Tuesday, 13 June 2006 05:59
I can not get enough of pro-wrestling documentaries, from Beyond the Mat to Wrestling with Shadows to I Like to Hurt People and just about everything in between. The newest documentary to drop on wrestling fans is Brian Harrison's Heroes of World Class: The Story of the Von Erichs, putting a spotlight on the famous Texas territory that had taken off like a rocket during the early '80s, but had suffered an even faster fall from grace by the time the decade had ended. This was a DVD I was eagerly anticipating as coming home from school and turning on ESPN to watch World Class wrestling was always a big highlight of my youth. That and Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends.
Heroes of World Class is centered around Kevin Adkisson (a/k/a Kevin Von Erich) the last surviving Von Erich brother. Kevin talked about his family's history, including his grandfather, in a mind blowing segment. You have to realize that grandpappy Adkisson was a Texas sheriff during a time in American history that we just don't read about much in high school. Kevin's grandfather was part of hangings and tying people up to a fence to whip them. "He was a cruel guy," said Kevin, in possibly the understatement of the entire film. Kevin's father, Fritz, would be taken into town by his grandfather and forced to fight other twelve and thirteen year old boys in a form of human cockfighting. JESUS H. CHRIST!
The documentary covered Fritz going into wrestling as an adult, adopting the persona of Fritz Von Erich, Nazi sympathizer. In the '70s Fritz became more of a family man after he and his wife eventually had six sons. The first son, Jackie, died very early in life after he was electrocuted. Kevin said that of the five remaining sons, they always knew which one was Fritz's favorite, which was his second favorite, and so on. Kevin didn't have a problem with this because, although Kerry was first, Kevin was always the second favorite. In one of my favorite lines of the film, Kevin said he hears that not all families are like that. Kevin also said that Fritz was always hardest on David, probably because he was so much like his dad.
I should note that the DVD uses a mixture of World Class TV footage, pictures and home movies from the Von Erich collection, along with new interviews with people who were involved with World Class. It is very much like a WWE documentary, and I don't think I could give anything in wrestling a higher compliment when it comes to production values. Just jam packed with wonderful footage. After a segment briefly covering how the territory system in wrestling worked ("I always refer to the wrestling promoters as the mafia." – David Manning, World Class referee) the DVD went on to show how the World Class show came to be. Basically, a guy named Mickey Grant was working a TV station and pitched a wrestling show in order to draw ratings. His bosses were skeptical, but told James to shoot a pilot and then they would decide. Everyone on the DVD put over how much Grant brought to the table from the production side and credited him with being the innovator of many things that we take for granted on wrestling shows today, such as: in-ring close ups, instant reply, slow motion, and putting microphones all over the crowd. They actually were able to show footage from World Class' debut episode and talk about a blast to the past!
"If you want a fresh start, you can't do it with people who have been there a long time." – Gary Hart
With a new television show, World Class then started to push a whole new generation of wrestlers, including the Von Erichs. There were immediately three awesome montages for David, Kerry, and Kevin Von Erich. Other new guys were brought into the promotion such as Chris Adams, and the DVD recapped the incredible angle between Adams and Gorgeous Jimmy Garvin, with Adams finally getting a title shot by dressing up as a jobber named the Masked Avenger. The crowd went absolutely hoss when Adams superkicked Garvin, made the pin, and then unmasked. That was another thing about this DVD I absolutely loved, it would show angles develop over the weeks to give the payoff more context.
Next up were the FABULOUS FREEBIRDS and this was just incredible footage to watch. Gary Hart was able to get the Freebirds into Dallas and the heat for them was just off the charts, especially after a Christmas Day angle in which the Freebirds turned heel by Terry Gordy slamming a cage door into the head of Kerry Von Erich during a match Kerry was having against Ric Flair with Michael Hayes as guest referee. I believe Dave Meltzer often uses this particular angle to describe red hot heat. There were also promos by the Freebirds and a chance to see the electric atmosphere when they walked to the ring surrounded by people dressed up as Confederate soldiers. Just a ten star segment. For guys like me, who mostly know Hayes only from his beyond-stupid Doc Hendrix WWE persona, this is like watching the Twilight Zone. Hayes was cutting wild promos and displaying the charisma of ten men in the ring.
