Nostalgia's "Iron Claw": Why I won't introduce my son to pro wrestling

I love the theater of pro wrestling so much I wrote a novel about it – but the power of kayfabe has its limits

Published June 13, 2024 1:30PM (EDT)

Harris Dickinson in "The Iron Claw" (A24)
Harris Dickinson in "The Iron Claw" (A24)

"The Iron Claw," an A24 film released late last year, tells the story of the Von Erichs, a family of professional wrestlers who suffered tragic ends under the influence of a dictatorial patriarch and an industry infamous for eating its young. In a pivotal scene, brother Kerry (Jeremy Allen White) returns home after his dreams of Olympic glory in track and field are slashed by the U.S. boycott of the 1980 summer games in Moscow. Kerry’s father, Fritz Von Erich (Holt McCallany), shakes Kerry’s hand and calls him to join the family business.

“I wouldn’t wish wrestling on any of you,” Fritz says. “I only wrestled to provide for you all. And I always hoped you boys would choose another profession. But the Olympics has been taken from you the way professional football was taken from me. The world keeps taking from us, and I’m sick of it. I wanna fight back. And the more of us in it together, the better.”

The question becomes not whether wrestling is good or bad, but whether it offers enough to make exposing my son to its negatives a worthwhile risk.

My son was born in April of this year. Holding him in his first hours of life, I was overwhelmed by how much he had yet to experience. Writers will know the anticipation and terror of the blank page, how many drafts it takes to get something passable, the files littered with abandoned attempts. My son’s story, whatever length it might be, will have a beginning, middle, and end. He gets one shot at this, and for at least the first few years, I’m one of the ghostwriters.

It’s a millennial’s dream, really. The monoculture crumbled within my lifetime. Outside of live sports, I haven’t watched over-the-air or cable TV in 15 years. One of my most important jobs as a father is to curate my son’s cultural plate before he’s ready to fix his own. And sure, there will be vegetables and leafy greens on that plate, but what’s wholesome isn’t always so clear. 

Take gridiron football, for example. When I was a teen playing left bench at my preppy Metro Detroit high school, people knew that football could be dangerous, but they believed that at a proper dosage, there was nothing better for building the character of a young man. They may have been right, as I was molded into a young man who took his coach seriously when he would tout the value of “intestinal fortitude” and then ask things like, “Are you hurt or are you injured?”

The expectation, of course, was that you played hurt, or in my case, practiced hurt. You did this to build toughness, to push your limits. We were told with a straight face, “Life’s battles don’t always go to a stronger or faster man but to the man who thinks he can.” I took this seriously, all while my coaches had never even heard of CTE.

Up until a few years ago, I was ambivalent about whether I would allow my hypothetical future children to play tackle football. I think I was worried about being a hypocrite — both the “do as I say and not as I did” problem, and the sticky wicket of football being increasingly the big thing that unites the American side of my family, if not the USA entire. Tough to imagine how I’d justify telling a child no. Then, some of my high school friends who were smarter, wiser and better football players than me became medical professionals. I asked one friend who I particularly looked up to as one of those “men who thinks he can” whether he would let his sons play. I expected an ambivalence like mine, an answer balancing the physical dangers with the character benefits we’d been sold on all those years ago. His actual response was one hundred percent assured. “Absolutely not.”

Stanley Simons, Hold McCallany, Zac Efron, Jeremy Allen White and Harris Dickinson in "The Iron Claw" (A24)There’s no family business for my son to fall back on when his Olympic dreams are dashed, and there are parts of American culture that I’m likely powerless to protect him from. However, there is a lot I can gatekeep. I know that there’s risk in exposing my son to professional wrestling, but my gut tells me to fight back against the divide that causes intellectually serious people to dismiss American culture’s most popular performance art. The more of us in it together, the better . . . right?

