Among professional wrestling’s most infamous incidents and despicable angles, this will forever be remembered as one of the worst. At what point does a promotion take things too far? You be the judge as we revisit the story of Fritz Von Erich and the Christmas Day Massacre!
Fritz Von Erich and WCCW: A History of Blurring Lines
On a World Class Championship Wrestling (WCCW) taping in early 1986, announcer Bill Mercer said somberly, “We have suffered two terrible tragedies in the past week—the blinding of Chris Adams and the death of Gino Hernandez.”
During their feud, Gino sprayed Chris in the eyes with Freebird Hair Cream. Of course, this work was just a part of the kayfabe storyline. Chris Adams’ eyesight was just fine.
The death of Gino Hernandez, real name Charles Eugene Wolfe, Jr., at just 28, however, was too real.
This use of a real-life tragedy to sell a fictional plot point was voted the year’s “Most Disgusting Promotional Tactic” by Dave Meltzer’s Wrestling Observer Newsletter. It was the second year in a row that WCCW had earned this distinction. The Texas promotion would go on to win the award four years in a row, from ’85 to ’88.
WCCW’s owner and promoter, Fritz Von Erich, and head booker Ken Mantell are notable for their undying commitment to kayfabe. In refusing to acknowledge the artifice of wrestling, they were forced to integrate reality into the promotion’s plotlines.
That commitment was tested brutally, with tragedy hounding Fritz and his family relentlessly during the ’80s and early ’90s. While everyone was still grieving the death of “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” David Von Erich’s younger brother, Mike, came down with toxic shock syndrome and nearly died.
Following his recovery, Fritz wasted no time repackaging him as “The Living Miracle.” Two years later, Mike, having never fully recovered from his ordeal, took his own life.
By late 1987, the dark cloud hanging over the promotion began to take its toll. And the Thanksgiving Star Wars event sold under 8,000 seats in Reunion Arena (capacity: 21,000).
But, in the summer of ’83, the venue sold out for Wrestling Stars Wars, as fans flocked to see the Von Erich boys defend Texas from the invading Fabulous Freebirds.
WCCW was no longer a distraction from the harshness of reality; it was a reminder of it.
Reigniting One of Wrestling’s Wildest Feuds
With attendance in freefall, the promotion tried to recapture its previous glory by reviving the Von Erich-Freebirds feud.
The Freebirds, minus Michael “P.S.” Hayes, were brought back after a stint in the Universal Wrestling Federation (UWF). However, tensions came to a head at the Christmas Star Wars event as “The Barefoot Wonder” Kevin Von Erich, along with “Gentleman” Chris Adams and Steve Simpson, battled the new version of the Freebirds (Terry Gordy, Buddy Roberts and “Iceman” King Parsons) for the vacant Six-Man Tag titles.
After a wild match, Kevin and the guys got the pin and raised the belts.
In the main event, Kevin’s younger brother, “The Modern Day Warrior” Kerry Von Erich, was set to challenge Al Perez for the World Heavyweight Championship.
One of the match’s stipulations was that the managers, Fritz and Gary Hart, would be handcuffed together.
Before the ref could put the cuffs on them, the Freebirds stormed into the cage, still bitter about their defeat. Terry Gordy grabbed the mic.
“[This] happens to be the stupidest match I’ve ever seen in my life,” Gordy proclaimed. “The reason why is that I’m the man that should be out here for the title shot.”
Kerry took exception to this, and they started swinging at each other.
It spiraled out of control, and the 58-year-old Fritz got into it with Buddy Roberts.
The heels soon overwhelmed the Von Erichs, and Iceman choked Fritz with his cane.
The Freebirds cuffed Fritz to the middle rope, and he was left helpless, but Kevin soon came to the rescue, and the Freebirds fled.
Fritz was roughed up but appeared to be okay.
What happened next is now known as “The Christmas Day Massacre.”
The Christmas Day Massacre
Fritz Von Erich raised his hand in defiance, and the crowd cheered. But, as announcer Marc Lowrance pointed out, something was not quite right with the Von Erich patriarch.
He struggled with his balance, and Kerry and Kevin had to help him.
Again, the crowd chanted, “Go, Fritz! Go!” before he suddenly collapsed, falling from his sons’ arms.
There were clear tipoffs that this was a work. Lowrance’s reaction was too perfect. He was too quick to shout, “Wait! Fritz Von Erich has collapsed!”
