I've been out of the loop on professional wrestling for over twenty-five years now. I don't know the major players; I don't know the companies. But I have the fondest memories as a very small boy of the syndicated Big Time Wrestling show, out of the National Wrestling Alliance's Detroit territory, which could always be counted on to keep an hour of boredom at bay on a rainy Saturday afternoon ("And Pampero Firpo coco-butts The Sheik!"). And the early days of Vince McMahon's WWF were some of the best "TV theatre" around, with the hypnotic, hysterically funny "Rowdy" Roddy Piper a true artist at his craft. But then the industry became too outsized and over-produced, and drug and sex scandals turned me off to the whole mess (more importantly, it wasn't funny anymore). I have no idea where the "sport" stands today, or what its impact is or its place in the entertainment field.
That's why WWE Home Video's two-disc The Triumph and Tragedy of World Class Championship Wrestling is such a treat for fans of "old timey" rasslin'. How modern wrestling looks today, elaborately produced for TV and beamed across the world for international audiences, really started with the WCCW tradition created out of whole cloth by legendary Texas wrestler Fritz Von Erich (real name: Jack Adkisson). The Triumph and Tragedy of World Class Championship Wrestling looks at the legacy (and the cruel, almost Roman farce tragedies) of the Von Erich wrestling family, and, to a lesser extent, the rise and fall of the WCCW as the precursor to the later media behemoths WWF and WCW.
An Olympic-class discus thrower and football player, Jack Adkisson eventually met wrestling legend Stu Hart, trained under him, and became one of the top "heels" (villains) in region wrestling, with the use of his signature closing hold, "The Iron Claw," always a crowd favorite. By the late 60s, Jack decided to branch out and become a promoter, and with the help of promoter Sam Muchnick, Jack became the owner and promoter of the Dallas, Houston and San Antonio territories. As with most NWA territories, Jack's federation produced its own local TV telecasts of wrestling matches, most notably from Dallas' Sportatorium. Each week, matches were staged with Jack's roster of talent, and broadcast to the Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio markets. Still officially known as Big Time Wrestling, Jack eventually requested from the NWA the right to change his federation's name to World Class Championship Wrestling, which put forth an international image more in keeping with Jack's plans to syndicate his locally staged TV shows.
Beginning in the early 80s, Jack would champion the syndication of his videotaped local matches, in essence breaking the long tradition of regionalism that dominated professional wrestling in America, and creating the template for what we see now in the WWE. Innovations such as multi-camera set-ups, with hand-held, lightweight video cameras used to get right into the ring, creating terrific audience identification with the wrestlers, rock 'n' roll music intros for the wrestlers, and elaborate storylines and feuds for the various "heels" and "faces" (heroes) quickly changed the direction of the industry, and created a groundswell for the "sport" in the 1980s and 1990s. And at the center of Jack's growing promotion were his wrestling sons.
Promoted as superstars, the five Von Erich boys would eventually create a major cult following in Texas wrestling, with one of the brothers, Kerry "The Modern Day Warrior" Von Erich becoming a genuine superstar of the sport on a national level, winning the NWA World Heavyweight Title. Incredibly popular with fans (Bill Irwin flatly states in the film, "They were gods," to the adoring Texas public), the clean-cut, charismatic, terrifically athletic Von Erich boys, along with a colorful stable of wrestling stars like The Fabulous Freebirds, Gino Hernandez, Chris Adams, Kamala, The Missing Link ("Uh, oh! Here comes the Flying Head-Butt!"), Kubuki, Bruiser Brody and Abdullah the Butcher, helped to propel WCCW to world-wide fame. But it all began to crumble when, one by one, all of the boys died (save eldest brother and survivor Kevin), either by suspicious circumstances or suicide. David "The Yellow Rose of Texas" Von Erich died in Japan in 1984, either from drugs or from a heart attack brought on by acute enteritis. Mike Von Erich, who never really wanted to wrestle, never recovered from a terrible bout with Toxic shock syndrome, and committed suicide in 1987. Chris Von Erich, unable to match the athleticism and success of his brothers, committed suicide in 1991. And the most famous of the Von Erich brothers, Kerry "The Texas Tornado" Von Erich, having lost a foot in a motorcycle accident and getting arrested for drugs and facing a lengthy jail sentence, committed suicide by shooting himself in 1993.
There's no director credited to The Triumph and Tragedy of World Class Championship Wrestling, but a WWE logo is ever-present at the bottom left-hand corner of the image. Since Kevin Von Erich sold all of the WCCW films to the WWE in 2006, I'm going to assume that The Triumph and Tragedy of World Class Championship Wrestling is a WWE in-house production. And that fact might explain why some of the more important details about the WCCW are left out of the documentary. Dedicated fans of the federation will probably get the most out of this film; they already know all the ins and outs of the various feuds, and they have a deep appreciation for the milieu of mid-80s Texas wrestling. The rest of us who may have only watched the syndicated shows from that time period might prefer a few more concrete facts. I was particularly disappointed that zero context was given as to exactly how Jack Adkisson made the jump from the producer of a local TV wrestling show, to an innovator of a "superstation"-like syndication operation. Some of the complicated permutations of the regional federations and rivalries between the various competing companies gets a bit thick for the uninitiated. And of course, the whole issue of drugs and steroid use, alluded to by Kevin Von Erich and other interviewees, is largely skirted (no surprise coming from WWE).
Still, there are a lot of elements that work well in The Triumph and Tragedy of World Class Championship Wrestling. Soft-spoken Kevin Von Erich anchors the film, and his frequent comments are fair and admirably modest. Extensive use of archival WCCW footage and interviews, and new interviews with Skandor Akbar, Dory Funk, Jr., Dusty Rhodes, Bill Mercer, Gary Hart, Gerald Brisco, Ric Flair, Jim Ross, Jerry "The King" Lawler, Jimmy Garvin, Michael Hayes, Buddy Roberts, Verne Gagne, Bill Irwin, Mick Foley, and Triple H among others, provide balanced commentary and informative background on the WCCW story. As well, an extensive second disc worth of bonuses (detailed below) featuring legendary bouts with the WCCW stars, makes The Triumph and Tragedy of World Class Championship Wrestling a must-have for fans of the sport.
On disc two, vintage matches from the glory days of WCCW are presented, with alternate commentaries on selected matches. Two-Out-Of-Three Falls Texas Rasslin': Duke Keomuka vs. Ricky Starr runs 27:38. American Heavyweight Championship: Fritz Von Erich Retirement Show at Texas Stadium, June, 1982 - Fritz Von Erich vs. King Kong Bundy runs 10:58. Steel Cage Match for the World Heavyweight Championship: Star Wars of Wrestling, December, 1982 - Ric Flair vs. Kerry Von Erich runs 34:19. WCCW, May, 1983 - Iceman King Parsons/Kevin & David Von Erich vs. The Fabulous Freebirds, with commentary by Todd Grisham and Kevin Von Erich, runs 15:28. Hair vs. Hair Match: Star Wars of Wrestling, December, 1983 - Iceman King Parsons vs. Buddy Roberts runs 9:52. Six-Man Tag Title Match: David Von Erich Memorial Parade of Champions, May, 1984 - Fritz, Mike & David Von Erich vs. The Fabulous Freebirds runs 12:58. Mix Tag Match: David Von Erich Memorial Parade of Champions, May, 1984 - "Gentleman" Chris Adams & Sunshine vs. "Gorgeous" Jimmy Garvin & Precious runs 6:55. David Von Erich Memorial Parade of Champions, May, 1984 - The Great Kabuki vs. Kamala runs 9:30. American Tag Team Championship: 2nd David Von Erich Memorial Parade of Champions, May, 1985 - Fantastics vs. Midnight Express runs 13:36. WCCW, July, 1985 - "Gentleman" Chris Adams vs. Kevin Von Erich, with alternate commentary by Todd Grisham and Kevin Von Erich, runs 12:21. WCCW, October, 1986 - Bruiser Brody & The Missing Link vs. One Man Gang & Rick Rude runs 11:31. And Steel Cage Match: 3rd Cotton Bowl Extravaganza, October, 1986 - Bruiser Brody vs. Abdullah the Butcher runs 12:38. All in all, an amazing collection of vintage wrestling highlights.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.