Justin Barrasso
Wednesday January 20th, 2016

Five Minutes With Kurt Angle

Even though fifteen years have passed since Kurt Angle and Triple H fought for the WWE title at the 2001 Royal Rumble, the memories are still fresh for Angle.

“Paul [Levesque] led me through that match,” said Angle. “As far as being a wrestler, Triple H is up there in the top ten. His working capability is phenomenal, and he has the ability–and very few can do this–to adapt to any situation. The only ones I’ve known that could do that are Austin, Undertaker, and Triple H. If something happened, they adapted so fast.”

Angle’s feud with Triple H was also hot that previous summer, and the Olympic gold medalist fought in a triple threat main event with Triple H and The Rock at SummerSlam 2000. Angle suffered a concussion in the match when he went through a table, and his only recollections of the match are what he was told–and watched–afterward.

“When I got my concussion at SummerSlam, Triple H did so much for me in that match,” Angle explained. “When I went through that table, I was out. Stephanie [McMahon] brought me back out, and when we got back to the ring, I asked her, ‘What do I do?’ She said, ‘When Rock’s foot hits the rope, grab him.’ So I grabbed him by the foot, and then looked at Stephanie again. And she said, ‘Throw Triple H into the steps!’ So I threw him into the steps, and then she said, ‘Get the hell in the ring!’

“There was a spot where Triple H was going to hit me with his sledgehammer, but I had the concussion and didn’t even know I was out there. My mind was blank. I came to two hours after the pay-per-view. When Triple H was going to hit me, but he actually put his hand on my head and made sure I ducked. If you watch it over, you’ll see that I was clueless, but he was looking out for me the whole match. They literally had to walk me through every step of the match to make sure I was safe. I don’t remember any of it, but for them it must have been a nightmare. Triple H is one of the best I’ve ever seen.”

While Triple H is likely to be part of this Sunday’s Royal Rumble, Angle will not. The proud native of Pittsburgh–who was devastated to see his Steelers lose this past Sunday (“I’m a huge Steelers fan, and I feel a little similar to Big Ben [Roethlisberger]. That son-of-a-bitch is always hurt, just like me.”)–is in the middle of his “TNA Farewell Tour.” Angle defeated Drew Galloway in a phenomenal match last week, and will be challenged by Bobby Lashley next week. Angle, now 47, agreed that he has improved with age.

“Maturity came with it,” Angle admitted, “but I got better because I learned how to make things count. I had an incredible WWE career, but a lot of WWE fans didn’t see me wrestle in TNA, unfortunately, so they didn’t see what I was able to accomplish there. That is when the wheels started spinning in my head, and that’s because I started so late. I started with WWE in ‘99, and within a year-and-a-half, I won the world title. I really didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I was just following guys, like the Undertaker, Triple H, Rock and Austin. They would lead me through matches, and then I started getting the hang of it. That’s when I started having those matches with [Chris] Benoit and Eddie [Guerrero] and Brock Lesnar. I just kept getting better.”

Part-time schedules are currently common place for big names in wrestling -- Brock Lesnar, Chris Jericho, and Rob Van Dam are just three examples -- but that option did not exist in the WWE when Angle departed in 2006.

Extra Mustard
Kurt Angle on his failed return to WWE, wrestling Daniel Bryan

“I had to leave WWE for health problems,” said Angle. “I just couldn’t fulfill a full-time schedule, which is what WWE wanted, so I had to leave -- but I was in the prime of my career and still getting better. I was very fortunate to wrestle a lot of great guys in TNA, and I’ve had a much better career because I got my head together, and started understanding [ring] psychology and how to put a match together and how to make it more exciting. My philosophy on a match is to base everything around your finish. For me, that’s the Angle Lock and Angle Slam–how do you counter it and get back into it–and I’ve always based my matches on that. A lot of guys have a lot of false finishes, but the fans don’t really get behind a match until you get your finish, so I was able to integrate my finish more. I just learned more, and I kept getting better. I’m 47, and I can still do it. When you watch me now, compared to five years ago, I don’t do any of the crazy stuff. I’m not going to moonsault off the top of the cage and I’m not going to the top rope unless it really means something. I’ve learned how to tone it down, but also keep people intrigued by my matches. If you notice, I won’t run much. When I wrestled Drew [Galloway], he did all the running. I limit what I do, but you can’t tell, and that’s the beauty of it.”

