Against the Ropes
GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:
OK, so my go-to place in the morning is this coffee shop right down the street from SNAP. They got the Wi-Fi, right. So I was leaving there the other day, still pretty early, had my green tea mug, get my chai. It's a great way to start the day. And I'm leaving there, and this dude, he walked by me on the sidewalk and he bumps me hard - hard. Knocks my tea to the ground. What? Then he turns around and smiles like I'm a punk. And you've got to understand, my instinct is Detroit. You don't hit me in broad daylight walking down the street. I will take that card, partner, and raise you. And I see him seeing me, holding a bookbag in one arm and a tea cozy thing in the other. He wants to laugh now.
And then I want to laugh, too. I want to fight some guy in the street because he bumped me. No, bra'. I'm going to let the universe handle this one because the universe is more cold-blooded than I'll ever be. Today, on SNAP JUDGMENT, from PRX and NPR, we proudly present "The Big Payback." Amazing stories when karma kicks in right when you least expect it. My name is Glynn Washington. Get yourself a cup of tea or alternative beverage of your choice because this is SNAP JUDGMENT.
WASHINGTON: Now for our first story, the fireworks have been lit. Get your gold spandex ready because SNAP JUDGMENT is about to face off against the greatest wrestling family in the world. Prepare yourself for the radio rumble.
(SOUNDBITE OF WRESTLING MATCH)
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER 1: ...Is taking the punishment from Fritz Von Erich, who is bearing in, using all that mighty weight of his - weighs in the vicinity of 270 pounds...
K. VON ERICH: I can remember being a little boy watching my dad wrestle. Ever since I was born, we have been - my father has been in the wrestling business - haven't known any other occupation. Pretty much, the ring is just like your playpen.
ANNA SUSSMAN, BYLINE: Kevin Von Erich's dad was known as The Iron Claw. He had this famous move in the ring. He would squeeze his opponent's temples until they bled.
(SOUNDBITE OF WRESTLING MATCH)
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER 2: ...On the head. The master of the Iron Claw applies it as only he can. It is rather like taking a grape and squeezing it until the juice pops out.
SUSSMAN: Kevin and his little brothers used to sit at the TV commentators' table watching his dad's fights. Once, when he was about 11, his protective instinct took over, and he just flung himself onto his father's opponent.
VON ERICH: I mean, we really - we were crying, tears in our eyes - couldn't stand to see your dad getting beat up in the ring. You know, it's - I could not take it. I just ran in that ring, and he kicked me in the stomach and threw me out of the ropes. But I was, you know, just wild. I was a little boy. So I just came running back to really put some punishment on him. He just kicked me again and threw me out - all the trouble I caused him. But, yeah, I got so into it, I just could not contain myself, and I had to jump in there.
SUSSMAN: That was the first time Kevin appeared in a professional wrestling ring. Eight years later, he stepped into the ring officially - the first of the next Von Erich generation to go pro. Eventually, all four of his little brothers became professional wrestlers, and the five of them fought together. The Von Erich brothers brought a new style to wrestling.
VON ERICH: We wanted wrestling to be a sport that we enjoyed ourselves. Wrestling had, on TV - what really put me against it, it looked fake. It looked so phony. I did not want to be any part of that at all. And when we adjusted it so it was something that we actually enjoyed doing.
SUSSMAN: So the Von Erichs wrestled like actual brothers in the backyard, hurting each other.
VON ERICH: And so we went ahead and just tried to just put as much punishment on each other as we could - you know, just hit really hard. And the people like that. It made good TV. It was something they hadn't - they weren't used to watching. And it was a lot of fun to watch, and so wrestling changed then. And you see what you see now. And they've credited us for that.
SUSSMAN: The brothers were like a pride of lions - feathered, golden-blonde hair, huge muscles stuffed into tiny gold spandex. Kevin, David, Kerry, Mike and Chris were young, handsome and aggressive in the ring.
(SOUNDBITE OF WRESTLING MATCH)
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER 3: ...The abdominal stretch by Kevin Von Erich. And listen to the crowd.
VON ERICH: The crowd changed. It went from older than 39 years old, male, you know, working men - but when I started doing it, the kids started coming because they weren't used to seeing young guys wrestle. And so they were selling more snow cones and Cokes and candy than they were beer back in those days, and it was a new thing. We were having huge crowds, and our TV ratings were sky high.
SUSSMAN: When the boys would take the ring, the Texas Sportatorium would sell out - 4,000 people, 70 percent of them screaming girls.
VON ERICH: Girls started really just coming in, and that had never happened before. It was a new thing, and so you can tell by the sound of the crowd - when the crowd exploded in sound, then you can really tell when the little girls are out there. That high-pitched squeal - just wow. It just rings your ears, you know.
