The Weight Of Family Legacy: The All Too Short Life Of Mike Von Erich

Michael Hayes, I came here just for an interview, but I have my stuff in the back and if you want someone to wrestle, I’ll wrestle you. – Mike Von Erich

On June 18th, 1983, the legendary Kerry Von Erich married Catherine Murray. After spending their honeymoon in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, the couple returned to Dallas as Kerry was set to wrestle “Gorgeous” Jimmy Garvin and Michael “P.S.” Hayes on back-to-back nights. Von Erich was stopped by U.S. Customs on a routine check where 18 unmarked pills were found in his pants pockets. An additional search found Kerry had hidden around 300 more pills, 10 grams of marijuana and 6 ½ grams of an undetermined “blue and white powder” in the crotch of his pants. Though a federal crime, he was arrested and taken to a local jail where, miraculously, every bit of evidence against him disappeared.

18 months later, with no evidence with which to prosecute, all charges against Kerry were dropped.

Having built his family up on the foundation of “God, country and family values” in the eyes of the public, Fritz Von Erich wasn’t about to let anything get in the way of the family business, much less a silly drug bust.

Kerry had escaped prosecution, but this was the first sign that all was not well in Von Erich Camelot. Within four years, it had all fallen apart.

Neon Knights

In the early-to-mid-’80s, the only thing in North Texas that could top the unbridled love for the Von Erichs was that which was felt for the 2-time Super Bowl Champion Dallas Cowboys. By the end of ‘83 though, the Cowboys would have finished their season by losing three consecutive games (including a Wildcard Playoff loss to the Los Angeles Rams), signalling the end of an almost 2-decade run of NFL dominance. Dallas is a front-running town; there’s no such thing as a “lovable loser” in DFW. In need of a new “winner”, North Texas hitched its collective wagon to the Von Erichs. Fritz Von Erich, the patriarch of the family, was only too happy to oblige.

Having pushed his kids David, Kevin and Kerry to rock star status in North Texas, the territory (with plenty of help from The Fabulous Freebirds) exploded. The Von Erich boys couldn’t go anywhere without being mobbed. Mall and amusement park appearances had to be shut down by the police because of the sheer mass of fans hoping to get a glimpse of the brothers. “The public saw these kids grow up,” said Michael Hayes, “and they were over like Rover.” The Von Erichs ate it up; they had a free pass just about anywhere in the DFW area (and took advantage of every last perk).

But with Fritz eyeing a World’s Title run for David, a fourth Von Erich brother was about to be brought into the family business.

Into The Void

One can’t help but wonder if Mike Von Erich should have ever even become a professional wrestler. He was quieter than his older brothers, more like his mom than his dad. Kerry had the looks of a Greek god, David had the charisma and smarts, Kevin had the boyish charm and athleticism. Mike was more reserved, quieter, and not nearly as big or athletic.

Michael Brett Adkisson, better known to the wrestling world as Mike Von Erich, made his debut in May of 1983 at the age of 19, wrestling in a 6-man Tag Match with brothers Kerry and Kevin against the hated Fabulous Freebirds. Six months later at WCCW’s Thanksgiving Star Wars, he made his singles match debut before a sellout Reunion Arena crowd of 19,200 people. That night, Mike defeated Skandor Akbar, the dastardly manager of Devastation, Incorporated. It may well have been one of the last times he felt like he could just be Michael Adkisson.

With his older brother David earmarked as a possible future NWA World’s Heavyweight Champion, Fritz needed Mike to step in and, in effect, take his place. The Von Erichs wrestled a ton of 6-man Tag Matches, but they also covered the massive Texas territory (which Fritz all but ran out of Dallas), as well as made frequent trips to Missouri, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana and Florida. If David was going to be getting the national push Fritz was banking on, he needed a third brother to keep the wheels turning locally. Less than two months later, however, everything would take a decided change for the worse.

Shock Wave

David Von Erich had been complaining of stomach pain. He also had an important trip to Japan that he couldn’t miss. The last thing the NWA wanted to have in a champion was a guy that couldn’t make his dates. “He told me he didn’t feel like going,” said Fritz, “but he said, ’Dad, when I get there. I’ll be okay.’ I said, ’David, that’s the way it is, son. You’ve got a contract. Those people over there have sold out a building to see a Von Erich.’ And he said, ’Dad, I’m going.’”