Kevin Von Erich talked about how tough it was working in the World Class area, and that many of the guys "worked through the pain" by taking pain killers and other "medicine," which would allow them to go on wrestling. I felt that Kevin saw this as guys taking so much pride in their work that they would play hurt, but it was in stark contrast to an interview I had listened to earlier in the day when Bryan Alvarez talked to Lance Storm on Figure 4 Daily.. Storm is a wrestler who would never take medication, unless he was about to go to bed, because Storm felt that a wrestler needs to feel that pain so that they can avoid doing further damage to that body part. For example, if Storm's knees hurt, he wouldn't do any flying moves.
After World Class began syndicating their show to other markets, promoters from all around wanted to start using their wrestlers, especially the Von Erichs. David Manning said that when he started with the company it only had four employees, but even after they exploded Fritz only had a staff of eight employees. The television producers talked about having to make a show which was drawing huge ratings on a shoestring budget of $5,000 a show. In the span of nine months, the syndicated show was bought by 85 stations in a total of 25 countries. But despite their massive success in other areas of the country, Fritz refused to book company tours to take advantage of their popularity. Compare that to the almost strip-mining attitude WWE currently has in terms of finding what countries are rabid for their product and quickly doing tours.
Scandor Ackbar's Devastation Incorporated got its own chapter, and this covered all the gimmicks that Ackbar would lead against the Von Erichs. Guys like Kimala the Ugandan giant, the Missing Link and the Super Destroyers (soon to be renamed the "Super D's" after a lawsuit that is never discussed). Other top names, such as NWA champions Harley Race and Ric Flair, would also come to World Class to have matches. Gary Hart talked about what it would take to have an NWA title match, including the fact that 13% of the house gate would go to the champ, 3% of that would then be passed onto the NWA board of directors. This was followed by more in-depth looks at some awesome angles including the hair vs. hair feud between Buddy Rogers and Iceman Parsons, Freebirds vs. Von Erichs in a country whippin' match, and the World Six Man championships.
No World Class DVD would be complete without mentioning Bruiser Brody, and everyone on this film put Brody over in a big way. There were some great Brody stories, including how he always had cans of tuna fish and pork & beans on him, as he was determined to hold onto the money he made in wrestling. Very Mick Foley-esque. I talked about the red hot Michael Hayes heel turn above, and if you remember that happened on a show that took place on Christmas day. In today's age, most wrestling companies all but shut down a little bit before Christmas and pick up shortly after New Year's Day, but during the World Class heyday, huge shows were held on both Thanksgiving and Christmas day. This wasn't just a Texas thing as Larry Matysik said the St.Louis area run by Sam Muschnick, and all the other territories, would put on huge shows as well. This led to the popular Star Wars events held at the Reunion Arena, which would draw over 20,000 people.
During this period, Mike Von Erich debuted in World Class, despite having no background in wrestling and being the smallest of the brothers in the company. This was followed by the must-see recap of the Jimmy Garvin and Sunshine "valet for a day" skit as they were forced to work for David Von Erich at the Von Erich ranch. This was 100% gold, my favorite part being Garvin digging post holes in the ground as David Von Erich sat in a lawn chair with a shotgun and ordering Garvin around. Priceless stuff that would be copied years later by Dusty Rhodes and Babydoll in the Crockett promotion with similar results. One of wrestling's easiest to do angles is the working class man sticking it to the rich man, a concept Steve Austin and Vince McMahon would perfect twenty years after the Von Erich/Garvin stuff.
"Everything bad happens in the morning." - Gary Hart
David Von Erich was becoming the breakout star I the company and the NWA board of director's were considering a match between David and NWA champion Ric Flair, with the possibility of Von Erich winning the belt. That all came to a screeching halt when on February 10th, 1984, David Von Erich passed away in Japan. David Manning recalled getting a phone call at 3a.m. and was told, "This is Joe Haguchi. All Japan Pro Wrestling. David Von Erich dead." At first Manning thought it was a rib, but after confirmation, Manning quickly realized he would have to be the one to tell Fritz. Manning drove an hour and a half to Fritz's house, and when he came up to the door Fritz simply asked, "Which one?"
