This is the wild, tragic real life story behind Zac Efron’s new wrestling movie, ‘The Iron Claw’

Screen capture of two wrestlers fighting in the wring in the 'Iron Claw' movie.
“The Iron Claw” tells the story of the Von Erichs, a family of professional wrestlers that reached incredible highs and tragic lows in the world of pro wrestling. Image: A24

The world of professional wrestling is defined by extremes: big personalities, big muscles and big crowds. But sometimes the ring-side dramatics (or melodramatics) are matched by the real stories that take place outside the spotlight. 

Case in point: The story of the Von Erich family has compelled wrestling fans for decades to the point that Hollywood is making a movie about it. “The Iron Claw,” from acclaimed independent film studio A24 and starring Zac Efron and Jeremy Allen White, will bring the tragic, wild story of the Von Erich wrestling family to the big screen on Dec. 22. 

And it’s a story that definitely deserves the big screen treatment, says Steve Granelli, an associate teaching professor of communication studies whose work focuses on pop culture, fandom and professional wrestling. Granelli calls it “the largest tragedy in professional wrestling history,” and maybe even one of the most heartbreaking stories in all of entertainment.

Steve Granelli. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

By the time the family’s patriarch, Jack Adkisson, aka Fritz Von Erich, died in 1997 at the age of 68, five of his six sons had died before him.

There’s a reason it’s become known as “the Von Erich curse.”

But Granelli says the story is more than just a cautionary tale about an industry that led to the rise –– and fall –– of an entire family. Scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find something more complex. A harsh father with sky-high expectations and demanding standards. Sons who felt pressured to meet them, no matter how much it hurt them. And all of it taking place in an industry, and era, where masculine vulnerability was seen as a weakness, not an asset. 

Granelli hopes the movie centers on what he says is the real cause of the Von Erich curse: a tangled web of masculinity, trauma and familial ties.

“Especially when you’re being presented as a superhero to thousands and thousands of people, you’re never going to be able to portray any vulnerability whatsoever,” Granelli says. “It’s like the original sin of toxic masculinity: ‘We never learned how to express ourselves because our fathers never taught us.’ I have a feeling that that is going to be a central theme of the film.”

The whole story begins with Adkisson, who adopted the persona of Fritz Von Erich, a German villain character, to launch his pro wrestling career in the 1940s and 1950s. During the ’60s, at a time when pro wrestling was divided into regional leagues, Adkisson found success in St. Louis, where the National Wrestling Association held sway.

But even early on, tragedy was a part of the Von Erich story. In 1959, Adkisson’s first son, Jack Jr., died of accidental electrocution and drowning, at the age of 6. Adkisson pressed on and continued to travel and wrestle despite his son’s death.

Eventually, Adkisson returned to his home state of Texas and set down roots, both personal and professional. He became the owner of World Class Championship Wrestling, a promotion that effectively ran pro wrestling in Texas. And luckily, Adkisson had a readily available roster of talent to build the foundation of his Texas wrestling empire: his sons.

Adkisson had each of his sons –– Kevin (Efron in the movie), David, Kerry (Allen White in the movie), Mike and Chris –– take on the Von Erich name and enter the ring. With their blood, sweat and tears, he made World Class into the biggest show in the Lone Star State. 

It helped that the oldest Von Erich boys –– Kevin, David and Kerry –– were “good at every aspect of professional wrestling,” Granelli says. They were handsome hometown heroes built like action figures, “quintessential good guys” in the ring who drew crowds of screaming girls and hollering boys.

It’s like the original sin of toxic masculinity: ‘We never learned how to express ourselves because our fathers never taught us.’ I have a feeling that that is going to be a central theme of the film.

Steve Granelli, an associate teaching professor of communication studies at Northeastern

But their skills went beyond athleticism, Granelli says. Trained by their father, they also knew the ins and outs of what it takes to be an entertainer in the ring and connect with an audience.

