The Von Erich Family’s Tragic True Story Inspired ‘The Iron Claw’

fictionalized von erich brothers from the iron claw posing for a photo in front of a white fence
‘The Iron Claw:’ The Von Erich Family’s True StoryEric Chakeen
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Editor’s Note: This article contains spoilers about events related to the movie The Iron Claw.

Fueled by the death of his firstborn child, professional wrestler Fritz Von Erich worked to mold his five younger sons into star athletes so that nothing—or no one—could ever hurt them. Along the way, the brothers built inseparable bonds and became one of wrestling’s most iconic dynasties.

The relationships among the Von Erich family—including brothers Kevin, David, Kerry, and Mike—are at the core of the 2023 biopic The Iron Claw. Now streaming on Max, the movie stars Zac Efron, Jeremy Allen White, Harris Dickinson, and Lily James.

The Iron Claw provides a dramatized look at the Von Erichs’ rise to stardom, as well as the troubling circumstances outside the ring that led to a series of deadly family tragedies. This string of personal turmoil has led many fans and observers to conclude the Von Erichs must have been “cursed,” a notion Kevin Von Erich (played by Efron) refutes.

In fact, Kevin and his family rose from humble beginnings in rural Texas to become Hall of Famers at the highest level of wrestling. The only thing that would stop them is death itself.

Beginnings of a Dynasty

To start, we should say Von Erich wasn’t the family’s real last name. And, it turns out, Fritz wasn’t actually Fritz. He was Jack Barton Adkisson, husband to Doris and father of six boys. He took on the Von Erich persona after becoming an established professional wrestler.

Fritz was born August 16, 1929, in Jewett, Texas. Speaking in the Vice Studios docuseries Dark Side of the Ring, Kevin described his father as “a big kid for his age” but not necessarily strong. Jack’s father, who was the town sheriff, helped set up bare-knuckle boxing matches with other children in Jewett to toughen up his son.

Before his time in the squared circle, Jack was a promising discus thrower and football prospect who played tackle at Southern Methodist University. He married Doris, his high school sweetheart, in June 1950, but their marriage cost him his scholarship. He transferred to Corpus Christi University and briefly joined the NFL’s Dallas Texans out of school. But his pro career never took off, and following a failed tryout in the Canadian Football League, Jack began training in Edmonton, Canada, under Stu Hart—patriarch of the Hart family that later produced five-time heavyweight champion Bret “the Hitman” Hart.

fritz von erich standing in a yard with a fence pretending to square up to an opponent in his wrestling attire
Fritz Von Erich stands in his wrestling attire for a 1963 portrait.Getty Images

Returning to Texas, he began wrestling at the Sportatorium in Dallas as the ring character Fritz Von Erich, a villainous Nazi from Berlin that crowds hated and promoters loved. Soon after, he added his signature attack the Iron Claw, in which the hulking figure grabbed and squeezed the temples of his opponent with one hand to devastating effect.

Fritz toured the country as a bona fide heel (that’s wrestling speak for the bad guy), sometimes performing for as little as $5 per night according to D magazine. While he set the foundation for the Von Erich wrestling dynasty, he and his family would soon face a horrific tragedy that foreshadowed their calamitous legacy.

A Shocking Death

As Von Erich’s notoriety grew, so did his family. He and Doris welcomed sons Jack Jr. in September 1952, Kevin in May 1957, and David in July 1958. But only a year after David’s birth, they lost their oldest child.

With Fritz away wrestling in 1959, Jack Jr. was playing in the trailer park where the family was staying in Niagara Falls, Ontario, when he touched an exposed electrical wire. The unconscious boy fell face down into a puddle of melting snow and drowned.

His death left his parents reeling, with Doris telling her husband she also wanted to die. According to D Magazine, for years, she cataloged events from her life based on their proximity to Jack’s passing.

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Even at his young age, Kevin could see his father suffered greatly. “I came in and saw my dad punch a car window that just shattered,” he told Dark Side of the Ring. “He came out of that different. He was still an honorable man on the outside, but I think inside he wanted to die. He was suffering… He was at war with the world. He wanted to make everyone suffer like him.”

Fritz tried to channel this turmoil inside the ring and through his role raising his still-growing family.

Rise of the Von Erichs

Not long after Jack’s death, Fritz bought 115 acres of land in rural Texas so he could be more involved with his children. His and Doris’ fourth son, Kerry (played by White in the movie), was born in February 1960, followed by Mike and Chris in March 1964 and September 1969, respectively.

Fritz alternated between loving dad and strict disciplinarian. He taught his sons to hunt, ride a motorcycle, and fight back against bullies. If any of them acted out of line, he also didn’t hesitate to use corporal punishment.

Not surprisingly, he introduced his children to wrestling, building a homemade ring behind their house and setting up a home gym for them. Kevin, David (played by Dickinson), and Kerry became star high school athletes in various sports that included football, basketball, and track and field. Kerry even set a world junior record in discus.

All three attended college but eventually dropped out to become wrestlers. “To be honest, we didn’t even know if we’d like wrestling that much. I mean, wrestling was filled with these old, out-of-shape men, going from one small town to another, looking miserable,” Kevin said in 1988. “But we all knew what was going to happen in the end. It was inevitable. We were going to go into wrestling, because we wanted to be just like our dad.”

wrestler kevin von erich fights with jumping lee during the rage wrestling mega show in tel aviv, israel, sunday, july 9, 2017 the israeli wrestling league hosted a wrestling show in tel aviv with some of the wwe greatest of all time ap photoariel schalit
Kevin Von Erich performs his family’s signature move, the Iron Claw, during a wrestling show in Israel in 2017.AP

Years later, Mike followed a similar path as his older brothers into pro wrestling. Even Chris, who suffered from severe asthma growing up and had extremely brittle bones, eventually climbed over the top rope and into the ring.