David headed off to Japan, despite Kevin reportedly asking his younger brother to reconsider. It would be the last time any of his family would see him alive. According to the Consular Report of Death provided by the U.S. embassy in Japan, the cause of death was acute enteritis, a rupturing of the intestines. Locker room chatter chalked it up to a drug overdose with Ric Flair going so far as to say when Bruiser Brody went into David’s room and discovered him dead, he flushed all his pills down the toilet so as to not stir up a hornet’s nest back home.

“Had David not died in Tokyo,” said Michael Hayes, “he would have been the next NWA Champion.”

Three days later before a shocked and saddened Dallas crowd, a 10-bell salute was carried out in honor of David. Two days after that, on February 15th, he was laid to rest. An estimated 5,000 people turned out to say their goodbyes. It remains one of the largest funeral gatherings in the history of the Metroplex.

On May 8th, 1984, before 41,000 raucous fans in Texas Stadium, Kerry won the NWA World’s Heavyweight Championship from “Nature Boy” Ric Flair on the David Von Erich Memorial Show. “David was right there next to me,” said Kerry. It was a “feel good” moment the likes of which the family would never again celebrate. Just 19 days later, Kerry lost the title back to Flair in Japan. Truth be told, with whispers surrounding David’s death, Kerry’s narrow escape from the very real possibility of a federal drug conviction and the belief that Fritz slotted the strength of his territory ahead of the health of his boys (all of whom were perceived as good, but undisciplined kids), those inside the NWA weren’t interested in any sort of extended Von Erich run with the World’s Title.

Heaven And Hell

With his oldest boy gone, Fritz doubled down on that “ol’ time religion”, bringing in a Gary Holder, a minister who would come to be known as the official World Class chaplain. Perhaps Fritz’s intent was pure of heart, perhaps it was a last-ditch effort to salvage whatever perceived “purity” the Von Erichs family retained in the hearts and minds of the viewing public.

He also began the process of pushing Mike, who was now 20 years old and being counted on to give the promotion a much needed shot in the arm. Unfortunately, Mike simply wasn’t capable of carrying the load heaped upon him by his father. Though he was billed as 220 pounds, Mike was, in actuality, somewhere in the neighborhood of 180 pounds. He reportedly used dangerous amounts of steroids to attempt to add size to a frame simply not meant to carry the same amount of mass as his brothers.

Multiple victories over The Fabulous Freebirds, “Gorgeous” Jimmy Garvin and Jake “The Snake” Roberts, some of the best heels of the era were meant to push Mike up to the same level of his brothers, but not even an NWA American Heavyweight Title win over Gino Hernandez could cover up the fact that Mike simply didn’t possess the same talent and skill of Kevin, David and Kerry. It weighed heavy on him and he responded by acting increasingly erratic, his dabbling in pharmaceuticals becoming a full-on downward spiral into a dark addiction to prescription pain pills.

Seemingly hell-bent on self-destruction, Mike’s personality underwent a complete change. Once shy and kind, he became violent and out of control. In May of ‘85, Mike was charged with two counts of misdemeanor assault against Dr. Timothy Shepherd after an altercation in the First Texas Medical Center emergency room in Lewisville, TX. A Denton County judge acquitted him of both charges.

A chronic arm issue reared its ugly head in Tel Aviv, when Mike dislocated his shoulder taking a bad fall in the ring. Upon his return to Dallas, he had surgery on the shoulder and was released from the hospital. Shortly thereafter, he developed a terrible fever (ranging from 105 °F to 107 °F depending on who you ask) which was diagnosed as a blood infection called toxic shock syndrome. At one point, doctors at Baylor Medical Center didn’t think there was any way he’d live through the night and the hospital received an outpouring of well-wishes from concerned fans. Despite going into kidney failure, Mike did pull through, but not without irreparable damage to both his body and brain.

Sins Of The Father

Undoubtedly happy to still have his son (but still with a business to run), Fritz wasted no time in marketing Mike as “The Living Miracle”, saying he would definitely return to the ring better than ever and win the World’s Title for all his adoring fans. Mike was brought out during WCCW’s October Cotton Bowl Show to wave to the crowd of almost 25,000 fans. Now just 145 pounds and still suffering from the damage the high fever had done to his brain, wrestling writer Dave Meltzer called the display, “the most disgusting promotional stunt of the year,” going on to say, “there’s almost nothing about pro wrestling that really outrages me, except for the Von Erichs.”

