By Liam Byrne @tvtimelimit
Ric Flair © vs Kerry Von Erich 12/25/82
Steel Cage NWA World Heavyweight Championship Match
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is an extended article that was written several years previous to the other articles. However, due to the in-depth nature of the review, it seemed pertinent to include it as the Christmas article.
Though my advanced age means that I now better understand Christmas is much more about the giving than the receiving of gifts, it is hard not to covet something special, something specific, by the time the twenty fifth of December comes around. When you were younger, the latest computer console was often the first thing on the list, or a new bicycle for those who were less lazy than myself. As you get older, your desires tended to become more realistic and less costly, but I’ll be damned if I don’t get a set of socks and boxers to help refresh my stocks for the year to come.
Christmas can be a cruel time, especially for a child. You are sold on the concept of an all knowing, all powerful being that will provide you with what you desire, just for the cost of being well behaved. It sounds too good to be true, and when you open a package containing a hand-knitted sweatshirt rather than that sporting jersey you really wanted, you learn something – life isn’t fair. For many, this is potentially the first chance they get to learn this lesson, but it is a sobering one. No matter how much you want something to happen, there is never such a thing as a guarantee. Life will always find a way to screw you over from time to time.
A Texan Christmas in 1982 would have been different. Sure, there would be the normal hope for the toy du jour, but there was something else in the air; less tangible, yet no less enticing. Rather than a Rubik’s Cube, all a Texan wrestling fan wanted on Christmas Day was for Kerry Von Erich to win the NWA World Heavyweight Title from Ric Flair. Around 18,000 fans would be in attendance to witness this historic day in Texas Wrestling history, eschewing the choice to snooze in front of the television to cheer on their ‘Modern Day Warrior’ against ‘The Nature Boy’.
The rise of Kerry Von Erich to challenger for the biggest title in wrestling was meteoric, if naturally nepotistic. Fritz Von Erich, better known as Jack Adkisson, had always pushed for his young sons to take over the ‘family business’ and step foot in the ring. As each one found their way into the squared circle, they were pushed hard and fast to the top of the card. In a time where the machinations behind the scenes could be shadier, it is little wonder that Fritz often prioritised his own progeny over others. He knew who he could trust.
It helped that they were all natural athletes. David was arguably the soundest wrestler of the bunch, with a natural flair and charisma that was coupled with a rough and ready mixture of grappling, strikes and high flying. Kevin was the one who seemed to have the most fire within him; a man often bloodied but rarely beaten over the length of his time in the Texas ring. In the aesthetic world of professional wrestling, the best looking in terms of physique had to be Kerry – there is little wonder that he became the one Von Erich to consistently wrestle under the WWF banner. Kerry looked like an action figure come to life and fans loved his flowing long hair and smile.
Unlike the NWA World Heavyweight Champion, who had been wrestling for over a decade at this point, Kerry was only three years into a career that would be tragically cut short. Teaming often with his Dad and with brothers David and Kevin, he was often seen in some of the feature matches of the big shows. Having feuded with alongside his family against Gary Hart, 1982 proved to be a break out year as a solo star for Kerry. It was in this year that he would finally begin to get real notice for his ability within the ring, often against the man who he’d meet that fateful Christmas Day.
This wasn’t the only Kerry vs Ric Flair NWA World Heavyweight Title match this year. As was the way of the NWA Champ, Flair had a punishing schedule and would frequent many different territories to put over local talent by making them seem like they could hang with the best man in the business. During that year alone, Flair would wrestle a veritable Hall of Fame of wrestlers, seeing off Sergeant Slaughter, Buddy Rose, Ricky Steamboat and Butch Reed, to name but a few. Along the way, he would be challenged by lesser names like Terry Gibbs and Brett Sawyer, but he always came out on top. Indeed, in this first reign as NWA Champion, Ric Flair had managed to fend off all-comers for over fifteen months. During this time, he had already defended the title against Kerry Von Erich two times.
The first time came on the 25th of January 1982, where Flair defended the NWA World Heavyweight Title in Kerry’s backyard, the Sportatorium in Texas. More famously, Von Erich got a second shot on the 15th of August following a victory over Harley Race the previous month, with the two out of three falls rules that would often apply to NWA title matches. In a period of time where the champion needed to be seen to be the best, but the challengers needed to draw money the following day, week and month within their territory, these rules allowed a way to book both these outcomes – a fall each, than a non-finish, or a pinfall for the champion, yet the loss of a fall signalling the inherent value of the champion.
To sell this match in that way, as a formulaic piece of booking, would do it a disservice. For close to forty minutes, the two men beat each other to a bloody mess over the right to proclaim themselves arguably the best wrestler in the world. A mistimed punch saw Kerry lose the first fall by disqualification when he inadvertently struck the ref, but the Iron Claw was enough for Kerry to pin the champ and even the match. By this time, the anger each man felt for each other spilled over, the ref sent flying on several occasions as fists flew down on the mat. A double DQ was the only reasonable course of action and enough for the belt to remain with the champion; Ric Flair’s shrill cries of ‘Raise my hand’ feeling like a desperate plea to superficially prove that he truly was the man.