SUSSMAN: Fans would start filling the Sportatorium hours before the fight was scheduled to begin. Girls would chase the Von Erich boys for their autographs, stakeout their homes.
VON ERICH: Yeah, that would be a problem when we'd have people camping out in front of the house and things like that. We would have to call the police on things like that.
SUSSMAN: The Von Erich brothers rose to fame in the early '80s. They soared off the ropes, locks of feathered hair flying behind them. And their TV show, run by their father, "World Class Championship Wrestling," became the second-highest rated show in the country. They came up with the idea of entering the ring to a signature song.
VON ERICH: I came out to "Stranglehold." That's when you start getting ready, and you just start springing and bouncing and getting, you know, psyched and then hear your music. And then you're beyond - you start to change into a werewolf. And then your music crescendos. You hear the drums, and you kick the door open. Then you are a full-fledged werewolf now. And you hit the ring, and you just have fun. The pitch just was more than we'd ever had. You feel like you're walking two feet off the ground. You just - adrenaline just takes over. And it makes for great TV. And when the people are just freaking out like that, then you feel like you can fly. And it's a great feeling. We traveled all over the world. We saw the coolest things. We had fun. Everywhere we went, we had fun.
SUSSMAN: The fun involved slamming into each other, into other huge wrestlers, slamming into the floor, the walls, folding chairs all day long.
VON ERICH: The hardest part was that we were running three shows a day. I'd have to do a show at noon, and then do a show at 3 o'clock in the after - and then do another show at seven o'clock that night. Really hard on the body, yeah. I've had a lot of knee surgeries. I got beat up so often that when I realized that, you know, it's only going to be a punch in the face. It's real loud. It doesn't really hurt that bad, and, you know, it's just loud. The next thing I know, I'm waking up and they're loading me into an ambulance. I've had so many concussions. I know that I've, you know - that I've hurt, you know - that I have damage to my, you know - to my brain from it.
SUSSMAN: Wrestling was hard on the body and the mind. And even the smiling band of brothers were coming apart. David, the second oldest Von Erich brother, was the first to surrender. In 1984, he was found dead in a hotel room in Japan. The cause of his death has been heavily disputed in the wrestling world.
VON ERICH: Actually, it may have been wrestling-related.
SUSSMAN: Thousands of fans came to David's funeral.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER 1: They came to the First Baptist Church by the thousands, wrestling fans who wanted to pay tribute to David Von Erich. The 25-year-old wrestler died...
SUSSMAN: But after David's death, the Von Erich team began to crumble, one massive body after another.
VON ERICH: You know, believe it or not, Dave, the first one, was - I never quite got up after that one. That - Dave was the toughest one that was like - that when I stayed - Mike was next, and that was really bad.
SUSSMAN: Mike had hurt his shoulder wrestling. And after a series of surgeries and hospitalizations, he overdosed on pills. Chris, the youngest boy, tried very hard to keep up with the Von Erich prowess in the ring. But he just never had the body or the athleticism. And in this family, that was an impossibly hard burden to bear.
VON ERICH: He was not going to get big. He was not going to be - he wasn't quick and agile, and the power wasn't on his side either. It had just shot him down. And so he wanted so bad to be a wrestler, and it was just - wasn't going to happen. And it was just, Chris couldn't bear it, couldn't tolerate it. He just shot himself in the head with a nine millimeter.
SUSSMAN: So that left Kevin and one other brother, Kerry. But after years battling an addiction to pain pills, Kerry shot himself in the heart.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER 2: ...The death of the professional wrestler called Kerry Von Erich was a suicide. Bill Brown reports this tragedy isn't the first for the Von Erich family. They seem to have it all...
VON ERICH: He forged prescriptions to get pain medicine. And that's - so I would attribute pain pills to Kerry's death. So many wrestlers have died, and it's because of those darn pain pills. Pain pills, you know, kill the pain, but they're tricky. They kill the pain that one time, and the next time, it takes a little bit more to kill the pain. And the next thing you know, you're addicted to the stuff. They're really tricky, and they've killed a lot of wrestlers.
SUSSMAN: So Kevin was the only surviving Von Erich boy. After his brothers died, he kept wrestling, flying to fights across the country, punishing his body, going back to hotel rooms alone at night.
VON ERICH: You know, I may have even quit wrestling back then. But the fans coming out like they did, they're genuinely concerned, you know, and loved me. I could feel it and made me, you know, not want to let them down. And so I'd wrestle when I didn't feel like it sometimes.