Angle explained that he learned how to work harder by working smarter.

“I learned how to make it count more,” said Angle. “I don’t wrestle that often, but every time I do, it’s pretty damn good match. I have a pretty good reputation of having good matches. I’m humble about it, but I know how good I am, and I know I still have it now. I’m going to wrestle Bobby Roode and Bobby Lashley in the UK, but I need a break. It’s been a rough fifteen years, and that’s why I’m going to take a year off. But I’m going to miss it.”

Angle plans to rest and recuperate throughout 2016 after his final farewell match with Lashley on January 31 in England. He is confident that the company is in the right hands with Ethan Carter III on top of the card. EC3 originally won the title from Angle last June.

“Before I fought EC3, I reassured him of who he is and what he stands for,” said Angle. “Literally, you’re talking about the face of the company. I sat him down and said, ‘You need to have a five-star match with me, because you are the guy that’s going to carry this company.’ We even talked about whether we should protect his finish. We felt, with him as a heel at the time, it was better to sneak out a win. I was the first to kick out of his finish, but he got the win on me. But whether he’s a heel or not, he’s pretty entertaining and I give him a lot of credit. I probably had him kick out of more stuff, but I wanted to make the kid. I’ve always been about knowing which guys are going to carry the company, and which guys need to be utilized and pushed hard. When you see someone like EC3, I knew I had to make this kid and take him to another level. You need a breakout star, and EC3 is a star, and I saw that in him.”

Angle first transitioned from heel to face in the WWE, and conceded that it will be an adjustment for EC3.

“I think he’s not going to feel comfortable,” explained Angle. “He likes being a heel, he likes degrading the crowd and he enjoys being the one who talks about himself. EC3 has a certain attitude about him. He’s not an a------, but people might think he is. He has an arrogance about him, and I like that.

“It’s going to be a comfort level for him. He’s going to have to transfer putting himself over and degrading the crowd to putting himself over and degrading his opponents who are heels. He doesn’t need to change who he is, but it’s a matter of transferring that energy to his opponents. He’s going to feel uncomfortable for a little bit, and I know I did. My first face run was against Austin, who was the biggest name in the business, and that was very difficult for me. I liked being the heel, and that was very comfortable for me. I don’t think EC3 is going to find his comfort zone for three to six months, but I think he will find it.”

Angle’s star power is the greatest force in TNA, but the humble superstar is using his strength to elevate others before he exits.

“Listen, I had to face Galloway again,” said Angle, referring to their upcoming match on January 29 in Manchester, England. “It’s not because we had such a great match [last week on Impact], but I wanted him to go over. He’s a kid who is right up there with EC3 for the future of this company. I felt it was important to give it back to him, so I asked to have that match with him.”

Angle also wrestles Bobby Roode on January 30, and the matches will air on a later date on Impact.

“Bobby Roode could be the best worker in the world right now,” said Angle. “He’s just so polished. And Bobby Lashley is another guy who TNA is going to start picking up the pace with. I really believe they’re going to build him like a monster, like WWE is doing with Brock Lesnar. That’s the way he needs to be portrayed. A guy like Bobby should be protected all the time–if he’s going to lose, there needs to be something that happens to cause him to lose. When you look at EC3, Roode, Galloway and Lashley, those are the guys who are going to carry this company.

Shinsuke Nakamura and AJ Styles are two men who share history with Angle. Nakamura defeated Angle in 2008 in a unification match for the IWGP title, while Styles and Angle have a deep bond from their years together in TNA.

