WASHINGTON — He won a gold medal at the 1996 Summer Olympics before becoming one of the biggest superstars in the history of sports entertainment.
This week, Kurt Angle joined WTOP to reflect on his WWE Hall of Fame induction at WrestleMania.
“I was real happy about it,” Angle told WTOP. “I just wanted to come back for the fans. It’s not really about me anymore. I have three little ones that never saw me wrestle — I have a 5 year old, a 3 year old and a newborn — and I just wanted them to witness their dad one more time on the WWE stage. And I also wanted to acknowledge to the fans how much I appreciated their support over the years.”
Introduced by current WWE star John Cena, Angle’s induction speech perfectly reflected his career, recreating his goofiest moments and ending with his signature catchphrase: “It’s true. It’s damn true.”
“I had a lot of fun with it,” Angle said. “In recent years, a lot of the speeches were pretty serious [and] they wanted a different flavor this year. They wanted old-school Kurt Angle, so they asked me if I had any ideas and I came up with that little bit of entertainment. … I actually requested the milk truck that I could drive into the arena! But [WWE Chairman] Vince McMahon said it was a little bit too much.”
It was a fitting culmination of a wrestling career that included winning the Olympic gold medal in the heavyweight division at the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta. He did it “with a broken freakin’ neck,” a phrase he turned into a comical catchphrase. When the WWE (then WWF) approached him to join the roster, he naively told McMahon that he’d only agree if his character never had to lose a match.
“He didn’t say a word, he just put his hand out, shook my hand and left,” Angle said. “He basically said in his mind, ‘This kid doesn’t get it, so I’m not even gonna try.’ He let me keep the contract, but I don’t think he would have signed it if I did. He just knew that I didn’t understand the business yet. [When I] started to watch [WWE] a couple of years later, I think he was waiting for that to happen. Vince is a very intelligent man. I think he thought, ‘You know what? If this kid starts watching, he’ll understand.'”
That’s exactly what happened. Sitting at home without the new gig, Angle began watching “Monday Night Raw” and understanding that it wasn’t about wins and losses, but rather a team effort. He soon paid a second visit to try out with WWE and earned his first contract within three days of training.
“I never watched wrestling,” Angle said. “I was clueless. I didn’t even know who Stone Cold Steve Austin was! I was clueless to the business. I knew Macho Man because of the Slim Jim commercials and Hulk Hogan had a Saturday morning cartoon when I was younger, so that’s the only guys I knew about. But watching the product, I realized, ‘OK, I get it now. This is what they’re asking me to do.'”
It also became quickly apparent that the Macho Man and Hulk Hogan performed in a much different era. If Angle’s Olympic hero character had arrived during the 1980s, he would have been a massive babyface (good guy) with fans. But after the so-called “Attitude Era” of the 1990s and early 2000s, the fans began booing the do-good figures and cheering the anti-heroes like Stone Cold Steve Austin.
“What [Vince] saw in me was, ‘Gosh, this is a real American hero. He would be perfect in the ’80s, and that’s exactly why he’s going to be hated today. … I tried it with The Rock and it blew up in my face, so I’m gonna try it again with Angle, except this time … he’s gonna be a heel. … My top babyface [Austin] flips off his boss, drinks beer and stuns everyone. He knew the anti-hero was the babyface of the Attitude Era, and the real hero would make people sick to their stomach because he’s so perfect.”
Angle admits he was initially skeptical of the idea of debuting as a heel (bad guy) character in 1998.
“I disagreed with him,” Angle said. “I told him, ‘It’s not gonna work, I won a gold medal [with] a broken freakin’ neck! People are gonna love me!’ He said, ‘No, they’re gonna hate your guts.’ He was right.”
Indeed, the fans loved to hate him, chanting “You Suck” to his entrance music. Angle embraced his role as a cocky heel, bragging to the crowd, flaunting his gold medals, overturning losses (challenging Tazz’s “illegal” chokehold) and preaching his “Three I’s” slogan: “Intensity, Integrity and Intelligence.”
After a while, fans grew to love his aw-shucks goofiness. His backstage comic relief segments were classic entertainment, as Austin and McMahon donned macho cowboy hats, only for Angle to wear a goofy kid’s hat and tin star, causing Austin to spoof Mel Brooks: “We don’t need to stinkin’ badges!”
“We had a lot of fun,” Angle said. “The crazy thing is we didn’t rehearse. Vince McMahon said, ‘Listen, including the crew members, all the camera guys, the producer, the director — none of you laugh or say anything until I say cut!’ It was all improvisation. Vince would throw out an idea and say, ‘Get ready to shoot.’ With Austin, that’s what he’s best at. We just followed his lead. … He was so good.”
