Blood, Sweat and Fire: Dallas' Heroes Helped Make Wrestlemania a Sports Powerhouse

Intimate venues like Will Rogers Coliseum allowed fans to mingle with their favorite wresters, like Kevin Von Erich, one of the Von Erich clan.
Intimate venues like Will Rogers Coliseum allowed fans to mingle with their favorite wresters, like Kevin Von Erich, one of the Von Erich clan.
Courtesy Cirrus Bonneau and Ana Beaulac Photograph Collection, Special Collections, The University of Texas at Arlington Libraries, Arlington, Texas

Flanked by cops and men in cowboy hats, hometown idol Kerry Von Erich strides toward center stage at Texas Stadium as 30,000 friends, family and fans roar. Emotions generally run hot at high-profile wrestling matches, but this bout is something special. The fourth son in the Von Erich wrestling dynasty is here to claim the title meant for his late brother David.
Adoring teenage girls grab Von Erich and plant kisses on his cheek, but his eyes focus on the villain in this piece of theater. Ric Flair, the NWA world heavyweight champion, is already in the ring, pacing in his iconic light-blue sequined robe. This time, “In Memory of David” and a yellow rose are also stitched in sequins on the back, and Von Erich clutches a single yellow rose in his left hand as he walks through the massive crowd. In yet another touching tribute, Kerry has changed his entrance music to David’s, Tanya Tucker’s hit “Texas (When I Die).”

At this point, Fritz Von Erich and his four sons have gained international fame as the All American wrestling clan from the heart of Texas, but the world heavyweight title has eluded them for decades. David was in line to challenge Flair, one of the world’s most popular wrestlers, but he died suddenly — reportedly of enteritis — in February 1984, while on tour in Japan. Four months later, his brother effortlessly hops over the ring’s top rope, and Tucker’s voice belts out over the stadium’s loudspeakers: “When I die I may not go to heaven/ I don’t know if they let cowboys in/ If they don’t, just let me go to Texas, boy!/ Texas is as close as I’ve been.”

The crowd shouts its approval when the ring announcer introduces Von Erich, and cuts loose a barrage of boos when Flair’s name booms out.

Kerry Von Erich's brother David was in line for the heavyweight championship when he died suddenly in Japan just months before David's scheduled bout with defending champion Ric Flair.
Kerry Von Erich's brother David was in line for the heavyweight championship when he died suddenly in Japan just months before David's scheduled bout with defending champion Ric Flair.

“Nature Boy” Ric Flair is already a three-time NWA world heavyweight champion, and he has been tormenting the Von Erich family and Texans for months. Every time a Von Erich seems poised to take the title belt from the cotton-topped champion, Flair somehow escapes, often through nefarious means. Texas wrestling fans firmly believe the title belongs to the Von Erichs; only the usurping Flair stands in the way of destiny, and the crowd in Texas Stadium is thirsty to see Flair get his.

Two years earlier, Flair had paid fellow baddie Gary Hart $10,000 to purposely injure Kerry Von Erich in order to take him out of the title picture. When Flair was confronted about his bounty in a sit-down interview with World Class Championship Wrestling commentator Bill Mercer, he responded by claiming that $10,000 is pennies to him and that the Von Erichs were frustrated men. “Kerry Von Erich, as great as you think you are and as great as the people in Texas think you are, you are not in the class of Ric Flair,” he bragged. “I’m the greatest wrestler of all time.”

Von Erich, an Olympics-caliber discus thrower who missed a shot at the gold when the U.S. boycotted the Moscow games, has muscles on top of his muscles and is one of the state’s greatest athletes.

The bell rings, but before the two combatants lock up, Flair takes a casual strut around the ring, making Von Erich and the crowd wait for just a moment. The crowd is in Von Erich’s corner. The Dallas Cowboys of the ’80s never had support like this. They chant “Go Kerry, Go” as he knocks Flair down with a shoulder block, and then a dropkick, and then another dropkick. Now the champion is cowering in the corner, asking for mercy. The crowd begs Von Erich to give no quarter.

