The Iron Claw: True Story of Von Erich Family Curse Is Even More Tragic Than the Movie


When it comes to serious movies about wrestling, The Iron Claw is a bit unorthodox. During the height of wrestling’s popularity in the late ‘90s, we had two major documentaries on the subject via Wrestling with Shadows and Beyond the Mat. The Wrestler starring Mickey Rourke was serious, but fictional, based loosely on the modern life of Jake “The Snake” Roberts and his contemporaries. The recent Fighting with My Family, meanwhile, was a sensationalized and comedic take on Saraya/Paige’s initial ascent in WWE.

By contrast, The Iron Claw is based on a bitterly true story that has always been considered one of the darkest corners in wrestling history. It has been the subject of several documentaries itself and has long been viewed as a rich resource for a potential Hollywood film. That’s because the rise and fall of World Class Championship Wrestling coincides with the story of the Von Erich family. The resulting collision feels like a Behind the Music episode mixed with a horror movie.

So is writer-director Sean Durkin’s new film accurate to the reality behind the fictional sport? Oh, it does a great job, but that’s not to say The Iron Claw doesn’t take certain creative liberties. The movie feels very condensed at times—to the point that when the tragedies start almost looking like a montage (particularly right after a death flag scene so blatant it feels like something out of Walk Hard).

So, what changed from real life to the silver screen? Well, let’s start with the biggest change.

Chris Von Erich, the Missing Brother

Once the trailer first hit, fans were a bit disturbed to see that the family photo of the Von Erichs only had four brothers in it. While the movie does make mention of the oldest brother, Jack Jr., who died tragically at age six, there was yet another Von Erich brother who adds to the family’s upsetting history. Chris Von Erich (Chris Adkisson, but I’m just going to use their wrestling names for the rest of this article for the sake of simplicity) was the youngest of the brothers and was involved in WCCW for years, acting as a camera man among other jobs. Occasionally, as a teenager, he would get involved in certain on-camera Von Erich storylines.

While Chris was interested in becoming a wrestler like his brothers, he was physically not made for it. Like a real-life Steve Rogers without science fiction to save him, Chris pushed himself despite certain drawbacks like his size, asthma, and brittle bones. Just over a year into his short career of under a dozen matches, Chris became depressed and disillusioned, ultimately taking his own life at the young age of 21 in 1991.

The belief was that adding Chris to the movie would add to what was already a lengthy runtime. Regardless of the reason, it seems that some of Chris’ story is absorbed into Mike, whose screen time can be summed up with, “He shouldn’t have been wrestling to begin with.”

Mike Von Erich’s Career

The rapid pacing gives an idea that the youngest onscreen brother, Mike Von Erich (who is played by Stanley Simons), was pressured into wrestling, messed up his shoulder in his debut, and that was the end of his career. It’s a very simplistic reduction of what really was a career that lasted nearly 200 matches.

Yes, Mike was not a muscular god like his brothers before him. He was thinner and he was definitely stuck in the shadows of Kevin (Zac Efron), David (Harris Dickinson), and Kerry (Jeremy Allen White). He still got by well enough, but his shoulder was a regular problem for him. As shown in the movie, a routine surgery did end up going very badly and he suffered from toxic shock syndrome. There was indeed brain damage and he was very out of it during his press conference, but Simons’ performance does make it a bit more overt for dramatic effect.

Mike did come back to wrestling a year later and wrestled regularly, performing in over 50 matches for another nine months. He really shouldn’t have, but he did. He lost a lot of weight from his near-death experience, and there were lingering brain problems, including some random bouts with rage. What the movie definitely got right was the indications that he was not truly passionate about becoming a wrestler to begin with and was more into camerawork and being a musician.

Lance Von Erich, The Forgotten “Cousin”

This one may have been filmed for the movie but was cut for time. It’s understandable, as it’s not too important, but it is a fascinating footnote in the Von Erich’s history. An interesting thing about wrestling is that despite the fictional elements surrounding the show, fans really do not like it when you take something genuine and real and turn it into a lie. For example, when the WCW wrestler Goldberg was in his prime and was one of the most popular acts of his day, he had an undefeated record so massive and prolific that fans would bring signs of “[win number]-0” to shows. They were everywhere.

Then World Championship Wrestling started cooking the number of wins to make it seem bigger than it already was. Around the same time, they would pipe in “GOLLLLLDBERRRRRG!” chants to make him seem even more popular. That turned fans off because they took something naturally exciting and tinkered with it and made it seem plastic and hollow.

And that brings us to a wrestler who went by the name of Lance Von Erich. William Vaughan wrestled as Ricky Vaughan for a bit in Oregon until coming to WCCW to fill in for Mike while he was healing from his shoulder surgery situation. The Von Erichs had been feuding with the Freebirds, and rather than just throw a popular name into the three-on-three rivalry to back up Kevin and Kerry, the Von Erich patriarch Fritz (Holt McCallany in the movie) was adamant it needed to be a Von Erich. If there were none available, he would simply create another relative. Hence, Ricky Vaughan was introduced as Lance Von Erich, their totally jacked cousin.

