Cousin Lance got the call in Portland. His family needed him to come home.
It was October 1985, and hard times had hit the Von Erichs back in Dallas. The first family of professional wrestling—Fritz, the famous patriarch, and his strapping sons—had been flying high, packing arenas with adoring fans. “The Beatles in underpants,” says Dale Hansen, the longtime WFAA sportscaster.
Then came the first blow: 25-year-old David, on the precipice of becoming the biggest champion in wrestling, died of a bacterial infection during a tour of Japan in February 1984. Eighteen months later, 21-year-old Mike developed toxic shock syndrome following shoulder surgery, leaving him with brain damage that would never heal.
In time, this would be recognized as the middle act of the greatest tragedy in the sport’s history. By 1993, five of the six Von Erich brothers would be dead by the age of 33, three of them by suicide. Only Kevin, the oldest of the boys to make it to adulthood, remains alive.
“I’ve had people tell me, ‘Can you believe what the Kennedys went through?’ ” says David Manning, a longtime family friend and confidant who held myriad roles in the Von Erich-owned promotion World Class Championship Wrestling. “And I’ll say, ‘Yeah, and it’s nothing compared to what we went through.’ ”
The worst was yet to come. When the family made that call in 1985, they still thought their dynasty could be salvaged. They’d lost David, but in Kerry and Kevin, they still had two of their three stars in the ring. And they had a surprise, too.
For almost a year, Lance had prepared himself in the Pacific Northwest, learning how to move, how to grapple, how to talk and pander and preen—all the tools and techniques of the family business. Now it was time to apply them on the big stage. When he was introduced to the faithful WCCW audience at the Sportatorium, that beloved dump of an arena off I-35 and Industrial Boulevard, he looked every bit the part of a Von Erich, with his shaggy blond hair and cartoonishly sculpted body. He said he had a few loose ends to tie up, but after that, he assured everyone watching, “I will be back in the next couple of weeks to help out the family.”
Here was Kerry and Kevin’s reinforcement in their battle against their dastardly rivals, the Fabulous Freebirds, a conflict that captivated fans across the globe and sustained the promotion financially. Here was the Von Erichs’ salvation.
There were just two problems.
His name wasn’t Lance. And he wasn’t their cousin.
This is a story about desperation. A great many other things, too—money, fame, authenticity, tragedy, even a little international smuggling. But mostly desperation: the lengths one will go to, the ideals one might compromise, to preserve what’s crumbling.
For Fritz Von Erich, that meant his family and his business. Those were effectively one and the same, and had been since he became a wrestling promoter in 1966 by co-purchasing Big Time Wrestling, where he’d starred as a performer since the early ’50s. It was a natural transition, as obvious as the pivot he made from Jack Adkisson, SMU football player, to Fritz Von Erich, Nazi-sympathizing wrestling heel, some 20 years prior.
A 6-foot-4 lug with an appetite for physicality, he could of course play a big son of a bitch whose scowl was only partly for show; his temperament had hardened after his first-born child, Jack Jr., died at the age of 6 in a domestic accident. And as a longtime Dallasite who had earned a name at the city’s flagship university—and who could draw bigger crowds than anyone else in town—he understood how to push the right buttons as a businessman, first by reinventing himself as a hero in the latter days of his in-ring career, and then by modernizing Big Time and eventually rebranding it as WCCW upon assuming sole ownership of both the promotion and the Sportatorium in 1969.
These were the territorial days of professional wrestling, when promoters throughout North America ran regions like fiefdoms under the umbrella of the National Wrestling Alliance, whose champion, nominated by the promoters, worked the country as the biggest star in the business. Certain territories outranked others, however, and bit by bit Fritz positioned WCCW—headquartered in Dallas but with a reach that stretched throughout the state and into Oklahoma City and Shreveport—as one of the strongest.
Bill Mercer, the former voice of the Cowboys, called the matches. Producer Mickey Grant helmed the broadcast and was outfitted with a $450,000 truck to create television magic that manifested twice a week. On Saturdays, Channel 11 broadcast matches taped the previous Monday at the Will Rogers Coliseum in Fort Worth. The Dallas shows, meanwhile, were taped on Fridays and telecast on Channel 39 on Sundays, and from there they were beamed to 60 U.S. markets plus 23 countries through the emerging force of cable television, reportedly topping out as the second-most-viewed syndicated show in America after Soul Train.
