When I die I may not go to heaven
I don’t know if they let cowboys in
If they don’t just let me go to Texas, boys
‘Cause Texas is as close as I’ve been
– Tanya Tucker,
“Texas (When I Die)”, 1977
The name of the Von Erich family is wrought with such pain. It’s synonymous with tragedy and heartbreak – a curse brought upon by sibling rivalry, mental health, and parental influence that set a chain of events that would cast a shadow over a family’s business of professional wrestling.
The Von Erichs were set for a meteoric rise in the 1980s, with notable tag team matches against The Fabulous Freebirds, and the big three members bringing their own unique attributes to the show. Kevin, the oldest, was a high-flier known for the Iron Claw move, using body scissors, and for wrestling barefoot. David was the all-rounder – could work well in the ring, cut a promo, and was able to work with any schedule without coping through drugs and alcohol, which was why he’d often be the one out of the brothers often sent to Japan. Then there was Kerry, a heartthrob who caught the eye of many fans.
Of course, wrestling fans are privy to their story in some fashion, be it from witnessing it in real-time, watching multiple documentaries such as that devastating Dark Side of the Ring episode, reading articles, or hearing about it through research, especially after the emergence of the upcoming Zac Efron film, Iron Claw, produced by A24 Movies.
While I’d love to re-tell that story, the one we are discussing today is more isolated and beautiful in its tragedy. It takes place in Texas Stadium, in front of five-thousand fans on May 6, 1984. What was already going to be a big match became an even bigger one, due to circumstance.
See, the match billed on this night was Kerry Von Erich vs the NWA World Heavyweight Champion, Ric Flair was a match meant to take place months before, but it wasn’t a spot meant for Kerry. Rather, it was the one meant most for the biggest spotlight – David Von Erich. This comes a year after Flair became a household name after his monumental victory over Harley Race at NWA’s Starrcade event the year prior. Unfortunately, David met his end in February 1984 while in Japan. While stories of what could have ended his life and career so early vary, it still struck a chord all the same. It struck the heart of Texas the hardest.
A coin flip was to decide who would face Flair in May at World Class Championship Wrestling’s Parade of Champions, an event brought back in honor of ‘The Yellow Flower of Texas’, David. Between Kevin and Kerry, the latter won out. Perhaps it was for the best, as Kevin never seemed the type to want the big spotlight – eschewing from the fame of WWF and WCW.
So, the Modern Day Warrior, the Texas Tornado, Kerry stepped up.
The seats are packed, the people are ready, and the biggest match in wrestling history at that time was about to take place. The heart of Texas pounded hard enough for David to hear in the after.
The competitors make their entrances. Flair, robed in cerulean and strutting in his iconic silver-blonde hair. The raucous crowd jeers him. They’re ready for The Nature Boy to be dethroned.
Kerry Von Erich enters to the screams of women and the pride of men. Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” summons him, before switching to Tanya Tucker’s “Texas (If I Die)”, from Kerry’s own entrance music to David’s. He wears a sequined jacket with David’s name on the back, as he is kissed by multiple fans, and he carries a yellow flower.
The bell rings, and Kerry initiates a hold among the scattered chattering of a crowd, but Flair breaks it, and the two men bob and weave out of each other’s grasp. Flair’s turn to try and seize control, but Kerry slips out like the red tornado that he is. They finally lock up, however, and Kerry’s strength and athleticism gets the better of Flair. A series of dropkicks leaves the champion pleading for mercy, as per his trademark.
Another lock-up sees Flair tied in a headlock, only to wind up with his arm locked upon a reversal attempt. A brief respite sees the Nature Boy cornering Von Erich, but is easily overpowered and power-slammed to a thunderous ovation from the crowd.
With a Pepsi logo in the background, the scene changes, as Flair brings in his signature chops, but Kerry is made of naught but tenacity on this summer night. A Sunset Flip nearly sees Von Erich to a pinfall, but Flair kicks out, only to be ensnared in a sleeper hold – powered out with a desperate slam. Flair gains control, playing chess like the tactician he is until Kerry wraps Flair in an abdominal stretch, broken by a carry-over.
The assault continues, with Kerry refusing to stay down, and the champion runs dangerously into Von Erich’s Iron Claw, paralyzing the opponent. Flair survives, but Kerry is spry and ready. Like a predator dying to finish off his prey after a long battle, The Nature Boy twice tries a Step-Over Toe Hold, only to have it broken each time. Kerry swings his sprinting competitor into a sharp pin, and it is over just like that.
Flair cannot believe it , but Texas cries out into the night for The Modern Day Warrior, as The Von Erichs rush into the ring and jump into Kerry’s arms as his hands clutch gold. Flair eventually congratulates Kerry for being the better man in this match–up. A moment of light during a dark time, punctuated perfectly as a teary-eyed Kerry wraps his new prize in a Texas flag and carries a yellow rose.
The Parade of Champions ends.
I sorely, selfishly wish that Kerry would have held this title for longer. He would lose it back to Flair a few weeks later.
While the family was no stranger to loss, with first-born Jack dying at the age of six in 1957, David’s death stung as the Von Erichs were meant to reach heights unknown. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t end there. After injuries and losing strength, brother Mike would pass away in 1987, with Chris joining him in 1992.
Kerry Von Erich would join them in 1993, feeling that his brothers were crying for him to join them.
Fritz, a man who buried five of his sons, would pass away of cancer in 1997. Kevin Von Erich is the sole survivor of his brothers.
All of this heartbreak in one lifetime, when there was meant to be no ceiling. Who’s to say what was to happen for the Von Erichs, should the family have persevered? Cross-promotions, international wrestling fame, and name recognition for generations to come, instead transitions to a night to remember, and stories to pass along the decades.
Flair would continue to have success for most of the rest of his life, but for the Von Erichs, May 1984 was the peak.
For the Lone Star citizens, Heaven was close, because that night Texas was the closest that it had ever been.