To be fair, there have been countless fake relatives in wrestling, and even Fritz once had a fake brother as a tag partner. It’s just that the Von Erichs felt special because they were legitimately blood relatives and throwing some Poochie into the mix felt cheap. The fans were not too into it either, and even the Von Erich brothers thought the whole thing was lame. Lance lasted a year and a half before having a pay dispute and leaving. Kerry Von Erich came to the ring to announce Lance’s real name and say he refused to wrestle his match that night. Fritz later appeared on ESPN to make it known that Lance was a fraud and was no longer allowed in the WCCW.

Lance still appears very briefly in The Iron Claw, portrayed by current AEW top guy Maxwell Jacob Friedman. He’s the guy shown winning a tag match as Efron’s annoyed Kevin stands on the ring apron. He’s in there just long enough to have you wondering, “Hey, is that MJF in a wig?”

The Scandals

Something the movie doesn’t really touch on is the bridge between the Von Erichs’ demons and public perception. The closest thing we see to this is how many people showed up to mourn David. Otherwise, all we saw were fans cheering and getting the occasional autograph.

There was most definitely a relationship between the Von Erich family’s downfall and WCCW’s drop in popularity. Part of it was because of Fritz’s attempts to control the narrative. For instance, Kerry was arrested for being found with a bunch of narcotics back in 1983, and while he was able to escape charges, it was big enough news that they cut promos on TV about how the Freebirds had allegedly planted the drugs on him. And while Kevin’s death was ruled a ruptured intestine, there was still obvious speculation of drug-related foul play based on a wrestler being found dead in his hotel room and the optics that came with it.

Compound all of that with the other young WCCW wrestlers who were dying in that era (most notably Gino Hernandez), and you have a group of fans losing their zest for the product. The memorial show for David Von Erich in 1984 had an attendance of over 32,000 people. Three years later, the memorial show for Mike had an attendance of under 6,000.

The Wrestling Observer Newsletter would always release their annual awards, as voted on by readers, and WCCW spent four years in a row as the recipient of the Most Disgusting Promotional Tactic. This included 1988, where Fritz faked a heart attack on TV with the indication that he needed an increase in ticket sales to help his ailing health.

Kerry Von Erich as NWA World Heavyweight Champion

While not outright stated, the movie’s editing makes it seem like Jeremy Allen White’s Kerry won the title off Ric Flair and then got in his fateful motorcycle accident on the same night. Those two incidents were very much unrelated.

Yes, Kerry did defeat Flair at The Von Erich Memorial Parade of Champions and became NWA World Heavyweight Champion. The NWA just had no interest in him holding the belt long-term and had him drop it back to Flair a few weeks later in Japan with a controversial finish. They allowed the feel-good win but they intended to keep going with Flair vs. Ricky Steamboat as their big title feud.

The motorcycle accident took place two years later. His accident was publicly known—after all, they had to explain what happened considering he was going to be missing from TV—but the fate of his foot was kept under wraps. According to Kevin, they did surgery on his foot and there was a chance of it healing, but Kerry (likely affected by whatever drugs he was on at the time), chose to walk on it in the hospital, causing irreparable damage and making amputation necessary. Kerry returned to wrestling only eight months after his accident.

Speaking of throwing events together for the sake of storytelling or dramatic efficiency, Kevin and Pam (Lily James) were married in 1980, nearly four years before David’s doomed trip to Japan. They had a good while before things started to go south. On the other side of the coin, Doris (Maura Tierny in the film) left Fritz a year before Kerry’s death.

Kevin Von Erich and the NWA World Heavyweight Championship

Probably the most dramatic moment made out of whole cloth in the film is Kevin Von Erich’s match with Ric Flair where Kevin’s personal frustrations boil over and he takes it out on the champ. Kevin goes off-script by keeping the Iron Claw on Flair’s head for too long, getting himself disqualified in what ends up being an incredibly short match. Backstage, Flair seems completely cool with it and suggests they go on tour, making Kevin feel uneasy about what chasing that title will cost him.

In actuality, Kevin had actually faced both Harley Race and Ric Flair for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship plenty of times throughout the years. Usually, his inability to seal the deal was protected via disqualifications and double count-out endings. Back in 1983, he had a big title match against Flair where they pulled a “Dusty Finish” (i.e. making the hero look like he won the title to get huge cheers before deflating the crowd and going back on it due to a contrived technicality), and was disqualified after the fact for throwing Flair over the top rope, which was deemed illegal.

Yeah, having a mental breakdown to the point of freaking out the referee is way more entertaining.

Kevin and Flair had a whole series of matches (one did have a post-match scenario where Kevin put the Iron Claw on Flair and had to be pulled off of him), but those ended years before this section in the movie’s version of events. NWA and WCCW had a falling out, and the NWA titles would no longer be featured at WCCW shows. Funny enough, you know who Flair’s final WCCW challenge was before they severed ties? Freaking Lance Von Erich of all people.