“We all know it’s predetermined, we all know it’s choreographed, but they were able to work with almost anybody and make the match feel compelling,” Granelli says. “They were very good storytellers in the ring.”

They all used the Iron Claw, their father’s finishing move that involved placing an open hand over an opponent’s face and “squeezing” until they submitted.

Inside the ring, the Von Erichs were unstoppable, but outside it, their father exerted an Iron Claw-like control over their lives. 

David was “the most naturally gifted wrestler” of Adkisson’s sons, Granelli says. He was the biggest, tallest and, with his fiery temper, an instant standout. Prior to a trip to Japan as part of the All Japan Pro Wrestling tour, he started to feel unwell, but David knew better than to cancel.

“[Adkisson] pushed David very much because he knew that he had the potential to be a star,” Granelli says. “One of the things that he pushed him to do was that if you were booked somewhere, you go there and wrestle no matter how you feel.”

Unknown to anyone, David had enteritis, an inflammation of the small intestine. On Feb. 10, 1984, he went to sleep in his hotel room in Tokyo and never woke up.

From there, the tragic dominoes continued to fall.

In the aftermath of David’s death, Adkisson immediately pressured Kevin and Kerry (played by Jeremy Allen White in the movie) to get to the level that David was operating at, a pressure that neither was equipped to handle, Granelli says. Just a few months after David’s funeral, Adkisson had Kerry wrestle at a championship event that David was supposed to have won.

“His son was not ready for that,” Granelli says. “He was not as good as his brother was and then felt like every time he went to perform after that, he was letting down his father and his dead brother.”

Then, in 1986, Kerry got into a motorcycle accident and crushed his foot. It was a worst-case scenario for one of the Von Erich boys: to not only be unable to wrestle but show weakness to their father. It likely fed the “embedded feeling of inferiority” that Adkisson had instilled in his sons, says Granelli.

“Reports vary on exactly what happened, but, apparently, trying to prove to his father that he was fine even with a broken foot, he gets out of the hospital bed, puts two feet down on the floor and, with his foot still healing, crushes all the bones in his foot again to the point where it needs to be amputated,” Granelli says.

To maintain the facade of Von Erich strength in the ring and the stability of his business, Adkisson crafted a special boot for Kerry to hide the amputation –– and sent him back out into the ring. Kerry was in terrible pain and could barely move, which eventually led him to drugs and alcohol, Granelli says.

In 1993, 15 days after he turned 33, Kerry shot himself on his father’s ranch.

Meanwhile, the younger Von Erich boys, Mike and Chris, struggled under their father, too. Smaller than their older brothers were, Mike and Chris, in different ways, couldn’t live up to the example set by their brothers and the demanding standard set by their father. 

Chris had asthma and brittle bones. Mike never even wanted to enter the ring; instead, he wanted to be a cameraman. Mike, ultimately, overdosed on sleeping pills on April 12, 1987. Like his older brother, Chris shot himself on the family ranch on Sept. 12, 1991.

Amid all this tragedy, there was Kevin, Adkisson’s last remaining son who, a few years after his father’s death, left pro wrestling altogether.

“He wanted to remove himself from the wrestling business because he still is of the mind that the wrestling business is what killed his brothers,” Granelli says. “He moved to Hawaii to get away from everything.”

Despite Kevin’s best attempts, the Von Erich legacy –– or maybe curse –– lives on: His sons, Ross and Marshall, took up the Von Erich name and are now pro wrestlers. With “The Iron Claw” also likely to revive interest in the Von Erich name beyond the wrestling ring, Kevin and his family’s story will be back in the spotlight. 

Granelli just hopes it’s for the right reasons.

“I think a lot of people felt that it was the business that killed the kids,” Granelli says. “I don’t think that was the case; I think it was their family dynamic. … [The movie] should delve more into toxic masculinity and the inability to process trauma within this world where you have to present yourself as this ultimate specimen.”

Cody Mello-Klein is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at Follow him on X/Twitter @Proelectioneer.