‘The Iron Claw’ And The Real Von Erich Story Go Together Like Pizza And Muffins
11:28 AM EST on January 5, 2024
The Iron Claw, a modest success of a Christmas tearjerker, is a movie that I would call "loosely inspired" by the life and deaths of the Von Erich family. Sean Durkin's film has been presented as a biopic, with all the roles based on real-life people around the Dallas wrestling scene in the '80s. But in merciless pursuit of a streamlined narrative, Durkin's script changed or omitted a bunch of key aspects. The finished product is a brutal recital of several tragedies in quick succession. However, the actual tale of the Von Erichs is even stranger, darker, and yet also more morbidly comic than the movie ever allows.
If there's one piece of the Von Erich story that I would have magnified in The Iron Claw, it's the Christianity. It's there in the film, with the boys going to church, but the movie understates the importance of religion to the Von Erichs' success. In The Iron Claw, Fritz is offered a TV deal for World Class Championship Wrestling that puts their big matches on ESPN, seemingly live and in prime time. But while that channel did use WCCW for some after-school programming in the late '80s after its heyday, the film ignores the fascinating relationship between the Von Erichs and Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network. Fritz was a local celebrity and (oft-questioned) born-again Christian, and as he marketed his clean-cut All-American boys, he found a financial and promotional ally in Robertson, who understood that this particular flavor of wrestling could go hand-in-hand with his larger theocratic propaganda project. As a Chicago Tribune profile from 1985 notes, "[Robertson] picked up 'World Class Wrestling' and has seen it draw viewers the way church draws the faithful."
The Von Erichs' mega-fame, specifically in 1980s Texas, was born from the way they were ready-made teen idols while also remaining beyond reproach from those teens' conservative parents. The wrestling business has always been about minting superheroes, but Fritz's brief genius was in his ability to cast his sons as the exact kind of superhero that his community's bigwigs wanted to be real. It's fitting that their most famous rivalry, their feud with the Freebirds, was characterized by Kevin as a battle between "decency and filth."
It's also worth watching them as celebrity pitchmen for the local chain Pizza Inn. If you saw the movie, you'll be confronted by how un-Hollywood the Von Erichs really were, and also how phones used to come in so many different shapes. But it's extremely memorable for what the $3.29 all-you-can-eat deal offers: pizza, salad, and a third thing that really isn't necessary.
Only in the fairytale world of the Von Erichs could you get paid to tell people to go to an all-you-can-eat pizza and muffin buffet.
But of course, the closely scrubbed image of the Von Erichs was a lie. While the movie shies away from explicit references to their addictions or their run-ins with the law, the Von Erich family allegedly took to drugs like oxygen, and for a while used their adoring fanbase and powerful support system to shield them from consequences. Ric Flair's memoir claims that "everybody in wrestling" believes that David's mysterious death in Japan happened from an overdose covered up by fellow wrestler Bruiser Brody. Dave Meltzer's Kerry obit from 1993 quotes former World Class announcer and friend of the family Steve Harms a couple of damning times. "We'd go to the hotel. David, Kerry and Gino [Hernandez] would load up on quaaludes and placidyls. They had a doctor who provided them with anything they wanted and as much as they wanted," he said. Accusing Fritz of enabling his sons, he added, "Once Kevin drove his car into a lake. The next day, he had a new car and it was like nothing had happened."
That same obit also covers Kerry's arrest while going through customs at the Dallas airport in '83. "Customs agents found him with 18 unmarked tablets in his right front pocket," Meltzer wrote. "He was hiding nearly 300 assorted downers like Percodan and Codeine pills in a plastic bag in the crotch of his pants, had ten grams of Marijuana and 6.5 grams of an undetermined blue and white powder." But after Kerry went on TV to deny what had been written in the newspapers, Meltzer writes, "the evidence somehow disappeared from the police station and all charges were dropped."
The dramatic center of the Von Erich tale is not the mythical "curse" that the movie mentions many times, but the tension and contradiction between the way the family was on TV and the way they were in real life. For a shining, spectacular moment in wrestling history, they caught lightning in a bottle and achieved the exact kind of success they imagined for themselves. But the real world intruded to tear it apart, forcing Fritz to make increasingly desperate repairs to his fantasy. After David's death, he managed to put on a crass but wildly successful memorial show that became the high point of Kerry's career, and rushed out the single "Heaven Needed A Champion."
Later projects were even more shameful: promoting Mike as "The Living Miracle" while encouraging his return to the ring after suffering toxic shock syndrome; hiring a phony cousin, "Lance," to maintain the Von Erichs as a trio, and then trashing him on TV after a money dispute; faking an on-camera heart attack to drum up interest after two of his sons had died. The sublime stardom of the Von Erichs, followed by a decade of brazen and bizarre self-promotion, all overlaying legitimate horrors, makes them an obvious choice as movie subjects. It's just a shame that The Iron Claw sanded down so many of their edges, their strangenesses, their inextricable connection to a specific time and place, and leaves us instead with a story that, in trying to be so straightforward, denies audiences a real picture of who these men were. The truth was not only stranger than fiction, but more engaging too.