Kevin Von Erich remembers an adolescence full of early mornings in the ring at the Sportatorium, just him and his brothers and an arena of empty chairs, slamming and drop-kicking each other until they were saturated in sweat. “And then we’d go to the back, and they had one of those old-timey Coke machines with those little short Coke bottles—we’d drink one of them and then go back and do it again,” he says.
Then they came of age. At its core, professional wrestling is a domain of storytellers, and few tales resonate more dependably, or more lucratively, than intergenerational ones. If you can print money off a wrestler, you can print more off his child, and those years of training in that old arena ensured Fritz Von Erich just so happened to have three perfectly suited to the task. Kevin was the steadfast older brother and the best natural athlete. David was the ring general, the Von Erich who those behind the scenes assumed would inherit Fritz’s post running the company. And Kerry?
“Kerry was just a god,” Hansen says. For a moment in the mid-’80s, no wrestling star save for Hulk Hogan shone brighter, and not even Hogan himself had a more impressive physique. Each was tall and muscle-bound, with great hair and better morals, who praised Jesus and, above all, cherished the people cheering him on.
“Their dad instilled in him ‘Without these people, we’re nothing,’ ” says Brian Adias, a childhood friend of Kerry’s who wrestled for WCCW from 1982 to 1983 and again from 1985 to 1988.
Children idolized the Von Erichs. Women flocked to them. Reunion Arena and the Cotton Bowl were regular sellouts, and Kerry’s first appearance in Chicago drew 37,000 to Comiskey Park. Public appearances amounted to area-wide disruptions, like the time Six Flags shut down the amusement park to accommodate them or when a tour of Israel had to be cut short in response to a plea from a government official because too many people were taking off work.
“Just a sea of black hair,” Kevin says. “I just looked down the street, and it was all people. I’d never seen so many—I actually got kind of weak in the knees.”
Manning still giggles about the Easterseals telethon advertising a chance to speak with a Von Erich for a $50 donation. “I don’t know if I’d do that,” he cautioned just before the announcement was made. The phone lines collapsed five minutes later.
“I wish you could bottle up what they had,” says Michael Hayes, the leader of the Freebirds, the brothers’ longtime antagonists. Hayes is a 46-year veteran of the wrestling industry and a current vice president for WWE, formerly the World Wrestling Federation, the country’s largest promotion. “I’ve been fortunate to be around some people that really, really got over, but I never really felt the enormity of the Von Erichs’ popularity. More so than anybody else.”
But their power transcended genealogy. Instead, it was rooted in Kevin, David, and Kerry, the Adkisson boys the world met years before they grew into Von Erich men. All three were decorated amateur athletes, and Fritz made sure all three had those athletic exploits broadcast to the enormous WCCW audience. If Kevin, a fullback who played collegiately at North Texas, scored touchdowns; or if Kerry, a junior world record holder in the discus, had a big meet; or if 6-foot-8 David posted a double-double in basketball—you could expect to hear about it on a WCCW broadcast. While there was plenty of business savvy to Fritz showcasing his offspring years before they’d wrestle their first matches, there was no shortage of fatherly pride involved, too.
In a time when the legitimacy of wrestling was still considered sacrosanct, to the point that good guys and bad guys avoided socializing in public for fear of exposing the charade, this was the most genuine story of all: a family who loved each other and their fans and Texas. How couldn’t Dallas fall in love with them, too?
“They took them on as their own kids,” Adias says. “They watched them grow up. People had this bond with those guys that was second to none.”
That gave WCCW its backbone. Stick a Von Erich or three in the main event, beat down the opposition, exit with heads raised high, and watch the crowd go home happy. Business was good. And, in 1982, it became great when the boys found a foil in a trio of hell-raising roughnecks from Georgia: Hayes, Buddy Roberts, and Terry “Bam Bam” Gordy. The Fabulous Freebirds arrived on the scene as friends, fighting alongside the brothers, until Gordy revealed their true colors by slamming the door of a steel cage into Kerry’s skull during a Christmas Day match. The Freebirds were as irreverent as the Von Erichs were dutiful, quick to chug beers and quicker still to tread on the boys’ father, supporters, home state, and whatever else they stood for. The audience despised them. It was perfect.