What’s wrong with wrestling? If you’re even a little familiar, you can likely name a lot of faults. It’s violent. It’s toxically masculine. Its culture promotes overindulgence in a host of life-shortening substances. Many of my childhood wrestling heroes are dead, certified Bad Dudes or both. Even if you want to defend wrestling as storytelling of the body, you must admit that it may never fully escape its role in perpetuating some of our worst, most reductive narratives — racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia. There’s no defending professional wrestling from these charges. The question becomes not whether wrestling is good or bad, but whether it offers enough to make exposing my son to its negatives a worthwhile risk.

Professional wrestling is theater. It’s astonishing to me how this is still a revelation to so many. Sure, if you ask an average person, they can tell you that wrestling is staged, but when someone who isn’t a fan asks me about wrestling, they’ll often start with something like, “So, it’s fake, right?”

Wrestling payoffs can be the most satisfying in all of fiction.

Pro wrestling is good because it’s fake. I’m sure a fan of wrestling’s counterparts like boxing or mixed martial arts could argue the opposite — as if real fights happened within equiangular polygons under bright arena lights — but I’d push back to say the main reason any of us care about live sports are the narratives that require an entire ecosystem of beat writers and TV networks and podcast bros to prop up. Wrestling has all that too, of course, but it’s not as necessary. Narrative is essential to wrestling, from the one move to the next in the ring, to stories that unravel over the course of decades, even generations. Even poorly written wrestling often has entertaining twists and turns, and wrestling payoffs can be the most satisfying in all of fiction.

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My favorite aspect of pro wrestling’s fakery is that in the last 30 years, wrestling has realized that it’s much more narratively interesting to embrace the fact that its audience is smart to its ruse and to fold that into its stories. Some of the most famous wrestling moments of my lifetime — the Montreal Screwjob, CM Punk’s Pipe Bomb, Mankind versus Undertaker in Hell in a Cell and an uncountable number of ridiculously dangerous stunts that pro wrestlers have attempted over the years — play with metafiction. Wrestling will break its fourth wall intentionally and unintentionally. This has created an underlying tension in every broadcast, in every show at your local high school’s gymnasium. Is what you’re seeing a part of the plan or did something go wrong? Did someone decide to go off script? Imagine watching Shakespeare but you know that every so often Laertes is going to punch Hamlet in the face and that might change the whole story. It happens more often than you’d think.

My son should see this, right? The stories we tell children can be so dull, so safe. Kayfabe, the storytelling in wrestling, intrigues me so much, I wrote a novel about it. Don’t I want my kid to understand what drove me to obsess about this for so long? Why not watch it with him, help him understand the complexity, put things into context, call out the stuff that’s Not Good, both aesthetically and morally? What’s the danger? Well, I remember one of the moral panics of the '90s being that kids were going to emulate their favorite wrestlers or Power Rangers and turn that fighting on their classmates at recess. Anecdotally, I can say that my friends and I absolutely did just that, and I’m not going to deny the ample evidence that’s just a Google search away that will tell you that exposure to media violence as a child has a negative impact. How could it not?

The Iron ClawThe Iron Claw (A24)All I’ll say to this is that a surprising number of wrestling maneuvers are difficult to perform, and useless against someone who isn’t a willing participant. Most moves beyond your standard punches and kicks are just as collaborative as a match’s outcome. You’re not going to Powerbomb someone your size against their will. The danger isn’t so much attacking with the moves as it is screwing them up with inexperienced technique and hurting your dance partner. For comparison, consider that a lot of this country is completely fine with allowing football dads who play Madden a few times a week coach their 6th graders in safe tackling technique — if there even is such a thing.

The most interesting moment in "The Iron Claw" is Fritz Von Erich’s admission to his sons, “I wouldn’t wish wrestling on any of you.” It’s easy to pin Fritz as a two-bit dictator ruling his tiny fiefdom with his iron fist. This line betrays an awareness that deepens the character. He knows the dangers of pro wrestling, yet he pulls his sons into the business regardless. Why? Grievance, pride, and I’d argue, one of the most hazardous and sinister facets of pro wrestling: nostalgia.

