Kurt Angle on his failed return to WWE, wrestling Daniel Bryan
The next time Kurt Angle and Brock Lesnar wrestle won’t be the first. The two headlined WrestleMania XIX, as well as locked up at SummerSlam and a 60-minute Iron Man match in 2003. But the two have only fought a legitimate fight on just one occasion – and Angle was the winner.
Oh, it’s true.
“We fought in a wrestling ring during the day before our show,” said Angle, the current TNA world champ, recalling his 2002 victory over Lesnar. “It wasn’t fun. It was nerve-wracking. Someone was going to win, get hurt, or die.”
Angle captured a gold medal in wrestling during the 1996 Olympics, but Lesnar did not believe Angle could survive in the ring with him.
“The match started because someone asked how he’d do in the ring against me,” explained Angle. “Brock said I was too small for him. That got to me.”
Lesnar was only two years removed from his NCAA Division I championship in wrestling, and enjoyed inflicting pain on his fellow WWE wrestlers before the show while the building remained empty.
“Brock was in the ring with Big Show,” said Angle. “He was literally throwing this 530-pound man around the ring like a little kid. I’d never seen anyone lift up Big Show like that without his help, but Brock was picking him up and throwing him around.
“I said to Big Show, ‘Get out of the ring.’ Then I tapped Brock on the shoulder and said, ‘Let’s go.’ And that’s when we started.”
Lesnar came into the fight at 300 lbs, outweighing Angle by nearly 80 pounds.
“I know I’m not the biggest person, but I’ve annihilated people a lot bigger than me,” said Angle. “You’re one of the best in the world as an NCAA champion like Brock, but when you’re an Olympic gold medalist, that’s a whole other level. The guys who saw Brock and I wrestle that day witnessed how much of a gap there is between the two.”
The intensity thickened during the fifteen minute fight.
“We were doing take-downs, and it was very, very tight,” said Angle. “Brock showed me that he knows how to wrestle. A lot of heavyweights are big and strong and know how to use their weight, but Brock knew how to wrestle. He was a lightweight who grew into a heavyweight body, and he brought that technique with him. That’s how good Brock was.”
Despite Lesnar’s skill, he was not able to score on Angle.
“There’s nobody like Brock,” said Angle. “The man is just a mammoth. When he’s healthy, I don’t know if there is anyone on the planet who can beat him.”
Except, of course, for Kurt Angle.
“When I got done with him, I didn’t want to wrestle him again,” he said.
Instead of wrestling every Friday night on Destination America, the 46-year-old Angle’s original plan was to finish up his TNA contract last September and re-sign with the WWE to finish out his career.
“I haven’t spoke openly about this,” said Angle, “but I opened up my options and was going to decide between TNA and WWE. I wasn’t going to leave TNA unless WWE was offering a fair deal.”
Angle, who lost his father when he was only 16 years old, developed a close friendship with Vince McMahon during his eight year run with WWE from 1998-2006. Yet, when Angle called McMahon, he was informed that a different man now runs the day-to-day operations.
“Paul [Levesque] is in charge,” said Angle. “I found that out when I contacted Vince. I’ve always had a good relationship with Paul, so I didn’t consider that a problem. But he decided they had enough talent.
“For the Vince McMahon who I knew, enough was never enough. He always wanted more. I don’t know what was going on over there, but they even canceled our meeting. I never went to see them. They didn’t even sit me down and talk to me.”
The experience was extremely humbling for Angle.
“It blew my mind,” he said. “It was as if I was a nobody, that I wasn’t Kurt Angle. From a wrestling standpoint, they just weren’t interested. But TNA not only stepped up, they gave me everything I wanted – the dates, the money, and it’s no secret that I’ve went to rehab in the past, and they gave me time off. You talk about a company that’s loyal to you, and you want to be loyal back. So I didn’t pursue the WWE any further. When it comes down to it, you’ve got to stick with the people who want to take care of you. And [TNA president] Dixie Carter took care of me.
“But I’m going to be straight with you,” said Angle. “The WWE would have made more money this year if they would have signed me. That’s no secret.”
As much as Angle enjoys wrestling against the talent pool in TNA, he envisioned many opportunities had he made the move to WWE.
“The best match of the year would have been between myself and Daniel Bryan,” said Angle. “Rusev would have made sense, and Brock and I could have went at it again. There were just so many places to go. I don’t know if they just thought I was too old, but obviously they’re not watching our product. Triple H is the same age as me. It was hard, but at the end of the day, I’m really happy.