Luckily for Kerry, and the Texan wrestling fans at large, there should be no nefarious decisions or championship shenanigans keeping him from the title this Christmas Day. The men would be locked inside a steel cage to allow them to fight to the finish. With that stipulation in place, the odds were further stacked in Kerry’s favour; Michael Hayes, Texas’ new favourite son, was going to be the special guest referee (alongside David Manning) by virtue of a fan vote. Arriving only a month or so prior, Hayes had already managed to get the Texas fans on side, a fact further cemented by a World Class World Six Man Tag Team Title match from earlier on the card which saw David Von Erich sub for Buddy Roberts in winning the titles alongside Hayes and Terry Gordy. Emphasising the growing relationship between the Von Erichs and the Fabulous Freebirds, David was even willing to forfeit his right to the title to allow Roberts to reign alongside his stable mates.
Anticipation was high. Kerry Von Erich was poised and ready to beat the man and bring the title to Texas, further building upon Fritz’s attempts to cement the Von Erich legacy he so dearly desired.
Upon entering the ring, both Flair and Von Erich embodied the spectacle that 1980s wrestling had become; long flowing hair brushed the shoulders that were covered in beautifully vibrant robes worn upon each man’s entrance to the ring. Hayes himself, usually a man who dressed to impress, wore a pair of denim jeans – perhaps indicative of his willingness to get involved if he saw fit. Grabbing the microphone before the match started, he announced Terry Gordy as the gatekeeper in an effort to stop people getting in or out of the cage. With the fans in attendance having seen Von Erich grow up in the ring, it truly felt like Texas vs the World, and Flair was in serious danger of walking out a broken, beaten and title-less man.
Over the next twenty minutes, the two challengers took over from where they left off in August, battering each other about the cage with reckless abandon. Any good cage match relies on the strength of the feud leading in, and is often the chance for the fans to see their face hero get their ultimate revenge on the dastardly heel. What makes this such a good cage match is how much each wrestler effectively epitomises good and evil; Kerry, the good ol’ Southern boy with charm, looks and talent; Flair, the grizzled veteran who would sell his own grandmother for a victory. Flair was the first to introduce his opponent to the steel, but it was Kerry who used it most effectively, grinding Flair’s face until his hair ran red with blood.
For the majority, Hayes played the match straight down the middle. Considering the stipulation was No-DQ, Hayes was more than willing to get physically involved on either side to break up moves that ended up in the ropes. This was the case for both Flair and Kerry; Hayes certainly wasn’t playing favourites. He was even down in position to check on Kerry when Flair locked in the figure four, only for the Texan to fight back, rolling over to reverse the leverage. The champion was stunned, and Von Erich battered him around the ring to the point of Flair trying his best to climb over the cage and almost losing his trunks in the process! An ill-advised Flair trip to the top turnbuckle saw him land straight into the Iron Claw, a simple but very over finisher in the territory from when Fritz Von Erich utilised it to terrorise babyfaces several years before.
A brushing of the rope with his foot was all it took for Flair to begin a sequence of events that would etch themselves in wrestling folklore. With Von Erich poised to win the title, but Flair effectively getting to the ropes, Hayes physically forced Von Erich off of the champion, much to the chagrin of the fans in attendance. Hayes’ involvement continued to spiral out of control as he was then pushed over by Flair, only to drop him with a fist to the face. Grabbing Kerry by the hair, he forced the fan favourite to try and win the NWA title, his attempts at impartiality completely forgotten. No matter the dream of becoming the NWA champion, Kerry wasn’t willing to use Hayes’ interference as his springboard to the title. Visibly frustrated, and with Gordy summoning from the outside, Hayes took this opportunity to attempt to leave through the cage door.
The biggest moment in the match is something that transcended the wrestling that was available to me when I was younger to become something I knew without even knowing any of the people involved at the time. This was an angle that shook WCCW to the very core, an angle that Fritz was able to build a promotion on for over five years, a decision that propelled The Fabulous Freebirds to the top of the all-time heel stables list for the rest of time.
Truth be told, it actually eclipsed the ending. For years, I was of the opinion that Gordy’s decision to slam the cage door on Kerry’s head after Hayes mistakenly though Kerry had jumped him from behind led directly to the finish. In truth, Hayes gets back in the ring and counts a phantom pin (Erich jumps at two) before leaving, at which point we see almost five minutes more action. Kerry even shows signs of life, only for a discus punch to leave both men laying and give Manning an opportunity to deem Von Erich unable to continue. Yet again, Flair had retained his belt in Texas, but that story seemed to shrink into insignificance when compared to the seismic shift in allegiance from Hayes and his Freebird friends.
The loss of their hero must have been the last thing a Texan wrestling fan would have expected, or wanted, to see on Christmas Day. Little did they know that this set back was the catalyst for some of the most engaging and exciting territorial wrestling of the 1980s as the Von Erich family went toe to toe in many battles with the newly minted Freebirds. As they left the Reunion Arena that winter’s evening, they may not have got what they wanted, but they definitely would win out in the long run.