Wrestling is full of its storied and legendary families, from the Anoa’i Samoan family to Calgary’s Hart Family, from Texas’ Funks to Ireland’s Finlays. But no family has been as cursed with tragedy as the Adkissons from Denton, Texas, better known the world over as the Von Erichs, who lost their fifth child, Kerry Von Erich, on this day back in 1993.
Headed by one of the 60s biggest heels, Fritz Von Erich, the family saw five of their six children – all boys – die prematurely. Jack Jr. was the youngest, at only six years old, when he drowned in a puddle after being electrocuted. The other five all followed their father into pro wrestling, but the curse continued. Fritz’ third son, arguably the greatest wrestler in the family, David Von Erich died in 1984 at the age of 25 of a suspected drug overdose. Mike Von Erich had only just joined the family business a year before David’s passing, but in 1987, he committed suicide at the age of 23. The baby of the family, Chris Von Erich, never had the looks or abilities of his brother, but was driven by a desire to succeed in the family industry. Frustrated over his inability to reach the heights of his siblings, and heartbroken over his brother Mike’s suicide, Chris committed suicide himself in 1991, just days before his 22nd birthday. But it was 25 years ago today that the Von Erich family witnessed it’s final tragedy, when Kerry Von Erich, the one Von Erich to win the NWA World Heavyweight title and reach success in the WWE, when “The Texas Tornado” also took his own life, following a career changing injury that left him without a foot and a marriage that was crumbling around him. Kerry Von Erich was only 33. The Von Erich brothers are survived by their last remaining brother, Kevin Von Erich, who turns 61 this year.
Kerry Von Erich made his debut with his father’s Big Time Wrestling (which became WCCW) in Texas in 1979, the third of Fritz’s sons to enter into pro wrestling following Kevin in 1976 and David in 1977. While he never had the technical prowess of David or Kevin, Kerry was naturally more athletic and was built in the classic wrestler way that was destined for the WWF. With his rockstar hair and his winning smile, Kerry Von Erich was a natural for pro wrestling entering the 1980s. His success came early, and in 1980 he defeated Gino Hernandez for the NWA North American Heavyweight title (Texas version). Known as “The Modern Day Warrior” in his early days, this was the title that would become the company’s World Heavyweight title when they seceded from the NWA in 1986 to become World Class Championship Wrestling (WCCW). In June of 1982, Kerry Von Erich cemented his main event status by defeating former NWA World Champion Harley Race, while also regularly teaming with his older brother Kevin.
In 1983, Kerry Von Erich became the familial focal point in the legendary Von Erichs rivalry against the Fabulous Freebirds (Michael PS Hayes, Terry “Bam Bam” Gordy and Buddy Roberts). The impetus had been at the end of 1982 when Kerry Von Erich was embroiled in a feud with NWA World Heavyweight Champion Ric Flair in Texas. The Freebirds sided with Von Erich, in an attempt to bring the World title to the South, but Kerry Von Erich rebuffed their aid. In the end, it cost him the title – during the final match between Von Erich and Flair in a steel cage, Freebird Terry Gordy slammed the cage door on Von Erich, busting him open, allowing Flair to retain. What emerged was war.
Kerry Von Erich first paired up with old tag team partner Bruiser Brody and defeated Hayes and Roberts for the NWA American Tag Team titles in June of 1983. A month later, he made it a family affair, teaming with David and Kevin to defeat the full Freebirds trio for the NWA Texas 6-Man Tag Team titles – this would become the defining title for the entire blood feud that would last almost five years. The Freebirds would hold the titles five times in that span, while The Von Erichs would hold them six (although the Von Erichs in the trio would vary with Kevin remaining the constant).
In May of 1984, Kerry Von Erich finally achieved the top of the mountain, pinning Ric Flair to capture the NWA World Heavyweight Championship in front of 45,000 fans at Texas Stadium. Sadly, he dropped the belt back to Ric Flair only 18 days later in Japan – the match itself was marred in controversy, as Von Erich’s feet were below the ropes during the pinfall. Many believed that Von Erich’s win was purely for sympathetic reasons (David had died just months before) and they needed to get the title back on Ric Flair before the NWA Night of Champions on May 29, 1984, that was scheduled to feature World Champion Flair versus US Champion Ricky Steamboat.
Unfortunately, independence from the NWA in 1986 didn’t elevate WCCW to the national stage the way Fritz had originally hoped. Vince McMahon Jr. had taken the WWF to global new heights and the NWA was quickly trying to rally its troops to keep up the fight against their Northern neighbours. Jim Crockett kept pace with McMahon, buying up NWA territories like Mid South and Championship Wrestling From Florida to merge with his own Mid Atlantic, to keep the NWA strong, but Fritz’ withdrawal left WCCW farther behind than they were when they were in the alliance. In 1988, WCCW formed a short lived merger with Verne Gagne‘s AWA and Jerry Jarrett and Jerry Lawler‘s Continental Wrestling Association (CWA) to form Pro Wrestling USA. But by then it was too little too late – AWA seceded back to their own promotion and folded shortly after, while WCCW and CWA reformed as USWA.
Kerry Von Erich finally left the Texas territory in 1990, signing with the WWF, where he became “The Texas Tornado”. That summer, he defeated Mr. Perfect for the WWF Intercontinental Championship at SummerSlam, and continued a strong push. When NWA World Champion Ric Flair made his first jump to the WWF in 1991, it was Von Erich who became Flair’s first rival.
Sadly, Von Erich’s demons were beginning to catch up to him. Back in 1986, he was involved in a motorcycle accident that resulted in a badly damaged leg. The result was the amputation of his right foot. He was treated with a prosthetic foot which meant he could still wrestle, but the pain from the accident and the subsequent wrestling with a prosthetic limb lead to an addiction to painkillers. Von Erich left the WWF in 1992 and returned to the Texas independents, but by then he was a shell of the man who had beaten Flair in front of 45,000 fans just eight years prior. With his marriage sliding, his career failing, and facing assured jail time for his second drug charge (he was in violation of his probation), on February 18, 1993, Kerry Von Erich fired a .44 caliber bullet into his chest.
In 2009, the WWE inducted the entire Von Erich wrestling family into the WWE Hall of Fame for their outstanding contributions to the history of professional wrestling.