Kurt Angle didn't expect to be a heel. When he made his World
Wrestling Federation debut in November 1999, three years after
winning an Olympic gold medal in the 220-pound freestyle
division, he flirted with fantasies of being a good guy--a
babyface, in industry parlance--celebrated, as he was in Atlanta
in '96, for his skill and dedication to his craft. Minutes into
his maiden match, however, the rapid-fire catcalls of "Angle, you
suck!" disabused him of his pretensions to popularity. And when
WWF impresario Vince McMahon called instructions into the
referee's earpiece, Angle's persona became clear. "The ref told
me McMahon wanted me to wrap it up quick, then grab the
microphone and lay into the crowd," Angle says while plowing
through a breakfast of steak and eggs at a midtown Manhattan
hotel. "So I did. I started telling the crowd, arrogant as can
be, 'You do not boo an Olympic champion!' When the boos got even
louder and the people got even more pissed, I thought, 'Now I
know what they want me to be.' I talk about my success. I tell
the fans they can't be me. I take my gold medal and stick it
right up their rear ends."
By pairing a wildly egomaniacal character with unrivaled amateur
wrestling credentials, Angle has become one of the WWF's biggest
draws, a heel (trade slang for villain) whose meteoric rise
points to an astute change in the WWF's business plan. Though the
federation concedes that its product is "sports entertainment,"
it has in the past eight years actively courted elite athletes
"When I took this job in '94, our roster was old, recycled and
not as athletic as it should have been," says Jim Ross, the
WWF's senior vice president of talent relations. "If I just
wanted showmen, I could go to Hollywood or Gold's Gym and find
the guy with the biggest arms or the guy who cuts the best
promos. By recruiting legitimate athletes, I get guys who are
physically durable and mentally tough. What we do is
showmanship, but getting slammed, getting tossed over the ropes
200 nights a year--if you don't have that toughness about you,
you're not going to make it."
The federation is now quick to promote the athletic backgrounds
of its biggest names, including The Rock (Dwayne Johnson, a
former defensive lineman at Miami) and Stone Cold Steve Austin
(defensive end at North Texas). Half of its 100-odd wrestlers
have traditional sports backgrounds, up from one fifth a decade
ago. Most remarkable is the federation's success in poaching
former amateur wrestlers, who have traditionally had a strong
distaste for the phony pro game. The defections of Angle and 2000
NCAA heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar of Minnesota to the WWF
were greeted with hostility by many in the amateur wrestling
community because for years pro wrestling has been perceived as
sullying the sport. "I was told I would damage my gold medal,"
Angle says. "I was told I wouldn't be remembered as an Olympian."
That attitude is beginning to change, especially given the
paucity of postcollegiate options available to elite wrestlers,
whose career choices are essentially limited to coaching or
Olympic training. "Those old-school coaches, if they want to sit
and starve and not change with the times, they can sit and
rot--that's my philosophy," Lesnar says. "You've got to be open to
new things. Those guys, they're just hard-nosed and hardheaded,
and they're a dying breed."
Angle's success--and sudden wealth--has shifted the conventional
wisdom among amateur wrestlers. Bottom-rung salaries in the WWF
approach six figures, and a wrestler of Angle's stature can take
in $1 million annually. "If you stay with wrestling up to the
Olympic level, you don't have a career. You're paying the bills,"
says four-time Olympic medalist Bruce Baumgartner, the athletic
director at Edinboro (Pa.) University. "Pro wrestling isn't
continuing your athletic career, but it's an avenue to use the
skills you have to pursue other goals--performing, acting. There's
not the same resentment of pro wrestling as there was when it
professed to be real."
The attention-starved world of amateur wrestling, however, hardly
prepares its athletes for the bawdy spectacle of the WWF.
Although former amateurs can draw on technique, they must prove
quick studies in the theatricality required of pros. "It may be
harder for amateurs because of what we're taught," Angle says.
"Amateur fans are most impressed by what they don't see: a
takedown that happened so fast they missed it. Fans here don't go
for that. They want to see people jumping off the top rope and
flying through the air, they want to hear the loud slams, the
smacks on the canvas--they want it all laid out slowly. In amateur
wrestling, the quicker the better."
The irony is that each discipline has something to teach the
other. For all the WWF's focus on (often comic) violence, amateur
bouts are just as potent. "I wish people were more knowledgeable
about amateur wrestling," Lesnar laments. "They don't understand
the physicality of it. It's a one-on-one legal fight. Without
punching or eye-gouging you go out and literally try to beat
someone up. It takes a tough s.o.b." For their part, the
cash-poor and underpublicized amateur ranks could benefit from a
fan-friendlier approach. "I like the amateur who thinks about
entertainment, whether it's his flurry of moves or his style,"
says wrestling legend Dan Gable, now assistant to the athletic
director at Iowa. "We need more crowd appeal, we need more
entertainment, we need better promotion. We could take a page
from the WWF there." Such a boost may be imminent: The WWF has
already approved a two-year paid hiatus for Angle to train for
the 2004 Olympics. He pegs his odds of making it at 50-50.
"Wrestlers," wrote the French critic Roland Barthes, "remain gods
because they are...the pure gesture which separates Good from
Evil." While the signature of pro wrestling is the bright line
its melodramas draw between babyfaces and heels, the similarly
sharp distinction the amateur community has attempted to maintain
between pure sport and sellout has begun to blur. As amateur
wrestling evolves, the likelihood of future crossovers only
increases. Amateurs can look past the money for only so long, and
as the most accomplished of their number, like Angle, arrive, the
simple lesson to critics is this: You do not boo an Olympic
remembered as an Olympian."