“You can’t have a good, successful promotion if you don’t have someone you want to see get their ass kicked,” Hayes says. “They wanted to see us get our ass kicked. And we happily obliged.”
For the next two years, the Von Erichs and Freebirds wrestled each other up and down the state in every permutation imaginable. They drew and kept drawing, in no small part due to barely restrained levels of violence that Hayes says followed a simple edict: “Just stay away from the eardrums and the eyes. All the rest is fair game.” WCCW’s fortunes rocketed right along with its marquee feud, higher and higher, with no end in sight.
Why would there be? None of the Von Erichs was older than 27. On the Freebirds’ side, Hayes was 25 and Gordy just 23. Why shouldn’t it go on for another 15 years or more?
“We built the perfect formula,” Manning says. “Three Freebirds. Three Von Erichs.
“And then we lost a Von Erich.”
Not just any Von Erich, either. Valuable as David might have become to the future of his father’s business, he was essential in the present moment. For years he’d been groomed as the Von Erichs’ foremost candidate to become NWA champion, and his moment was finally approaching: a match with title-holder Ric Flair was scheduled for Texas Stadium in May 1984. But in February, David set off for a tour in Japan, despite informing Fritz beforehand that he was ill. He collapsed in his hotel room and never made it home. The official cause of death was an intestinal infection called acute enteritis, although a counter-narrative emerged (and endures) that he died of a drug overdose.
“We built the perfect formula. three Freebirds. three Von Erichs. and then we lost a Von Erich.”
The reaction in Dallas was seismic. “It’s like, where were you when John F. Kennedy got shot?” Adias says.
At least 1,000 people crammed into First Baptist Church in Denton for the funeral. Two thousand more lingered outside. Manning and Adias recall a traffic jam stretching at least 3 miles from the church, all the way out to the highway.
It was the end of something, only it couldn’t be. The show—the family—must go on. Three months later, Kerry took his brother’s spot in the main event of the first Von Erich Memorial Parade of Champions and defeated Flair for the title in front of 41,000 fans, in what lives on as the promotion’s emotional high-water mark. But that didn’t solve the problem of the Von Erichs now being a man down in the forever war against the Freebirds, and so 20-year-old Mike was thrust into action.
It was fraught from the beginning. Unlike his older siblings—or the youngest Von Erich brother, Chris, still in his teens then—Mike was not moved to chase glory in the ring. “He didn’t want to do that,” Hayes says. “I think he might have been happy as hell to have worked in the production area and been in the truck directing and stuff like that. Because he was pretty much an introvert.”
Billed at more than 200 pounds but weighing less, Mike profiled as a scrawnier version of David. All the ways he was not his older brother were obvious each time he stood next to Kerry and Kevin in the ring. Chris, meanwhile, had all the desire Mike lacked, along with even greater physical limitations: severe asthma demanded he take a medication called prednisone, which made his bones too brittle to withstand regular in-ring activity.
The promotion was in a bind. They could not bank on Mike, could not turn to Chris, and had no other Von Erichs to call upon.
Unless they invented one.
There was precedent for it. Decades earlier, before the boys had even been born, Fritz broke into the business in Canada alongside a storyline brother, Waldo Von Erich, who made periodic appearances in Dallas as far back as the Big Time Wrestling days. The crowd bought in then, just as they had for so many other storylines and half-truths throughout wrestling history. In a booking meeting that included Fritz, Kevin, and Kerry along with Manning and fellow lieutenants Ken Mantell and Bronko Lubich, a consensus emerged that the crowd could buy in once more should WCCW deliver a suitable candidate.
There was one dissenter. Even then, at the height of his family’s anguish, Kevin Von Erich urged everyone to remember Fritz’s greatest lesson about the business.
“We’d never lied to our fans,” he says now. “We’d never treated them like a ticket.”
Those fans may have known Waldo. But they did not embrace him like they did Fritz and his sons. Those fans did not see Waldo grow up in front of them, or reach adulthood, or create a family of his own. They did not grieve him, or mourn with his kin. They did not love him. Wrestling may be built on mythology—the Von Erichs were really Adkissons, after all—but the heartbeat of the promotion, this beautiful, broken family, was as real as could be. Kevin would not be swayed: this was a betrayal.