“I haven’t seen Nakamura since I wrestled him, but what a special talent. We had a great match [in 2008] and I’m glad he’s getting that opportunity. And AJ, what a special kid–he’s always deserved it. He’s deserved it since he laced up a pair of boots. He can do some really cool stuff there, and you can compare him to a Daniel Bryan in every aspect. For a while, it seemed like WWE was never interested if you were from TNA, but there were some talented TNA guys, so it’s nice to see.”

Rumors continue to circulate that Angle’s next step will be fighting in the Bellator MMA cage, but he is far from ready to commit to a match. The experience has brought back memories from his flirtation with the UFC.  

“I was in talks with Dana White on a couple different occasions,” said Angle. “It was in 2006 and then after my divorce in 2008 or ‘09–but the starting date was too quick. It’s not that Dana was setting me up to fail, but I felt like I would have failed had I done it, so I decided not to do it. I did fly out twice to meet Dana, and Dana went out of his way to make me happy.

“But I’ll tell you what happened–in 2006, I had just signed with TNA. I felt an obligation to TNA, but Dana said I couldn’t fight and wrestle at the same time. I respected that, but I said, ‘Dana, I just signed with them.’ I am a loyal person, and I felt the obligation. Then I met with him again when he wanted me to be on The Ultimate Fighter with Kimbo [Slice]. The problem was that it was going to be in four-in-a-half weeks. I know there was training on the show, but I wanted three-to-six months before I went on the show, and it just wasn’t going to work out.”

Angle admitted that the likelihood of ever fighting for Bellator is remote, but he has considered the possibility, as well as potential opponents.

“When Bellator asked if I’d consider a fight, I said, ‘Let me get my feet wet. Let me get to know the guys, let me work with you this year, and we’ll decide down the road.’ But, honestly, it’s a ninety-five percent chance that it’s a no. If I do decide to do it, I’m going to really have to rest my body and do what CM Punk did–take some time off from pro wrestling, start training, and stay healthy. It’s a very slight possibility, but I am considering it.

“If I do it, it’s going to be with a [Ken] Shamrock, or a Kimbo, or a [Royce] Gracie. If I fight, it will be against someone who still can kick ass but is past their prime. Those guys are bad-asses and they may be past their past their prime, but they can still go. So if I go, it’s going to be with a guy my age, not a guy like Bobby Lashley or a younger fighter.”

Even outside of the wrestling ring, Angle still has big plans for 2016, including a cameo or two on A&E’s Duck Dynasty.

“I believe I’ll be on a couple episodes,” said Angle. “It was pretty cool. I actually did an episode with Willy and Jep [Robertson], and their little kids, and I was teaching them how to wrestle. The episode is hilarious, and they have a real wrestling match where Willy and Jep are beating the hell out of each other.”

Part of Angle’s ability to connect with an audience, he explained, is thanks to his work with “Stone Cold” Steve Austin.

“We had chemistry from the beginning,” said Angle. “Austin is a real funny guy. He has a lot of great comedic timing, and you didn’t always see that because he was such a great bad ass. None of the stuff we did was scripted. Vince told us, ‘Listen, this is the issue we’re having, say what you have to say, and no one in this room laugh until I say cut.’ It just worked, and it was a blessing in disguise because Austin and I both got hurt at King of the Ring in 2001, so we were on the shelf. Their two biggest stars, at the time, weren’t wrestling, but they wanted to keep us on TV, so they teamed us up together.

“I’m not funny off-camera, so I didn’t know I could be funny. I didn’t even know if I could cut a promo. I really believe, when I started, they wanted to utilize me as just a good wrestler, a workhorse, but thank God I showed some personality. The more I showed, the more they utilized it. It turned out to be a blessing, but Vince didn’t know and I didn’t know. When I studied the promos, I had a photographic memory. I remembered everything they wrote down, so I had everything written for me at first. But nobody knew I’d be able to do that. It also showed a different side of Austin, too. He never really had the opportunity to be funny. I mean, he was entertaining as hell and could cut a promo better than anybody, but he was a certain intense character. He’s such a talented guy, he was even better with the shift over to the comedic side than he was as the ass-kicking ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin.”

Wrestling fans could potentially see Angle return in a “Babe Ruth” type of role with TNA.

