The Iron Claw Is Based on the Devastating True Story of the Von Erich Brothers

Zac Efron stars alongside Jeremy Allen White, Harris Dickinson, and Lily James in A24’s The Iron Claw, a biopic about the Von Erich brothers who dominated professional wrestling throughout the 1980s.

With an overbearing father pressuring them all to excel at any cost, the movie follows the Von Erich brothers as they attempt to make names for themselves in the very public sport. However, the family faced multiple personal tragedies, which are brought to life in The Iron Claw. Here’s what you need to know about the new movie.

How did the Von Erichs rise to prominence?

In The Iron Claw, the Von Erich brothers, Kevin (Zac Efron), David (Harris Dickinson), Kerry (Jeremy Allen White), and Mike (Stanley Simons) all pursue careers in the professional wrestling arena, spurred on by their father, Fritz (Holt McCallany).

The family’s passion for wrestling all started with Fritz, who was born as born Jack Adkisson, but adopted his now-iconic stage name, via Brittanica. After starting his wrestling career in 1952, Fritz decided to lean into a villain persona in the hopes of increasing his success. As noted by Brittanica, Fritz became known as “the German Giant from Munich,” and playing the Nazi-inspired bad guy grew his popularity exponentially.

A stint wrestling in Japan helped Fritz to develop what would become his signature move: the Iron Claw, per Brittanica. The move involved grabbing hold of the other wrestler’s head and squeezing. Although he retired from wrestling in 1982, Fritz stayed in the industry, serving as president of Dallas’ World Class Championship Wrestling (WCCW), Brittanica noted.

Fritz was married to Doris Von Erich (played by Maura Tierney), with whom he welcomed six sons: Jack Jr., Kevin, David, Kerry, Mike, and Chris, per Parade. Tragically, all of Fritz’s children bar Kevin would die before their parents, Parade noted.

zac efron the iron claw

A24

During an interview with PW Insider Elite in July 2023, Kevin Von Erich defended his father’s methods for training the Von Erich boys as they pursued wrestling. “[Critics] talk about [how] he made us wrestle and it was all about the bottom line,” Kevin said. “No, never. He didn’t even want us to wrestle. I just want people to know my dad was a good, honorable man who I admire. I’d never say anything about him, and I won’t tolerate anybody doing it around me, either.”

What is the ‘Von Erich curse’?

Despite finding incredible success in the wrestling industry, the Von Erich family faced a number of devastating tragedies over the years. As a result, the family name became synonymous with tragedy, and the term the “Von Erich curse” was famously coined.

The first tragedy to befall the family occurred in 1959 when Doris and Fritz’s firstborn son, Jack Jr., died when he was just six-years-old, drowning in a puddle after being electrocuted by a shorted wire on the outside of a neighbor’s trailer, via Texas Monthly.

In the biography Fritz Von Erich: Master of the Iron Claw, written by Ron Mullinax, Fritz said (via Texas Monthly), “I just started blaming the entire wrestling business for the death of my oldest boy.” Meanwhile, Fritz’s wife, Doris, emotionally revealed, “After you lose the first one, there is that nagging fear you’ll lose another. You not only believe it can happen to you, you know it’s going to almost. It’s a horrible thing to live with, and I became very protective of the boys.”

Tragedy strikes a wrestling dynasty

The remaining Von Erich brothers—Kevin, David, Kerry, Mike, and Chris—would each pursue wrestling careers with varying degrees of success. Kevin was the first to enter the ring, making quite the impression with “his golden shorts and feathered blond hair” in 1976, The Washington Post reported. David and Kerry would soon make their debuts, too.

David, who towered over his opponents at six feet and eight inches, became known as the “Yellow Rose of Texas,” per The Washington Post. He was all but poised for success, and it was predicted he’d soon earn the NWA Worlds Heavyweight Championship belt. However, his successes were cut short during a tour of Tokyo, Japan.

In February 1984, David was found dead in his hotel room in Tokyo, with an autopsy later confirming that he had acute enteritis, an inflammation in the intestines, which had caused them to burst while he slept, per Texas Monthly. However, the official cause of death was questioned by people who knew David, such as the wrestlers accompanying him on tour. While some alleged that David had been purging food and this led to his death, others claimed that the wrestler’s death was the result of a drug overdose.