Kerry Von Erich’s Death

Despite Jeremy Allen White’s screen presence and the importance thrust upon him, the movie really glosses over Kerry as a character. Outside of his self-destructive behavior, he exists mostly as a foil for Kevin. Is his implosion at the end accurate? Yes and no.

In an odd move, Kerry’s marriage to Catherine is treated as a borderline joke, like she’s some random woman he got together with during his most successful days and he barely remembers she exists later in life. In actuality, the two were married for nine years. They even had two daughters, a little fact probably ignored by the movie because the idea of Kerry leaving behind two young daughters really hurts the sentiment of that saccharine afterlife reunion.

The ”why” behind his breakdown in the movie is credited to his constant pain, his belief in a curse, the realization that his WWF days are nearly over, and paranoia about people finding out about his missing foot. There is probably truth to the pain part, at least. Bret Hart wrote in his autobiography that Kerry had been openly considering suicide a few times years earlier.

Kerry had moved on from WWF months before his death and was out performing for other promotions, so he was long past being stuck on the house show circuit and worrying about his spot in the company. Really, the reason Kerry was at his wits end was because he was being indicted for drug use in such a way that was in violation of his probation and was definitely going to lead to prison. He and Catherine had already divorced, which surely didn’t help his mental state.

Otherwise, he did have a desperate conversation with Kevin the morning of his final day. Kevin called Fritz, hoping he could talk sense to Kerry, but according to Brian Harrison’s documentary, Heroes of World Class: The Story of the Von Erichs and the Rise and Fall of World Class Championship Wrestling, Fritz tried to downplay the situation. Maybe he didn’t put the responsibility on Kevin, but Kevin’s retelling of the story makes it seem like his father didn’t truly understand the severity of Kerry’s mental state until it was too late. The big difference is that Fritz was the one who discovered the body.

The Ultimate Warrior Namedrop

Stepping away to something a bit more lighthearted, there’s a moment at the Christmas scene where Fritz references Kerry’s old tag partner Hellwig. This is supposed to mean Jim Hellwig, known better as the Ultimate Warrior. It’s an odd reference, because while he did compete as the Dingo Warrior in WCCW, he was never teamed with Kerry. At most, they had a very brief run in WWF house shows where they teamed up over the course of a couple weeks.

This might have been a sly Easter egg to reference the bizarre and widespread rumors that Kerry Von Erich had been given the Ultimate Warrior gimmick. Back in 1992, Warrior returned after being gone for half a year and looked extremely different to the point that people wrongly speculated that the original Warrior died and they got someone else to put on the facepaint.

Selling WCCW to Jerry Jarrett

Late in the movie, Kevin realizes how bad WCCW’s finances are and cuts back. He isn’t sure about taking Jerry Jarrett’s offer to buy the company, especially because it’s apparent that doing so will cause Fritz to disown him. After Kerry’s death, Kevin signs the company away, seemingly as a way to wash his hands of the business and stick it to his father.

The story of Jerry Jarrett’s partial ownership of WCCW is a bit complicated, as it involves name changes as well as alliances and mergers with other promotions. The short version is that after a really unfortunate attempt at rebranding the promotion, Fritz sold most of the company to Jarrett. Kevin was very much against this and apparently took legal action because of it. In the end, he still held onto the WCCW name and tried to revive the promotion down the line to no avail.

A lot of this happened well before Kerry even signed with WWF, as he was a big player in all of this.

Kevin Von Erich’s Haunting Epilogue

Kevin Von Erich has told two stories that are so cinematic in their descriptions that it’s rather surprising that they were not part of The Iron Claw. First was a story he told in the Dark Side of the Ring docuseries about feeling lost after becoming the last surviving brother. In his twisted logic, he felt that he couldn’t kill himself if he was thrown in prison. Therefore, he tried to steal a gun to get arrested. Luckily, the proprietor of the gun store was a fan of his and was able to talk him down.

After that, there was his chilling final encounter with Fritz. In the late 1990s, Fritz was stricken with brain cancer and it made him more erratic in his final days. During a visit from Kevin, as per the Heroes of World Class doc, Fritz pulled a gun and threatened Kevin with it. All the while, he called him a coward who was too afraid to end his own life like his brothers before him. Kevin insisted that living took strength and was able to get out of there before it was too late. Kevin blamed the cancer for his father’s twisted actions, believing that Fritz truly loved him. Kevin took solace knowing that Fritz did not have to suffer much longer after that since the father passed in 1997.

Then again, the film’s scene of a lonely and empty Fritz finding himself in a home where the only family left is a woman who resents him was probably a more cathartic way to end his story on the screen.

The post The Iron Claw: True Story of Von Erich Family Curse Is Even More Tragic Than the Movie appeared first on Den of Geek.

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