I should begin by writing about my favorite wrestler. Last night I had the good fortune to watch one of my old wrestling videos, from 1983, when I had the wisdom to run my VCR and record WCCW when it was on every Saturday afternoon, not knowing then that I was preserving an art that would soon be gone forever. Back then it was "just wrestling," and I would let the machine run whether I was home or not so I could watch the shows at my convenience, almost like excess money in the bank that I could use as I wanted, never knowing how lucky I was to have it until it was gone.
So I watched some Kevin von Erich versus Terry Gordy, a classic match, part of an ongoing and always entertaining feud, full of drama and great down-on-the-mat wrestling by two real athletes, Kevin with his furious barefoot style that beautifully combined the amateur with the pro. So just when I thought I had seen the greatest wrestler there ever was, on came Kerry. I always came back to Kerry.
It was a Chicago-style "death match," Kerry versus the One Man Gang. This was no fooling around, no pretty amateur rules here. It was no holds barred, fists allowed, no falls. Loser had to go down for the count of ten. Before the fight began, I licked my lips, my heart started beating faster. And this was for a fight I'd seen before and I knew who won. Why was I so excited? It was Kerry, the greatest. Now, that is my opinion and for years I have tried to analyze, what is it about this guy that makes him, in my eyes, the greatest wrestler before or since? And I don't think the question has ever been answered to my satisfaction, and maybe it never will. My passion has something to do with my lifelong love for the sport of wrestling combined with the person who seemed to share that passion and who had the talent for wrestling the best. So last night, soberly, I carefully watched the match and tried to analyze, what makes me tick, what makes him tick that for me makes Kerry "the greatest?"
First there is the way Kerry enters the arena, dressed in his flashy but not gaudy jacket, smiling at first, glancing from side to side, acknowledging his countless fans. Then as he nears the ring his smile drops, he gently brushes a sea of arms aside as his fans try to touch him. His mind is on the business at hand; his eyes are riveted on his opponent standing in the ring. As The Modern Day Warrior, Kerry never wrestles any slouches; only Goliaths wait for him there, eager and able to bring him down.
Kerry bolts into the ring. He dances from side to side, he never stops moving, never makes himself a stationary target for his unpredictable opponent. And he never takes his eyes off of him. The crowd goes wild as Kerry whips off his jacket. Never was there a more perfect physique of power and proportion in the ring. Yet, even at his 250 pounds, Kerry is dwarfed by the size of his 400 pound opponent. Kerry studies him, planning, predicting, and figuring.
The bell rings and the combat begins. Kerry tailors each match to his opponent, whether he be brutal or scientific. This would be no artful grappling, no human game of chess, as with Ric Flair; this would be a war against a ruthless titan. Kerry begins with some fast-paced shoulder blocks off of the ropes, some furious drop kicks, like lightning trying to strike down an oak tree. Kerry takes a boxer's stance, he tries to find an opening for his left jab, but The Gang is still too alive and fast and bobs out of the way. Kerry tries a flying body press, only to be hoisted high into the air like a rag doll, and his ribs dropped across The Gang's big knee. Kerry doubles up and rolls across the mat while The Gang, like a group of unruly thugs, stomps away at his victim's head, chest, and stomach. Kerry snakes away, avoiding some of the blows, he crawls away, finally grabbing onto the ropes, pulling himself up and then suddenly leaping up to deliver a sharp drop kick into The Gang's belly. The Gang staggers back, only to recover, grab Kerry's arm and hurl him with an Irish whip into the turnbuckle. The Gang runs toward Kerry and hits him with a shoulder block that sends the ring two feet across the stadium floor.
Kerry hangs in the corner with both arms over the ropes, limp, winded. He is The Gang's now. The Gang, confident, secure, gently grabs Kerry's long, brown locks and leads him to the center of the ring, where he hoists Kerry high over his head and then body slams him flat on his back on the canvas with a crash that could be heard east of the Mississippi. My mouth drops open. I'm wondering how much a human body can take. The referee starts to count Kerry out, one, two, three, four. But The Gang interrupts the count. He's not done with Kerry and leans into the ropes, getting ready for the splash. The Gang charges across the ring, jumps up and lands with his 400 pound girth across Kerry's chest and midsection. And one is not enough. The Gang bounces off the ropes and splashes on top of Kerry again. And again. Now, The Gang allows the referee to count.
Four, five, six. Surely it's over. But no, Kerry, coughing, rolls to his side and struggles to his feet. The count stops at nine. The Gang is just standing there watching him, like a lion watching his prey, contemplating how he will dispatch him with a finishing blow. But suddenly Kerry is charged like fire from a cannon. He hurls toward The Gang with one, two, three drop kicks, and then jumps up on The Gang piggy-back and clamps on a sleeper. The Gang, wavering like the mighty oak in a thunderstorm, swaggers into the corner.
Now I'm trying to analyze, what makes this so good, what makes it so real? If these are stunts, they are delivered with such speed and precision that my eye could never tell. Yet it defies logic that in a fight like this, no one is cut or bruised, and Kerry's ribs aren't broken by those splashes. But try to analyze, and the art is destroyed, like picking apart music into separate notes and measures, the music is gone. My mind wants to analyze, but my heart does not. My spirit wants to take in the whole of the action and feel the excitement.
I'm in the ring now with Kerry, I'm in the middle of a gang fight. The Gang slams Kerry into the ropes and breaks the sleeper, but Kerry, still charged like an electric wire, whirls around and smashes The Gang's jaw with a right cross. And no one, boxer or wrestler, ever had a right cross like Kerry's. With the power and the speed he developed as a collegiate discus thrower, Kerry spins around and delivers another right cross, and another, and another, in what was known as Kerry's whirling discus. And with one more blow The Gang goes down. The oak has fallen.
But Kerry, still hurt from the punishment he has taken, falls down too. And now the referee, David Manning, counts them both out simultaneously, one, two, three . . . six, seven, eight . . .
Here is the high point of the drama. Kerry rolls into the ropes and climbs up. He stands up and steps away from the ropes. Standing on his own, he is safe, and The Gang is still down. Nine! Ten! The Gang is out and Kerry is the winner! Arms raised, victorious, Kerry collapses into the corner while the arena explodes with cheers. I'm one with the crowd, one with their noise, power, and excitement. We have no desire to analyze our feelings.
Then I lean back. The videotape is ending and suddenly I'm alone, drifting twenty years into the future. What did I see? What made it so great? Maybe, part of it was me, my youth, this VCR a strange and wonderful time machine which transported me back to images of a hero I watched with my childhood friends. We all wanted to be like him, act like him, look like him, be as strong and as good as Kerry von Erich. Again I try to analyze, gleaning pieces of my memory, what did Kerry have that we admired? I remember a brave and handsome face, a perfect human form charged with speed and power, what Walt Whitman called "The Body Electric," spirit made into a man. God gave him an ancient gift, to be the master of the sport of wrestling, a struggle that represents life, man's control over chaos. In the drama he created, Kerry was the good, the power that had to be, rough when necessary but never mean, a sport for the good guys and punishment for the bad; his was a constant struggle for the inevitable moral victory. He was the great master of his illusion, his magic, for if the fight I had just seen was not a real one, I could never tell. The performers got up and walked away unharmed, and if I consider myself a moral being, I would not want it any other way.
There is an irony in the strange world of professional wrestling that Kerry was named after a fictitious Nazi sympathizer, his father's "Von Erich" character. What could be more ludicrous, more inconsistent with his soul? And so I will end by attempting to honor not a character but a real man, and I will invoke his real name. I will say, God bless Kerry Adkisson.