The match is fairly even as the pair trade blows. Von Erich hits Flair with big offensive maneuvers while Flair uses his smarts and mat wrestling to regain the advantage. Every time Von Erich starts to build momentum, the champion puts a stop to it with a kick to the gut, which the crowd howls is below the belt.

It’s hot and muggy down in the ring and both champion and challenger are breathing heavy. At around the 15-minute mark, Flair goes for his patented finishing hold, the figure four leglock. Von Erich denies him once. Denies him twice. Flair goes for a punch that Von Erich blocks, turns Flair around and pins him with a backslide. The ref slowly counts 1-2-3, and the kid from Denton is the new world champion.

Brothers Kevin and Mike hop in the ring, and the victory celebration is about as real a moment as you will ever see in wrestling. Von Erich proudly displays the title belt with a yellow rose and the Texas state flag, and Texas Stadium rings as if Cowboy Danny White had just won the NFC championship. Flair is not gracious in defeat (he never is) and has a few choice words for the Von Erichs before he slinks back to his dressing room. The party continues in the ring.

This pattern of the good guy hero finally overcoming the bad guy champion has helped professional wrestling grow from small regional promotions to a national entertainment powerhouse.  Thanks to a group of innovative television producers and talented wrestlers, throughout the ’80s Dallas’ World Class Championship Wrestling helped pave the way to what the WWE is today. It moved wrestling from Dallas’ beloved, seedy Sportatorium to Texas Stadium, and this weekend, the big show comes back home as WWE’s Wrestlemania hits AT&T Stadium, bringing the latest generation of heroes and villains.

Sunday night, the WWE holds its signature event at the home of the Dallas Cowboys, just like World Class did decades before. Wrestlemania has already broken the WWE all-time attendance record, and this weekend’s event will bring a dose of hype that Dallas’ original wrestling promoters might never have dreamed of.

But strip away the glitz, and the force driving wrestling’s popularity is the same. It’s the story of the face vs. the heel.

More cameras, more microphones and better stories featuring heroes vs. heels built wrestling into a national sports entertainment phenomenon.
More cameras, more microphones and better stories featuring heroes vs. heels built wrestling into a national sports entertainment phenomenon.
Courtesy Cirrus Bonneau and Ana Beaulac Photograph Collection, Special Collections, The University of Texas at Arlington Libraries, Arlington, Texas

Wrestling in Dallas started in an ugly tin shed called the Dallas Sportatorium. Built in 1934 on the corner of Industrial Boulevard and Cadiz Street, the Sportatorium was home to World Class Championship Wrestling and grew to become the temple of professional wrestling in Dallas. At a Wrestlemania warm-up party last November, World Class alumnus Stone Cold Steve Austin called the Sportatorium one of the greatest wrestling venues of all time. The old wrestlers who praise the Sportatorium are quick to point out the flaws that helped give it character. It was dark, hot and loud; it was what old-school wrestling was all about.

“It was an old, run-down building to the naked eye, but it had a tremendous atmosphere,” recalls Marc Lowrance, the ring announcer for WCCW. “When you packed the bleachers with people and put in lights and television cameras, the place would come alive.”

It wasn’t the look of the Dallas Sportatorium that brought fans in, but the feel of it. Bleachers were stacked close together, and fans were often right next to the wrestlers. YouTube clips of World Class bouts capture fans grabbing and kissing the wrestlers as they walk down to the ring.

“At the shows, it was an up-close and personal experience,” says Jerry “The King” Lawler, an instrumental player during the latter years of World Class who fondly remembers his matches against Kerry Von Erich in the Sportatorium. “The crowd was so close to the ring that sometimes Kerry would throw me out of the ring and the fans would throw me back in. I understand why the fans loved it. It had a bar-room fight kind of feel to it.”

Back in the old days, before the WWE was the top dog in the yard, wrestling comprised a bunch of smaller regional territories. Every part of the country had its own wrestling promotion, most of them operating under the National Wrestling Alliance banner. The territories included Continental Wrestling Association in the South, American Wrestling Association in Minnesota and the northern states, and representing Texas, the Dallas-based World Class Championship Wrestling.

