The night I was born, Ric Flair defeated Harley Race in a steel cage at the first ever Starrcade to win the NWA world title in front of nearly 16,000 fans in Greensboro, North Carolina.
That same night, Fritz Von Erich’s Dallas-based promotion, World Class Championship Wrestling, held the Thanksgiving Star Wars featuring three of the former wrestler turned promoter sons, David Von Erich, Kerry Von Erich, and Mike Von Erich, the latter in his debut match, in front of over 19,000 attendees at Dallas’ Reunion Arena.
November 24, 1983 was indeed a banner night in the history of wrestling.
That night set up a collision course for another red letter day for wrestling, the biggest match in wrestling history before Hogan slammed Andre at the Pontiac Silverdome at Wrestlemania III; 35 years ago Kerry Von Erich beat Ric Flair for that same NWA World Title in front of over 50,000 fans at Texas Stadium, May 6, 1984.
Thing is, it was never really meant to be that way. It wasn’t Kerry’s shot. He was there on a coin toss because David Von Erich, the brother groomed to hold the NWA belt, died after the Thanksgiving Star Wars, February 10, 1984, in a hotel room in Japan. The official cause of death was listed ruptured intestines, supported by Fritz and his other sons saying David had suffered a brutal blow to the sternum in a match in Japan the day before. History has proven this claim false though as David never made it into the ring on that tour.
Many wrestlers have told and written a different version of events with a straight face, including Ric Flair himself. Flair and others relate that the second man in the room, Bruiser Brody, a star for WCCW and fierce friend of the Von Erich family, disposed of the empty painkiller bottle that remained after David overdosed.
This version really does seem a more true turn of events when it comes to the Von Erich boys. David categorically did not wrestle in Japan so the Von Erich version definitely isn’t true. When you look at the fact that Mike Von Erich died of intentional overdose of alcohol and sleeping pills. According to interviews with Kevin Von Erich, the only surviving Von Erich, Mike left youngest brother Chris the same pills for when he felt the time to bow out. Chris eschewed this and shot himself in 1991. The man who wrestled in the biggest match on the planet at the time, Kerry, would shoot himself nine years after beating Flair at Texas Stadium with a backslide for the World Title. Suicide runs in the Von Erich family—it makes it easy to believe Flair’s version of events around David’s death are closer to the truth.
Flair was at the center of the Von Erich wrestling world in late 1983 through May of 1984. And his main rival during this time was David, not Kerry. David beat Flair for the NWA Missouri Heavyweight title September 16, 1983. He transitioned the belt to Missouri legend Harley Race in January of 1984 after Flair took the World Title off Race at Starrcade. At the time of the 1983 Thanksgiving Star Wars David was Texas Heavyweight Champion (he retained his title against Kamala that night). On Christmas night, December 25, 1983, Flair and David Von Erich battled for the World Title in Dallas with Flair retaining the belt.
After beating David on Christmas, Flair cut a promo on Mike’s inability to wrestle (not far from he truth as the younger boys Mike and Chris was never considered as good of in-ring workers as older boys Kevin, David, and Kerry). This lead to a special challenge from David: if Mike could last in a cage for ten minutes with Flair without being pinned, Flair would have to put his title up against David again under any stipulations David wanted. Mike did last ten minutes on January 30, 1984 and David had his shot. In truth, the NWA voting committee had decided in January of 1984 to put the NWA World Title on David Von Erich some time in March or April of 1984.
Fritz Von Erich had been a legendary heel in his time, but due to his Nazi persona and his temperamental relationship with several promoters throughout his career, he was perhaps the most legendary non-NWA World Champion ever. His chase for the better turned into the Von Erich quest for the belt once Fritz was retired and his sons wrestled for his promotion.
The delay was needed because Fritz had already booked David to tour Japan. Every the economic opportunist, Fritz was one of the first wrestling promoters to see international tours and international talent exchanges as a way to increase his profits. This along with his contract with the international broadcasting contracts WCCW had with the Christian Broadcasting Network and ESPN made Von Erich’s Dallas based promotion arguably the most popular in the world pre-WrestleMania. Even when David, according to Kevin, complained of illness before his flight to Japan, Fritz was insistent David take the flight and the tour.
David never came back. The match with Flair to take place sometime after the return in March or April 1984 would not come to be.
Fritz talked to every microphone that would listen about the death of David as a freak accident of the ring, and that the best way to honor David’s legacy was for one of the other Von Erich boys, Kerry or Kevin, to carry on the quest and win the NWA Title. Listen to the Lapsed Fan Wrestling Podcast’s recent multi-week Von Erich episodes or the recent VICELAND’S Dark Side of the Ring episode on the Von Erichs, and you’ll start to cringe at how much Fritz deflected the emotional impact of one tragedy in his family after another and continuously hucked the Von Erich name and his WCCW wrestling promotion on the back of such tragedies.