With his sons ready to carry on the Von Erich family legacy in the late 1970s and early ’80s, Fritz had dropped his heel persona and showed off his skills as a master promoter. He wanted the Von Erichs to be rugged fighters but also a squeaky clean family relatable to fans.

It paid off, as older brothers Kevin, David, and Kerry became the centerpiece of Fritz’s promotion, World Class Championship Wrestling. Their shows aired across the United States and even in Japan and the Middle East. This helped the entire family build a devoted fan base, even though the brothers had varying degrees of success in the ring. David was considered the best wrestler among the group, but Kerry had the most memorable victory, beating superstar Ric Flair for the NWA World Championship in 1984.

However, their time at the pinnacle wouldn’t last long.

The ‘Curse’ Takes Hold

In time, the physical demands of wrestling and the pressure of carrying on the Von Erich legacy seemingly took their toll on the brothers. By 1993, four of them had died under conditions that were equally mysterious and heart-wrenching—leading to the notion the family was cursed.

In late 1983, David began to experience periodic stomach sickness but continued performing. The 25-year-old was on a tour with All Japan Pro Wrestling when he unexpectedly died on February 10, 1984. Medical officials in Tokyo said the cause of death was acute enteritis or inflammation of the intestines. However, rumors have persisted that David actually died of a drug overdose that was covered up.

In August 1985, Mike—determined to fill the void left by David’s death—was wrestling in Israel when he suffered a dislocated shoulder and underwent surgery. A week later, he was hospitalized with toxic shock syndrome. Despite losing the function of his kidneys and facing a fever of 107 degrees, he survived and returned to wrestling. However, he reportedly suffered brain damage from the ordeal and struggled outside the ring. Four days after a DUI arrest in April 1987, Mike died by an apparent suicide caused by an overdose of a sleeping aid. He was only 23.

Chris reportedly suffered from depression following the deaths of his brothers and struggled to achieve in-ring success. He died by suicide in 1991 at age 22 from a gunshot wound.

kerry von erich stands inside a wrestling ring holding a belt over his head with one hand and pointing right with his other, he wears yellow shorts and knee pads with knee high white boots with long fringe and red laces
Kerry Von Erich, seen here in 1990, was the most successful wrestler among his brothers.Alamy

Kerry achieved the most of the brothers, eventually joining Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation—now WWE—in 1990 under the name the Texas Tornado. However, his bigger battle was out of the ring. In June 1986, Kerry dislocated his hip and badly injured his right leg and foot. He returned to the ring the next February with “enough Novacaine to numb Secretariat’s hoof,” according to Irv Muchnick’s book Wrestling Babylon: Piledriving Tales of Drugs, Sex, Death, and Scandal. He won the comeback match but had broken his ankle again. Eventually, doctors tried to fuse his foot into a walking position but ultimately determined Kerry required an amputation.

Kerry managed to hide his prosthesis from fans and most of his competitors for years. However, he became addicted to painkillers and, by February 1993, was out of wrestling and the target of an arrest warrant for cocaine possession. On February 18, he died from a self-inflicted gunshot at age 33.

The Von Erich Family Legacy

kevin von erich wearing a tuxedo and speaking at a podium
Kevin Von Erich speaks at the WWE Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2009.Getty Images

Fritz and Doris divorced in 1992. The deaths of his sons took a mental toll on the proud father, and lung and brain cancer eroded his physical well-being. Fritz died on September 10, 1997. “I was glad he died. I wanted him to quit suffering,” Kevin said in Dark Side of the Ring.

As the last Von Erich brother alive, Kevin has had to listen to myriad rumors about his family and references to the so-called curse that lingers over them. But he doesn’t buy it. “Not only have I lost a brother, I lost all of them,” he said. “There was talk about there being a curse on the family. It’s ridiculous. A curse. What happened was just a terrible thing, but no curse.”

Kevin has admitted he also battled suicidal thoughts but managed to find peace. Today, he and his wife, Pam, have four children and 11 grandchildren.

WWE posthumously inducted the Von Erich family into its Hall of Fame in 2009, ensuring their accomplishments inside the ring would be remembered by generations of fans. Today, a new branch of Von Erichs is continuing the family legacy. Kevin’s sons Ross and Marshall compete as a Von Erich tag team and have worked in promotions like Major League Wrestling.

According to TMZ, Kevin talked to director Sean Durkin a few times about The Iron Claw but wasn’t involved in any significant way behind the scenes. Still, he commended Efron’s physical transformation for the role. Even White, who put on 40 pounds of muscle for the movie, called Efron a “maniac” with his training and diet. “I think they’re going to do great,” Kevin said.

Editor’s Note: If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts or self-harming behaviors, call or text 988 to get help from the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.

Watch The Iron Claw on Max Now

In a first look video from the movie’s distributor, A24, co-stars Zac Efron, Jeremy Allen White, and Harris Dickinson shared the special connection they developed while learning the high-flying maneuvers that made the real Von Erich family famous:

“The support and true love between the brothers, that was really special,” White explained. “Harris, Zac, and I, there’s a brotherhood now.”

You can catch their high-flying performances as Kevin, Kerry, and David Von Erich with The Iron Claw now streaming on Max. The movie also stars Lily James as Kevin’s love interest, Pam; Holt McCallany as Fritz; Maura Tierney as Doris; and Stanley Simons as Mike.

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