The Night The Cage Door Slammed — The Masterful Story of Gary Hart, Kerry Von Erich & Ric Flair

In the territory days, the NWA Champion served many roles. The most important was making sure when the champion was on the card, the houses were up. If the NWA Champion couldn’t move tickets in multiple territories, they would be replaced by someone who could. The NWA Champion was constantly shuffling between the various territories, balancing threats from multiple contenders. The promoters were left to build stories around a champion who couldn’t be on TV for months at a time.

From August to December of 1982, Ric Flair had only three matches in the Dallas-based World Class Championship Wrestling, but his presence remained a threat to the Von Erich family. The scenario created by booker Gary Hart and promoter Fritz Von Erich was a masterclass in creating a red-hot promotion without the constant presence of a dominant heel champion.

Gary Hart

Jack Adkisson started his career in the early-1950s. He immediately embraced a stereotypical Nazi character by the name of Fritz Von Erich. After forming a successful tag team with his “brother” Waldo, Fritz found success as a singles star, winning the AWA World Heavyweight Title from Verne Gagne in 1963. While bouncing from territory-to-territory, Adkisson’s family grew. Tired of the traveling lifestyle, Von Erich took over as promoter in the Dallas territory in the late-60s. After settling down, Von Erich transitioned his character from an evil German to a humble Texas family-man, something closer to his real life.

Fritz’s young children became fixtures in the territory, and fans watched them grow up before their eyes. All of the Von Erich boys followed their father into the family business starting in the late-70s. The Von Erich boys’ arrival transitioned the territory from revolving around Fritz and began to focus on his three oldest boys, Kevin, David, and Kerry. The move turned Dallas, now known as World Class, into the hottest territory in the NWA. The next logical step for Fritz was making one of his boys the NWA World Heavyweight Champion. 

Lean and athletic, Kevin was the oldest and most stoic of the brothers, gaining a reputation for wrestling barefoot. At 6’8″, David was a standout basketball player with unmatched charisma and fire. Dubbed “the Yellow Rose of Texas,” David was a great promo when excited. Kerry was the shortest of the brothers, standing only 6’2″ but with a body chiseled from stone.

A fantastic athlete, Kerry was an Olympic hopeful in the discus before debuting for his dad. Kerry wasn’t what one would call a good promo in a traditional sense. His in-ring athleticism and connection to the crowd were undeniable. David, the best worker and most charismatic, was eyed for the eventual NWA title run. But after defeating former six-time (at the time) NWA Champion Harley Race, the twenty-two-year-old Kerry was deemed the top challenger to Ric Flair and the NWA World’s title.

Kerry Von Erich

Flair was in the midst of his first run as NWA Champ and had already proven himself a top draw. The Nature Boy was a throwback to Buddy Rogers, who carried himself as a wealthy villain, perfect for the 1980s. Heading into the Wrestling Star Wars (intellectual property laws be damned!) event in August, Flair wrestled Al Madril on WCCW television. Announcer Bill Mercer made sure to point out that Madril was the fourteenth-ranked wrestler in the NWA. Madril, a popular mid-carder, took the champion to a time-limit. Flair was incensed. He cursed Madril, the refs, the fans, and even the state of Texas. The crowd roared because if Madril could almost beat Flair, surely Kerry would defeat the champ.

When the two met at the Ft. Worth Convention Center, 18,000 people entered the building, convinced they’d see the boy they watched grow into a man become the new World Champion. Flair and Kerry split the first two falls in a best of three match. As Kerry battered the champ around the ring, the crowd cheered in anticipation. The moment was almost here. Until Kerry threw an errant discus punch and caught referee Alfred Neely, knocking him unconscious. Another referee, David Manning, who helped train the Von Erich boys, came to the ring, but the third fall ended in a double DQ. Flair had narrowly escaped to the chagrin of incensed the fans.

World Class commentator Bill Mercer called Kerry “the uncrowned champion,” while Fritz and the Texas faithful demanded a rematch. In a video interview, Flair refused. A week later, on WCCW TV, Gary Hart, also the top heel manager in the territory, promised to “do a favor for Ricky Flair.” The Great Kabuki, Hart’s top charge, took on Kerry that week. The future Texas Tornado won the match, but their rivalry continued on the house show circuit. At an event in Oklahoma City, Kerry tore his ACL facing Kabuki. Hart, ever the creative genius, steered into an actual knee injury and surgery.

The Von Erich’s came on TV the next week and claimed that Ric Flair was so afraid of Kerry that he put a $10,000 bounty on their brother. Flair ran a similar angle with Bruce (Butch) Reed in Florida earlier in the year. With the champion gone from Texas and working different territories, Hart and his H&H Enterprises stable became Flair’s surrogate in the territory, doing the champ’s dirty business. Though Kevin and David step into the ring and fight against the likes of Kabuki, the Destroyer, and Checkmate, they’re really fighting for their brother’s honor and against the absentee champion.