“But Kevin was also not in the booking meeting every week when we’re trying to fill a hole,” Manning counters. The search commenced.
It figured to be a taxing one. Brawny heartthrobs who could handle themselves in the ring were not in ample supply, and those established in larger territories were ruled out for fear that they’d be recognized in Dallas as someone other than a Von Erich. Then Manning happened to play a round at Chester W. Ditto Golf Course in Arlington, and he saw him: 6 feet, 2 inches, and well over 250 pounds of untapped potential, with a stunning blond on his arm to boot.
As soon as Manning returned home from the course, he dialed Fritz. All he needed to say were six words:
“I found our next Von Erich.”
William Kevin Vaughan was no professional wrestler, even though he very much looked like one. A real estate agent by trade, Vaughan—who went by his middle name—had been powerlifting since his 18th birthday, racking up state and national titles by the dozen. At 20 years old, he weighed 280 pounds. By 22, he could front squat nearly 500 pounds. When he ran into Manning in Arlington, the 24-year-old was more defined than ever after shifting into bodybuilding. Manning could not help but notice the gargantuan in shorts and a tank top. And Vaughan couldn’t help but notice Manning noticing, so much so that, when Manning finally worked up the nerve to approach after trailing him for eight holes, Vaughan presumed the mustachioed stranger might be looking for something more intimate than a job offer.
Manning had two things to sell: fame and money. Surely, he figured, those would pique Vaughan’s interest.
“Not really,” Vaughan says now with a laugh.
He was doing just fine selling houses, well enough to drive a Jaguar, and he had plenty on his plate planning a wedding, too. But that stunning blond, his fiancée, Candy, persuaded him that it couldn’t hurt to drive down to the Sportatorium to catch some matches and see for himself. Once he did, Vaughan walked away convinced of two things: he had the physical ability to succeed and, he says, “I thought that maybe it could turn into something,” hopefully acting. That, and Fritz Von Erich strategically flashing copies of wrestler checks from a recent show that paid up to $8,000, was enough for Vaughan to sign on once Fritz informed him that they were considering placing the family name on him.
A couple of weeks later, he quit real estate and began training. For the next two months, a battery of WCCW wrestlers worked with him in one or two training sessions per week, an hour each—45 minutes in the ring, 15 more discussing the politics and intricacies of the wrestling business.
Vaughan, by his own admission, was still far too green for the spotlight guaranteed to materialize the moment he’d be introduced as a Von Erich. He needed to grow, and to fail, somewhere far smaller than even the tiniest shows WCCW could offer him. Places like those were in short supply by 1985, when territories were beginning to consolidate and those on the right side of the divide were landing TV deals with wider and wider reach. The best place left to hide was Pacific Northwest Wrestling, run out of Portland by a promoter named Don Owen. After working a couple of WCCW matches under a mask against wrestling legend Jake “The Snake” Roberts, Vaughan packed his bags. His progress, not a number on the calendar, would determine his return date. He imagined that would take him a couple of months. It wound up requiring the better part of a year.
“We wanted it faster than that, but it was just nerve-wracking for both sides,” Manning says. “If it failed, we have big egg on our face. And if it went well, we were heroes.”
But in August 1985, when Mike Von Erich was forced out of action with his shoulder injury and subsequent illness, Fritz could wait no longer. Vaughan wasn’t anywhere close to polished, but he’d gotten enough reps in to handle himself, eventually impressing Owen enough to be given a run as the promotion’s champion. The promoter believed in his new star’s potential, and before Vaughan headed back to Dallas that October, he says Owen was one of several in Portland who issued a warning about what he was walking into.
“Everybody told me not to go work for the Von Erichs, because it’s not going to go well for you,” he says. “Because they’re going to use you.”
What no one in Portland realized was that Vaughan was about to be presented to the world as Fritz’s family, and that Fritz was going to treat him like someone his real family depended on out of the gate. Lance Von Erich’s first bit of action took place in the main event of a sold-out show at the Cotton Bowl, where he came to Kerry and Kevin’s rescue to help them secure victory. A few weeks later, he was booked in a world title match against Flair, which ended in a no-contest. He became a fixture in the Freebirds rivalry, taking turns wrestling alongside various combinations of Kerry, Kevin, and even Mike, twice winning championships as a trio act.
Most crucially, the public bought in. Crowds shrieked in delight when Cousin Lance made his way to the ring just as they would for Kerry and Kevin. Vaughan soon encountered the pandemonium of being a Von Erich around Dallas, like the steak dinner shortly after his debut that got hijacked by autograph-seekers. Manning, who oversaw WCCW merchandise, says that Vaughan’s souvenir photos sold on par with the brothers’, despite estimating that up to 40 percent of WCCW’s fans suspected Lance may not have been a true Von Erich. Sheer tribalism ensured it hardly mattered.
“It was us against them,” Adias says. “[The fans] felt like they were part of this. So to go against it, to say, ‘Oh, that’s bullshit,’ the other person in the room with you might say, ‘Hey, shut your fucking mouth.’ You might have had a fight right there with the people you’re saying that in front of, because that’s how over they were.”
Vaughan had his missteps, too. His wrestling remained a work in progress, and while he got along so well with Kerry that they’d take their wives on double dates, he and Kevin shared a disdain for one another that never faded. Then there was the disastrous two-week tour of Japan that began when Vaughan got “really fucking drunk” before his first match on tour. He abruptly left midway through his first week, a development he claims was fueled in part by being bait-and-switched on money while also not denying how poorly he handled it. (In the aftermath, Kevin Von Erich, who was nursing a concussion, says he got out of his hospital bed and flew to Japan to fill in and uphold the family name. Vaughan, citing the account of an unnamed WCCW employee, claims that never happened. It’s one of several points of contention between the two, and likely explains why Kevin has little to say about his former stablemate.)
Nevertheless, he made his bookings, helped the promotion bring in plenty of money, and was a friendly face in the locker room. He took home a few big checks in the early going, large enough to convince himself that his career change would pay off.
“It started out great,” Vaughan says. “And then every week, it got worse and worse and worse.”
Perhaps it would have gone differently had the next bit of Von Erich tragedy not struck on June 4, 1986, when Kerry crashed his motorcycle into the back of a police car and mangled his right leg. The accident cost him a foot and would require 16 months of rehabilitation to return to the ring using a prosthesis. The mental scars ran even deeper than the physical damage: Kevin says Kerry swore the family to secrecy about his amputation out of shame.
With Mike unable to work regularly in the aftermath of his toxic shock syndrome, the Von Erichs were back down to two healthy members, Kevin and Lance, at a time when the workload was more demanding than ever. By then the promotion had expanded to running three events per day; everyone from Lubbock to Louisiana wanted to see a Von Erich. Meeting that overwhelming demand required one of them to work two matches a day, opening the show in one town and main eventing in another.
Vaughan remembers being so pressed for time in between that he drove in his wrestling gear and sometimes sprinted from his car directly to the ring to make the second event. The physique he’d spent eight years building was atrophying. He had no time to work out, leaving his muscles to deflate like balloons leaking air.
There was no respite—the promotion couldn’t withstand any.
“No matter how hard any of the other talent worked, from me at the bottom of the card all the way up to the guys at the top of the card, we weren’t going to keep World Class together without
Von Erichs at that point in history,” says Dusty Wolfe, a friend of Vaughan’s who wrestled in WCCW in 1987.
The pressure only mounted when Mike died of suicide on April 12, 1987. Kerry, in an interview with D Magazine the following year, said, “I don’t think Mike was ever really sure he felt good enough to take on the Von Erich role.”
So along Vaughan plodded, playing Cousin Lance so thoroughly that, at Mike’s funeral, he was ushered into the room where the Adkisson family was spending their final moments with the body.
For all of this, he was compensated $150 per match before taxes and expenses. He was approved to sell and take a 20 percent cut on souvenir photos, something only Kevin and Kerry had been permitted to do, but the dollars weren’t adding up. Less than two years into wrestling, the real estate agent who tooled around in a Jaguar approached Fritz for a $3,000 loan to pay his bills.
“I’d have to admit,” Manning says, “if I could go back, there should have been some extra pay for that.”
Vaughan’s breaking point came in the spring of 1987 by way of a body-slam from a 6-foot-8 brute called Nord the Barbarian. His shoulder popped out of its socket, an injury he says still flares up today. He was tired and poor, beaten up and now broken down: a Von Erich in hardships but not in spoils. “If the money is commensurate to the job, you do it,” he says. But this was far from that. After being turned down for a raise, Vaughan walked out and got to work planning his next steps.