“Will I ever go back? I really don’t care. I’m happy to be here in TNA.”
Angle lamented a lost opportunity for TNA when his employer came close to signing Paul Heyman in 2010. Heyman wanted a piece of ownership and planned to completely alter the TNA product. Angle loved the idea of offering a contrast to the WWE.
“I talked to Dixie about Paul,” said Angle. “I’ve worked with him, and he’s really, really good at what he does. No one else could have done what he did with ECW. You look at the talent they had, and they had some talent, but nothing like WWE or WCW – and they went a long way with the little talent they had. I think he’s great. Would I take a Paul Heyman at TNA? Yes, I would.”
Angle sees more differences than similarities between his current boss and Vince McMahon.
“They’re completely different,” he said. “If I wasn’t feeling good, Dixie would tell me to take the night off – and she wouldn’t dock my pay. I can’t say that ever happened in WWE. Vince is great at what he does, but so is Dixie – and I know my body is going to hold up in TNA.”
Angle fondly recalled his favorite matches during his career.
“In WWE, I had a career that was so short, but it was second to none,” said Angle. “I don’t think anybody can compare to my six-and-a-half year span while I was healthy. I loved my match with Chris Benoit at the Royal Rumble in 2003. We only threw one punch in the entire match – it was all wrestling submission tradeoffs. And wrestling Eddie Guerrero – we wrestled when he was all banged up – and it was still special. I just wish I wrestled Eddie when he was firing on all eight cylinders. That would have been my best match ever, because I consider Eddie Guerrero in his prime to be the best wrestler ever. Between AJ Styles and [Samoa] Joe in TNA, we brought TNA’s wrestling to another level.
“I always have to put the match with Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania 23 in my top three. That match was special. We’d never touched before that, but we had the right chemistry. And Brock at WrestleMania XIX was an incredible match.”
Angle encouraged Lesnar to finish the match with a shooting star press. He wanted Lesnar to close out ‘Mania and win the world title with an amazing finish, but Lesnar slipped on the rope and nearly broke his neck on the landing.
“I was already scheduled to drop the belt and go in for next surgery,” said Angle. “So when Brock missed and landed on his head, I thought he was going to be going in for surgery with me. Part of me was worried about Brock, but I was also in pain, and I thought, ‘How the hell am I going to carry this title another day?’
“I covered him, because I had to. I told him to kick, and even though he was completely out of it, he kicked out. I asked him if he was able to give me an F-5, and he said, ‘I think so.’ I told him to do his thing, and he lifted me up for an F-5 to close out the show. It was really scary.”
Angle’s success is all predicated off his position. He was nearly unbeatable in amateur wrestling because of his impeccable positioning. His hips were always underneath him, and no one – not even Brock Lesnar – could score on him. Angle lost that position as he saw his life spiral out of control. Yet, even after a messy divorce, addiction to painkillers, and a serious depression, Angle is still standing. And he credits pro wrestling for saving his life.
“The Olympic gold medal was the highlight of my life,” said Angle. “Nothing will ever compare to that. As an athlete, when I accomplished that, I thought I was going to be happy the rest of my life. But I was not. My desire to be the best brought me to that level, so when I finally got there, then what do I do? I needed that feeling and went through a really bad depression.
“If pro wrestling wasn’t there, I don’t know where I’d be. It gave me something to push toward again. That’s why I got so good so fast. I didn’t start on TV until the end of ’99, and I was champion within ten months. It just clicked, and it gave me something to work toward.”
Since the day he started lacing up his boots, wrestling was always Angle’s top priority. Until now.
“My goal was never to be world champion,” he said. “It was always about being the best in the business. I earned that by the time I left WWE. But I’ve learned a lot in the past year and a half. I’ve had some real ups and downs – the painkillers, the drinking, the trouble getting pulled over while drinking – that was all part of my depression.
Angle has been clean for nearly two years.
"I have kids and a wife, and my top priority isn’t wrestling any more,” said Angle. “Being the best isn’t everything, but I’m more experienced and I know what to do and how to tell a great story in the ring. My experiences have really opened up my eyes to what’s important in life. I even tried to go back to the Olympics in 2012, but I was getting injured every two weeks. My body was telling me I couldn’t do it. I’ve finally realized I can’t be the Kurt Angle I was. I can only be the Kurt Angle I am now.”
Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JustinBarrasso