Personal battle against pain should be Angle's last match

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The Kickoff

September 05, 2006|By KEVIN ECK

World Wrestling Entertainment commentators Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler spoke in a somber tone that was eerily familiar to pro wrestling fans during last week's broadcast of Monday Night Raw.

It was a segment devoid of the usual hyperbole and theatrics of professional wrestling, a signal to viewers that what they were seeing was not part of a story line.

Too often over the years, what came next was the announcement that a pro wrestler, usually in his 30s or 40s, had died. This time, however, the news was far less grave. In fact, another tragedy just might have been averted.

Kurt Angle, who had won a gold medal in wrestling at the 1996 Olympics before becoming one of WWE's top stars, had been released from his contract, Ross told the audience. Ross and Law- ler then made vague references to Angle having some "personal issues" to deal with and that they hoped to see him back in WWE in the near future.

Angle's business manager, David Hawk, was more specific when addressing the wrestler's departure on WWE's Web site two days earlier: "Kurt's in a tremendous amount of pain. He's used prescription medication to deal with it. Kurt has come to the conclusion that unless he can get in the ring without the use of pain medication, then he doesn't need to be in there."

Although WWE said Angle's release was a mutual decision, wrestlingobserver.com, a reputable source for wrestling news, reported that it was the company's call to let him go. If that, indeed, is the case, WWE chairman Vince McMahon is to be applauded for attempting to save Angle from himself.

McMahon is a polarizing figure to say the least, but the firing of Angle, one of his main event performers, seems to indicate that he is serious about addressing the wrestling industry's sad history of drug abuse and untimely deaths.

To that end, McMahon instituted a drug-testing policy to screen for steroids and other drugs last November after the death of 38-year-old wrestler Eddie Guerrero, who had publicly battled an addiction to pain medication and alcohol.

Over the ensuing months, a number of wrestlers with freakish physiques deflated right before our eyes. Others - including Angle earlier this summer - disappeared off television for a month, reportedly because they were serving 30-day suspensions for failing a drug test.

For those who are followers of pro wrestling, the fact that Angle, 37, required pain medication to perform is not a revelation, as his history of major neck injuries is well-documented. His determination to excel and to push himself also is well-known in wrestling circles.

This is the same guy who won a gold medal in freestyle wrestling's 220-pound division in '96 after suffering cracked vertebrae and having two disks pushed directly into his spinal column while winning the nationals.

Angle's neck problems resurfaced after starting with WWE in 1999. In 2003, he ignored doctors who told him he needed spinal fusion surgery, choosing instead to undergo a minimally invasive procedure that allowed him to return to the ring within a couple of months.

Not surprisingly, the issues with his neck returned and gradually worsened from the constant pounding he was taking in the ring. Sure, pro wrestling is scripted entertainment, but there is a saying among the wrestlers that what they do isn't ballet. It hurts.

And Angle, considered by many observers to be one of the all-time best in-ring performers, did not tone down his high-impact style. Although pro wrestling is viewed by its critics as lowbrow slapstick, Angle was as driven to be the greatest pro wrestler ever as he was to win a gold medal.

Unfortunately, his body was betraying him, and like a lot of athletes, Angle seemed to have difficulty accepting it. When I interviewed him for a story in The Sun last year, my impression was that he was in denial about his deteriorating physical condition.

"I do everything I can to keep my back and neck in condition," he said at the time, "and I don't have any problems with my neck right now."

In the past couple of months, however, Angle has been spiraling downward. In addition to his neck, Angle suffered hamstring and groin injuries. And to make matters worse, it has been reported that his wife, Karen, who is pregnant with the couple's second child, recently filed for divorce.

This past February, I actually sat next to Karen Angle and her 3-year-old daughter, Kyra, as Angle was headlining a WWE pay-per-view show at 1st Mariner Arena. At one point in the match, Angle took a particularly nasty spill outside the ring, right in front of us.

Kyra was upset, but her mother tried to reassure her that "Daddy's OK. He's just acting." I sensed that Karen wasn't really sure that was the case, and as I watched him writhe in pain and clutch his neck, neither was I.

Guerrero had died just three months earlier, and as I looked at Karen and Kyra Angle, I couldn't help but think about the widow and three daughters Guerrero left behind.

As a wrestling fan, I'm going to miss watching Angle wrestle every week on television. But I think the best thing for him and his family is that he not return to the ring. In just seven years in the business, he already has accomplished more than wrestlers who have been around for decades.

He has nothing to prove and a lot to lose.

Kevin Eck is an assistant sports editor at The Sun.

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