Wrestler "Wild Bill" Irwin in Fort Worth was not the typical sort of cowboy seen at Will Rogers Coliseum.
Wrestler "Wild Bill" Irwin in Fort Worth was not the typical sort of cowboy seen at Will Rogers Coliseum.
Courtesy Cirrus Bonneau and Ana Beaulac Photograph Collection, Special Collections, The University of Texas at Arlington Libraries, Arlington, Texas

Rivalries between local wrestling promoters could get heated, literally. On the night of May 1, 1953, arsonists poured kerosene on the roof of the Sportatorium and set it ablaze. Three men, Roy Houston Tatum, William Moncrief and Alfred McCrory, were convicted of conspiring to set fire, Tatum and Moncrief each serving a minimum two years in prison in a case that featured secret rendezvous and phone calls to a mysterious “Tony in Houston” who organized the plot. No one knows for sure who Tony was or why anyone wanted the place burned down, but rumor has it that a rival promoter ordered the place torched.

Owner Ed McLemore remained optimistic and promised fans that he would rebuild. He kept the show going at Fair Park while he built a new and better — or less seedy — replacement, rebranded as “The Million Dollar Sportatorium.” Before it became primarily known for professional wrestling, it was the home of the Big D Jamboree, a radio show featuring stars from the Grand Ol’ Opry who performed every Saturday night. Elvis Presley and Willie Nelson performed at the Sportatorium in its heyday.

In the mid-’60s, wrestler Jack Adkisson — aka Fritz Von Erich, the patron of the Von Erich clan — hooked up with the Sportatorium and began work as McLemore’s bookkeeper. After McLemore’s death, Von Erich took up day-to-day operations and created his own wrestling promotion, Big Time Wrestling. Featuring his sons as the top stars, Von Erich’s troupe would soon become the most popular in the region, but it wasn’t until he met up with a couple of savvy television guys that wrestling in Dallas really began to take off.

Kerry Von Erich took the world championship belt from Ric Flair at Texas Stadium in 1984 in memory of his brother David Von Erich, who died just months before the match.
Kerry Von Erich took the world championship belt from Ric Flair at Texas Stadium in 1984 in memory of his brother David Von Erich, who died just months before the match.

Fritz Von Erich’s toughness and grit drove him to come out on top in Texas’ wrestling promotion wars, but documentary filmmaker Mickey Grant’s and announcer Bill Mercer’s innovations supplied the rocket fuel.

While he was studying film at SMU, Grant started working for Dallas radio king Ron Chapman at KVIL. During Grant’s years there, he and Mercer began bouncing around ideas for screenplays about what goes on behind the scenes in wrestling.

Channel 11 already broadcast Von Erich’s Big Time Wrestling, but Grant saw that wrestling on television could be something more. After he accepted a job running production at TV39, Grant grabbed the opportunity to present wrestling in a new light and to a larger audience on the station.

Wrestling on television back then was rather simple. There were no more than two cameras, with no audio of the action in the ring or of the fans in the audience.

“It occurred to us that if we did basically the same show but with better production — more cameras, close-up shots, instant replay — it could be national and highly successful,” Grant says.

The new wrestling show became popular and was renamed World Class Championship Wrestling. Class was an important part of the name because the company believed fans deserved the best possible product.

Wrestling personality Jim Cornette managed the tag team The Midnight Express while they were performing for World Class Championship Wrestling, and Cornette knew that World Class was ahead of the curve in its presentation.

“In the other territories around the country, the TV shows would be a big main-event star wrestling against a lower level mid-card guy. The other promotions wouldn’t give away big main events on free TV,” Cornette says. “World Class would give you huge match-ups like Ric Flair versus the Von Erichs or Gino Hernandez against Chris Adams. Plus the other wrestling companies didn’t have the production value that WCCW on Channel 39 had. They had cameras right by the ring and you could hear the action. They were doing it years before the WWF [the World Wrestling Federation, now WWE] caught on.”

Filmed in DFW, often at the Sportatorium and other times at Fort Worth’s Will Rogers Coliseum, Reunion Arena or the Cotton Bowl, the World Class TV show was the first to showcase the wrestlers' personalities with featurettes. Fans would not only see their favorite wrestlers compete in the ring, but also outside the ring in interviews or other segments. At the core of any quality television show is the storyline, and World Class was adamant about advancing its plots with more than just wrestling.

