The tragic true story behind the Von Erich brothers of Iron Claw

It’s hard to fathom how the so-called ‘Von Erich Curse’ could be seen as nothing more than a mythologized idea by avid wrestling fans and even non-existent by the only living family member. Tragedy and fame followed the family as early as the 1950s, when Jack Adkisson began wrestling under the ring name Fritz Von Erich.

It was in that same decade that Fritz invented one of the sport’s most iconic wrestling moves, the Iron Claw, in which he spread his gigantic hand over his opponent’s face and crushed them into oblivion.

That same decade, in 1959, the family suffered its first unspeakable tragedy, when the youngest son, Jackie, died at the age of seven in Upstate New York after being electrocuted, falling face first and drowning in a puddle of melting snow.

In the years and decades that followed, the Von Erichs were wracked with pain and grief, and these disastrous events would unfortunately come to define their legendary wrestling legacy.

The family’s wrestling stardom and tragic events became the subject of an ESPN 30 for 30 short documentary called Struggling with the curse in 2015. Almost ten years later Zac Efron And Jeremy Allen White pipe a star-studded cast for A24’s film about the true story of the Von Erich family, aptly named The Iron Claw.

The two striking protagonists form the core of the story, which follows the Von Erich family, led by Fritz (played by Mindhunter star Holt McCallany). Efron plays Kevin Von Erich, White plays Kerry Von Erich, Harris Dickinson plays David Von Erich and Stanley Simons plays Mike Von Erich. The Von Erich brothers spent most of their careers in World Class Championship Wrestling (WCCW), where they won multiple individual and tag team titles. The family was inducted into the Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2009.


With the film’s first trailer dropping Wednesday, ET takes a closer look at the Von Erich family’s real-life wrestling story.

Who is Fritz von Erich?

Long before he found stardom in wrestling and became the patriarch of a family that produced wrestling stars, Jack Adiksson was a football star at Southern Methodist University in Texas. The story goes that he briefly played for the then-Dallas Texans of the National Football League.

After football, Jack found wrestling in the early 1950s. According to a 1988 profile of the family in D magazine, Jack started fighting under the ring name Fritz Von Erich and he took on the role of a Nazi villain. At a towering height of 6 feet 9 inches, Fritz was considered a terrifying figure, let alone the creepy personality.

Fritz would eventually abandon the villainous role for the “good guy” role in the mid-1970s. But he kept the name, and his sons would later adopt the famous moniker that would define them as one of wrestling’s most iconic families.

Tragedy strikes in 1959

Fritz found fame in the 1950s (never mind being paid just $5 per fight), but the highs as a wrestling star paled in comparison to the lowest lows.

While living in a trailer park in Niagara Falls, New York, his wife, Doris, gave birth to their first son, Jackie, in 1952. But just seven years later, Jackie died after being electrocuted. He touched a live wire while playing in the trailer park. After touching the wire, little Jackie fell face first and drowned in a puddle of melting snow.


Fritz was away from home and away on a wrestling tour when Jackie died, and Doris, according to D magazine, wanted to die after the death of her son. The outlet also reported that Doris would judge the time about the 1959 death (“It happened almost twelve years after Jackie died,” she will say about a family event).

After the loss of his sons, the magazine reported, Fritz returned to the ring with a vengeance.

Four more sons die ten years apart

It is between 1984 and 1993 when the family is razed to the ground with one death after another.

David was the second son to die, and it also came out of nowhere. He died suddenly of an intestinal infection in a Tokyo hotel in 1984. Mike, Chris and Kerry would soon follow.

Mike died of a drug overdose at the age of 23. D magazine reported that after being arrested for DWI, Mike drove to the woods and fatally overdosed on tranquilizers. Police found his body rolled up in an old sleeping bag just a few hundred yards from Von Erich’s home. The police also found a note from Mike addressed to his mother:

“Mom, you’ve always been great. I’m in a better place.”

Mike had a big heart. In his spare time he quietly visited disabled children, and reportedly gave his money to a poor elderly woman who lived near him.

“I don’t think Mike was ever really sure he felt good enough to take on the role of Von Erich,” Kerry said. D magazine. “I mean, it destroyed him inside that he wasn’t as fast or strong as the rest of us. And after the toxic shock, when he started to lose his balance on the top ropes, or miss a handhold or something, I thought he had lost a part of himself, you know what I mean?

Chris died afterwards. He was only 22 years old when he committed suicide after being shot in the head. Kerry also died by suicide after being shot in the chest in 1993. He was 33.

The day of his tragic death, Kevin and Fritz spoke to ET after Kerry’s death on the family ranch in Texas. After losing a third brother to suicide, Kevin explained the hardships Kerry faced in the days, weeks and years leading up to his death. The most pressing issue at the time was the looming threat of prison time after Kerry was indicted by a grand jury on cocaine possession charges, breaking his probation on a separate drug charge.

“[Kerry] told me if he had to go to jail he would kill himself,” Kevin said of their last conversation. “He saw that he could get as far as he wanted with me, so he said, ‘Okay, Kev. I will not do it. I won’t commit suicide. Whatever you say, buddy.’ And that’s how we left it there.”

It was Fritz who discovered his son’s corpse. After that horrific moment, Fritz remembered their interaction from earlier that morning, something he says should have alerted him.


“It was a terrible experience for me,” Fritz recalls. “He said, ‘I just want to go back to a quiet place and be alone for a while.’ …When he saw me, he grabbed me and hugged me. And I hugged him. I kissed him. He said, ‘Daddy, I really love you.’ And I should have realized that that was different. That something was wrong there.’

Despite this tragic history, Kevin told the Dallas Morning News in 2015 that the “Von Erich Curse” does not exist.

“It’s not a curse,” he said at the time. “Narrate [you] To be honest, I may have believed it when it happened, but I never said it out loud.”

For ESPN’s 30 for 30 short doc, Struggling with the curseKevin said that “I went a little crazy after all this.”

“I wanted to die, but I had no intention of killing myself,” he added. “I wanted to go to jail and fight, and I wanted to be punished as if I had done something. It was stupid.”

Kevin Von Erich at the 25th Anniversary of WrestleMania’s WWE Hall of Fame on April 4, 2009 in Houston, Texas. – Getty

In 1997, the family patriarch died of brain and lung cancer in 1997. He was 68.

Where is Kevin Von Erich?

Kevin moved to Hawaii with his wife and four children. His mother, Doris, also came along. She passed away in 2015.

Kevin and his family announced earlier this year that they would be moving to Boerne, Texas, just northwest of San Antonio.

The Iron Clawwritten and directed by Sean Durkin, it hits theaters on December 22.

What Kevin Von Erich says now

ET spoke with Kevin at the Los Angeles premiere of The Iron Claw just days before the film hit theaters. Kevin opened about forming a strong bond with Efron.

“Zac likes to do the things I like to do,” Kevin tells ET. ‘And we’re already talking about that [taking a] spearfishing trip in Kauai on Kalia Reef. And we’ll see how Jeremy and the other guys are doing, but Zac and I have a trip planned.”


Kevin also shared the message he hopes fans will take away from the new film.

“A lot of people are in bad pain and maybe they’re at the bottom and they’re thinking, ‘How do I get out of this?’ You know?” says Kevin, a married man and father of four who recently moved from Hawaii to nearby San Antonio, Texas. “And a man’s gotta fight. Life is hard, and a lot of people have it a lot harder than me, but I think if this were the kind of movie that could help lift someone up and maybe show them that you can it. Don’t give up. Keep fighting. Keep trying.”

The Iron Claw is in theaters now.

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