Whatever the motivations, Fritz’s lobbying worked and it was agreed that at a special David Von Erich Memorial Parade of Champions at Texas Stadium on May 6, 1984 that Ric Flair would drop the NWA World Title to a Von Erich brother. But which one? According to again the only surviving source of Von Erich lore, oldest brother Kevin, there was a simple coin toss to see if bare-foot high flyer Kevin would face Flair, or the muscled-up heartthrob Kerry would be the one. Kerry won the coin toss.
There was a reason that David, not older Kevin nor younger but bigger Kerry was booked for the NWA title. Though all the brothers struggled with drug addictions, Kerry struggled the most and hid it the least. Flair writes in his autobiography of several Kerry matches where Kerry was so smacked out of his head he did things like wrestle without tying his boots, forget intricately worked-out match sequences, and leave in the middle of the match to hit on women in the crowd. That was of course if he didn’t no-show an event, for which he became notorious. Kevin never struggled as publicly with his addictions, but unlike David or Kerry, he had little flair on the mic. David, was the best amalgamation of the three qualities needed to carry the NWA belt territory to territory: he wrestled well in the ring, could cut a promo, and could uphold the schedule of a champion without succumbing to drink or drugs too easily (he was after all the one sent to Japan to represent WCCW).
Plans, of course, changed after David died. What might have been a long Von Erich reign atop the NWA became really only a moment.
But that moment was huge. Over 50,000 fans packed Texas Stadium on May 6, 1984. Besides the central bout, Flair versus Kerry for the title, Fritz had come out of retirement for one match only, to team with sons Kevin and Mike against the Fabulous Freebirds.
When he came to the ring, Kerry wore a sequined jacket with his brother’s name on the back along with a yellow rose (David had been nicknamed the “Yellow Rose of Texas” after the well-known folk song). The crowd erupted for the hometown hero.
The match is mostly vintage Flair. He takes a toss from the top rope. He chops. He flops. He goes for the Figure Four, but Kerry blocked Flair’s finisher, then reversed a Flair hip toss into a backslide that won the title. The crowd goes absolutely ape. The pop is as loud as, if not louder than, the Silverdome when Hogan slammed Andre three years later.
Kerry’s family, including his mother Doris, come out to celebrate and honor David.
The celebration was short-lived, however. Kerry was already notorious for blowing off matches, wrestling intoxicated, and no-showing events. The NWA committee was not going to let Von Erich hold on to the belt very long. Attuned to the emotional nature of the situation given David’s death, the NWA was smart enough to book Kerry losing the belt back to Flair just eighteen days later in Japan. Flair held the belt for another two years before losing it to the American Dream Dusty Rhodes in July of 1986.
After this, the Von Erichs descended into further tragedy. Ever eager to keep his Texas wrestling empire in the green, Fritz eschewed overtures from Vince McMahon and urged his sons to do the same. Kerry did eventually go to the WWF as the Texas Tornado where most remember him as an Ultimate Warrior seem-alike and his Intercontinental Title win over Mr. Perfect (though again, Vince did not trust Kerry to carry the belt through many events and took the belt off Kerry within 3 months in a day when IC champs tended to reign for the better part of a year or more). Little did many know at the time, but Kerry made this run without a foot, as he had a bad motorcycle accident and had returned too soon to the ring, at his father’s urging, reinjuring the foot, necessitating amputation. Shortly after his WWF run, in 1993, Kerry was busted for control substance (again), and shot and killed himself at just 33 years old.
He lived less time than it has been since that historic day in May 1984.
Flair, of course, went on to be the workhorse champ of the NWA, then WCW when Jim Crockett’s NWA promotion was bought and renamed by media mogul Ted Turner. Flair played a major part at some point in every major promotion save ECW since the 1990s.
What should have been the world’s introduction to the Von Erichs in May 1984 and kickstarted international cross-promotions really became the single pinnacle, the heights they would not reach again. Because of Kerry’s inability to stay clean, Kevin’s unwillingness to take the spotlight (he turned down WWF and WCW contracts several times), and Fritz’s refusal to work with any promotion save his own Dallas-based one, the Von Erich family story simply became tragedy after tragedy. After David died Mike died, then Chris died, then Kerry died, then Fritz died.
Sad but true, what we are left with is to simply say that 35 years ago, on the back of tragedy, Kerry Von Erich did win the world title in the biggest wrestling match ever at the time.
You can find the author of this article on Twitter @GritVanWinkle. Thanks for reading!