While it was killer comic relief, it also covered up the fact that Angle and Austin were both injured.
“Both Austin and I should have been at home sitting and resting our injuries, but Vince McMahon thought, ‘Damn, my top two talents are injured. What am I gonna do with them? I know! I’ll put them together and make some funny stuff!’ So it was a cool thing to do while we were out with injuries.”
A similar trick had worked for D-Generation X when Shawn Michaels nursed back injuries and Triple H was sidelined on crutches. Fittingly, Angle roasted Michaels by spoofing The Heartbreak Kid’s “Sexy Boy” theme song, changing the lyrics to: “I’m just a sexy Kurt. I’ll make your ankle hurt.”
“Shawn was always cool about that stuff,” Angle said. “When I first came up with the song, he was like, ‘Yes! Do it! That’s awesome!’ He was always for that kind of stuff, and I give Shawn a lot of credit.”
Still, Angle’s all-time best moment came when he drove a milk truck down to the ring and sprayed his foes with milk from a hose. It was, of course, spoofing a similar bit Austin had done with a beer truck.
“It just said a thousand words without having to say anything,” Angle said. “It was a spinoff of Austin’s beer truck years prior. It really worked out to my favor and it really helped my character a lot. … That milk truck in Sacramento, California, was probably the best moment I had, including the wrestling.”
Of course, Angle’s in-ring ability was unrivaled. He could grapple with the Angle Slam, fly off the top rope with Moonsaults, and work the mat with the Ankle Lock Submission. The combo made him a six-time champion, working with all-time greats, who claimed he picked up the skills faster than anyone.
“I loved my matches with Austin. They were really intense,” Angle said. “Dwayne ‘The Rock’ [Johnson] was always entertaining to wrestle. The best in-ring generals I would say are Triple H and Undertaker. Those guys are easy to follow; they would lead me through the matches and made it really easy for me. But my later years, when I really figured it out, I’d have to say my matches with Eddie [Guerrero], Brock [Lesnar] and Shawn Michaels, they were the ones that I really had some great chemistry with.”
His most famous match may be his “King of the Ring” brawl against Shane McMahon, suplexing the boss’ son through the entrance structure. Beyond that, his greatest matches are unfortunately lost to history because the company scrubbed them from view after Chris Benoit’s horrific murder-suicide.
“I’m not gonna lie, my best matches were with Chris Benoit,” Angle said. “It kind of sucks that there’s no acknowledgement there. My career was defined on those matches, especially the 2003 Royal Rumble. … Anybody that’s listening — check that match. It doesn’t get any more perfect than that.”
Angle claims that’s the one match where he realized he could be one of the all-time greats.
“The top talent like Austin, Triple H and Undertaker walked up to me the next day and said, ‘You just raised the bar. You’re the man. You’re the best,’ and I was like, ‘Wait a minute, I just started guys. I’m not supposed to get that kind of acknowledgement,” Angle said. “But it was kind of cool to have Triple H come to me and say, ‘You might be the greatest of all time right now.’ It was such a compliment.”
Of course, not all matches go according to plan. During the Wrestlemania 19 main event, Lesnar tried a shooting-star press off the top rope (jumping forward and flipping backward), but he came up short, landing on his head. Angle had to carry Lesnar to the finish in spite of his own chronic neck injuries.
“I needed surgery, I got my doctor to clear me for one match,” Angle said. “When Brock missed the shooting-star press, the first thing I thought is, ‘Oh my god, I’m gonna have to hold this title for another month!’ That’s kind of a selfish thing to think of, but I knew how bad a shape I was in. Thank God the referee said, ‘Jump on and cover him!’ I covered him and I thought, ‘Oh god, he’s not gonna kick out and I’m gonna retain the title and have to go to the next Pay Per View.’ But he kicked out.”
After that, Angle and a concussed Lesnar improvised a new finish to the biggest match of the year.
“I look over at Brock and he was in la la land,” Angle said. “I asked him five or six times, ‘Can you do the F5?’ He didn’t answer me, then he said, ‘I think so,’ then he said, ‘I don’t know.’ I thought, ‘Oh my god, we’re in trouble. This match isn’t gonna have a finish!’ But Brock horsed me up and did the F5 [to win]. He was very hostile. Brock has that personality where there’s no way in hell anybody’s taking him to the hospital. But I give him a lot of credit for what he [did]. He showed us what kind of badass he is.”
Angle sympathized with Lesnar because he had suffered his own concussion during the main event at Summerslam 2000 in a triple-threat match between Angle, The Rock and Triple H. As Triple H went for a Pedigree on the announcer’s table, the table prematurely broke, slamming Angle into the floor.