When October arrived, so did a new-comer in Dallas who captured the audience’s heart on his first night in the territory. Freebird Michael Hayes debuted and made short work of lower-card heel Tom Renesto. The Freebirds were one of the hottest acts in pro wrestling. The three-man team (with Terry Gordy and Buddy Roberts) did significant business in the neighboring Mid-South territory. Hayes and the Junkyard Dog sold out the New Orleans Superdome two years earlier with one of that promotion’s most intense programs, which launched the Birds into stardom. Surprisingly, Hayes showed up as a beloved babyface and, of course, friends with the Von Erichs. Hayes promises the fans at the Texas Sportatorium that his “brothers” were on their way. Two weeks later, Gordy arrived, and the Freebirds team collected wins on every episode of WCCW TV throughout the fall. 

Ric Flair, Fritz Von Erich

As Kerry prepared for his return, Fritz and the brothers claimed to have irrefutable truth that Hart was paid by Flair to eliminate Kerry. During a heated interview segment, Fritz produced a copy of a check written from Flair to Hart for “services & expenses.” Hart loses his mind demanding to know where he got the check. The answer was something Hart didn’t expect: King Kong Bundy.

Bundy started his career in WCCW as Big Daddy Bundy (named for the British superstar), another Von Erich friend. Bundy turned on the family and aligned himself with Hart, changing his name to one that would follow him the rest of his career. Bundy allegedly picked the check up from Flair in Atlanta but had grown tired of H&H and declared himself on strike until Hart released him from their contract. Hart, of course, refused, so Bundy turned whistleblower.

The biggest twist of all, was this action did not mean a babyface turn for Bundy. Though Hart released Bundy, the future Wrestlemania main-eventer didn’t change his ways at all. He just wanted to get rid of Hart and is rewarded for his actions by getting a shot at Kevin and the NWA American Heavyweight Championship in the semi-main event at the Christmas Star Wars (again, to Hell with those IP laws!) mega event. 

With Flair and Hart’s chicanery exposed, the NWA Championship committee agreed to the rematch. Fritz and Flair engage in an explosive interview segment setting the stage for a cage match to headline Christmas Star Wars. The NWA and World Class realized this match couldn’t be handled by referee David Manning alone. A second ring enforcer was needed, and it would be up to the fans to choose the enforcer. Overwhelmingly, they chose Michael Hayes. The Freebird, who’d already run afoul of Hart’s goons, vowed to keep everyone out of the cage. Gordy promised to keep watch on the cage door himself. The deck was stacked against the champion.

The Freebirds

Early on the Christmas Star Wars show, WCCW ran a match to crown their first World 6-Man Tag Team Champions. The complete Freebirds, teaming together for the first time in Texas, were set to face the team of the Sharpe Brothers & Tom Steele. Before the match, Hayes told the rabid Reunion Arena crowd that Buddy Roberts was stuck at the airport. A winter storm left the third Freebird unable to compete. The fans deflated until David Von Erich ran out and promised to team with the Birds. The makeshift trio won the match and the first 6-Man titles. David then vowed to relinquish his share of the championship because the Freebirds “are brothers,” and David understood that brothers belonged together. Michael Hayes looked as if he were about to break into tears.

The main exploded as Flair and Kerry tried to destroy each other. The harsh, violent affair that eschewed many of the typical Flair match troupes. But even though the contest took place in a cage, some rules needed to be followed. Hayes, caught up in the fight, got physical in trying to septette the combatants. Hayes grows so tired with Flair’s antics he socks the champ in the face. The crowd erupted as Hayes demanded Kerry cover the downed Flair. Kerry refused, knowing this wasn’t the honorable way to win.

Hayes went as far as to throwing the challenger on top of Flair, but Kerry refused. Hayes, sick of this, tells Gordy it’s time to leave. Kerry tried to stop Hayes from going, but a Flair knee pushed Kerry in the back knocked Hayes out of the cage and onto the floor. But both Freebirds believed it was Kerry that threw Hayes from the ring. In one of the most gruesome moments in pro wrestling history, Terry Gordy whipped the cage door shut, slamming it on Kerry’s head. This is one of the most realistic effects ever achieved in a wrestling ring. It appears that Gordy crushed Kerry’s skull.

The crowd falls into shock as their hero crumbled. The Freebirds left the ring. Kerry tried to valiantly fight on, but as he can’t even stand, David Manning has no choice but to stop the match. Flair again has escaped with the title. 

The embers of this sequence of events ushered World Class into its most successful period. The burgeoning feud between the Von Erichs and the Freebirds captured fans’ attention not just in Texas but across the wrestling world, making superstars of all six men. Under Gary Hart’s direction, this angle shifted the direction of every player on board and the company itself into a new story position. Hart intertwined and overlapped four different stories (Flair/Kerry, Hart/Fritz, Kabuki/Kerry, and Bundy/Hart), fashioning this five-month stretch of pro wrestling into something more akin to Game of Thrones. 

Brilliant storytelling at its best.