The film talked about David dying of an apparent stomach ailment, but others interviewed said they heard of drug rumors. Manning claimed that it was an intestinal disease that could have been cured with antibiotics, but David didn't take any. Manning also said that David ate sushi in Japan and that, combined with taking pain killers, ended up making his intestines swell until they ruptured. I liked that the film didn't just present the opinions of the Von Erich family and instead would give several viewpoints, even if at times they contradicted each other. Wrestling was much more guarded business back then, a concept the DVD does a good job explaining, and it seems natural that people in the same area would view subjects differently. The producers of the World Class TV show spent the next 40 hours working non-stop to put together a David Von Erich tribute show. Watching this tribute show was a lot like watching the Monday Night Raw tribute to Owen Hart from several years ago. Wrestlers were out of character and talking about how much they liked and respected David. Even Ric Flair and Harley Race sent in promos putting David over. There were stories about how big David's funeral was followed by a fantastic montage.
One of the most famous Von Erich matches of all time was when Kerry Von Erich beat Ric Flair to win the NWA title at the David Von Erich Memorial Parade of Champions. That is covered on this disc along with Devastation Inc.'s feud with the Freebirds and Chris Adams turning on the Von Erichs. All this classic footage had me going out of my mind! Then came Mike Von Erich's life changing experience after dealing with toxic shock syndrome. Being in the hospital for days, at times with a temperature of 108 degrees, the family was told Mike was not coming back and it was time to say goodbye. Mike ended up surviving the ordeal, but was never the same person again. The look on Mike's face during a press conference after he left the hospital speaks volumes. Clearly this man was not the same man, mentally, that went into the hospital. To make up for Mike not being able to wrestle for awhile, Fritz came up with the idea of introducing a Von Erich cousin. Lance Von Erich made his debut and Kevin stated everyone hated the idea. Fritz lived by the motto "majority rules" and Kevin said his dad's vote counted as the majority.
"He liked to live the high life." - Chris Adams
It was awesome being able to see the introduction of the handsome half-breed, Gino Hernandez. Everyone put over the talent of Hernandez, but also gave stories of just what a messed up life he was living at the time. Gary Hart summed it up with, "Gino loved the cocaine." Being able to watch the hair vs. hair match between the Dynamic Duo (Hernandez & Chris Adams) and the Von Erichs was like a wonderful trip back in time. There was pandemonium in the Cotton Bowl as the fans were going apeshit when the heels lost. This euphoria didn't last long as on January 30th, 1986, Gino Hernandez was found dead in his apartment. While labeled as a suicide, several people interviewed on the DVD don't agree with that statement at all. David Manning in particular laid out the reasons he felt that there was some foul play involved.
One month later, World Class pulled out of the NWA as Crockett expanded and stopped sending his champion to Texas. That summer, World Class signed a deal with ESPN. Fritz Von Erich still refused to take the World Class crew to areas that were getting big television ratings with the thought process of "Dallas is big enough for my boys." It all started to fall apart quickly as booker Ken Mantell left World Class to work for Bill Watts' Universal Wrestling Federation, leaving guys like David Manning to fill the void. The first thing Manning was hit with was the news of Kerry Von Erich having a serious motorcycle accident. Manning said he got a phone call in which he was told, "My God David, it looks like an alligator chewed on his ankle." There was footage of the World Class TV show that had a doctor at Kerry's bedside saying that they were able to save Kerry's foot, but unbeknownst to World Class fans, the foot was eventually amputated. A common theme throughout the DVD was Fritz pushing his boys back from injuries way too soon, and Kerry's amputation was undoubtedly caused by that type of mindset. After watching the film, I'm also convinced that Texas doctor's are about as legitimate as Dr. Keith Lipinski!
By April of '87, Mike Von Erich was showing the long term effects of toxic shock syndrome. Despondent over his new life, Mike took some booze, a sleeping bag, and a bottle of sleeping pills and went to commit suicide. His suicide note was found several days before his body and I can only imagine what that was like for the family. Weeks after Mike was found dead, World Class held the Parade of Champions David and Mike Von Erich Tribute. The first show after Mike died drew 43,000 fans. The second show drew 4,900.
