Editorial Columns

How Tragedy Stopped The Rise Of World Class Championship Wrestling

Adam Van Winkle tells some ‘stories from the territories’, as he looks at the tragedy that surrounded WCCW.

Welcome to Stories from the Territories, wrestling legends and myths and tales and half-truths and tragedies from the gritty territory days of big-time regional wrestling promotions.

We’ll be looking at the days before Vince McMahon bought half of the regionals and beat out the other half and put all their libraries on the WWE Network.

No territory bled more stories of tragedy and legend than the Dallas-based World Class Championship Wrestling promotion run by Fritz von Erich.  It was well-earned too, as the WCCW would break ground in pioneering much of the modern wrestling television production, from multi-ring-side cameras to get in on the action to entrance music and pyrotechnics to national cable station television broadcasting (thanks to the Dallas-based nationally broadcast Christian Broadcasting Network).  

Additionally, WCCW churned out a number of wrestlers who would go on to national success in the WWF, some even iconic success:  Rick Rude, the One Man Gang, King Kong Bundy, Jake the Snake Roberts, the Ultimate Warrior (as the Dingo Warrior in WCCW), the Undertaker (as the Punisher in WCCW), Mick Foley (as Cactus Jack Manson in WCCW) and Steve Austin all rose through World Class.  Michael PS Hayes deserves a special mention in here somewhere: after wrestling in WCCW he found some late-career national success in the early World Championship Wrestling brand, and of course, as one of the brains behind all those creative WCCW innovations he’s since found a long-held-behind-the-scenes home in creative at WWE.

Those though are the merits of WCCW, and for all those success stories, there lies quite an unwashed underbelly of drama and death and dirt.  

A clear case study: what happens when we add to the old trope of the overbearing father pushing his son(s) toward success that the dad is a pro wrestler and his push for success is to make his sons pro wrestling world champions?  The answer over the years was clear: disaster. One by one, save Kevin von Erich, Fritz von Erich’s sons would succumb to tragedy. David died of “intestine rupture” (though many in the business report it a drug overdose) in Tokyo, Mike and Chris killed themselves after major injury and health issues prevented each from attaining much success in a pro wrestling ring, and Kerry, the only of the siblings to make it from WCCW to the WWF in the Hulkamania era for a sustained run, killed himself after drug addictions and pending drug convictions.  

The Von Erich story is well-documented by better writers and researchers than me.  I mention it here as an entry into the death and tragedy that hung over World Class Championship Wrestling from the mid-80s through its demise in the early 90s.  I won’t dwell on their individual stories here other than to add my two cents that in some ways, the von Erich deaths are some of the least tragic in the history of WCCW, given we can agree that the von Erich boys would never find more success or crowd acceptance than with the rock star, the first family of North Texas status they held in their own Dallas promotion.  In other words, given David and Kerry were both in the NWA World Title scene (particularly against rivals Ric Flair and Harley Race) and all the von Erich boys were wildly over with Texas crowds, they reached the peak of their potential. They got to live that life.

Others in WCCW were not so lucky.  With their demises and/or deaths, we are left wondering, how far could they have gone?  What future WWF or WCW matchups did we miss because they didn’t make it out from under the pall of substance abuse and tragedy that hung over World Class.  

Bruiser Brody first springs to mind.  Not only a wrestler throughout the 80s for World Class but also its booker in 1986, Brody was a hardcore proponent of the territory system.  Given his magical abilities in the ring, holding the crowd, and on the mic, this makes sense. Brody could get himself moreover by keeping himself rare to a national audience, ensuring audiences would always be intrigued to see his schtick.  In a national market, he realized, fans might quickly tire of seeing similar mannerisms or a particular character if over-exposed.

This meant that Brody strategically rotated wrestling territories, between St. Louis, Texas, Florida, Japan, and Puerto Rico.  It also meant he had to consider himself and his status not only within a promotion but when he travelled to another. This, as you know, ended in disaster for Brody when an argument ensued between Brody and Puerto Rican booker Jose Gonzalez in Puerto Rico when Brody tried to protect his character against the desired booking (to lose to future WWFer Waylon Mercy, Dan Spivey).  Gonzalez took it too far and stabbed Brody, killing the best Hulk Hogan opponent we never saw.  

TRUE, Hogan and Brody might never have happened for several reasons.  First, both were resistant to lose clean. Second, both command huge money, often top money in a promotion.  Last, Brody was fairly anti-WWF, anti-McMahon’s vision for a national promotion and television product. HOWEVER, remember that both Hogan and Roddy Piper refused to lose clean to each other, and that made for damned good business in the mid-80s for WWF and later in the mid-90s for WCW.  Remember too that many wrestlers resisted a nationalized wrestling product for a long time, but in the end, there were only a couple, then one, choice if you wanted to wrestle in America. Like the others, Brody would have eventually landed with the WWF or WCW.

