The Iron Claw: The True Story of the Von Erich Family, Explained

‘The Iron Claw’ chronicles the saga of the Von Erich dynasty, a family that soars to prominence within the world of professional wrestling. Throughout the 1980s, the family navigates their paths in the wrestling arena — either by treading in the footsteps of predecessors or establishing themselves as formidable wrestlers. As disturbances and tragedies befall the Von Erichs, claiming one member after another, the story unveils a story both inside and outside the wrestling arena.

Directed by Sean Durkin and featuring stellar performances by Zac Efron, Jeremy Allen White, and Harris Dickinson, the film transcends the confines of the ring. It masterfully explores the family dynamics beyond the glitz and glamor, unraveling a tale marked by triumphs and tribulations. Given the rich storyline and the genuineness that sparks from the first glimpse, one might wonder whether the movie is based on events that actually transpired in real life.

The Foundation of the Empire was Laid Down by Fritz Von Erich

‘The Iron Claw’ is based on the true story of the Von Erich wrestling family. Director Sean Durkin, who also wrote the script, had always been an avid fan of wrestling, and this was a story that he felt he had to tell the world. All of it begins with Fritz Von Erich, born Jack Barton Adkisson Sr. on August 16, 1929, in Jewett, Texas, who exhibited athletic prowess from a young age. Initially excelling as a discus thrower and a football prodigy, he earned a scholarship to Southern Methodist University. Despite his promising football career, his marriage to Doris Juanita Smith in June 1950 led to the forfeiture of his scholarship.

Image Credit: Kevin Von Erich/Instagram

Undeterred, Jack continued playing football at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi (then Corpus Christi University) but faced challenges in achieving success in professional leagues. After an unsuccessful attempt in the Canadian Football League, Jack transitioned to wrestling, undergoing training under the guidance of Stu Hart. Returning to Texas, Jack Adkisson adopted the ring persona of Fritz Von Erich, portraying a villainous Nazi character that gained popularity.

During the pinnacle of his wrestling career, he introduced his signature move, famously known as “The Iron Claw,” a gripping maneuver targeting his opponent’s temple with one hand until they submitted. Simultaneously, Jack’s family was expanding during their time in Niagara Falls, Ontario. He and Doris welcomed a son, Jack Jr., in September 1952, followed by Kevin in May 1957 and David in 1958. Unfortunately, in 1959, Jack Jr. tragically drowned in a puddle outside their house after being electrocuted. The loss of their eldest son left Jack and Doris in a profound state of grief, an anguish they struggled to comprehend.

Seeking solace and closeness to their children, Jack purchased 115 acres of rural land in Texas. In February 1960, the couple welcomed their fourth son, Kerry, followed by two more sons, Mike in March 1964 and Chris in September 1969. Jack, envisioning his sons as outdoorsy, tough, and athletic, constructed a gym and training ring at home. He maintained a disciplined approach, including corporal punishment, to instill toughness and respect. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, all of his sons had entered the world of wrestling, with Jack serving as a master promoter.

Fritz Von Erich’s Five Sons

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Jack’s eldest sons, Kevin, David, and Kerry, emerged as stars in the wrestling arena, gaining prominence in the World Class Championship. Their shows garnered viewership not only across the US but also internationally, reaching countries like Japan and the Middle East. David, recognized for his exceptional physique and charisma, was often hailed as the family’s best fighter.

Kerry achieved a significant victory against Ric Flair in the NWA World Championship in 1984 and also earned the moniker “Texas Tornado.” Inspired by their older siblings and seeking to emulate their father, Mike also ventured into wrestling. Additionally, Chris, despite facing health concerns like asthma and being shorter than his brothers at just 5 feet 4 inches, took on the challenge.

The Family Started Being Tested

In 1983, at the age of 25, David began experiencing frequent stomach cramps. While on tour with All Japan Pro Wrestling in 1984, he was discovered dead in his hotel room in Tokyo. Official reports from Tokyo officials attributed David’s death to acute enteritis, an inflammation of the intestines. Nevertheless, persistent rumors within the wrestling community suggested a potential connection between David’s death and drug use. These speculations were later acknowledged by Ric Flair in his writings.

Image Credit: Kevin Von Erich/Instagram

In August 1985, Mike, then 23, who initially lacked much interest in wrestling but joined the sport to help cope with the loss of his brother David, suffered a shoulder dislocation injury during a match. He underwent surgery for the injury but faced complications, including toxic shock syndrome and kidney-related problems. Reports indicated that Mike had also suffered brain damage and encountered personal struggles. In 1987, following a reported DUI arrest, Mike was found dead just four days later. Speculations surrounding his death centered on a possible overdose of tranquilizers and sleeping pills.

In 1986, Kerry, the brother with the most achievements in the wrestling world, experienced a dislocated hip but managed to recover and return to the ring. However, reports suggest that he developed a heavy dependence on drugs. Although Kerry won his comeback match, he faced another setback when he broke his foot in a motorcycle crash later that year. Despite efforts from doctors, his leg had to be amputated. Witnessing the tragic deaths of his brothers and the unraveling of his family, Chris reportedly battled depression and struggled to find success in the wrestling world, further impacting his mental health. In 1991, at just 21 years old, he took his own life.

Kerry and his family believed that it was in their best interest to keep the use of his prosthetics, which he acquired after his leg amputation, a secret from the wrestling community and his fans. However, by 1993, Kerry had distanced himself from wrestling, and an arrest warrant was issued against him for the possession of cocaine. On February 18, 1993, at the age of 33, he took his own life by shooting himself in the head.

Kevin is Keeping the Von Erich Name Alive

Image Credit: Kevin Von Erich/Instagram

Given the devastating toll of losing one child after another, Jack and Doris divorced in 1992. Kevin revealed that he battled depressive and suicidal thoughts but fortunately found a way to balance himself. In 1997, Jack, who was already suffering from brain and lung cancer, succumbed to the grief of losing his sons and passed away on September 10, 1997. Kevin continued his career, fighting barefoot as he had done since a young age. He and his wife Pam have four children, and today they are proud grandparents to 11 grandchildren.

Kevin’s two sons, Ross and Marshall Von Erich, have admirably kept the family name alive by competing in wrestling matches as a Von Erich tag team. They have also contributed to promotions like Major League Wrestling. In 2009, WWE posthumously inducted the Von Erich family into its Hall of Fame, and this is the true story that ‘The Iron Claw’ brings to the screen. Kevin, having consulted with the director, expressed full confidence in the actors and the rest of the creative team to authentically bring his family’s story to light.

Talking about the authenticity in the narrative of ‘The Iron Claw,’ Zac Efron described the visual representation of the Erich family best when he told Entertainment Weekly, “There’s a huge element of the movie that’s, of course, about wrestling and the showmanship aspect. But really, at its core, this movie’s an incredible story about family, love, loss, and ultimately the triumph of a man who tries to break the cycle of this crazy curse.”

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