“You needed to structure the show so that it moves the audience from point A to point B, with the final end-point being the main event. It’s a structure that works in all television, from professional wrestling to even the news. Success revolves around storytelling,” says Grant. “What Vince McMahon got right was that he saw wrestling and television as one and the same.”

WWE promoting genius and the king of bad bosses, Vince McMahon, with wrestler Triple H and McMahon's daughter, Stephanie.
WWE promoting genius and the king of bad bosses, Vince McMahon, with wrestler Triple H and McMahon's daughter, Stephanie.

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McMahon, CEO and majority owner of the WWE, is the most successful promoter in the history of professional wrestling. He coined the term “sports entertainment,” started Wrestlemania and was the last man standing in the territory wars of the ’80s. He started as a humble wrestling announcer who slowly morphed into the evil boss “Mr. McMahon.” While McMahon was both the behind-the-curtain boss and the in-front-of-the-camera evil boss, the WWE soared to new heights. But McMahon’s villainous on-screen persona would never have been so hated if it weren’t for a fan favorite who took him on: Stone Cold Steve Austin.

There is no better story in wrestling than the hero conquering the villain, and there is no bigger hero than Austin, who is also a Texan. After all the regional territories merged or went out of business, Austin and the WWE ushered in a new era of in-your-face wrestling television.

Austin has been a part of many Wrestlemania moments that fans still remember. From his Wrestlemania 13 “I Quit” match against Bret Hart (Austin went into the match the bad guy and left the good guy), to defeating Shawn Michaels for his first WWF World Championship at Wrestlemania 14, Austin injected wrestling with some much-needed excitement.

Austin’s most famous Wrestlemania match was against The Rock at the old Houston Astrodome. The Rock comes from a decorated wrestling family, but since leaving the WWE he has become an A-List movie star and one of the most popular personalities in pop culture. Some may not remember his iconic wrestling catchphrases like, “Do you smell what The Rock is cooking?” Most will recognize him as Dwayne Johnson from The Fast and the Furious movie franchise.

At Wrestlemania in front of 60,000 fans, the WWE did the unthinkable and tried to turn hero Austin into a despised villain in a match against The Rock. The Rock and Austin both entered the match as fan favorites. The Rock was the defending champion and Austin was the challenger. In prematch interviews, Austin told The Rock that he was desperate to become champion and would do anything to accomplish his goal. Anything meant anything. Austin repeatedly bludgeoned The Rock with a steel chair during the match. He had always been a violent wrestler, but this was on another level. The crowd still cheered their home-state hero on. When the evil boss Vince McMahon came out and assisted his longtime rival Austin in the victory, the crowd did not boo even though Austin had turned his back on everything he stood for. Austin and McMahon had been rivals for several years and now they were joining forces against The Rock. This should have been a defining moment and pivotal point in the storyline of Austin’s character, but being in Texas, the fans just cheered for Austin even louder.

Before he became America's best-loved professional wrestler, Steve Austin was a student and football player at UNT in Denton.
Before he became America's best-loved professional wrestler, Steve Austin was a student and football player at UNT in Denton.

Before Steve Austin became “Stone Cold,” the most popular wrestler of all time, he was a student athlete at University of North Texas. He played linebacker and defensive end for North Texas before pursuing professional wrestling.

Under the guidance of British grappler “Gentleman” Chris Adams, Austin began his wrestling career in WCCW under his real name, Steve Williams. Adams had been one of the top stars in World Class since the early ’80s and he taught Austin the technical aspects of wrestling as well as how to tell a story in the ring. When World Class Championship Wrestling merged with the Memphis promotion Continental Wrestling Association to form the United States Wrestling Association, Steve Williams changed his wrestling moniker to Steve Austin (after the Six Million Dollar Man).

In 1990, Austin would confront his mentor Chris Adams in one of the more memorable feuds in World Class’ history. It was more than a typical conflict between a hotshot student and his veteran teacher, as Austin had started dating Adams’ first wife, Jeannie Clark — whom Austin would later marry and father two daughters with — and involved her in the storyline to get in an extra dig against his former trainer. During bouts between Austin and Adams, Clark would catfight with Adams’ valet, Toni Adams. Oftentimes the best rivalries in wrestling are the ones that blur the line between fiction and reality. The feud unfortunately fizzled out as the merger between World Class and Memphis began to deteriorate.

