The People's Bad Guy

The troubled and tragic life of Fritz Von Erich comes to an end at his Denton County home.

By Stephen Kaye
From the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, September 11, 1997

Fritz Von Erich, immensely popular in his heyday as a professional wrestler and immensely pained later in life because of the deaths of four wrestling sons, died of cancer yesterday at his home in Shady Shores in Denton County.

Mr. Von Erich, whose real name was Jack Adkisson, was found to have brain cancer six weeks ago. The cancer was found after Mr. Adkisson, 68, was admitted to Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas for treatment after a mild stroke.

A memorial service for Mr. Adkisson will be at noon Saturday at First Baptist Church in Dallas. Burial will be in Grove Hill Cemetery in Dallas. Schmitz-Floyd-Andersen Funeral Home in Denton is handling the arrangements.

Mr. Adkisson, who retired from wrestling in the 1980s, was the father of the beloved Von Erichs, who reigned over World Class Championship Wrestling for years. From his trademark "Iron Claw" paralyzing grip on opponents, to the popularity of his five wrestling sons, Mr. Adkisson built the Von Erich family as icons.

Mr. Adkisson’s only surviving son, Kevin, 40, thanked wrestling fans for their years of support.

"We would like to express thanks to the fans and community for their prayers, love and support," Kevin Adkisson said. "Dad loved them very much."

In the 1980s, misfortune mounted, and bit by bit the Von Erich story became less about wrestling and more about destruction. Three of Mr. Adkisson’s five wrestling sons—Kerry, Mike and Chris—committed suicide. David died in 1984 after suffering from an intestinal infection while wrestling in Japan.

In 1959, Mr. Adkisson’s first son, Jack Jr., died from an accidental electrical shock at age 7.

Mr. Adkisson was part entertainer, part athlete, part businessman.

His wrestling career took off in the 1950s, with World War II still a fresh memory. His stage name was invented for its appeal on wrestling marquees. He took Fritz from a family name and Erich from his mother’s maiden name. If he was going to play the bad guy, Mr. Adkisson figured, he was going to be very bad.

"The German gimmick was a natural," said a longtime friend, William "Cowboy Bill" Watts Jr., 58, of Tulsa, Okla., who wrestled against Mr. Adkisson. "With that scowl of his, he was an easy guy to hate."

Mr. Adkisson, once a lineman for Southern Methodist University and the American Football League’s Dallas Texans, was an imposing 6 feet 4 inches tall and weighed 260 pounds.

In arenas across the state and nation, his wrestling led to boos and jeers from the crowd. But at home in Dallas, he was every fan’s hero.

Bill Mercer, a longtime friend of Mr. Adkisson’s, is a retired baseball broadcaster who announced World Class Championship Wrestling. Mr. Adkisson was one of the good guys, Mercer said, but Von Erich was one of the bad ones.

"He was one of the baddest," Mercer said. "Wrestlers told me that he put everything he could into every bout. These guys loved hitting each other. People think this stuff is all fake. Guys like Fritz, no. I’ve seen him beaten to a pulp."

Johnny Valentine, 69, a Fort Worth resident, wrestled for almost 30 years and had many bouts against Mr. Adkisson.

"He was the people’s bad guy," Valentine said. "They adopted him. If you’re mean enough and tough enough, they get to where they respect you for that.

"I really loved to pound on him. One week, we would wrestle Fort Worth on Monday, Dallas on Tuesday, San Antonio on Wednesday and sell out all three places. People would be turned away. I don’t remember who won or lost. It didn’t make much difference. Even the winner was hurt."

World Class Championship Wrestling, the Von Erich family’s show, was immensely popular during the golden age of professional wrestling. It was syndicated at one time in 66 U.S. television markets, Japan, Argentina and the Middle East.

The Von Erichs once wrestled in front of 40,000 people at Texas Stadium, and they nearly always filled the arenas where they competed.

Mr. Adkisson’s business acumen helped build the dynasty.

"He knew what he was doing when it came not only to promoting, but to marketing and investing," said Bill Colville, a family friend who worked as a bodyguard for Mr. Adkisson’s sons. "He knew where every penny was going, who was doing what or was supposed to be doing what."

But their triumph became a tragic story in the 1980s.

David, probably the best wrestler of the sons, died at age 25 in 1984. Suicide claimed the lives of Mike, 23, in 1987; Chris, 21, in 1991; and Kerry, 33, in 1993.

Their deaths, Watts said, eventually wrecked Mr. Adkisson’s marriage to his wife, Doris. "That was one thing. Family was above everything. They were a wonderful couple for a long time until tragedy overtook everything," he said.

Watts, a friend and onetime business partner of Mr. Adkisson’s, said the wrestler’s sons "were everything to him."

Arlington attorney Grey Pierson represented two of Mr. Adkisson’s sons in the late 1980s and had become a family friend. He remembers traveling to Dallas from his home in Eastland as a child to watch Mr. Adkisson perform.

"As a person, one of the things I felt like he got a bum rap on was . . . so many blamed his sons’ deaths on Fritz," Pierson said. "He didn’t strike me as the bad guy. I didn’t feel like Fritz forced anyone into anything."

The Rev. Marc Lowrance, minister of First Methodist Church in Watauga, met Mr. Adkisson in 1980 when Lowrance became a ring announcer. He called Mr. Adkisson "inspiring."

"He definitely became a compassionate person because of his pain," Lowrance said. "Fritz had a gruff edge to him, until you really saw through him. He was a deeply troubled man. He wanted to know why" his sons died.

"Fritz hoped that someday the mystery would be solved. That may have been today."

Mr. Adkisson is survived by his son, Kevin; a daughter-in-law, Pam; and six grandchildren.

Staff writers Rick Herrin, Chris Vaughn and Michael S. Lee contributed to this report.