Von Erich Wrestling Family Tragedy: A Cautionary Tale

The Von Erich Family is richly entwined in the history of professional wrestling. Sadly, they also endured incredible heartache over the years. Here is the story of the tragic passing of five of the six Von Erich brothers. Kevin Von Erich also opens up about his grief over the years and how he has somehow found a way to overcome being the last of the Von Erich brothers alive.

The Von Erich Family: Father Fritz with sons Kerry, David, Kevin, and Michael.
The Von Erich Family: Father Fritz with sons Kerry, David, Kevin, and Michael. [Original Photo: Jan Sonnemair/The Dallas Morning News]

The Tragic Cause of Death of Each Von Erich Family Member

It’s easy to look back at the Von Erichs as a cautionary tale. And with the upcoming Hollywood film by A4 entitled “The Iron Claw” featuring Zac Efron and Lily James pegged for release sometime in 2023, the world outside of the wrestling bubble will soon learn much more about their awful tragedies.

The family’s actual last name is Adkisson. However, every member of the family who joined the wrestling business used the Von Erich name. This was in dedication to the patriarch of the family, Jack (Fritz Von Erich) Adkisson.

Fritz lived to the age of 68, though unpleasantly, five of his six sons preceded him in death.

Fritz Von Erich

Fritz Von Erich rose to prominence competing for the National Wrestling Alliance, and captured both versions of the American Wrestling Association’s World Championship in 1963.

Fritz also helped build a following while competing in Japan under the moniker ‘Tetsu no time,’ which would translate to his finishing move: ‘The Claw.’

Fritz Von Erich
Fritz Von Erich, patriarch of the Von Erich Family. [Photo: alchetron.com]
"Von Erich was intelligent to the ways of the wrestling business and had a personal dynamism shared by many of the major promoters and stars of the time," Pro Wrestling Torch wrote 25 years after Fritz’s passing.

"Promoters like Von Erich, Mid-South’s Bill Watts, the AWA’s Verne Gagne, and the WWF’s Vince McMahon Sr. and Jr. ran their promotions like kings. They were all-knowing rulers whose personalities dominated anyone around them. They knew exactly what they wanted and listened to no one who disagreed with their vision of the world."

Jack Von Erich Jr.

Tragedy struck early for the Von Erich wrestling family. The firstborn son, Jack Jr., passed away in 1959 after touching an exposed electrical wire and suffering an electrical shock at the family’s home in Niagra Falls, New York.

The jolt knocked him unconscious, and he fell face-down into a puddle of water, where he drowned. He was six years old.

David Von Erich

David Von Erich was known as "The Yellow Rose of Texas" and competed as part of Fritz’s World Class Championship Wrestling (WCCW) in Florida, Georgia, and Missouri.

David Von Erich
David Von Erich

While with the NWA, he had rivalries with the likes of Ric Flair and Harley Race. He captured the Missouri heavyweight title twice, which was seen as a stepping stone to the NWA world title because of the NWA’s historical significance in St. Louis.

David unexpectedly passed away on February 10, 1984, in Tokyo during a tour for Giant Baba’s All-Japan promotion. Von Erich was in Japan defending the promotion’s United National title, which he’d won a week earlier in Texas.

David’s death is still a mystery more than 30 years later.

The official cause of death is "acute enteritis." However, wrestlers like "Nature Boy" Ric Flair and Mick Foley have gone on record, saying they believe his death was drug-related.

Kevin, the only surviving Von Erich brother, has said publicly that he believes David died of a heart attack. David Von Erich was 25 years old when he died.

Kerry Von Erich

While many believe David was being groomed for a run with the NWA world title, his brother Kerry was the most successful of the Von Erich wrestling family brothers.

Herry defeated Ric Flair for the NWA world championship on May 6, 1984, at the David Von Erich Memorial Parade of Champions. Though he only held the title for 18 days, the win over Flair put the stamp on Kerry as a significant player on the national stage, not just in Texas.

Sadly, a little more than two years later, Kerry Von Erich was involved in a motorcycle accident that nearly killed him. The crash dislocated his right hip and mangled his leg.

