This came out of two weird obsessions of mine – counterfactual history and professional wrestling, especially wrestling from the late 20th century.
The concept of “What If” has made the study and reading of history that much more interesting. What if the US did invade Japan during World War II? What if William of Normandy didn’t succeed in invading Europe, or what if the Mongol Empire had completed its invasion of Europe? What if Jesus hadn’t been crucified? The fictional possibilities of those questions often would send my mind reeling.
As a young kid, my mind was captivated by the operatic, hyperbolic, and lunatic action of pro wrestling. I had never known characters like this in real life, but they were clear echoes of the society I lived in. It was a guilty pleasure I had to keep at least halfway hidden from my parents, who had no idea what to make of their son’s obsession with massive musclemen, masked luchas, and high-flying daredevils telling operettas of the working class. (I guess I had more in common with Ric Flair than a Midwestern upbringing.)
It was a fascination that never truly went away, even after I realized what kayfabe was all about and I began to see through some of the more repetitive storytelling. But the fascination with wrestling culture and lore never quite went away for me. One of those stories was the tale of the Von Erich family. I had heard of the family growing up, but it wasn’t until much later, when the veil of kayfabe was pulled away and the Internet made research 10 times easier than in the old days of card catalogues and vertical files in libraries, that I found out the whole story about them. They were a family that were bigger stars than the Dallas Cowboys in Dallas and the Texas Longhorns in Texas, and their story was a tragedy of depression, death, and suicide that would have made Shakespeare sit up and take notice.
Some night about eight years ago, a “what if?” question came to my mind when I was doodling on the computer. What if the first of the Von Erich brothers to die hadn’t died in Japan in 1984?
For a day or so, I pounded out about 1,000 words on the subject, taking as my additional inspiration the final airing of WCW Nitro in 2001. Then, as per my usual problems with procrastination, it sat there untouched for years in my hard drives.
This week, I opened the file and took another look at it. I was interested in a change of pace. In two days, I added another 3,000 words to it. I have the feeling it is, in the words of the original Top Gear crew, “ambitious but rubbish.” But so help me, I hadn’t had more fun recently than the hour and a half it took me to book the most awesome wrestling event of the 1980’s, one that would have put Wrestlemanias I and III to shame.
Good or bad or somewhere in between – whatever it is, keep reading to see what my obsessions have wrought. As Rick Sanchez might say, just consider it one of the possibilities somewhere on the finite curve.
The Cowboy and the Japanese Intern:
An alternative history of professional wrestling
By Jason Liegois
It’s March 31, 2001, in a sold-out Madison Square Garden in New York City. Basketball, hockey, and fight fans have often crowded this arena, but tonight it is crowded with wrestling fans. As wrestling fans have done in the 80 years since the sport became popular in the United States, these fans are looking for action. But tonight, they are there for something else – a wake for one of the most storied wrestling organizations ever.
It’s the balding, towering blond man in the center of the ring that is giving the eulogy for the organization that has been part of his life for so long. The fans have grown up with him; have cheered him on through match after match, feud after feud, against wrestlers of every shape and size. Now, for a moment, they wait as he pours his soul out to the crowd in a way unlike most any show they’ve seen.
“I’ll tell you one thing, brother! This organization was my life for two decades! It meant something to everyone out here in this crowd tonight. Every night I came out here and showed everyone what Hulkamania was all about. If this is our last show tonight, it wasn’t the fault of the wrestlers in this organization. I know if tonight’s my last night in this squared circle, I wanna go out the way I came in, with Hulkamania running wild!”
With that, the sound of bagpipes wafted through the area air. The Hulkster turned to face the entry ramp. There, in a kilt and HOT ROD T-shirt, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, the battered Canadian ex-boxer turned Scottish smart-mouth, walks down the steel plank to the ring. Hogan, eyes bugging out, merely grins and gestures with one hand for his old foe to come into the ring for one last battle.
As the 47-year old Hulk Hogan and the 46-year-old Piper start the last match in the history of what had been known as the World Wrestling Federation (few fans or wrestlers had had time to get used to the new title it took last year, World Wrestling Entertainment), another wrestler is watching the scene from one of the Garden’s luxury boxes. By the end of the night, he and his company will own all the assets of the WWE, including the offices in Connecticut and the contracts of several of the wrestlers. Hogan and Piper, for their parts, have not made a commitment to the new order – they have been spending time in Hollywood and promoting their film careers recently – but the company was stocked with talent regardless.