Fritz brought in Pacific Northwest Champion Ricky Vaughn to take Mike’s place while he rehabbed. Billed as Lance Von Erich, the son of Waldo Von Erich and a cousin of the brothers, Vaughn failed to get over with the increasingly skeptical fanbase. It is considered to be one of the worst decisions Fritz made concerning his promotion as it was perceived by fans as the Von Erichs lying to them.

The added pressure to get back in the ring sent Mike deeper into depression. One month after the Cotton Bowl show, he totalled his car on Highway 121 in Lewisville, escaping with minor head injuries. Six months later in May of ‘86, he was arrested in Fort Worth and spent the night in jail after being charged with being drunk and disorderly.

Throughout it all, Fritz turned a blind eye. A television special was planned to reintroduce the Von Erichs. More importantly, the special was meant to showcase Mike’s efforts to get himself back in the ring. Apparently, the crew finally gave up on filming Mike after spending an hour trying to get a coherent interview from him. At that point, it is said he made his way over to a friend in the gym where they were filming and began loudly re-living the details of an apparent gang bang they’d participated in the night before. Mike Von Erich was spiraling.

Falling Off The Edge Of The World

When he returned to the ring in June of ‘86, virtually all the “feel good” had been sucked from the Sportatorium. Gino Hernandez had died from a drug overdose in February. That same month, World Class withdrew from the National Wrestling Alliance after being told the NWA Champion would no longer be making regular trips to Dallas. Additionally, Kerry had just had a terrible motorcycle accident that would ultimately result in the amputation of half his foot. Lastly, “Gentleman” Chris Adams, then a top babyface and contender for the World Class Heavyweight Title verbally assaulted a flight attendant and headbutted the co-pilot of an American Airlines flight headed back to Dallas from Puerto Rico. Adams was inebriated at the time and became enraged when told no more liquor would be sold on the flight. Kevin Von Erich was forced to restrain him after the incident, and five days later Adams defeated Rick Rude for the World Class Heavyweight Title, but on September 17th, a day after being convicted of misdemeanor assault Adams was forced to relinquish the championship. A little over a month later, he was sentenced to 90 days in jail and fined $500.

Events that routinely drew 4000 fans were now drawing 1000. The Texas oil business entered into a recession, which surely played a hand in the drop in attendance, but many believe it was the loss of faith in the Von Erichs themselves that kept fans from coming out in droves like they had just six months prior.

Regardless of the reasons, Mike took the drop in attendance personally and processed the pain through more run-ins with the law. “I think he always felt a lot more pressure on him,” said Kerry, “being in a family of overachievers. Here he was, with three older brothers who were never happy unless they did their best. Mike was thrown into that life in an awful hurry.” In February of ‘87, he paid a $900 fine to a Fort Worth man after kicking in his car door. Two months later, on April 11th, 1987, Mike was pulled over by police after he was seen driving erratically on Highway 377. A small quantity of marijuana and two prescription bottles containing 78 pills, including barbiturates, anxiety meds and painkillers, were found in his car.

Mike attempted to bribe the officer, then agreed to take a blood test. Though his blood-alcohol level of .05 percent was well under the legal limit of .10 percent, in concert with the 30 mg/L of ethchlorvynol (Placidyl), 1.1 mg/L of butalbital (a barbiturate), and 0.26 mg/L of diazepam (Valium) that was also found in his system, it all added up to a trip to the Denton County jail.

A family attorney was sent to the jail to post the $3,500 bond for drunk-driving and possession of controlled substances. It is believed that it is the last time anyone would see Mike alive. Unable to reach him for several days, his apartment was entered. There, a note was found. It read, simply, “PLEASE UNDERSTAND I’M A FUCK-UP! I’M SORRY.” Along the side of the note it read, “I love U Kerry, Kevin & your families”.

Despite the letter, despite Mike’s abandoned car being spotted at the entrance of a park near Lewisville Lake, despite a second note inside the car that read, “Mom and Dad, I’m in a better place. I’ll be watching,” Fritz went into damage control, telling fans he suspected “foul play”. A few hours after that statement, an officer and his K-9 dog located Mike’s body. He was found in his sleeping bag in a heavily-wooded area. Justice of the Peace Hubert Cunningham described the scene as “very peaceful”. Though no drugs were found, an autopsy revealed the official cause of death to be from acute Placidyl intoxication.

