Show business has hold on Angle

Career: The former Olympian has his heart into knuckling down on the mat and stage.

Pro Wrestling

August 20, 2005|By Kevin Eck | Kevin Eck,SUN STAFF

With a gold medal draped around his neck, Kurt Angle couldn't hold back the tears as he stood proudly on the podium, his right hand across his heart, as "The Star-Spangled Banner" played.

It was the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, and Angle had just won the 220-pound freestyle wrestling competition.

The fact that he even qualified for the Olympics was amazing, because he did it with a broken neck, which he had suffered while winning the nationals.

Coming from a blue-collar background, the clean-cut, baby-faced Angle was quickly embraced as America's newest sports hero. He was a guest on national talk shows and even had two parades in his honor.

Currently one of the main attractions in World Wrestling Entertainment, Angle still invokes a spirited reaction. But instead of adulation, he routinely has an arena-full of fans chanting "You suck" at him, and he expects a similar response tomorrow night when he performs on WWE's SummerSlam pay-per-view show at MCI Center.

Now, is that any way to treat an Olympic hero?

It is in the bizarre world of professional wrestling, where milk-drinking straight-arrows like Angle are portrayed as the bad guys, and beer-guzzling rebels are the fan favorites.

A legitimate world-class athlete like Angle might seem out of place in that world, with its over-the-top theatrics and pre-determined outcomes, but he couldn't be more serious about his often-mocked profession. He is as driven to be recognized as the best pro wrestler of all time as he was to win the gold medal.

"A lot of people in this business claim to be the best," Angle, 36, said, "but I truly believe there's nobody better than me. I want to be considered the greatest ever."

To put his comments into context, he's not talking about wanting to be the biggest star in pro wrestling history. He knows the fans will never put him in the same class with Hulk Hogan and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.

Holds nothing back

Angle is speaking in terms of a well-worked pro wrestling match being an art form. Despite WWE's sometimes-farcical presentation as a testosterone-laden soap opera - and Angle readily admits what he does is entertainment, not true sport - his goal always is to deliver the most compelling, realistic and athletic-looking match on the card.

"I want to steal the show every time I'm out there," said Angle, who is 6 feet 2, 220 pounds. "When you watch Hulk Hogan, he doesn't look quite as crisp and sharp and his technique isn't what mine is. Not to put down Hulk, but I have to look real because I am real.

"I actually have more of a passion for this than I did for amateur wrestling."

Angle, who has continued to battle severe neck injuries since starting with WWE in 1999, already has earned a reputation in the pro wrestling industry as one of the top in-ring performers.

"He may not go down as the greatest of all time because of the injuries and [lack of] longevity, but he is already an all-time great," said Dave Meltzer, editor and publisher of theWrestling Observer Newsletter.

"The Kurt Angle of two years ago, match after match, was as good as anyone I've ever seen. I don't know if he can still do it at that level night after night, but he's still at the top of the list of the best guys in the business today."

Angle didn't always have a passion for pro wrestling, however. Like most amateur wrestlers, Angle - who was a two-time NCAA Division I heavyweight champion at Clarion, is a member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and was recognized last year as one of the 15 greatest NCAA wrestlers of all time - never paid any attention to pro wrestling and considered it a joke.

In fact, when WWE chairman Vince McMahon offered him a lucrative contract a few days after he won the gold medal, Angle turned it down, later remarking that there was a better chance of his joining the circus than becoming a pro wrestler.

But after a brief stint as a sports anchor in his hometown of Pittsburgh and a failed attempt to land a spot with the Steelers as a fullback, Angle decided to give WWE a second look.

Signed to a developmental deal for significantly less than WWE's initial offer, he proved to be a natural in the ring and charismatic on the microphone. Less than a year after his debut, Angle won the WWE championship from "The Rock."

He also had to lose a few matches along the way, which didn't sit well with him initially.

A new mind-set

"When I first started, I said, `Vince, I don't ever want to lose,' " Angle said. "He was like, `Are you crazy? Nobody goes undefeated.'

"I had to forget everything I learned in amateur wrestling. I had to learn how to give my body up to my opponent, how to [show pain] - and not just to the person in the front row; the people in the rafters need to see the pain, so you have to overdo [your facial expressions]."

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