His two main partners in this business deal are not beside him. The legendary “Nature Boy,” Ric Flair, the longtime ring rival turned close friend, is in Charlotte, NC, taking care of family business. The same reason is keeping the other partner, wrestler-turned-mogul Jeff Jarrett, in Memphis. However, he’s there, overseeing the last show, and a camera crew was right then preparing to broadcast a “worked” interview he would give to the crowd later that evening. He had notes but didn’t look at them; most of his best work was off the top of his head.
As he saw the middle-aged wrestlers struggle through the match, he felt a kinship to them. He would turn 43 in a few months himself, and though he’d only worked with Piper, he knew what they were going through as they entered the twilight of their careers. Sure, people still wanted to see him wrestle, but he didn’t consider himself to be the biggest star of the organization. He found the best path was to always find new talent yet respect the accomplishments and skills of those who had learned them through years of use. Maybe it helped that his other partners wrestled, too. Maybe the fact that there were plenty of young guns in World Championship Wrestling that didn’t have to pull the whole weight of the show helped. However, he still had a few years in him – Flair was seven years older and had no intentions of getting out of the game soon.
Looking back on his life at that moment, he remembered both the high points and the low points. The wrestler had seen a lot of tragedy in his life, even the deaths of those who had been close to him. If it wasn’t for that doc in Japan back in ’84, I wouldn’t have even been here, he thought. Would anyone remember me?
In the weeks leading up to this event, a reporter for the New York Times had asked him whether he’d led a blessed or cursed life. “I reckon a little of both,” said the man who was still billed as The Yellow Rose of Texas. One thing for sure – if it wasn’t for what happened in the hospital in Tokyo, the life of David Von Erich would have been a lot shorter.
February 1, 1984: David Von Erich was sharing a cab racing down the crowded overpasses of Tokyo as it raced to the nearest hospital. He was trying to keep the second wrestler in the back of the cab upright as he held one hand to his forehead and the other against the right side of his rib cage. Gino Hernandez had a big night that evening in the Tokyo arena, fighting against a top Japanese team from All Japan Pro Wrestling, when a misjudged jump off the top rope had busted his head open the hard way and cracked several ribs.
David had a lot to look forward to in the days to come. He, his dad Fritz, the head of the Dallas-based World Continental Championship Wrestling (WCCW) and other promoters had been building up a massive feud between him and the new superstar of Jim Crockett Promotions in North Carolina – Nature Boy Ric Flair. When he got back to the states in a couple of months, he had gotten assurances from the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) – the shadowy collection of old-school wrestling promoters that loosely oversaw much of pro wrestling in America – that he would be awarded Flair’s NWA world title belt after they wrestled in Texas in two months. It was going to push his career up to an entirely different level. (Jim Crockett Promotions went by the NWA brand, even though it wasn’t the same thing as the other NWA. Wrestling in the 80’s was a confusing time.)
It was when he got Gino admitted to the hospital that he had to sit down for a minute. A young intern, who had just come on for the evening’s shift, had noticed David looking pale, and insisted on David sitting down and getting checked out. David hesitated for a minute – the son of Fritz Von Erich had never been someone who acted hurt or even hinted at being hurt – but the pain was nothing like he’d ever felt. If he couldn’t see himself, he would have sworn that someone was stabbing him in the guts. For once, he decided to set aside the Texan in him and accept some help.
What followed was the roughest 48 hours of his life – rougher than any game at North Texas State, rougher than any match with Harley Race or The Freebirds. The only thing he was glad about was that he was unconscious for most of it. The doctors had put him under after an examination and x-ray indicated bleeding in the abdominal cavity.
After he’d woken up with a massive bandage across his stomach, the doctors, through the translators, let him know what was up. A case of enteritis had ruptured a portion of his small intestine. After removing and resectioning three feet of his intestine and a massive dose of antibiotics later, he was out of danger.
There were plenty of prayers from David that first week, and Fritz and his mother were almost frantic wanting him to get back to Texas and their ranch to recover. But one thing was stuck in his mind as the doctors prepared him to leave Japan.
I’m very glad you were in hospital for us to see you, the intern had told him after his bosses had left. If it had been another two hours, maybe, we would not have been able to save you.
Two hours, David thought over and over in his hospital bed. Two hours from never seeing my family again.
It was the sort of incident that would get the attention of a normal man, something that would prompt a reassessment of their life. David was hardly a normal man, but it had the same effect on him.
The title win over Flair had to be delayed, of course – there was no way David could be ready for a title hand-over in April. Surprisingly, Flair and Jim Crockett Jr. were OK with it – Flair just started another feud with the NWA’s flamboyant face and behind the scenes booker, Dusty Rhodes, for another six months, trading the title between the two of them twice. After Flair “incapacitated” Rhodes with a baseball bat to the knee, David showed up on the scene to get revenge for Dusty – and his title shot.
