by Irvin Muchnick
As with any movie, Iron Claw, the upcoming one starring Zac Efron, will rise or fall on its own, artistically and commercially. I’ll let you know where I think it winds up landing on the faithfulness meter.
The story of the Von Erich wrestling clan of Texas was told in my 1988 article in Penthouse magazine, “Born-Again Bashing.” That piece would become Chapter 1 of my 2007 collection Wrestling Babylon: Piledriving Tales of Drugs, Sex, Death, and Scandal. It was one of the first examples of long-form narrative journalism whose back matter was the transformation of the pro wrestling industry from mom-and-pop territories into global entertainment franchises. Along with my coverage of Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka’s murder of Nancy Argentino in a Pennsylvania motel room, the Von Erich saga is the work of mine most frequently passed around at the Internet cooler.
At the time of publication, the so-called curse of the Von Erich brothers consisted of the accidental electrocution death of Jack “Fritz Von Erich” Adkisson’s very young first son, Jack Jr.; the drug overdose death in Japan of David – who was slated to be anointed National Wrestling Alliance champion; and the suicide of Mike, a failed wrestler. In subsequent years, Chris would die of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. So would Kerry, the hunkiest and most popular Von Erich of them all. Only Kevin, now 66 years old, survives, curating the legend.
Sit back and enjoy, or not. What doomed the Von Erichs was no curse. If the film portrays Fritz as anything other than a combination of the Great Santini and Elmer Gantry, it’s predictable hokum. World Class Championship Wrestling was a hit on Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network affiliate in Dallas and in syndication, just before Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation caught fire. Bizarrely, or maybe not so bizarrely, it also had a huge following on cable distribution in Israel.
The Von Erichs’ piety was about as profound as that of their contemporary scandal-stained televangelists Jimmy Swaggart and Jim (Mr. Tammy Faye) Bakker. Sub-heavenly, the boys abused drugs and molested ring rats.
The delusional Fritz (who briefly played football at Southern Methodist University before becoming one of the most agile and charismatic wrestling heels under his German gimmick, then transitioning to a born-again babyface promoter) was one of those guys who believed his own hype. His finishing hold, the Iron Claw, involved “rendering his opponent unconscious” by clamping the temples. Once, in a dressing room in front of other wrestlers, Danny Hodge – a legit tough guy who’d been an Olympic silver medalist boxer – challenged Fritz to put him in the Iron Claw. For more than a minute, Hodge just stood there, not even flinching. Fritz stomped off in frustration.
Iron Claw is rated PG, for Pretty Galling.