After several hours of surgery, doctors saved his right foot. However, Kerry attempted to walk too soon following the operation, which aggravated the injury. Eventually, his right foot had to be amputated.

Kerry Von Erich
Kerry Von Erich

Kerry would make a comeback to the ring, wearing a prosthetic foot. And even with the missing foot and constant pain, the diminished Kerry Von Erich was still very, very good in the ring.

He went to the WWE as "The Texas Tornado" and won the Intercontinental title from Mr. Perfect, Curt Hennig, dropping the strap back to Hennig three months later. In August 1992, Von Erich left WWE.

He had been de-pushed on TV, and his life was in a slow spiral out of control.

In 1993, less than one week after an arrest warrant had been issued for him for felony possession, Kerry killed himself. His body was found in a blackberry thicket at his father’s ranch. He had shot himself in the chest with a .44 caliber pistol.

In his book, Bret Hart stated that Von Erich said to him, "I want to follow my brothers, and they keep calling me."

Mike Von Erich

Mike and Chris Von Erich also preceded Kerry in death.

Mike Von Erich
Mike Von Erich

The pressure was on Mike to get into the business, especially after David’s death. Mike physically resembled David, but he didn’t have the same aptitude for — nor interest in — wrestling.

He was the quiet one, more interested in music and video production. But he was pressed into service in the ring before David’s death.

During a tour of Israel, Mike suffered a separated shoulder, which would require surgery. After his hospital release, Mike’s temperature spiked to 107 degrees. He was later diagnosed with toxic shock syndrome and suffered brain damage.

Shortly before he died, Mike was arrested and charged with driving while intoxicated.

Mike drove to Lewisville Lake on April 12, 1987, after leaving a suicide note for his family to find. He drank alcohol and overdosed on Placydils, and his body was found in a sleeping bag four days later. He was 23 years old.

Chris Von Erich

If Mike didn’t want to be a wrestler, Chris suffered the opposite problem.

Chris Von Erich
Chris Von Erich

When he knew what wrestling was, Chris wanted to be in the ring. The problem was that he was too small — generously listed at 5 feet, 7 inches tall — Chris would never be the physical equal of his brothers.

Despite his size disadvantage, he turned pro in 1990. But asthma and a predilection for brittle bones continued to plague his in-ring career.

He was never able to match his brothers’ prowess, with his biggest feud coming against manager Percy Pringle III (more famous later as Paul Bearer, the manager for the Undertaker). Pringle was hand-picked for the rivalry because he worked very lightly and therefore minimized Chris’s risk of injury.

Depressed over the deaths of his brothers David and Mike and his lack of success in wrestling, Chris killed himself with a shot to the head on September 12, 1991. He was 21 years old.

Kevin Von Erich is the only surviving member of the Von Erich brothers.

The firstborn son, Jack Jr., was electrocuted at the age of six in 1959 in a household accident.

In 1984, David Von Erich died in Japan from an unconfirmed cause, although it is widely believed he died from a drug overdose.

Mike, Chris, and Kerry committed suicide in 1987, 1991, and 1993 respectively. Mike died after an overdose of Placidyl, a prescription med used to treat insomnia, and alcoholic beverages. Chris shot himself in the head with a 9mm handgun at his parents’ home in East Texas. Kerry shot himself in the chest behind his father’s house.

This leaves Kevin as the last surviving son of Fritz Von Erich and his wife, Doris.

Kevin Von Erich on Being the Last of the Von Erich Brothers Alive

The Von Erichs. Kevin (far right)
The Von Erichs. Kevin (far right)

In an October ’94 interview with D. Rosenbaum (H/T: Wrestling’s Glory Days), Kevin Von Erich opens up about the tragic hardship he has had to face in the sad aftermath of losing five of his brothers:

"My brothers and I lived real dangerously.

"We were a really reckless group always showing off for each other – like walking on bridges in Japan and taking every chance we could. We were just young kids. I’m really surprised that I survived.

"We used to have this thing called the ‘chance of the day,’ where every day we’d take a chance on our lives. Dave was always too smart for that, so he’d just watch. We’d jump on wild bulls’ backs and jump on trains going fast.