And that, he presumed, would be the end of it. His time as a Von Erich was over, and while the experience fell well short of the stratospheric expectations he had, at least it ended without acrimony—or so he figured.
“I don’t know everything that was said between him and Fritz when it was time to go, but he’s not going to be the guy that creates a situation in which you try to destroy him,” Wolfe says. “It’s just not his personality.”
But that’s exactly what Fritz Von Erich decided to do.
Thirty-six years later, no one can piece together why Fritz ordered his son to the ring with a live microphone in his hand and a family grudge on his mind.
The Fourth of July was approaching, and the Sportatorium was packed for a live event. A camera crew was on hand to tape the main event: Brian Adias and “Latin Heartthrob” Al Perez versus Lance and Kevin Von Erich, in what was billed as a sort of homecoming for Kevin after returning from an overseas tour. Early in the night, however, it was announced that Kevin was not available to wrestle. And then, with Adias and Perez awaiting their opponents in the ring, a different Von Erich appeared—Kerry, still well into his convalescence after the motorcycle accident. The fans erupted.
But the most magnetic of the Von Erichs didn’t pander to the crowd like he normally might. Instead, he shook the microphone in his right hand, fidgeted with its cord in his left. He pursed his lips, then opened his mouth before thinking better of it. He wasn’t ready. He withdrew to drink in a few final moments of approval: hands on his hips, a brief nod of acknowledgment amid the cheers. Then a confident stride forward to the center of the ring for a slight bow and two slighter waves. It was time to come clean.
“I’ve got to do and say the most embarrassing thing I guess anybody could ever say in the middle of this ring,” he began. His head was low, his speech peppered with pauses. “William Vaughan, who you guys know as Lance Von Erich”—a wall of high-pitched shrieks interrupts him—“again, I’m embarrassed. The family is degraded. And we’re sorry, but he’s refused to come to the ring tonight to face Brian Adias and Al Perez.”
From there he moved on to announcing Adias and Perez’s new opponent, but the questions he raised in 36 seconds superseded everything the audience watched that night. Where was Lance? Why did he refuse to show up? Who was William Vaughan, and what was this business about the family being degraded? How could a Vaughan be a Von Erich?
Never before had the Von Erichs given fans cause to doubt their motives or their veracity. Speculation reigned—on Lance’s whereabouts, on the nature of his affiliation to the family, on who he might be if not a Von Erich. One month later, Fritz felt compelled to address the matter personally during a taping in late August, by way of answering a piece of fan mail from Mrs. Nancy Bedker of Normal, Illinois.
“I either read or heard on television that Lance is not really related to the Von Erich family,” Fritz read aloud from her letter in his booming bass. “Is this true? And if so, what is his name, and where is he from?”
The camera zoomed in tight on Fritz, seated in a wood-paneled office wearing a sport coat and slacks. This time, there would be no ambiguity.
“Yes, ma’am, it is true: he is not related in any way, shape, or form to the Von Erich family,” he read from a prepared statement scrawled onto rumpled sheets of yellow legal paper. “His last name is Vaughan, and I think his first name is William—William Vaughan. And he is from Dallas, right here in Dallas, Texas. Because of several recent events, our association with Mr. Vaughan has been officially terminated. He will probably attempt to use the image that the Von Erich name has created for him, but he can no longer legally use the copyrighted, registered name of the Von Erich family. It’s been registered for over 30 years, the name Von Erich. And I don’t plan to mention this boy’s name ever again.”
Even today, when fans are more hip than ever to wrestling’s intricacies, when separate media sectors exist to comb through the business’ secrets and generate content on wrestlers’ private lives, promoters are loath to pierce the veil of performance. Once the arena doors open, everyone plays along unless there’s a damn good reason not to. So it was well beyond stunning when, in one fell swoop, Fritz Von Erich made a show out of firing an employee, admitted that his family deceived their fans, and conflated the surname beloved by millions across the globe with a marketing ploy—all at a time when it was anathema to suggest that wrestling could even be scripted. “It was unheard of,” Hayes says.