After another couple of months of build-up, the title handover happened at Cowboy Stadium in Dallas. David and Dusty had come up with the idea of hosting the event on Halloween night, and even the name of the event – Halloween Horrorshow. David Von Erich and Ric Flair managed to nearly fill up Cowboy Stadium in the middle of the week to see David pin Flair to the mat with a Von Erich Claw after 55 minutes of nonstop, no disqualification action. The reaction to the event was so good, Fritz later decided that they’d have an event every Halloween afterward.
But as David held the Big Gold Belt aloft in victory over Flair, as his brothers Kevin and Kerry embraced him in the center of the ring along with Fritz, he realized that it wasn’t going to be enough to just win titles. If he and his brothers wanted to keep his father’s company alive, things were going to have to change.
December 29, 1984, Denton County, Texas. Fritz Von Erich had invited a who’s who of wrestling royalty to the family ranch for an end-of-year gathering. All his sons were there – David, Kevin, Kerry, Mike, and Chris. Gary Hart and Chris Adams of WCCW were there, too. Flair, Crockett, and Dusty Rhodes represented the NWA Crockett organization. Also in attendance were Jerry Jarrett, representing the Continental Wrestling Association of Memphis, and his star wrestler Jerry Lawler. Bob Geigel, who was trying and failing to keep the St. Louis Wrestling Club running, was also in attendance. Ex-wrestler and booking guru Bill Watts of Mid-South Wrestling was also there, along with his rising new manager and booker Jim Cornette. Verne Gagne of the American Wrestling Alliance in Minnesota had been invited but declined.
Fritz had been the one to officially call the meeting, but it had been David that was the driving force behind the invitation. Fritz was one of the old guard, someone who had decided to call himself Von Erich rather than his given name of Jack Adkisson because a Nazi bad guy could draw tons of heat back in the 50’s and 60’s. But David had his hand on the pulse of the current business, and he realized with pure clarity that things had to change.
The old regional wrestling system was now under threat from Vince McMahon and the WWF. Originally based exclusively in the Northeast and New York, Vince was using cable television and the poaching of top talent, like Hulk Hogan from the AWA, to make himself into a national wrestling power.
The threat from the WWF was becoming clearer and clearer every day. Vince was already beginning to advertise a giant pay-per-view event at Madison Square Garden for March of next year, involving not just its top face in Hogan and top heel in Roddy Piper, but celebrities like singer Cyndi Lauper, actor and ex-boxer Mr. T, and Muhammad Ali as a guest referee. They were going to call it Wrestlemania.
To the surprise of the older crowd, Fritz let David do most of the talking. Vince was about to steal everything they had, he told the group over an expansive Texas barbecue with every type of meat available grilled and sautéed for eating. The only way we have a chance to keep what we have is to join forces.
Vince already had the head start, David reasoned. The only way they could continue to operate was if they joined forces and create a wrestling organization that would be able to compete with the Northern threat. Tradition was one thing but staying in business was something else.
There had been previous talk of an alliance, a working arrangement between the existing companies. But to truly compete with the WWF, an entirely new company was needed.
If you want to stay in business, we’re going to have to change. We’re going to have to grow, David concluded.
May 26, 1985, Memorial Stadium, Austin, Texas
Two months after Wrestlemania had captured the imaginations of people who had no idea about professional wrestling, World Championship Wrestling (WCW) showed the public another level of the wrestling arts.
The show was called Mortal Combat, a hint at the efforts the new WCW board of directors were making to differentiate their “authentic” wrestling product from WWF Wrestling Lite. Wrestlemania had featured wrestlers mingling with celebrities: Mortal Combat boasted the cream of the crop of the old WCCW, NWA, CWA, and independent wrestlers in a who’s who of the grappling world. The WWF had managed to get Hulk Hogan and Mr. T on Saturday Night Live: the WCW settled for a variety special on WTBS, an appearance by The Horsemen on Sally Jessey Raphael’s show, and the Von Erichs on TNN, CMT, and, oddly enough, BET.
Fritz and some of the older members of the WCW board had insisted on a show in Texas to ensure that there would be a capacity crowd to fill Memorial Stadium. David and Dusty believed that the new pay-per-view and closed-circuit audiences would be the big money makers, but they went along with it. (The following year, Mortal Combat II would easily fill the LA Coliseum, in a town that had become a pro wrestling wasteland with the closing of its NWA affiliate.)