“TNA has been really great to me, and they just offered me another contract to come back and be the face of the company and do something to teach the guys,” said Angle. “I’m taking that under consideration because they’ve always been loyal to me.”

Unfortunately for wrestling fans, Angle has no plans to compete at WrestleMania 32.

“As far as WWE, I’m not going to talk to them,” said Angle. “But I know my ability is just as good as it ever was. If WWE thinks I’m too old or my body isn’t durable or that I have a problem with medication–which I obviously don’t, I’ve been clean and sober for two years and nine months–but the issue has nothing to do with my talent.

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“There is a reason they passed on me last time. You’ve got to remember WWE is a publicly traded company and they have people to answer to, and you have a person who was pretty reckless from 2008 to 2013. I got hit with four DUIs. That’s pretty irresponsible. You have to look at a company that is publicly traded, like WWE, and the reputation they have to uphold, so you really have to be careful who you hire. And TNA is the reason why I’m clean and sober, so I have to give them credit, too. They allowed me time off to go to rehab and get my life together. So it’s one of those things where I’m not going to expect anything. Is it possible I go back to WWE somewhere along the lines? Of course. I think I’ll end up in the Hall of Fame, but I just don’t know if WWE will ever want me to wrestle again. It’s up to them and it’s up to me. I don’t know what I’m going to do. But if I do decide to do it, it would be nice. A lot of people would like to see it, so we’ll see what happens.”

Angle’s constant desire to be the best in amateur and professional wrestling was once the cause of his recklessness. Now, however, he finds strength and courage from his past to be a better father, man and performer.

“Wrestling is a sport that tests everything about you,” explained Angle. “It’s physically demanding, but it’s so mental because of the wins and the losses. It’s just a really physically, spiritually, and mentally draining sport. Very few people can do it, and wrestlers are different. They like pain. They like testing themselves, and when you test yourself in every aspect, it builds character. I’ve learned so much through that sport, and I’ve learned a lot through pro wrestling, too. I’ve had to be resilient to get back from injuries. I had such a problem with my neck from 2003 to 2007 where I had a round of bad luck where I broke my neck four separate times. I really think it was my resilience to get back sooner than I should have, and I don’t want to blame that on WWE. It really was me who wanted to rush back. Pro wrestling gave me some of that high as when I won the gold medal. I love main eventing. I love winning titles, I love putting on five-star matches.

“Performing for these incredible fans was my segue from the gold medal and a way to test myself to have the best match on the card. I take pride in doing that, and it’s crazy because everyone wants to wrestle me. You would not believe what the locker room has done the past few months and who wants to be on ‘Kurt Angle’s Farewell Tour.’ That shows the kind of kind of wrestler I’ve been able to become, the character I’ve been able to build, and being the one that everyone wants to have the best match with is such an honor. And every time I go to TV, there are ten guys asking, ‘Can I be your next match?’ It feels good to be the guy everyone wants to perform with–it’s good to be the man.”

Weekly Top 10

Getty Images

1.) Brock Lesnar, WWE

Lesnar served as a guest this past Monday for Chris Jericho’s Highlight Reel, and it was really surprising to see the way he was manhandled in the ring by Roman Reigns and the Wyatt Family. I still think Lesnar reclaims the belt on Sunday, and my final five consists of Reigns, Dean Ambrose, Chris Jericho, Lesnar, and a returning Triple H.

2.) Kevin Owens, WWE

Owens is the most exciting wrestler in the business. His commentary on Raw was extremely well done, and Michael Cole and Byron Saxton had a hard time keeping up with Owens. Will the winner of the Owens-Ambrose IC title on Sunday indicate the finish of the Rumble? The WWE likes to balance out their champions, so a face heavyweight champion (if Reigns wins) is potentially more likely if Owens reclaims his title. Either way, look for Owens to reclaim his gold this Sunday.