While fans love their heroes, you can’t have a good hero without a good heel. It’s the size of the villain that makes the hero, and wrestling is full of baddies. Austin knew this more than anyone. He walked the line between face and heel better than anyone in squared circle history.

The Freebirds, the heels who helped make the Von Erichs stars, will get their due with a hall of fame induction at Wrestlemania in DFW this week.
The Freebirds, the heels who helped make the Von Erichs stars, will get their due with a hall of fame induction at Wrestlemania in DFW this week.

Today, that line is fuzzier than ever, thanks in large part to Austin, who in the ’90s was one of the first wrestlers to cheat and still get cheered by the fans. Before that, the occasional eye poke or hair pull during a match was pretty much all that was needed to make a villain. That, and don’t show any respect for your opponent, or for the filthy, poor, ugly fans who paid their hard-earned money to watch wrestling. During World Class Championship Wrestling’s heyday, no wrestlers were hated and jeered more than the Freebirds.

Fans will always remember the Von Erichs fondly, but would the Von Erichs have been as popular without their nemesis, the Freebirds? The Von Erich vs. Freebird rivalry was great theater, and it made both factions wrestling legends.

“Any wrestling promotion is dependent on great heels,” Lowrance says. “The Freebirds were a diverse group and had the gift of ring psychology. Michael Hayes was flamboyant and obnoxious. Terry Gordy was a gruff bully. And Buddy Roberts was the combination of genius [and] stooge, and was a remarkable asset to that group. Anyone who thinks that Von Erichs made World Class, well that’s only partially true. The Freebirds were central to our success and to the growth in professional wrestling.”

The group was founded in 1979, when Michael “P.S.” Hayes, Terry “Bam Bam” Gordy and Buddy “Jack” Roberts joined forces to wreak havoc on professional wrestling. After dominating the wrestling scene in Georgia, the Freebirds made their way to Texas and joined the roster of World Class Championship Wrestling. Their careers would change forever on Christmas Day 1982, during Kerry Von Erich’s steel cage match against Ric Flair.

Michael Hayes and Terry Gordy cost Kerry Von Erich the match and the title when Gordy violently slammed the steel cage door onto Kerry’s head. The act started a rivalry that captivated the state of Texas throughout the ’80s. The ruthless, flamboyant Freebirds would battle the clean-cut Von Erichs in some of the most heated matches in wrestling history.

The Freebirds will finally get their due this weekend when they are inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame. Austin has said in interviews that he would boycott Wrestlemania weekend if the Freebirds didn’t get the Hall of Fame call this year.

“Back in ’87 I used to pay my hard-earned money to go to the Sportatorium, and here comes Michael P.S. Hayes with that sequined robe, and he had his hair going; hell, the entrance alone was worth the 10 bucks I paid,” Austin said on Ric Flair’s podcast last year. “People don’t give Hayes credit enough for being a great talker and being a good booker.”

“Nature Boy” Ric Flair isn’t often mentioned in World Class retrospectives, mainly because he was involved with so many other promotions as the NWA World Champion, but the self-described dirtiest player in the game played a big role in putting over the Von Erichs and Dallas. There was no bigger heel than Ric Flair, and before the Freebirds came into their own, Flair was the perfect foil for the beloved Von Erichs.

His championship battles against Kerry Von Erich at the 1982 Christmas Day Star Wars event — in which he defeated Von Erich when Hayes’ turned on Von Erich and hit him with the cage door — along with the Von Erich Memorial Parade of Champions at Texas Stadium in 1984, have gone down in Dallas wrestling lore. Those matches built up sympathy for the Von Erich clan and added to their legend.

Weeks before Flair’s championship steel cage match against Von Erich, Flair passionately said in a split-screen interview with Von Erich's father, Fritz, “I don’t mind bleeding, and I don’t mind sweating and I don’t mind paying the price to be where I am today! And Von Erichs, you wanted the best and now you must accept the consequences, cause this title is going to stay mine for a long, long time! Wooooo!”