It was damning, too. Just not in the way Fritz intended. The closest thing to a unified theory of why he opted to expose Vaughan centers on fears that his disenchanted former employee would beat him to the punch. Already that summer, Vaughan had worked several dates for a short-lived upstart in Fort Worth called Wild West Wrestling under the name Fabulous Lance, a decision Vaughan characterizes as a way to bring in money while figuring out his next move. There was nothing stopping him from relocating somewhere even bigger, and opening his mouth to help a rival promoter disrupt WCCW business.
Lance was tired and poor, beaten up and broken down, a Von Erich in hardships but not in spoiils.
What Fritz didn’t know is by the time the episode aired, Vaughan was bound for South Africa, where a spot awaited in a promotion run by the father of his good friend and fellow WCCW wrestler Steve Simpson. He had no interest in settling a score. Vaughan wanted to get out of the country, as far from the Von Erichs as he could, to put all of this behind him. “I would have gone off into the sunset,” he says. “If they hadn’t said anything, nobody would have ever known anything other than I’d just disappeared.”
The heaviest blow, then, was dealt to Fritz’s own promotion. There was no more pretending that the Von Erichs stood for something bigger than entertainment, not after they tore down their mystique to reveal an unseemly truth: a family who manipulated the people who lined their pockets in great times and stood by them through awful ones.
“They were kind of screwing themselves,” Hayes says. “Because they were trying to put the heat on Lance saying, ‘This guy lied to you.’ No, we lied to you. And you start coupling that with the deaths and, man, people just lost interest.”
The following year, Fritz stepped out of the wrestling business, turning over control of WCCW to Kevin, Kerry, and Ken Mantell. When Hayes returned to WCCW in 1988 following a two-year hiatus, he found a place far different than the one he’d departed. Kerry, who unbeknown to WCCW fans was wrestling on a prosthesis, came back from his injury as a fraction of the performer he was, and then departed to work for Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation.
With no one else for Kevin to turn to, 5-foot-5 Chris Von Erich finally entered the ring to support his older brother, but his fragile body could only shoulder so much. Houses were drying up: four years after Kerry won that NWA title in Texas Stadium in front of the largest North American wrestling audience ever at the time, the fifth annual Von Erich Parade of Champions drew just 7,000 people, which was actually up from the year before. Larger and larger pockets of empty seats appeared at shows in Reunion Arena. Eventually, they were obvious in the Sportatorium, too. KTVT dropped WCCW from its lineup in September 1990. The promotion went dark in a matter of months.
“There’s a myriad of emotions happening,” Hayes says. “Right before your eyes, you’re watching the hottest thing ever just disintegrate and literally die.”
Many of those developments were independent of Lance Von Erich and the circumstances of his departure. But exposing him severed the connection the Von Erichs had with the only thing that could rescue the promotion: its audience. “It was huge, and it was insurmountable,” Hayes says.
In the end, Fritz Von Erich was proved correct. The fans were gone, and without them, WCCW was nothing.
There was still more Von Erich tragedy to come. The following year, on September 12, 1991, Chris died of suicide by gunshot, ending his life less than three weeks before his 22nd birthday. Kerry followed suit in February 1993, two weeks after turning 33. The circumstances differed, but Kevin believes their deaths were rooted in the struggle that overtook Mike.
“I’m going tell you the reason my brothers did that: shame,” Kevin says. “It’s shame. There’s so much pressure. Everybody is counting on you. You feel like the world is on your shoulders. To let the people down, you look at them and even they don’t know you, you think, ‘If you knew me, if you knew how I let you down’—you just don’t give yourself a break.”
A warm voice crackles through the phone on a warmer Wednesday night as William Kevin Vaughan maneuvers through a restaurant in Baja, Mexico, telling stories about bygone days. This is his domain now, as part of his job working in the timeshare industry. The other half of the year, he’s back in South Africa, home base for the bulk of his life since leaving WCCW. Along the way he’s founded and sold a gym franchise, acted, modeled, lived in seven countries, biked 840 miles across Africa, smuggled auto parts over the Zimbabwe border, fathered a daughter, and co-wrote a book, aptly titled Lance by Chance: Wrestling as a Von Erich. His is an exotic, colorful life, and he has professional wrestling to thank for it after staying in the business for nine more years after his departure from WCCW.