For all its strengths, pro wrestling doesn’t feel as good as it did in 2014.

Nostalgia is the cornerstone of pro wrestling. There’s an old meme that pops up every so often of a Q&A in a gymnasium with some retired wrestlers. This nerdy guy grabs the mic, breaks down in tears and yells, “It’s still real to me, dammit.” We make fun of this guy, but this is what every wrestling fan is chasing. When you watch a match, you’re trying to recapture something — when you were a kid watching Bill Goldberg tear through the WCW roster in a superhuman unbeaten streak, when you were in grad school and rediscovering the magic of wrestling watching underdog Daniel Bryan beat Triple H, Randy Orton, and Batista in one night to win the title. It’s why WWE trots out its “legends” at every major event. It’s why my local show at Spring Valley High in Columbia, South Carolina was headlined by The Rock ‘n’ Roll Express, a pair of 60-somethings from Tennessee who peaked three decades ago. Fritz wants to stick it to his haters, of course. He also wants to relive his glory days. He wants his family to relive them too.

As I get older, I become more and more skeptical of nostalgia. It feels good to indulge in the remember whens, but the further I get from the days I’m nostalgic for, the stronger the jones and the weaker the fix. For all its strengths, pro wrestling doesn’t feel as good as it did in 2014, let alone 1999. I doubt that has much to do with the quality of the product or even my ability to appreciate it. It’s my brain feeling all that time slip by and clawing for purchase. I know there’s a black hole event horizon lurking if I’m not careful. Truthfully, part of me wonders whether all my pseudo-intellectual defenses of pro wrestling aren’t a thin veil over an obvious excuse for my nostalgic hits. Are the promo clips I’ve watched on YouTube necessary for this article, or vice versa?

I don’t know if my son could ever enjoy pro wrestling the way I enjoy it. Before he was born, my parents came to visit and my father, the family archivist, brought some newly digitized childhood home videos of my sister and me. We watched more than an hour of this, and it wrecked me. My parents looked so young. So many family members were still alive. Worst of all, I could see how happy it made my dad to share these moments with me, these memories he had worked so hard to capture, keep safe, and preserve across generations of media, and I just couldn’t get there with him. I couldn’t find the joy that he took from it.

The Iron ClawThe Iron Claw (A24)I could show my kid all the important matches from all the tentpole events of my youth. He’d be exposed to all that violence, bigotry, misogyny. He’d be missing out on whatever else we might have been doing or enjoying together, and for what? What my dad has done with our home videos is about the most wholesome thing I can think of. What kind of wedge would I drive between my son and me were I to use him to chase my nostalgia fix through something as unsavory as professional wrestling? To use a metaphor my old football coach might understand, there are a thousand ways pro wrestling can hurt my child. Through nostalgia, it can injure him. 

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Fritz Von Erich, wrestling fans and Wikipedia-heads will know, isn’t his real name. It’s Jack Adkisson. Inside the ropes, in kayfabe, Von Erich was an evil German brute, a Nazi, crushing opponents’ skulls with his meaty Eastern European hands. In real life, or something like it, Adkisson’s family would rise to fame under that conjured name, and five out of six of his children would pass away tragically — a story so unbelievable that the fictionalized version in "The Iron Claw" only depicts four of the deaths. What’s in a name? Marketing and brand recognition? Maybe. A curse? perhaps. A cautionary tale? For sure. One about a father who claimed to want a better life for his kids, only to march them off into his battles, grievances and memories where the gaping maw of pro wrestling was waiting. Another about one fan among many who loves nothing more than a family dynasty so he can pretend that his youth does, in fact, live on.

I won’t be showing my son pro wrestling. I can only wish that if he does find it on his own, I might learn something new to love about it through his eyes.


By Chris Koslowski

Chris Koslowski is a writer and instructional designer from Columbia, SC. His debut novel "Kayfabe" is available for preorder from McSweeney's.

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