescription drugs and disparity can lead even the strongest of people over the edge.
Gary Hart passed away on March 16th, 2008 at the age of sixty six from a heart attack at his home in Euless, Texas. He was without a doubt one of the greatest minds in the business before and since, and will always be my favorite heel manager hands down, with Bobby Heenan a close second. He was relentless, and unrepentant in his quest for championship gold around the waist of his charges. Gino Hernandez also passed away in 1986 from a cocaine overdose. He was taken way too soon and what could only be called a career unfulfilled was taken from him at the young age of twenty eight.
Kevin “Von Erich” Adkisson remains involved in professional wrestling, albeit from a distance these days. Kevin’s sons, Ross and Marshall, are also following in the footsteps of their family heritage and have worked for Pro Wrestling NOAH in Japan, TNA, and most recently appeared at the Rage Megashow in Israel. Kerry’s daughter Lacey worked for WWE and TNA and retired as a former Knockouts Tag Champion in 2010, as well. Kevin lives in Hawaii with his wife, Pam, and their four children.
Legacy and heritage are two of the things that I hold in highest regard when it comes to the wrestling business. The Von Erich name will go down in wrestling history as shining examples of both. While most modern day wrestling fans only associate the family names McMahon, Hart, Anoa’i, or Graham with wrestling territorial greatness, for me, it is the Adkisson clan that set the bar in the Eighties that few were able to reach for many, many years. Our wrestling history is gold Bruthas and Sistas, DIG IT!!! Peace