SUSSMAN: The ghosts of his brothers were everywhere he went - etched on the corner posts, the turnbuckles of wrestling rings in stadiums and gyms.
VON ERICH: We used to write in the turnbuckles. You know, we'd always have a lot of autograph-seekers in the turnbuckles. So we always had plenty of pens. And so one of the brothers would write, hey, Kev, or, hey, Kerry, on the turnbuckles. You know, and so that's how we'd say, hey, you know, write something funny or something kind of dirty to the other one or something. You know, I don't know. But then, after they were dead and I'd work these towns and I'd seen it written in the turnbuckle - you know, hey, Kev - and it got to where it was I didn't want to be there.
I was an unhappy guy. Somebody may have asked me if I was going to achieve immortality by my wrestling, by my tapes, by kind of a pioneer and all that. But I think I told them that I'd much rather achieve immortality by not dying.
SUSSMAN: So Kevin climbed out of the ring for good in 1995.
VON ERICH: If you're going to be a professional wrestler and you're going to put your body through that and you decide this is more important than everything else, well, then, for me, I ruined my body. I had a lot of fun doing it - no complaints here - just I'm pretty beat up now. But I'd probably do it all over again. The fun we had - we had a blast.
SUSSMAN: When Kevin took off his robe and waved goodbye to the fans, he knew he'd have to go far from the cameras and the dressing rooms of Dallas. So he moved his family to Kauai. His two sons would watch his glory days on VHS.
(SOUNDBITE OF WRESTLING MATCH)
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER 4: Now the music plays for the entrance of our challenger, Kevin Von Erich.
M. VON ERICH: I'd constantly sit there and watch videos of my dad. And even when I was little, I'd dress up - I'd dress up like my dad and pretend like I was him. I'd go wrestle with my brother on the trampoline.
SUSSMAN: This is Marshall, one of Kevin's sons.
VON ERICH: He'd go in there, and, like, the crowd would be screaming his name. I was never around to experience it. But I would - just off videos and stuff - but I did go to a couple little shows with my dad. And it was a great experience as a kid to see your dad as, like, a superhero. But my background was kind of the same as his. I never thought I would be able to wrestle. It kind of seemed like it was - like it would be a dream come true, but it was too good to be true in a way.
SUSSMAN: Marshall and his brother, Ross, played football and track and field. And a few years ago, at the urging of some scouts, they decided it was their time to climb over the ropes and into the ring. Marshall doesn't talk about it like it was a decision, but more like a path he was guided to by an invisible hand - something that happened to him.
VON ERICH: And it didn't really hit me what I was doing until I came out. Like, my song came on, and I came out and I saw the people. And I was like, OK, I guess this is it. It was a really cool feeling, and it was actually awesome. And the crowd gets louder and louder and louder, and then they start - and then, by the end, of course they're screaming. And it's so much fun having them behind you.
VON ERICH: It's your second nature.
VON ERICH: Yeah.
VON ERICH: To him - you see him in the ring, it's just like watching a duck in the water.
SUSSMAN: But you must feel some hesitation letting - seeing them go back into the ring that was responsible for so much death in your family.
VON ERICH: I don't look at it like that. That's a coward's way to look at it. You know, I can't take the good and complain when the bad comes along.
SUSSMAN: So - but, Kevin, as an outsider, I guess I have to come clean here. I'm not sure why wrestling is worth the risk.
VON ERICH: You know, I think it's - really kind of goes down into something really more primal. A boy wants to be like his dad. I know that's what it was with me. I wanted to be just like him. Maybe that's nature. That's just the way it works.
VON ERICH: I just want to try to - try to kind of give off the same thing my dad and his brothers did is - when fans come to the show and stuff. The more and more I wrestled, the more and more I loved it. And I wouldn't - yeah, I guess it is kind of like a drug. I want to keep doing it, and I don't want to stop right now.
VON ERICH: It is dangerous. You're right. People do get hurt. But you know what, Anna? Whatever we decide to do in life, you want to be the best at it. If they want to pursue wrestling, that's their call. And I guarantee you, they will be the best because no one is going to work harder than they are. I guarantee you that. Pay the price the other guy won't pay, like, Von Erich-style. That's what we were known for, and that's - if there was a legacy, that's it. We give it all we've got.
WASHINGTON: Big thanks to Kevin and Marshall for speaking with the SNAP. You can find out more about them on our website SnapJudgment.org. That piece was produced by Anna Sussman, with sound design by Renzo Gorrio. When we return, we've got a very bad teacher. We've got a very bad man. And we've got a very bad gambler, when SNAP JUDGMENT "The Big Payback" episode continues. Stay tuned.
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