3.) Kazuchika Okada, New Japan Pro Wrestling

New Japan is in the middle of “Fantastica Mania 2016,” so another busy stretch is ahead for the IWGP champion. Okada teamed with Ultimo Dragon and Gedo to defeat Jushin Thunder Liger, Tanahashi and Mistico in a 15-minute main event this past Sunday, and was victorious again last night in front of a crowd of 820 fans -- along with Mephisto and WWE-bound Shinsuke Nakamura -- against Tanahashi, Juice Robinson and Volador, Jr. He defends the title tonight against Tanahashi, teams up with Nakamura on Friday, and is in another six-man tag match on Sunday.

4.) Roman Reigns, WWE

Not the finest moment for Reigns during his attempts at comedy with Chris Jericho during the prolonged opening segment on Raw. I sincerely hope he drops the belt at the Rumble -- he cannot have everything always go his way if people want to buy into the idea that he is an underdog. If we are truly to believe that Reigns has the odds stacked against him at this Sunday’s Royal Rumble, then the story can only progress by eliminating him.

Extra Mustard
Brad Maddox reflects on Vince McMahon, WWE’s concussion policy

5.) Dean Ambrose, WWE

I understand why Ambrose and Kalisto dropped the match on Raw to Sheamus and Alberto Del Rio, as it–in theory–builds momentum for the League of Nations in their match against Reigns on Smackdown. [Shouldn’t the League of Nations have to disband if Reigns defeats the entire group on Thursday?] But wouldn’t the Raw finish have been more effective if Kalisto – who is challenging Del Rio on Sunday for the United States title – picked up the win over Sheamus? The Rumble has a long history of friends eliminating one another, and it is time for Ambrose – who will lose his IC title on Sunday – to eliminate Reigns.

6.) Finn Bálor, NXT

Bálor is turning heel. Let me repeat – Bálor is turning heel! It’s an extremely important development, as he will be a heel on the WWE roster. He worked heel in match with Sami Zayn this past Friday in Green Bay, and more and more signs point to the birth of the Bálor Club debuting on the post-WrestleMania edition of Raw.

7.) Ethan Carter III, TNA

EC3 is now the former TNA champion. Matt Hardy turned heel on last night’s Impact, joining forces with Tyrus, and regained the title. The match was extremely well-done, and EC3 sold Hardy’s violent assault. Kurt Angle touches on the development in “This Week in Wrestling History,” but it will be extremely interesting to see how EC3 progresses and evolves as the top face in TNA.

8.) Jay Lethal, Ring of Honor

Ring of Honor’s “Winter Warriors” tour is in North Carolina and Georgia this weekend. Jay Lethal joins fellow Ring of Honor champions Roderick Strong (television champion) and War Machine (tag team champions) on Friday in an eight-man tag against the Bullet Club’s WWE-bound Karl “Machine Gun” Anderson/Doc Gallows and the Young Bucks and then he will defend his world title on Saturday against the Bucks’ Matt Jackson.

9.) AJ Styles, Ring of Honor

How will the former leader of the Bullet Club interact with the leader of the Bálor Club? Styles is free to appear at this Sunday’s Royal Rumble, as his send-off with Ring of Honor takes place this Saturday night in Duluth, Georgia. Styles is not scheduled to wrestle on the card, but he is a part of the signing. Will WWE fans be introduced to the Style Clash on Sunday? And who will be his first feud? Styles’ potential debut is reason enough to watch the Rumble.

10.) Zack Sabre, Jr., Pro Wrestling Guerrilla

Sabre enjoyed the weekend, capturing the Revolution Pro Wrestling British heavyweight championship after making AJ Styles tap. The talented Sabre was overshadowed after the finish by Styles’ farewell speech, but look for Sabre to exceed the work load set by Styles in Rev Pro–as well as capture much more gold.

Five Questions with… “The Miracle” Mike Bennett

Courtesy of @RealMikeBennett/Twitter

Now known as “The Miracle” in TNA, the Boston-bred Mike Bennett’s nickname is not too far off from the truth. He is married to the breathtaking Maria Kanellis, led the villainous stable “The Kingdom” with Matt Taven and Adam Cole, put together a successful run as tag team champion with Taven in Ring of Honor and New Japan Pro Wrestling, and the 30-year-old is now pursuing the TNA world championship.

SI.com: Why did you choose to work for TNA over Ring of Honor and WWE?

Mike Bennett: Maria and I were ready to try something different. “The Kingdom” was at its peak, and we both believe in the philosophy of getting out while you’re ahead. We wanted a change and wanted to create buzz, and we had a three-week tour of Japan. While we over there, TNA kept calling us and talking to us. David Lagana was the one calling. He was actually instrumental in getting me into Ring of Honor, and I’ve always kept a really good relationship with him. He reached out to me every time my Ring of Honor contract was up in previous years, but this felt like the right fit. At the end of the day, there is really something to be said about a company who wants you and is making the effort to really bring you in. Near the end of the Japan tour, we said, ‘This is it. We can put this company on our back and do something special over there.’ The move generated buzz because you don’t often hear TNA scoop up a free agent in the prime of his career.

SI.com: How difficult was it for you to break up “The Kingdom”? Would you consider bringing the group back together in TNA? And who are your other close friends in the business?

Mike Bennett: Breaking up “The Kingdom” was literally the hardest part of deciding where to go. “The Kingdom” isn’t just four guys who were put on television because they looked good together–it is four people who are legitimately best friends in the wrestling business. Matt Taven and Adam Cole were both at my wedding, and Taven actually officiated my wedding with Maria. I helped train Matt Taven from the minute he got in the business, me and Adam Cole got each other signed for dark matches, we went to the same WWE tryout together–and we both got told no by WWE. We both went back to Ring of Honor together, both went to New Japan, and we’ve all traveled this road together. And of course Maria is my wife, but she’s also become such good friends with Adam and Matt. So that was the hardest part. Literally the last match we had together was when Taven tore his ACL. I’m sitting here as his best friend thinking, “I’m leaving him at the worst possible moment.” But our last night together–the four of us huddled in a group–and both Adam and Taven said, ‘This is what you need to do, you need to go.’ But there is no doubt that “The Kingdom” will be back together.

In wrestling, there is a saying that you have a lot of acquaintances, but very few friends. It’s true, but the friends you have are the ones who are inseparable. Adam Cole and Matt Taven are my best friends through and through, and as far as New Japan, I talk to [WWE bound] Karl Anderson all the time. He helped me get over there and showed me everything. The only one I consistently talk to in WWE is Kevin [Owens] Steen. He was so influential when he was in Ring of Honor and we became really good friends.

SI.com: After a successful run in a tag team, what is the biggest challenge to transitioning back to singles wrestling? Who are you looking forward to wrestling? And are you ready to carry a company as world champion?

Mike Bennett: There are two differences -- the work load and a lot more pressure. With singles, it’s just you and your opponent, and the spotlight is on. You can’t hide behind anyone if you’re injured. When I was in Japan, I did a three-week tour with a broken rib. If it wasn’t for Taven, I wouldn’t have got through the tour. He picked up what I couldn’t do.

Extra Mustard
TNA’s Dixie Carter, Jeff Jarrett team up in face of uncertain futures

There are so many guys I’m looking forward to wrestling in TNA. I’ve probably wrestled Eddie Edwards a half a million times, and I feel like I’ve got better since the last time I wrestled him, so I’m super excited to wrestle him again. Guys like Eric Young, Bobby Roode and James Storm, and even though it probably won’t happen, I would love to get in there with Kurt Angle. But the reason I was brought to TNA was to go against EC3.

And if you don’t want to be world champ, then stay home. That’s why we work so hard and sacrifice, travel all the time and miss birthdays–it’s to be the world champ. Not only do I have the possibility to be the world champ at TNA, but I truly want to be the guy who the company puts on its back and says, “Let’s go.” And that’s not to say no one else can do it–I’m just saying I want that spot.

SI.com: Marriages do not often last in wrestling, yet you married to Maria. What makes her so special? And how is it working with your wife?