“That was a spot where I was supposed to pretend to get knocked out, and I literally did get knocked out,” Angle laughed. “But those guys were pros [and] talked me through that whole match. I didn’t know what I was doing. I woke up two hours after the match and I was on a gurney with oxygen on my face. I said, ‘What happened?’ They said, ‘You finished the match.’ I said, ‘I don’t remember anything.'”
Yes, life as a professional wrestler can be grueling. A combination of injuries and personal demons (more on that in a bit) caused him to leave WWE in 2006 for rival wrestling company TNA, before other gigs with New Japan Pro Wrestling, AAA in Mexico and others on the independent circuit.
Now, the prodigal son has returned, inducted into WWE Hall of Fame on April 2, 2017 and returning to TV the following night, replacing Mick Foley as the new General Manager on “Monday Night Raw.”
“When I came out Monday night in Long Island at Nassau [Coliseum], it was the loudest pop of the night,” Angle said. “When you’re out of the WWE for 11 years, you start to wonder if people forget about you. Thank God for the WWE Network [streaming old matches] because the young kids get educated on who Kurt Angle was. … It’s nice to see that acknowledgement when you come out.”
What does he think about the current roster of superstars?
“Seeing the talent in Cesaro and Kevin Owens, I love the kid. I’m a huge fan of him,” Angle said. “What he can do for a guy his size [and] how he’s able to move around the way he does, he defies the laws of gravity. … There are a lot of talents that I’d love to wrestle: Dolph Ziggler and Seth Rollins. But as far as reminding me of myself, that [Chad] Gable kid, he’s a little bit undersized, but damn he can go!”
He also has advice on how the company should handle rising star Roman Reigns, who just retired The Undertaker. WWE enthusiasts claim Reigns is being forced down fans’ throats, resulting in loud boos.
“I love him,” Angle said. “The issue with Roman is he was utilized and pushed way too fast. When you skip the U.S. Title, Intercontinental Title, the King of the Ring and go right to the top, fans don’t like that. … Half the fans love him; half the fans hate him. Same with [John] Cena. When Cena came in, Vince pushed the hell out of him and fans were like, ‘Gosh, dang. This guy’s invincible. I hate him!’ … If Vince waits it out a bit, fans will start to accept [Roman Reigns], and if they don’t, then turn him heel. ”
Either way, he’s glad the company has taken steps to reduce concussions in today’s medical climate.
“Sometimes that stuff happens in pro wrestling … but they do have a lot of rules now,” Angle said. “They’re not gonna do those spots on the table or any type of chair shots [to the head], so they’re trying to protect the athletes a lot more now. … Now you have to go through the WWE doctors and they’re not gonna clear you, so it’s a different time now. That’s good. I’m glad it’s that way now.”
The daily grind lead Angle to a painkiller addiction, claiming at one point he took “65 Vicodin a day.” Thankfully, Angle has overcome those personal demons and become an anti-addiction advocate.
“I’ve been clean and sober four years,” Angle said. “We have a really bad opium problem: 21 million people in America have a drug disorder, 10 percent go to rehab [and] only 5 percent of that 10 percent stay in recovery. That’s only 100,000 people out of 21 million that stay clean. The issue is you go to rehab, you go through detox [and] there’s structure. The problem is when you get out, you go out into the hostile world and there’s no structure, and that’s why so many people are relapsing.”
So, Angle is trying to help his fellow wrestlers — and other addicts — with his new #AngleStrong app.
“I came up with a concept to have an app and an #AngleStrong initiative for people to follow after they get out of rehab so they have aftercare and structure in their lives,” Angle said. “The app does everything for you. You check in every day. If you don’t check in, your lifelines — your family, your sponsor, your loved ones — they’ll be notified. So it holds you accountable for what you have to do, but it’s also GPS-enabled, so if you do relapse, we’re going to find you. … We’re trying to save lives.”
He’s now thinking of coordinating his efforts with fellow wrestler Diamond Dallas Page, who’s helped countless ex-wrestlers overcome alcohol and drug addiction with his wellness program “DDP Yoga.”
“We’re talking about a deal with Diamond Dallas Page,” Angle said. “We want him to be a huge part. What he did for a lot of people in the past, we believe he’s the best-suited candidate for our program.”
Fittingly, Angle and DDP both entered the WWE Hall of Fame together among the class of 2017.
It seems there are still good guys in the world, even if they used to play heels on TV.
Oh, it’s true. It’s damn true.
Listen to the full conversation with Kurt Angle below: