clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

From the Sportatorium to ‘The Iron Claw’: The Legacy of World Class Championship Wrestling

Fritz Von Erich turned his federation—and his family—into a pro wrestling gold mine. This is the story of the impactful Texas promotion where a lot of A24’s upcoming film, ‘The Iron Claw,’ took place.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The canonized legend of the 1980s in professional wrestling is that Vince McMahon Jr. took pro wrestling out of the smoke-filled arenas, transforming it from a series of small regional promotions spread out across the United States to a unified national promotion featuring modern production and rock ‘n’ roll energy. In reality, many of the innovations credited to the WWF happened in Dallas, Texas, in World Class Championship Wrestling (WCCW), years before the first WrestleMania. And while the upcoming release of A24’s The Iron Claw focuses on the sad family story of the Von Erichs, the tale of WCCW isn’t just one of Greek tragedy; it is also about the modernization of pro wrestling.

Jack Adkisson, a.k.a. Fritz Von Erich, booked and ran the Dallas/Ft. Worth National Wrestling Alliance–affiliate starting in 1966. Von Erich began his wrestling career portraying a Nazi but was working as a babyface by the late 1960s, becoming a top star in the territory through the ’70s. In 1982, the promotion—then known as Big Time Wrestling—changed its name to World Class Championship Wrestling in concert with the beginning of a new television show on Channel 39 in Dallas. Mickey Grant, who was working at the station, pitched the idea of a weekly wrestling show with a different production style. Like most wrestling shows, their previous show was a two-camera shoot, with one camera on a stationary wide shot of the ring and a second camera on a dolly. Grant switched to a multi-camera shoot featuring six camera operators, some using shoulder-mounted cameras, which worked great to get close-ups of the in-ring action. Inspired by how Don King produced boxing events, Grant also started putting microphones in the ring to pick up the sounds of wrestlers striking each other and the reverberations from the ring. WCCW also began incorporating the relatively new instant replay and slow-motion technology. The ability to replay portions of the match would especially highlight the stiffness of Texas wrestling, particularly Kevin Von Erich, notorious for not caring how hard he hit his opponents. The slow-motion replays showed every bit of that impact.

Most other pro wrestling television programs focused on short matches with the stars wrestling enhancement talent or jobbers, often filmed in a television studio and designed primarily to draw fans to attend upcoming local live events. World Class Championship Wrestling was filmed at the Dallas Sportatorium during their live shows, with each episode airing the main events from their weekly cards; they would even air the main events of their larger supercards like Star Wars and the Parade of Champions.

The change in name and TV station also coincided with a shift in the focus of the promotion. As Fritz’s in-ring career began to wind down, the spotlight turned to his five sons. David, Kerry, and Kevin were all young, good-looking athletes, and the show focused primarily on various friends turning their backs on them and mercenaries brought in by longtime familial rivals like Gary Hart and Skandor Akbar to take them down. WCCW also helped pioneer the use of vignettes and video packages to introduce wrestlers and further along angles. Seeing more of their lives helped solidify the relationship between the Von Erichs and the fans, meaning the Von Erich boys became more like rock stars, being mobbed by adoring fans whenever they left the house.

In addition to running in the Dallas market, WCCW’s TV program was syndicated to other media markets in the U.S. and abroad. With the mix of marquee matches and top-shelf production, WCCW was a big ratings draw worldwide. The Von Erichs soon became international stars, traveling to other NWA territories in St. Louis and Florida and touring Japan. The Von Erich brothers were so revered in Israel—partly due to satellite TV technology allowing World Class Championship Wrestling to gain popularity in the region—that Kevin Von Erich had his last match in 2017 on a show in Israel, teaming with his sons.

The biggest feud of the early 1980s—in WCCW and throughout wrestling—was the Von Erich family’s battles against the Fabulous Freebirds (a team of Terry Gordy, Buddy Roberts, and Michael Hayes). Before coming to Texas, the Freebirds succeeded in the Georgia and Mid-South territories. While they initially came in as allies of the Von Erichs, their feud started when Hayes served as a special referee on Christmas Night 1982 for the NWA Worlds Heavyweight Championship match between then-champion Ric Flair and Kerry Von Erich that led to a program that broke box office records in Texas. The two groups would battle so fiercely that it could only end one way: with a Loser Leaves Town match between Kerry and Hayes at the Thanksgiving Star Wars show almost a year later.

The Freebirds were some of the earliest pioneers in using popular songs as ring entrance music, sometimes alternating between the eponymous “Freebird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd and “Georgia on My Mind” by Willie Nelson. The success of that part of their act led WCCW to incorporate more popular rock songs as entrance music for other wrestlers, with the Von Erichs walking down the aisle to “Tom Sawyer” by Rush, while George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone” was used for the Dynamic Duo of Chris Adams and Gino Hernandez. Using popular music for ring entrances became a huge part of ’80s pro wrestling until licensing fees caused WWE and WCW to go with in-house compositions instead. Almost a decade later, songs like “Enter Sandman” by Metallica, “Walk” by Pantera, and Dr. Dre and Ice Cube’s “Natural Born Killaz” were a big reason Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) became such a phenomenon. Since AEW’s 2019 debut, Tony Khan has wisely paid for licensed music when necessary, from the themes for Jon Moxley and Ruby Soho to Orange Cassidy and Hook to securing John Tesh’s “Roundball Rock” for the best-of-seven series between the Elite and the Death Triangle.

World Class Championship Wrestling remained hot throughout 1983 and early 1984 when the first Von Erich family tragedy hit. David Von Erich died while on tour in Japan. David’s death was front-page news in Dallas, and WCCW did an hour-long tribute show full of video packages and taped memorials. The rumor was that the NWA had scheduled David to win the world title from Ric Flair in May of 1984. Kerry took that spot, winning the title from Flair at the first annual David Von Erich Memorial Parade of Champions in front of 32,000 fans at Texas Stadium. Kerry would lose the title to Flair a week later in Japan as the NWA was too concerned about Kerry’s out-of-ring habits to keep the title on him longer. (Fritz is also said to have made Mike Von Erich begin wrestling in November 1983 to have Mike pick up where David left off, despite Mike never having aspirations or the natural abilities to be a pro wrestler. Mike took his own life in 1987, as did their youngest brother Chris in 1991, and Kerry in 1993.)

WCCW was still booming in the mid-’80s, posting solid TV ratings and attendance numbers across the board. Adams and Hernandez (along with Hart) assumed the Freebirds’ role after the faction left WCCW; 26,000 people showed up at the second Cotton Bowl Extravaganza to see Kevin and Kerry beat the Dynamic Duo in a hair vs. hair match.

However, the dark cloud over WCCW eventually ended their boom period. First, the death of Hernandez cut short a promising feud between him and his ex-partner, Adams. Then, in 1986, the NWA decided that the world champion would no longer be touring to other promotions, leading WCCW to withdraw from the NWA and crown its own world champion. WCCW would recycle the feud with the Freebirds and attempt to recreate the Chris Adams angle with the less talented Brian Adias, with neither retread working as well the second time. They even brought in a fake Von Erich cousin, Lance, to fill in for an injured Mike. While wrestling is built on artifice, the fans’ connection with the Von Erichs was real. The insertion of a fraudulent family member damaged that.

With their competitors adopting WCCW’s filming and sound design approach, it no longer felt cutting edge. WCCW did get a television deal with ESPN in 1988, although they primarily showed older footage from the prime period in the early 1980s rather than the current product.

Eventually, WCCW would merge with the Continental Wrestling Association, and by 1989 they would sell the promotion—renamed the United States Wrestling Association—to Memphis promoter Jerry Jarrett. WCCW ended in embarrassing fashion, featuring an angle where a cage match between Eric Embry and PY Chu-hi decided the company’s fate. After Embry’s win, Sportatorium fans and wrestlers were cheering as he ripped down the World Class Championship Wrestling flag and replaced it with the USWA banner.

The WCCW era only lasted seven years, from 1982 to 1989, but had an outsized influence on professional wrestling. In many ways, WCCW was the 1980s version of ECW, a promotion that caught lightning in a bottle by breaking the stodgy mold of pro wrestling—although WCCW drew much bigger houses and made way more money than ECW ever did. However, once promotions with deeper pockets adopted those innovations, they couldn’t survive. Still, WCCW’s impact was felt throughout the wrestling history which followed.

Phil Schneider is a cofounder of the Death Valley Driver Video Review, a writer on the Segunda Caida blog, host of The Way of the Blade podcast, and the author of Way of the Blade: 100 of the Greatest Bloody Matches in Wrestling History, which is available on Amazon. He is on Twitter at @philaschneider.