Mike Von Erich was just 23 years old.

Lonely Is The Word

It’s impossible to pin everything that transpired on Fritz, but it’s impossible to not allocate him his fair share of the blame. When asked in a D Magazine interview whether he believed he’d been too hard on his kids, Fritz responded in typically Fritz fashion.

“Absolutely hell no,” he said. “One time Kerry yelled at me that he shouldn’t get a beating, so I tore his butt off even harder.” As tough as he was on his kids, he loved them just as intensely. Still, one can’t help but wonder, had Mike Von Erich gone into any other walk of life besides pro wrestling, might Kevin, the lone surviving member of the family, still have at least one brother left with whom to share the memories of so many crazy times.

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Cocaine, Cancellations And Even More Cocaine: Herb Abrams’ UWF

Colonel Red, no one has ever done anything like this to me! I am going to get you! – Herb Abrams

On March 10th, 1991 in the Penta Hotel, an ever-dwindling New York City crowd had just sat through 22 wrestling matches of varying quality. The television taping they were attending had started late, was running long and fans were leaving in droves. Considering there were only 400 people in attendance when the night started, Herb Abrams, owner of the just launched Universal Wrestling Federation couldn’t afford to lose “droves”.

Grabbing a microphone at ringside, Abrams implored the ambivalent masses to stay for one more match, the final match of the night. Several fans seemingly took pity on the man, returning to their seats. Others ignored the request entirely, making their way to the exit. A few seconds later, “Soul Man” by the legendary R&B duo Sam & Dave began playing over the P.A. and S.D. Jones emerged from the curtain (Mr. Haiti in tow). Almost immediately, a large number of those still in attendance began collecting their things and heading for the door. Roughly 30 seconds later, the UWF owner did the very same thing.

It could be argued it was the first and last time Herb Abrams made the right decision during his 5 years as head of the UWF.

The UWF Explodes Onto The Scene (With A Whimper)

Thanks to generous financing from “Nigerian investors” (yeah, that sounds totally legitimate) Herb Abrams’ Universal Wrestling Federation (not to be confused with Bill Watts’ promotion of the same trademark-less name) got up-and-running in August of 1990, securing a television slot on SportsChannel America, which found itself in need of pro wrestling programming after dropping the much-maligned IWA. Abrams boasted a stacked roster that included the likes of Terry Funk, Big John Studd and Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat, trading on their star power to seal the deal with the channel. Granted, none of these men had agreed to wrestle for the new promotion, but Abrams knew enough to know you never let the truth get in the way of a perfectly good lie.

After a press conference that included “Dangerous” Danny Spivey and B. Brian Blair, the UWF began taping episodes of Fury Hour in September of ‘90 in Reseda, California while simultaneously (attempting) to put on live events. Truth be told, the company did have a roster filled with stars, but by 1990, names like Bob Orton, Jr., “Mr. 1derful” Paul Orndorff and Billy Jack Haynes simply didn’t carry the same drawing power in the U.S. as they had a few years prior.

Abrams also managed to get Bruno Sammartino hired, but considering the longtime (W)WWF Champion had retired from in-ring competition, what he got was one of the worst commentators of all time rather than one of the greatest wrestlers ever. Bruno’s son, David, was also signed. Unfortunately for fans, he did wrestle for the company.

Purported UWF booker, Blackjack Mulligan, wasn’t even aware he’d been hired (you know, what with him being in jail at the time for counterfeiting and all). Abrams had a backup plan, however, expressing an interest in bringing Bruiser Brody on board for the position. 

The same Brody who’d been dead for a little over two years. Ultimately, the owner named himself as booker.

Things were off to a great start for Herb Abrams’ UWF.

The “Wild Thing” Ran Wild, Um, Brother?

With a roster loaded with known quantities, albeit ones looking for a payday more than a platform to showcase their skills, there wasn’t much room (or money) left for young guys trying to make a name for themselves. With one of the available spots in this sea of grizzled vets, Abrams hired a blonde haired, 20-something former bodyguard for Hulk Hogan by the name of Steve “Wild Thing” Ray.

Ray got his start in pro wrestling in late-’87, working throughout the Midwest and competing for a few regional championships in Kansas and Missouri. The 6’3” former football player had a good look and plenty of “want to”, but the UWF started disorganized and only got worse as time passed.