"We’d get on a roof of a car at highway speed. You start thinking nothing can get you, and you’re indestructible. That’s part of being in sports. We were blessed with good bodies and good balance. We felt like we could do anything, and nothing would hurt us.

"My father was not a real brutal man like they try to play him out to be in some of those gossip rags. I was there.

"I remember when my dad was a bad guy in wrestling. My brothers and I would go to school, and the bigger kids would watch wrestling on Saturday night and get even on Monday. We fought together, and the family who fights together would not only get good at fighting, it gets really close.

"I don’t remember my parents being really super strict or abusive in any way at all. I remember a really happy childhood full of running in the Texas sun, just us and nature. We didn’t even wear clothes until we went to school. We were so far out in the country. We didn’t even have any school chums.

"Mike was into painkillers. All the brothers had painkillers prescribed by doctors. Kerry was the only one who got into illegal drugs [that weren’t prescribed].

"The best way to handle pain is to grit your teeth and put ice on it. If you take one pill, next time, it’ll be two of them, and the next, it’s going to be three. It’s just a crack in the door. It’s just the crack in the door that gets wider and wider.

"Kerry figured he didn’t have anything to live for. He was rootless. He had no home. Seeing me with my family made his pain greater. It reminded him of what he was missing. It was such a sad, tragic thing.

"He had his two beautiful daughters and a wife he loved, but then he’d come home, and all his stuff would be moved out. She’d move all his stuff out. Kerry was no saint [but] they both treated each other kind of rough.

"He had pretty much come to an understanding the day he killed himself. He just left having lunch with Kathy, his wife. Kerry was going to jail*, and he was afraid of never seeing his girls again.

"He said, ‘Kevin, I’m about to kill myself…’

"We had talked for about an hour. We told some good dirty jokes, we laughed, and he told me, ‘I’m going to kill myself.’ I thought I had him talked out of it.

"He said, ‘I didn’t want to be like Mike and not say goodbye.’

"That’s when I begged him. I said, ‘Don’t do this. Don’t leave me alone. You’re my only brother. Don’t leave me.’

"I thought I had talked him out of it.

"Thirty minutes later, they found his body. He must have gone right out and done it.

"Do I blame wrestling for my brothers’ deaths? Not at all.

"If anything’s to blame, [it was] our recklessness. I’m the only one alive, and some people are taking bets on me, but there’s no way that’s going to happen to me because I have reason to live, and it’s a good one. I’m happy with my life.

"I do feel lonely. You’ll never know how close my brothers were to me. But life goes on. It’s not always easy …you just have to be tough. The rewards are there."

* After the amputation of his foot, Kerry became addicted to painkillers, followed by several drug problems. Among the many were two arrests, the first of which resulted in probation. One day after being indicted on the second charge, which likely would have resulted in extensive jail time (violating his probation), Kerry committed suicide by a shot to the heart on February 18, 1993, on his father’s ranch in Denton County, Texas.

Watch the CNN Headline News Reports on the Death of Kerry Von Erich:

YouTube video

The son-in-law of Kevin Von Erich reached out to us to give his thoughts on how he is doing these days. He said, “Kevin has always said that God promised him the last half of his life would be better than the first.”

He continued, “[Kevin] is now surrounded by his entire family. His wife, four children, and their spouses, along with his 7 (soon to be 8 and counting) grandchildren. We all live on the same property (separate houses) here on Kauai. Kevin spends his time doing what he loves with the ones he loves.”

We couldn’t be happier to hear that Kevin is living the second half of his life surrounded by family, doing what he loves with his loved ones. It is also great to see his sons Marshall and Ross keeping the Von Erich family legacy and wrestling lineage alive through their wrestling success.

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JP Zarka founded Pro Wrestling Stories in 2015 and is the creative force behind the website as editor-in-chief. From 2018-19, he was the podcast host and producer for The Genius Cast with Lanny Poffo, brother of WWE legend Macho Man Randy Savage. His diverse career includes work as an elementary school teacher, assistant principal, and musician, notably as a singer-songwriter with the London-based band Sterling Avenue. Zarka has appeared on TV programs like “Autopsy: The Last Hours of” on Reelz (U.S.) and Channel 5 (U.K.) and has contributed research for programming on ITV and BBC.