‘The Iron Claw’ Brings Real-Life Von Erich Wrestling Family ‘Curse’ to Screens

THE IRON CLAW, Jeremy Allen White (left), Harris Dickinson (pointing), Zac Efron as Kevin Von Erich (right), 2023.
ph: Brian Roedel /© A24 /Courtesy Everett Collection

I’ll be honest: I mostly decided to watch the 2023 film The Iron Claw (now available on Max) for Jeremy Allen White. Having no knowledge of wrestling or its family dynasties, I would have never guessed that it was based on real life. The amount of tragedy that befalls this family is almost hard to believe; and yet, apparently, it’s all (mostly) true, which is really the only thing that makes the movie worth watching. Unless you are a professional wrestling superfan hoping for a behind-the scenes look at the lives of athletes, or the lives of the Von Erichs specifically, it’s just not a very compelling film.

Like with most biopics, it focuses too much on getting all the facts right, instead of characterization or depth; however, I did love the 1980s style and soundtrack, and the true story of the Von Erichs is a fascinating (and tragic) tale.

Fact Vs. Fiction in the Iron Claw

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER, 1963: Professional wrestler Fritz Von Erich (1929-1997) of the United States poses for a portrait circa October, 1963 in New York, New York.

Stanley Weston/Getty Images

The Von Erich brothers rose to stardom in the 1980s after dominating professional wrestling for years, led by their domineering former wrestler father, Fritz Von Erich. There were five brothers who survived to adulthood in total; Fritz and wife Doris’ firstborn son Jack drowned at age six, in the first of many tragic deaths in the family. Of the five that remained — Kevin, David, Kerry, Mike and Chris — only Kevin would survive his twenties and is the only living member left of the clan.

THE IRON CLAW, from left: Holt McCallany, Zac Efron as Kevin Von Erich, Jeremy Allen White, Stanley Simons, Harris Dickinson, 2023.

Brian Roedel/A24/Courtesy Everett Collection

Their poor mother (who is mentioned infrequently in both the movie, where she is played by Maura Tierney, and online) is what I kept thinking of. How did she deal with all that? How did any of the women involved feel? The women take a major backseat in this film; viewers meet Pam, Kevin’s wife, but none of the other brothers’ spouses made it into the film at all, and Pam has maybe ten lines of dialogue after their first date.

*WARNING* Possible Movie Spoilers ahead


The first son to die, after little Jack’s tragic accident decades earlier, was the third-eldest son David (Murder at the End of the World‘s Harris Dickinson), at age 25, while abroad in Tokyo. The official cause of death was enteritis (inflammation of the small intestine). In the movie, this is foreshadowed by a disturbing bathroom scene during the wedding between Kevin (played by a bizarrely immobile, square-faced Zac Efron) and the future mother of his children, Pam (Lily James). David, who’s been puking blood in the toilet, learns that he will soon become an uncle.

THE IRON CLAW, from left: Harris Dickinson, Zac Efron as Kevin Von Erich, 2023.

A24 /Courtesy Everett Collection

Kevin tells him to see a doctor. He does not. David’s cause of death is somewhat murky, as there were rumors he’d actually died of an overdose, though the subject isn’t broached in the film. Famous fellow wrestler Ric Flair wrote in his memoir that he believed David had overdosed and that whoever found him flushed the drugs down the toilet. Before dying in Japan (and this was also not in the movie), David had been briefly married to a woman named Candy, with whom he had a daughter who died in infancy. That alone is enough to believe the Von Erich curse is real — and yet, things only get worse from here.


A year later, Mike (Stanley Simons) suffered from toxic shock syndrome after having surgery on his shoulder, which he injured during a fight. The ordeal caused some brain damage, and he never really recovered, but he still kept going back into the ring. Then, two years later, he died from a fatal dose of tranquilizers and alcohol. He was only 23 at the time.

THE IRON CLAW, from left: Lily James, Zac Efron as Kevin Von Erich, 2023.

A24/Courtesy Everett Collection


Four years after that, in 1991, the youngest Von Erich son, Chris (who is not in the movie), shot himself in the head at age 21. Not much is known about him, as he wasn’t a wrestler like his brothers.


In 1993, Kerry Von Erich (played by Jeremy Allen White with amazing 80s-style hair) shot himself outside his childhood home. He’d been spiraling out of control for a while by then, and was addicted to pain killers due to chronic pain resulting from his injuries during a 1986 motorcycle accident that caused him to have his foot amputated.

THE IRON CLAW, Jeremy Allen White, 2023.

Devin Yalkin/A24/Courtesy Everett Collection

Kerry left behind two daughters, one of whom would follow in his footsteps and wrestle as well. He is introduced in the film training for the 1980 Olympics, which the U.S. ended up boycotting; because of this, he focuses all his energy on wrestling with his brothers, at the expense of his health.


By the time Fritz passed away from lung cancer in 1997, only Kevin was still alive of his six sons. Ken and Pam had four sons, two of which, Ross and Marshall, followed in the Von Erich footsteps and became wrestlers. The whole family, grandchildren included, all live on a big ranch now.

DALLAS, TEXAS - NOVEMBER 8: Retired American Professional Wrestler, Kevin Von Erich and Actor Zac Efron are seen on the red carpet during "The Iron Claw" Dallas premiere at The Texas Theatre on November 8, 2023 in Dallas, Texas.

Omar Vega/Getty Images

Kevin Von Erich & Zac Efron


There’s certainly something to be said for drive and ambition, something all the Von Erichs had in excess, but the brothers clearly all had issues with ego as well as depression. It’s hard to say what was more responsible for all the deaths, in terms of nature vs, nurture, but the film does little to examine this, so you’ll have to make your own conclusions. If anything, it illustrates the potential devastating costs of stardom in competitive sports.


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