By May of ‘91, a supposed divide between Abrams and Ray had grown into a chasm, leading to one of the weirder stories in UWF’s short history. Abrams, suspecting his wife of having an affair with Ray, paid Steve Williams an extra $100 to break the young wrestler’s nose during a match. When you ask a guy nicknamed “Dr. Death” to hurt someone, you typically get what you pay for. After being thrown around for several minutes, Ray turned his attention to Abrams who was climbing into the ring. He took a wild swing at the UWF owner, but ol’ Herb was able to duck it and make an escape.

The question is, was this a shoot? Steve Ray has denied it, saying it was all set up by Abrams to garner some heat and that he owes a lot to his former boss for showing him the “dos and don’ts” of running a successful business. Former UWF vice president Zoogz Rift disagrees with Ray, claiming Abrams’ anger was very real, saying, “Ray allegedly screwed Herb in a drug deal”.  Ray stands by his account, evening pointing out the end of the match where you can see Abrams whisper something to the wrestler (presumably telling him to take a swing at him). Ah, yes, the joys of pro wrestling mythology!

Nonstop To Nowhere

On June 9th, 1991, the UWF held the first (and only) pay-per-view in the history of the company. Beach Brawl took place at the Manatee Civic Center in Palmetto, Florida before 550 people. The PPV started off on the wrong foot when the opening bout, a Street Fight between Terry “Bam Bam” Gordy and Johnny Ace, supposedly ran long, throwing the rest of the show into upheaval. The main event that night was a match between Steve Williams and Bam Bam Bigelow to crown the UWF Television Champion. Williams won the match, making him the only winner that night as with a buyrate of 0.1, Beach Brawl set a record for the least purchased PPV in wrestling history.

Cancelled events and poor attendance were the norm for the fledgling promotion, often due to incompetence on the part of Abrams or unrealistic expectations from SportsChannel. Credit to the owner for hustling every step of the way, but as Zoogz Rift said, “money was always around, but he (Abrams) spent it in the wrong places”. Wrestling finishes often made no sense, a product of Abrams’ lack of experience as a booker coupled with a veteran roster that had little respect for him. Rift, who would take over booking the promotion for a time in ‘93 and ‘94, leave, then return to serve as vice president of the UWF until Abrams’ passing in ‘96, believes the company failed because Abrams was “more interested in feeding his drug addictions”.

Between ‘94-’96, several shows and events were planned to relaunch the UWF. Unfortunately, if Rift is to be believed, the money “always went up Herb’s nose”. Event in places like North Dakota and Minnesota were filmed but never released. Existing episodes of the promotion were licensed to ESPN2, several international companies were sold “exclusive rights” to the UWF catalog (yes, you read that correctly…multiple companies were sold exclusive rights), but no real momentum was ever achieved, at least where a relaunch was concerned.

Herb Goes Out With A Bang

Herb Abrams’ “final stand” took place on July 23rd, 1996 in the very same part of the world where just five years prior, he’d pleaded with a disinterested audience to stay to the end of a UWF TV taping. Having already been arrested in five states and awaiting trial for a variety of charges, including attempted rape, robbery and drug possession, Abrams was confronted by police in his Manhattan office space after a disturbance was reported. “Mr. Electricity” was found naked, covered in Vaseline and cocaine and chasing two prostitutes around with a baseball bat. He’d destroyed several pieces of furniture and was quite unwell.

Police took Abrams into custody and headed to the nearest hospital. Ninety minutes later, he had a massive heart attack due to a cocaine overdose, dying instantly.

The UWF Shot Its Shot

The legacy of Herb Abrams’ UWF is far more “ha ha” than “holy shit” but here’s the part where I try and put a positive spin on it.

Remember when Vince McMahon and Eric Bischoff made themselves evil authority figures on RAW and Nitro during an era when pro wrestling was as hot as it’s ever been? Well, Herb Abrams beat ’em to that idea by five years (albeit with far less success). Still, the man deserves a doff of the cap for being ahead of the game.

Abrams also deserves recognition for being a fan that went “all in” and tried to put out the kind of product he wanted to see. Fine, it was usually awful, but it was his to have and hold. He had zero experience to draw upon, but props to him for at least trying. In that way, he differentiated himself from the standard complaining wrestling fan, content to sit and whine.

That the UWF failed isn’t a surprise, but it shouldn’t be the only way we remember the ill-fated promotion. Instead, it should also serve as a reminder of just how difficult it is to build, grow and maintain a successful wrestling company.

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