“It’s been very good to me on the South African side,” he says. “Not on the American side.”
If he could do it again, he would have stayed in Portland. He was happy there. Maybe his path would have taken him elsewhere in wrestling, and he’d have become the attraction Don Owen believed he would be. Maybe it wouldn’t have, and he’d have gone back into real estate. All he knows is he would have avoided WCCW, and the memories that still linger. Apart from his book and a handful of accompanying promotional appearances, “I haven’t talked anything about Dallas because it was a bad time for me,” he says. “It really was a bad time.”
Years ago, he says he sat down at his computer and plugged his name into a search engine, intent on reading all the internet thought of him. He walked away “really pissed off.” To the extent that Lance Von Erich is remembered in American wrestling history, it is, as his friend Wolfe says, “a kind of joke or aberration or some such bullshit.” No story of the Von Erichs is complete without him, and most every retelling contains something unflattering. In the 2007 documentary The Triumph and Tragedy of WCCW, Kevin alleged that the fans “didn’t believe in him. Lance didn’t have charisma.” Hayes referred to him as “one of the worst moves Fritz Von Erich ever made in his career.” A dozen years later, in a 2019 documentary episode called The Last of the Von Erichs, wrestling personality Jim Cornette declared that “of all the angles that happened in the final years of World Class Wrestling, Lance Von Erich was the worst.”
Vaughan does not understand why, as he wrote in his book, he is forever marked as “the mistake Fritz made.” He was offered a job, and he took it. Aside from one overseas tour, he delivered what was asked of him. And when the situation no longer worked for him financially, he left. It’s a straightforward story that became complicated by his former employer choosing to dismantle the fiction that Vaughan is adamant he would have happily let stand.
Now his name will resurface when A24’s The Iron Claw hits theaters on December 22. The film stars Zac Efron (as Kevin), Jeremy Allen White (as Kerry), and Harris Dickinson (as David). Holt McCallany (Mindhunter) plays Fritz. No one involved with WCCW, including Kevin Von Erich, claimed to know how the movie would handle their story. According to Kevin, his family’s involvement in the project amounted to a single phone conversation with director Sean Durkin; Kevin’s sons, Ross and Marshall, doing some stunt work; and one of his nieces visiting set. Otherwise he was as in the dark as Vaughan, who is portrayed by Maxwell Jacob Friedman, a 27-year-old world champion in All Elite Wrestling, the country’s second-largest promotion. (Due to the SAG-AFTRA strike, Friedman could not provide comment before press time.) Lance Von Erich’s moment on the big screen amounts to a single action sequence. There is no introduction, no closure, and no context to reshape how the American public might remember him. Vaughan will continue to live on as a misunderstood footnote in the Von Erich story, just as he has for the better part of four decades. But the ones who were there, who made town after town with him, will always know different.
“It keeps getting put out that, somehow, Lance has killed this, or Lance was that,” Wolfe says. “The man showed up and did what was asked of him, and then some. He was the glue.”
“Probably the biggest misconception is that this was basically Lance’s idea,” Manning says. “When deep down, we created the story. We created the background to the story. We trained the story. We sent the story out of here to get it in a position to put it on a main event. And we bought the story back, and we lived it. We did that. All Lance did there was accept a job and take a check and fulfill what we wanted. We couldn’t have asked for anything else out of him because he was definitely going beyond what most workers would have agreed to do.”
“I didn’t envy his position whatsoever,” Adias says. “You talk about having the world put on your shoulders, he did it. I’ll say it 100 times over: for what he was thrust into, I don’t think he could have done a better job. In the amount of time he had to learn and become part of that, I think he did extremely well.”
Vaughan has only returned to Dallas once since he left for South Africa. He was visiting an old friend about a year ago, and those few days were enough to show him how much the city has changed, but also that he hasn’t changed enough to want to come back. There is nothing for him here. Still, he has held onto one keepsake from those years. From WCCW onward, he kept Lance in his ring name, even reverting to Lance Von Erich while performing overseas despite Fritz’s warnings because, well, good luck suing him on a different continent. Eventually it stuck beyond wrestling, too. These days, nobody calls him William, and only his family addresses him as Kevin.
Everyone else knows him as Lance.
This story originally appeared in the December issue of D Magazine. Write to [email protected].