My gawd, if that could have been a Brody-Cactus Jack rivalry in WCW in 1992 instead of Foley and Abdullah the Butcher…again, what could have been?

Gino Hernandez died before Brody in 1986.  He was found dead in his apartment, first ruled a homicide, then a cocaine overdose.  There were a number of suspicious elements to the death, including a lack of care with the autopsy and autopsy report, an unlocked door, and a more than fatal amount of pure cocaine found sitting in Hernandez’s stomach (as if poured into his system to cover for the real cause of death).  Several wrestlers in shoot interviews also report that Hernandez, as his playboy, high-flying ring character projected, wanted to live a fast lifestyle with shady rich people. A mobster, according to VICE’s exceptional documentary on the death, paid for Gino’s funeral.  

While all of that is interesting what it fails to capture is the second coming of Ric Flair that we never got.  Gino Hernandez’s in-ring and heel abilities were equal to Flair, and, I wonder if both had made the national stage in WCW, which would have shined brighter (okay, probably still Flair, but you get my point of emphasis, no?).  Or still better, what if Gino was a Horseman with Flair and Anderson and whoever. Unfortunately, we never got the Flair-Gino pairing or Gino-Steamboat or Gino-Macho Man or Gino-Sting or Gino-Vader matches we should have. The heavy drug use and violence of the 80s Dallas wrestling scene saw to that.

Speaking of the drug use of World Class wrestlers, a number would see their peek in the regional WCCW territory for exactly that reason.  By the time they made it to a bigger stage, the substance abuse began in WCCW in Dallas in the 80s had taken their best abilities (and often appearances) away from them.  Vince McMahon always lusted after Terry Gordy to be a WWF wrestler, but by the time he was brought in (as the completely unimaginative black-hooded Executioner), he’d already suffered brain damage and a coma from painkiller overdoses.

By the time Steve Austin trainer and 80s WCCW megastar Chris Adams made his way to WCW in the 90s, alcohol and drugs had drained the dynamic heights from his game. Though he did manage to mark the milestone of wrestling the first-ever WCW Thunder match with Randy Savage, WCW Thunder and Adams both tanked.  He died via gunshot in a drunken brawl at his home with a buddy a couple of years afterwards.

As with many things that went wrong in mid to late 90s wrestling, Dr. Death Steve Williams’ bad run in the WWF was due in large part to Vince Russo.  To his credit, Russo spied in Williams a Paul Heyman-type ECW-style salvage project: an under-appreciated gritty wrestler that could be resurrected based on a storied in-ring career previous and good in-ring abilities that could get over.

Of course, Williams had long been lauded by wrestling promoters and announcers, particularly good ‘Ol Jim Ross. Unfortunately, when Williams finally got a WWF push, it was part of the ill-conceived shoot fight boxing series in 1998 called Brawl for All, the brainchild of Russo and JBL.  Russo imagined the well-reputed brawler Williams would win the tournament, then he could start a storyline for Williams to challenge for the WWF title. Too bad, like many wrestlers in the tourney, Williams was legit knocked out and injured and out of action for a while afterwards.  

Of course, the reason Williams was seen as a resurrection project then was because of drug and substance abuse in his days wrestling in WCCW in the 80s.  He was arrested more than once for possession then, including a single arrest with a slew of substances at the Detroit airport in 1988. Continued drug and alcohol use meant that when he got to WCW in the early 90s, he was viewed and used like the Junkyard Dog, a popular face challenger for titles who would never be trusted to actually win a belt.  He and we never got his championship run. Like Chris Adams and Terry Gordy, Steve Williams died in the early 2000s, much too young.

Fantasy booking in pro wrestling is probably largely a waste of time.  It only feeds nostalgia. it only antagonizes us about what could have been.  And, it’s probably counterproductive to say if World Class had not been drenched in such seedy elements and tragedy it would have produced something better and more lasting, acknowledging that substances in some part fueled and allowed for the lifestyle and muscle mass demanded by gritty territorial wrestling.  

But, it sure seems with World Class Championship Wrestling and the Dallas wrestling scene of the 1980s that it was some of the biggest talents and names time and again that would be cut down by it.

If you liked this article, please check out more of our stuff at TWM Wrestling on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

You can find me on Twitter @gritvanwinkle.

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