Mercer still discusses the event in terms of kayfabe, saying that Fritz collapsed from an apparent heart attack after a brutal attack by the Freebirds.
Kevin and Kerry were interviewed at the hospital, and Kerry started to cut a promo: “I’ll tell you this. The people that did this to my father—” before being cut off by Kevin.
The show continued, and Kerry decided to wrestle anyway because he’d “rather die” than let the fans down.
It seems evident to the modern fan, but this was a very different time before the Internet and dirt sheets were as widely read.
It’s an interesting exercise to try and imagine oneself as a World Class viewer back in 1987. So many upsetting things had occurred in the promotion already. It must’ve felt more of the same. It’s not even a stretch to think that if Fritz had had a heart attack during a show, he’d have wanted the cameras to keep rolling. Nothing should go to waste.
The stunt fooled even local news stations.
Marc Lowrance was allowed to report on it for Fort Worth’s KVTV station.
Perhaps the biggest reason why many fans may have bought into the story is it would’ve been hard to fathom that, given the WCCW’s history, Fritz Von Erichwould toy with his fans like this. They had already suffered enough heartache to last a lifetime.
Woes for Fritz Von Erich
Christmas Star Wars was a financial disaster, with less than 3,000 fans showing up at Reunion Arena in Dallas, Texas. It would be the final Star Wars event held by the promotion.
As WCWA (the name was changed the year before) struggled to stay afloat, the heart attack storyline continued into 1988, with updates on Fritz Von Erich being given weekly. At one point, it was announced that his condition had worsened.
The angle did help bring a little life to the tired Von Erich-Freebirds feud, but it wasn’t the same. Both sides were missing their best stick man, with David having passed away and Michael “P.S.” Hayes working with Jim Crockett Promotions (JCP) at the time.
Hayes was soon brought back, but it was too late. The popularity of the then WWF had skyrocketed following the massive success of WrestleMania III, and the writing was on the wall for regional promotions.
The Christmas Day Massacre is now widely remembered as the time Fritz faked a heart attack in a desperate attempt to draw in viewers, but in reality, Fritz’s condition was only ever discussed in vague terms. The announcers never specified it as a heart attack.
Rumors swirled, and eventually, Kevin went on television to assure everyone that it was, in fact, not a heart attack.
Some say that reaction to the angle is overblown and that Fritz was meant to appear injured. This argument doesn’t quite hold up, though.
Whether it was initially meant to be a heart attack, a stroke, or whatever, it was undoubtedly meant to be seen as life-threatening in the way a simple injury wouldn’t be. The “seriousness” of his “condition” was constantly emphasized.
Those who remember the incident with disgust typically point the finger at Fritz Von Erich. This is not so simple, either.
By late 1987, Fritz had sold his ownership stake, and Ken Mantell had returned to the promotion after years away and was once again acting as head booker.
On paper, Fritz was simply an on-air talent with no authority over storytelling. That said, it’s hard to imagine Fritz not having a say in everything that went on, especially if he was directly involved in the angle.
This stunt was not without precedent.
Blackjack Mulligan faked a heart attack in ’83 over in Championship Wrestling from Florida (CWF).
And most recently, Ric Flair clutched his chest in his farewell match and cried out in pain. This caused his opponent, Jay Lethal, to stop fighting out of concern and turn to the ref. When he turned back around, Flair, suddenly okay, poked him in the eyes—indeed, the dirtiest player in the game.
The morality of the angle aside, clearly, World Class Championship Wrestling was devoted to kayfabe. The Von Erichs and Mantell understood the value of shock—in short supply in today’s wrestling world, where surprise appearances are tweeted out ahead of time to ensure as many people tune in as possible.
This was ten years before Vince McMahon announced on T.V. that wrestling is staged. Wrestling was still innocent.
It’s easy to imagine people, now in their older years, sitting on a porch in Texas and reminiscing about what they thought happened at first, how they jumped out of their seats or jumped off their couch, and how they called their friends, the night old Fritz Von Erich went down.
Watch Fritz Von Erich and the Christmas Day Massacre from Christmas Star Wars 1987 below:
These stories may also interest you:
- Von Erich Wrestling Family Tragedy: A Cautionary Tale
- Lance Von Erich – The Fascinating Story of the Non-Von Erich
- Terry Taylor on Working With The ‘Stiff’ Von Erichs Brothers
- Kevin Von Erich: The Lesser-Known Tale of His Final Match
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