Mike Bennett: When you hear “wrestling couple,” there is always a negative connotation. That’s the history of it, but the thing that set Maria and I apart are that we don’t consider ourselves a wrestling couple. We just consider ourselves a normal couple and our profession happens to be professional wrestling. We’re a couple first, and it comes down to respect. I respect what she does as much as what I do. I look to her for help and she looks to me for help. I respect where she’s gone and where I haven’t gone, and she respects where I’ve gone and where she hasn’t. She’s been on Celebrity Apprentice and been on millions of homes in the pinnacle of wrestling, and I get that. What’s good for her is good for the collective unit, so it really comes down to respect.

SI.com: If you are the “Pro Wrestling Jesus,” then would you anoint Tom Brady the “Football Jesus”?

Mike Bennett: One hundred percent. Since the Patriots won the game [against Kansas City] on Saturday, Maria has been doing the driving and I’ve been online reading a list of Brady’s accomplishments to her. I think she’s getting annoyed with me. But he’s incredible, and I tell her all the time that I have a man-crush on him. Brady is the greatest who ever lived. Joe Montana is a super close second, but to me, it’s Tom Brady and then everyone else.

A Female Perspective

Courtesy of TNA

Gail Kim is the reigning, five-time TNA Knockouts champion, as well as a former WWE women’s champion. She continually advocated for a more serious approach to women’s division in the WWE, and was happy for the female wrestlers when the company unveiled the “Diva’s Revolution.”

“The really hardcore fans know that this is what I wanted for so long, and I’m really happy for the girls there,” said Kim. “I’m still friends with Nattie [Neidhart], and Alicia Fox is one of my best friends, and I always tell them to make the most of their exposure on Total Divas. I’m happy when they get more opportunity, but I would like to see more concrete storylines for the women.”

Kim is pleased with the current direction of women’s wrestling.

“It’s a really good time for women, but there are ups and downs,” she explained. “Ronda Rousey proved that women can be a draw and an attraction, so WWE followed in those footsteps. They’re so big, and they are the ones who can make the greatest impact. But in all honesty, they could have done it years before Ronda Rousey because there were a lot of great performers.

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“I wish WWE had their own creative team for the girls. They could have an even stronger women’s division. Nattie should have been utilized way beyond the way they used her in the past couple years. I know how she feels about wrestling and I know how passionate she is, and how much she wants to give to the business. That’s part of the reason I left that company. I felt like I was wasting my time, and I had so much more to give. It wasn’t about the money any more, it was about my happiness and being able to give the fans what I want to give them.”

Kim remains as beautiful as ever at the age of 38, but as evidenced by her victory over Awesome Kong last night on Impact, her success has lasted because of the dedication to her craft.

“I was very green when I started in WWE and felt very uncomfortable with talking,” said Kim. “I kept asking myself how I could make that connection with the people watching, and I wanted to do it by being the best wrestler. People at WWE would say, ‘It doesn’t matter if you’re the best wrestler,’ but I would think about Dean Malenko and Chris Benoit and Rey Mysterio. They weren’t necessarily the greatest talkers, but they were great wrestlers. I wanted to be that person.”

Kim explained that the biggest difference for women working with the WWE and TNA is the way the company treats you on camera.

“We’ve never had problem with the company utilizing us,” said Kim. “We’ve always had the opportunity to show our talent, and they do a really good job of portraying us in a really strong way. And I’ve always felt like I had a voice, and that means a lot to me.”

Kim spoke highly of the Bayley-Sasha Banks match from NXT Takeover: Brooklyn, but stressed that a big reason why the match meant so much was because of the incredible storytelling that led up to the match.

“People felt their emotion and their passion, and that’s when people care,” said Kim. “That’s the main reason people connected to me. Halfway through my career, people realized I was really passionate about women’s wrestling. My first feud with Kong, way back, was successful because we had the slow build. People got invested every week. I truly believe that is a big reason why it was successful, as everything means a whole lot more. And that’s what I grew up with – I was so invested with Ricky ‘The Dragon’ Steamboat and Jake ‘The Snake,’ and their feud was built up over months and you became so invested.”