"What took eight years to build took two years to take down." - Gary Hart
There was a startling comparison when the DVD showed the hyper World Class crowds of 1985 and the dead crowds of 1987. Fritz Von Erich sold the company to Kevin, and eventually Kevin sold Jerry Jarrett and Max Andrews after a failed merger with the AWA. There was some retrospectives by guys like announcer Marc Lowrance, Gary Hart, and others, all putting over what a great time they had during World Class' hot run. In the Summer of 1988, Bruiser Brody (who had been brought in to book World Class after Mike's death) was stabbed in Puerto Rico with Gary Hart telling a mind boggling story of the circumstances of that fateful night.
"The thing about grief is that it never gets better, it only gets worse." - Kevin Von Erich, near crying, describing the pain those who continue to live after friends or family have committed suicide
Never being able to reach the heights that his brothers attained, Chris Von Erich – the youngest Von Erich brother -committed suicide. Kerry was out of his mind by this point, about to go to jail for forging drug prescriptions. Kevin knew Kerry was in a bad state and called his dad at the Von Erich ranch to warn him about Kerry. Fritz said that he was busy and would call Kevin back. By the time Fritz made that return call, Kerry had shown up at the Von Erich ranch, took his fathers gun, and went into the woods to shoot himself. The toll of all his son's deaths really began to eat away at Fritz's mind. After developing cancer in 1997, Fritz told his sole remaining son Kevin, "You'd kill yourself too if you had the guts." Kevin responded, "No dad, it takes guts to stay here." It is amazing to try and understand the mind control Fritz had over his sons as Kevin continually jumps through hoops to try and justify that his dad was an okay guy, despite all the evidence suggesting otherwise. I would say a classic abusive relationship, but I've never seen anything like this. In late 1997, Fritz Von Erich finally passed away.
Chris Adams left World Class to become a journeyman wrestler working the independent scene. To a person, everyone loved Adams, but all made sure to point out that they loved him when he was sober. In 2000, Adams got into an argument with a friend of his and ended up getting shot to death. Gary Hart, a friend of Adams, went into a deep depression as he had never returned phone calls Adams had left for him and Hart was convinced he could have helped Chris. Scandor Ackbar said he knows of 18 young men who have died since 1982 saying, "At first I thought it was coincidence, but then after a while, what's going on?" Manning had a similar experience when watching a tape of a World Class match at an airport and coming to the realization that of all the people involved in the match, he was the only one still alive.
The film concluded with Kevin Von Erich going back to the famous Sporatorium, where World Class held so many of its shows over the years. In the late '90s the building became dilapidated and in the year 2000 had a fire inside of it. A new owner bought the building in order to demolish it and raze the land, but in February, 2003, Kevin went back to the Sportatorium for one last time. This was a surreal scene, as a hazardous material team was taking apart the asbestos siding, but it was amazing to watch Von Erich give a tour of the building. Kevin showed where the babyfaces and heels had their locker rooms along with where he sold cotton candy as a kid. In a way, it was like James Cameron showing how the Titanic looked on the bottom of the ocean, before cutting back to show how it looked when it was sailing. The DVD cutting between a young Kevin Von Erich pushing through the crowd on his way to the ring and an older Kevin Von Erich walking those same steps in a run down building was striking to say the least.
The film concludes by letting us know that Kevin Von Erich still lives on the Von Erich family ranch, has raised two daughters, and is currently raising two sons. Amidst a sea of woe, there is at least some hope to cling on to.
Overall Thoughts: Clocking in with a run time of over two and a half hours, Heroes of World Class delivers. From a gluttony of memorable clips, to fantastic interviews with some of the men still alive, this DVD is not just one side of the story, it is all sides of the World Class story. From hearing about the Von Erich family, to the territory system and 1980's wrestling, this documentary dissects the World Class wrestling promotion and all the names behind it. Heroes is engaging and emotionally gripping documentary that looks at an American tragedy, This is an excellent DVD in so many ways and for many levels of wrestling fans. From the casual fan of today who never saw World Class, but wants to see what it was about, to older fans who remember coming home to watch wrestling action on ESPN and want a trip down memory lane. The true star of the documentary is Kevin Von Erich, who has experienced more than one man should ever have to and handles everything pretty well considering the burden he has had to bear. But to me, the most surprising interviewee is Gary Hart, as Hart's comments about many subjects are right on the money and his emotion towards the wrestlers seems genuine. If you would like more information on Heroes of World Class: The Story of the Von Erichs, Click HERE or head on over to www.RightHerePictures.com.
Special Thanks to Keith Lipinski for his help with this review.
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