But when the wrestling started, none of that mattered. That card would become one of the most legendary wrestling events of all time.
The first bout was a singles match between Dusty Rhodes and Jerry Lawler for the newly inaugurated WCW Television Title, a match that could have easily been a main event in and of itself. Lawler came out the winner. Gentleman Chris Adams defended his WCW European Heavyweight Championship against Wahoo McDaniel, losing by disqualification but keeping the title. Ole Anderson of The Four Horsemen would out brawl “Wildfire” Tommy Rich in an eventful singles match. A nationwide audience was introduced to The Midnight Express and the Rock and Roll Express in a non-stop nuclear powered 10-minute match where no one stood still, but the Midnight Express would steal the win thanks to manager Jim Cornette.
Rising star Magnum TA, now the WCW US Heavyweight Champion, defended his title against Abdullah The Butcher and Kevin Sullivan in a three-way bout, still considered somewhat novel. Magnum won the bout by disqualification courtesy of foreign objects (Abdullah) and outside interference (Sullivan’s Army of Darkness).
A series of matches that got a surprising amount of interest from the fans involved the crowning of the new WCW Women’s Heavyweight Champion. It had been David and Lawler’s idea to host a tournament for the belt that eventually attracted seemingly every non-WWF-affiliated female wrestler in North America.
The semifinal and final matches took place during Mortal Combat. In the semifinals, Sherri Martel, coming off injury, overcame a strong challenge from unknown newcomer Madusa Miceli, and Velvet McIntyre squashed Army of Darkness member Luna Vachon with a series of high-flying presses. In the final, a strategic tug of the tights by Martel, unseen by the ref, earned her the gold over McIntyre.
The final three matches, however, would seal the deal with the fans in Texas and those watching on television. Due to the frequent interference by the Freebirds and The Four Horsemen in recent matches, their opponents had won the right to add stipulations to their Mortal Combat matches, the biggest of which would be that they would take place in a second locked steel cage ring.
The Freebirds sauntered into the ring first to “Bad Street USA,” confident in victory. They were scheduled to meet The Road Warriors, who the WCW had poached earlier that year from the AWA. With them injuring Road Warrior manager Paul Ellering in a match two weeks prior, they assumed that they would be able to retain their WCW Six-Man Tag-Team Championships with ease.
Their cocky smiles turned to horror as the strains of “Iron Man” echoed through the stadium and they saw The Road Warriors approach… followed by none other than the legendary wrestling behemoth Bruiser Brody. The 30-minute, no-disqualification match was a pounding, high-impact tour de force, with Hawk legitimately knocking out Terry Gordy with a flying press from the top of the cage and Brody landing a jumping knee drop on Michael Hayes to pick up the pin and the title.
The next bout featured Tully Blanchard and Arn Anderson of the Horsemen defending their WCW Tag Team titles against Kevin and Kerry Von Erich. This match stipulated that the team that escaped over the top of the cage would win. The Von Erich brothers looked like they would overcome their hated rivals, but Ole Anderson managed to smuggle a pair of brass knuckles through the cage without being spotted by the ref. After Arn knocked out both brothers while Tully further distracted the ref, the two escaped over the top of the cage with the belts.
Finally, it was the main event – Ric Flair, who had regained the WCW heavyweight title earlier in the year, defending it against David Von Erich. As an additional stipulation, the other Von Erichs, including Fritz, Mike, and Chris, were joined by allies including the Road Warriors, Tommy Rich, and other faces as lumberjacks for the match – although in this case, the goal of the flannel-wearing guards was not to keep the wrestlers in the cage, but to keep other wrestlers out of it.
Flair and Von Erich wrestled a classic 60-minute match, filled with technical skill, excellent storytelling, and ring generalship on both sides. Ole Anderson and the other Horsemen had attempted to enter the ring only to get beaten down by the Von Erichs and their friends, but at the 55-minute mark, they made a bigger attempt to rush in assisted by the Midnight Express, Army of Darkness, and Chris Adams. As the massive melee between the two groups began to spill out into the audience, Von Erich managed to reverse Flair’s figure-four leglock, hit him with a running high knee, then submitted him with a Von Erich claw.
By the time the clock stuck midnight, the fans in Texas and across the country felt like they had wrestled for 60 minutes.
Those had been the glory years, David thought to himself as he saw Piper try to lug Hogan through a convincing bout. Combining most of the territorial federations into a single company had been a massive cost savings, immediately making the WCW a national wrestling power on the TBS and TNT networks. After Ted Turner, the networks’ owner, had bought into the company in 1988, the financial future of the company was even more secure. The creative committee had a murders row of talent – Fritz, Gary Hart, Dusty Rhodes, Kevin Sullivan, Jerry Lawler, Bill Watts, and Jim Cornette for starters.