TNA’s “Knockouts” division is in a transitional role. Taryn Terrell and Brooke are both no longer with the company, Kim confirmed, but she also sees a bright future for Jade. Surrounded by a talented roster, Kim is proud to lead the women in TNA.

“I’m going to continue to give everything I’ve got in the ring,” said Kim. “I always want my matches to be the best. That has never changed and it will not until the day I retire, but now I’m at a stage where I’m helping the girls. I want to make the division the best, and a lot of the girls respect my opinion and do want my help. We have a really great locker room, and we just want it to be the best.

“I always want to make magic happen in that ring. I’m not going to lie, my body is catching up to me now, but when you step through that curtain, the pain all goes away. I have a bunch of ideas, so we’ll see what happens.”

Some Thoughts on WrestleMania 

My favorite WrestleMania?

WrestleMania XIV.

WrestleMania 17 forever changed the business, and the cards on 18-20 were absolutely loaded, but the build-up to fourteen was incredible. There was so much time spent building each match, as WWE produced a movie-trailer quality vignette to make us care. It was also the turning point in the battle against World Championship Wrestling.

Oh, and one other thing: there were no returning superstars or big names who returned for the card.

Yes, Mike Tyson was involved. He was a fantastic addition, but he had a very limited role that was marketed extremely well. If you recall the actual Shawn Michaels-Steve Austin main event, Tyson was the outside ring enforcer. That's not exactly setting the world on fire.

This year’s WrestleMania will be devoid of many superstars, most notably Daniel Bryan, Randy Orton, Seth Rollins, and now John Cena. But with The Rock, Brock Lesnar, Roman Reigns, and the Undertaker, the card will offer enough firepower in terms of name value. But the injuries have forced WWE to do a better job with its storytelling.

John Cena has fought at the past two WrestleManias against Bray Wyatt and Rusev. His presence in the buildup to the show, no doubt, will be missed, but his absence is far from the WWE’s worst nightmare. Just like business continued after Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, and Steve Austin left the company, WWE will continue to operate. Regardless of what is done to enhance the numbers, WrestleMania 32’s attendance will be over 100,000.

Extra Mustard
Kevin Nash talks Sting in the NWO, Shawn Michaels in WCW and more

There is legitimate intrigue and suspense over the top matches. Triple H will don the tights for a match with Roman Reigns, but there is no known direction yet for Lesnar, ‘Taker, or The Rock. The most exciting piece of the show itself is that we should be able to witness quality, extended wrestling matches with storyline and drama -- and it is necessary to have a compelling build-up leading into the show. A WrestleMania void of so much star power has to deliver in another manner, and hopefully this year’s game plan is in its preparation.

Also, Bret Hart and Roddy Piper would not have fought a classic match at WrestleMania VIII in six minutes. They needed time to develop a story, rhythm and connection with the crowd. That’s the same story with the WrestleMania matches between Randy Savage and Ricky Steamboat, as well as Hulk Hogan and The Rock. While the main event is always given enough time to succeed, this is the year in which greater emphasis should be placed on the undercard. Give 25 minutes to Dean Ambrose and Chris Jericho. Do away with 50/50 booking and let Kevin Owens violently assault The Rock. There is no better opponent on Planet Earth right now for The Undertaker than AJ Styles. Put Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson in the TLC match, and give wrestling fans the privilege of watching Shinsuke Nakamura and Dolph Ziggler dance for fifteen minutes. Call up Finn Bálor and watch as he brings out another side to Alberto Del Rio. The women were overshadowed last year -- The Rock’s verbal confrontation with Triple H lasted over five times as long as the Diva’s tag team match -- but hopefully creative is building to a meaningful payoff at ‘Mania between Becky Lynch and Charlotte.

There is still plenty to be excited about, and this is before considering all of the sublime Paul Heyman promos that will lead up to the biggest show in sports and entertainment. The road to WrestleMania is just starting. If done correctly, the loss of so many superstars will allow for the rebirth of the entire roster.

The Tweet of the Week

The @WWESubway handle has offered some of the funniest wrestling tweets of the past three weeks, but this one gets me every single time.

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.

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