As many as four thousand fans attended David’s funeral, per Texas Monthly. Just one week later, the Von Erich patriarch Fritz made an executive decision on behalf of his remaining sons. During an episode of World Class (via Texas Monthly), Fritz told the world that Kerry would step in and wrestle instead of David in a scheduled competition. He also announced that Mike would become the next Von Erich brother to complete the wrestling trio in the ring.

Mike struggled with his new role

Mike was fairly new to wrestling when he was thrown into a more public role within the Von Erich empire. According to The Washington Post, Mike had only been wrestling for a few months before David died, and like his brother Chris, had previously resigned himself to the idea that he would never achieve the lofty successes of Kevin, Kerry, and David, via Texas Monthly. “But friends say he never looked comfortable in the ring, nor with the fact that he won nearly every match,” Texas Monthly reported. “And his body couldn’t take the punishment.”

In 1985, Mike needed to undergo surgery when an old shoulder injury became problematic. Following surgery, he developed toxic shock syndrome, and went into organ failure, per the Los Angeles Times. When he returned to wrestling in July 1986, he struggled to compete but refused to quit, which led to depression, as well as alcohol and drug abuse, Texas Monthly reported. Following an arrest in April 1987, Mike completed suicide while lying in a sleeping bag by a lake, Longview Daily News reported. According to Texas Monthly, Mike overdosed on Placidyl pills, which were used for sedation, and left a note for his family, in which he apologized, as he believed he’d embarrassed them.

The Iron Claw leaves out the fate of one brother

As the youngest Von Erich brother, Chris was regularly compared to his siblings, and he also lived with a number of health issues, including asthma, The Washington Post reported. “He had built up his body with weight lifting and growth hormones, but he couldn’t grow taller, and his bones were brittle from his asthma medicine,” Texas Monthly reported. Per the publication, Chris broke his elbow during a match, and was told by a doctor that he should stop wrestling.

In September 1991, Chris was hospitalized after allegedly shooting himself in the head on the family’s farm, but he died shortly thereafter, per News & Record. He left a suicide note, and had reportedly struggled with his position as the least successful Von Erich wrestler, per Texas Monthly.

The Texas Tornado’s tragic motorcycle accident

Kerry was known as “The Texas Tornado,” and he was the most successful Von Erich sibling having won the NWA Worlds Heavyweight Championship in 1984, via The Washington Post. However, everything changed for Kerry in April 1986 when he was involved in a motorcycle accident, severely injuring his right foot when he crashed into a police car, per Texas Monthly. As noted by the publication, Kerry returned to wrestling following the accident, but was badly injured during a wrestling match at Christmas, and was forced to have his right foot amputated.

Kerry’s family later revealed that the amputation severely impacted his mental state, per The Washington Post. He returned to wrestling wearing a prosthetic foot, which was painful and led to him using painkillers, and his life seemed to spiral, according to Texas Monthly. As the publication reported, Kerry attended rehab, lost his house, was divorced from his wife, lost custody of his daughters, and was involved in forging medical prescriptions. In February 1992, Kerry feared he was facing prison after being indicted after being arrested for cocaine possession while already on probation, per Texas Monthly. Using a .44 Magnum he’d gifted his father, Kerry shot himself in the heart on his dad’s ranch, via The Washington Post and Texas Monthly.

The only surviving Von Erich brother

Discussing the life-changing losses of his five brothers, the only surviving Von Erich wrestler told Texas Monthly, “I wouldn’t want anyone to feel sorry for me.” He continued, “When people say, ‘How do you do it?’ the answer is pretty simple, really. If you don’t have any choice, then it’s easy to deal with. What else are you going to do? Just drop dead and sink into the ground like rain?”

Following the deaths of his brothers, Kevin decided to retire from full-time wrestling in 1993, although he has made occasional guest appearances since then, per Biography. In 2006, Kevin moved to Hawaii with his wife Pam (played by Lily James in The Iron Claw), and their four children, sons Ross and Marshall, and daughters Kristen and Jillian, via The Dallas Morning News. Kevin’s sons have since continued the Von Erich legacy by pursuing careers as professional wrestlers.

Headshot of Amy Mackelden

Amy Mackelden is a freelance writer, editor, and disability activist. Her bylines include Harper’s BAZAAR, Nicki Swift, Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, ELLE, The Independent, Bustle, Healthline, and HelloGiggles. She co-edited The Emma Press Anthology of Illness, and previously spent all of her money on Kylie Cosmetics.