And then there was a galaxy of wrestling talent to feature, not just the older guys, but new up and comers. In the years to come, Scott Hall, Kevin Nash, Jerry Jarrett’s son Jeff, Dusty’s son Dustin, and Brian Pillman would be introduced to a nationwide audience, and they would poach the hot young talents of Shawn Michaels and Marty Jannetty from the AWA. (Verne Gagne had attempted to try and go it alone against both the WCW and WWF, folding in 1990.)
But in David Von Erich and Ric Flair, the WCW had the perfect front men for the company. Flair was a smoother talker than Piper, more technically sound than Randy Savage, and had more legendary charisma than all of Hulk Hogan’s bad guys combined. As for David, the WCW had a face who nearly matched Hogan in the size department but was far more down to earth than him. Already well-beyond Hogan’s limited ring skills near the start of his career, years of matches with Flair had honed David’s skills to a level approaching that of the Nature Boy himself.
It was something of a surprise to see David’s growth as the business mind behind WCW. Years before, he’d made a small fortune from raising quarter horses, and growing the wrestling business now seemed second nature to him. Although Ted Turner was now the biggest shareholder in WCW, David had gotten more responsibilities behind the scenes after he started to pull back from being the number one ring attraction during the mid-90’s. Those responsibilities had grown to the point where he was named the (non-kayfabe) CEO of WCW the previous year.
As the WCW grew, the WWF stagnated. McMahon’s wrestling product for the whole family began to get stale as the 1990’s began. Ironically, just as Verne Gagne had held Hogan back from stardom in the early 80’s in favor of older, traditional wrestlers, now he was holding back new talent from rising in the WWF. Chris Adams’s protégé Steve Williams never considered heading over to the WWF after he’d changed his name to Steve Austin, and Dwayne Johnson, frustrated over Hogan’s successful efforts to bury his wrestling career, finally had defected to the WCW in 2000, where he wrestled whenever he wasn’t shooting a movie. Meanwhile, the WCW’s new training facility, The Factory in Orlando, FL, continued to pump out new wrestlers for the Intercontinental Wrestling Alliance (IWA), the WCW’s developmental division, and eventually the parent brand. Those factors, along with McMahon’s failed efforts to diversify into comedy programming, pro bodybuilding, and a renegade summer football league, eventually led to the inevitable end.
In many ways, David felt like the last of his kind. As of that moment, he was the only Von Erich wrestling in the WCW. Mike had stuck with it for a few years but was uncomfortable with the spotlight. By the 90’s, he’d become a road agent for the WCW, then started training new wrestlers at The Factory. Chris had so wanted to be a wrestler, but he always had too many physical limitations to be an effective performer. He’d moved on to be a member of WCW’s creative committee. With three brothers who were already WCW superstars, there was little pressure on them to compete in the ring when they clearly lacked the desire or the ability to do it.
Fritz dying in 1997 had been tough, but Kerry’s death two years ago had been a massive blow. For years, he’d been one of the brightest WCW stars, first as a tag champion with Kevin, and then on his own. But then there’d been the motorcycle accident in 1990 that fractured his back in two places. He’d recovered enough to wrestle within a year, but painkillers were now a daily part of his life. A week before Christmas 1999, Kerry was found dead in a Las Vegas hotel room after a show, the result of an accidental overdose. He was just a few months away from his 40th birthday, just one of so many wrestlers close to David, like Chris Adams and Brian Pillman, all dead too soon. Within a few months, Kevin, who had been semi-retired for a few years, left the ring for good to retire to his home in Hawaii.
Those deaths were a heaviness on David’s heart. As CEO, he was making plans to have comprehensive medical care and drug treatment available for WCW wrestlers, as well as a vacation schedule to alleviate the pounding they took during their careers. The business always must change to meet the times.
However, as he watched Hogan lift his hand to his ear one last time to hear the cheers of the crowd, he was looking forward to the new influx of talent the end of the WWE would bring to his company. Everyone speculated as to whether Hogan would join WCW, but David was more interested in Paul Levesque, who had joined WWE in 1994 after a flirtation with WCW and was now Triple H, the company’s lead heel. David was already picturing a massive storyline featuring him versus Steve Austin or The Rock. Even better, there was word that Paul’s girlfriend, Stephanie McMahon, was considering an offer to work with WCW Creative. Fritz would have gotten a laugh out of that, David thought.