That’s not exactly Shakespeare, but that was the kind of fire Flair brought to the game — fans called it arrogance when he played the villain, and passion when he was the hero.

Very few wrestlers have been able to sustain a career as long and colorful as Flair’s. He switched between beloved hero and loathsome heel for decades, depending on his opponent. Against the babyfaces, he was the dirty heel who would cheat to win. Against the heels, he was the plucky babyface who would do anything to beat his opponent. Flair is still involved with wrestling and is manager for his daughter Charlotte, current champion of the women’s division. Flair will likely be in Charlotte’s corner for her championship match at Wrestlemania, 32 years after his championship match at Texas Stadium against Von Erich.

Wrestlemania 29 in New Jersey looks nothing like Dallas' old Sportatorium, but at heart the show's the same.
Wrestlemania 29 in New Jersey looks nothing like Dallas' old Sportatorium, but at heart the show's the same.
Schen/CC BY 2.0, Wikemedia Commons

When WWE announced that Wrestlemania was going to be at AT&T Stadium, the two words on everyone’s lips were “attendance record.” There are two attendance figures that the WWE trots out to measure its own success. There’s the fictional 93,173 at Wrestlemania 3 (ticket sales were actually around 78,000) and the 79,127 record attendance at SummerSlam 1992 in Wembley Stadium. According to the Wrestling Observer, the WWE broke its all-time attendance record back in mid-March with over 84,000 tickets sold. 

John Saboor, executive vice president of special events for WWE, estimates that over 125,000 people will attend at least one wrestling themed event this week, with many coming from out of state and some from outside the country. And there are plenty events to choose from. The WWE alone is producing Wrestlemania at AT&T Stadium, NXT Takeover Dallas at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center, Wrestlemania Fan Axxess, where fans will have a chance to get autographs and meet some of the wrestlers, and also the WWE Hall of Fame ceremony the night before Wrestlemania at American Airlines
Center.

Other wrestling organizations are taking advantage of the massive influx of fans looking to get their powerbomb fix. The NWA is hosting a Parade of Champions; Ring of Honor is running their Supercard of Honor for two nights; and WrestleCon will feature a buffet of former and current wrestlers who are not affiliated with WWE.

But Wrestlemania is the reason for the season. This is the first time that Dallas has hosted the pinnacle of sports entertainment. Houston got to experience ’Mania twice before, once in 2001 and then again in 2009 for the event’s silver anniversary. But Wrestlemania 32 will be bigger than both of those events. Even though the WWE roster has been hit hard with injuries to top stars such as John Cena, Seth Rollins and Randy Orton, this Sunday’s event is already a record-setter.

Major professional wrestling events can be a rite of passage. Wrestling fans who grew up in Texas in the ’70s and ’80s fondly remember the Sportatorium, the Von Erichs and other legends of World Class. Those who grew up in the ’90s remember Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock. Although times have changed, wrestling can still bring thousands of people to their feet.

The wrestling territories have all but vanished. An empty field sits at the corner of Industrial Boulevard and Cadiz Street where the Sportatorium, demolished in 2003 after being damaged in another fire, once stood. But no matter how much changes in professional wrestling, there is always the main event, the heel versus the hero. Whether it’s The Authority against Shane McMahon, Kevin Owens against Sami Zayn, or Kerry Von Erich versus Ric Flair, fans root for their hero to overcome.

Despite how huge professional wrestling has grown in the last 30 years, some of the old school guys believe that the heart has left the show. The regional territories were able to fill smaller venues with hometown talent every week, and today the WWE is so big that some of the basics that made wrestling popular in the first place are sometimes forgotten.

“Wrestlemania artificially inflates interest level every year,” says Cornette. “Wrestlemania is a spectacle and you’ll have the greatest time of your life, but you won’t be able to recapture that same feel that the Sportatorium had when you were 12 feet from the ring and able to meet the wrestlers after the show.

“Back then the fans truly believed in the wrestlers and the matches. Even if they knew that something was going on, they weren’t exactly sure what. Wrestling should be presented straight and not with a wink.”


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