“I Can’t Lose”: The Incredible Story of Kurt Angle

John Pollock examines the career of Kurt Angle that was full of incredible highs and frightening lows as he embarks on his farewell match.

On March 30th, 2003, Kurt Angle walked down the extended aisle at Safeco Field unaware of the effects the following 25 minutes would have on his future. The Olympic gold medalist was days away from experimental neck surgery and did not belong anywhere near a wrestling ring, much less in the main event of WrestleMania 19 against Brock Lesnar. Close observers of the industry watched the match with uneasiness, concerned that one bad fall or slip up may end his career.

On Sunday, 16 years removed from that night in Seattle, Kurt Angle will once again walk into a stadium-sized WrestleMania, though instead of fearing it being Angle’s final match, many are concerned it won’t be.

The story of Kurt Angle cannot be solely told by describing his exploits, achievements and high points. Despite being an athlete who ignored pain, Angle suffered more than most.

Kurt was subjected to a tragedy at an early age when he lost his father David, a crane operator, who fell to his death in 1984. It left the 16-year-old with a void that he attempted to fill through athletic achievement on the football field and wrestling mat. Sport would become a coping mechanism, a distraction, an outlet, a curse, and a release for Angle from that point forward.

He rose to prominence within the Pittsburgh sports world, opting to stay local by accepting a scholarship to lower-ranked Clarion University, wrestling at heavyweight despite his smaller size. He once again dealt with a personal loss at the college level when he experienced the death of his grandmother, a strong figure in his life, causing Angle to further compartmentalize his emotional and physical ailments as he dealt with a knee injury to win the nationals.

In his 2001 biography, It’s True, It’s True, Angle outlined an inhumane workout regimen as he pushed himself towards the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. It was in the leadup towards the Olympics that Angle’s next brush with tragedy occurred with the senseless murder of his coach Dave Schultz at the hands of John du Pont. The harrowing tale of Schultz’s murder was documented in the 2014 film, Foxcatcher.

While the emotional toll was one thing, Angle’s physical restraints were another. Two and a half months out from Atlanta, he suffered two herniated discs and two cracked vertebrae in his neck. While many would consider immediate retirement upon hearing the diagnosis, Angle opted to be shot up with Novocaine in order to prolong his pursuit of Olympic gold.

It was the most high-profile example of Angle’s dangerous ability to shut down physical and emotional trauma. On July 31st, 1996, his ability to negotiate with his body helped him defeat Iran’s Abbas Jadidi in the men’s freestyle heavyweight wrestling final at the Summer Games, earning him a gold medal. Angle would go on to encapsulate his journey with the marketable catchphrase, “I won an Olympic gold medal with a broken freakin’ neck!”

Angle’s entry into professional wrestling is well-documented following a one-off appearance at ECW’s High Incident card in October 1996, Angle appeared to swear pro wrestling off. The World Wrestling Federation met with Angle and expressed their desire for him to join Mark Henry as the latest U.S. Olympian on the roster. Angle was enticed by the dollar figure, but only agreed to sign with one caveat: “I can’t lose.” At the insistence of his management, Angle never signed the lucrative offer.

Without seeing a bright future in sports broadcasting and in time, shedding the negative connotation pro wrestling held within his world of amateur athletics, Angle circled back to the WWF in 1998. It had only been two years, but the fortunes of the company had steadily increased from the doldrums of 1996. Angle was signed but wasn’t going to be thrust into the spotlight. Instead, he would work his way through WWF’s developmental system, learning from scratch following a tryout camp run by Dory Funk Jr. and Tom Prichard.

By 1999, Angle was assigned to Power Pro Wrestling in Memphis. In November, he was walking down the aisle in the Joe Louis Arena at the Survivor Series.

Angle’s rise within the profession drew comparisons to Jun Akiyama and Owen Hart, examples of talent that took to wrestling like fish to water. His first year on the main roster wrapped up with a WWF championship win on October 22nd, 2000, defeating The Rock in Albany, New York. While only keeping the title warm until it returned to The Rock the following February, Angle played a key role in elevating the WWF’s in-ring product at the time.

Along with the additions of Chris Jericho, Chris Benoit, Eddy Guerrero, Edge, Christian, The Hardys, and The Dudleys to the roster, the company developed a solid core that complimented its established mix of main event stars. Angle stood out among that crop with his ability to seamlessly navigate to the main event picture. He was a homegrown product that set himself apart from WCW signings, acquiring the skills of a complete package in record time.

While Angle was a standout from bell-to-bell, his amazing comedic talents would become both gift and curse. Gone was the bumbling sportscaster devoid of charisma; in its place was an over-confident ex-Olympian, leaving his “legitimate athlete” ego at the doorstep to play a character that was often the butt of jokes. He was so easy to script for that it impeded his ability to break through as a money-drawing main event star by the time his comedy needed to be abandoned.

As a pro wrestler, Angle possessed the same sacrificial mentality from his amateur wrestling days. In a 2001 interview with Michael Landsberg on Off the Record, Angle stated that mortgaging his future mobility was a deal he may be willing to make, understanding that the physical toll he put on his body could eventually land him in a wheelchair.

If you’re looking for a time when Angle finally listened to his body, it came in 2002 when he flirted with the idea of making a run at the 2004 Olympic Games. After training at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Angle concluded that making the team was too tall of a task, even for him. He would have been 35 by the time the 2004 Games began and would have sacrificed two years of his pro wrestling prime, placing a lucrative career on hold to chase a goal that had already been accomplished six years prior.

Months later, Angle’s neck was wrecked and he was staring at the prospect of joining an increasing number of performers who had lost a year of their careers to fusion surgery. However, surgery was secondary to the immediate task, wrestling Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania 19 in March. Angle spoke to The Voice and his mentality in 2003 was clear, “I couldn’t leave [Vince McMahon] and the company hanging like that; I had a duty to suck it up.”

Today, there would be no way Angle would be greenlit for such a match, but in 2003, he was. It was a nail-biting affair as Angle walked into Safeco Field not wanting to simply “get through the match” but put on another classic. They had a phenomenal match, marred by a match-ending shooting star press that ironically, nearly broke Lesnar’s neck and left him glassy-eyed. WrestleMania went off the air with fans unsure if the company had just lost both of its top stars on the SmackDown brand.

What the audience wasn’t aware of was Angle’s discovery of an alternative method to neck surgery through Pittsburgh-based Dr. Hae Dong Jho. The term “experimental” is not one which many would associate with neck surgery. Angle, however, saw a shortcut back to the ring and opted for the less invasive operation that would clean up his spinal column and allow him to return to the ring in three months instead of one year.

It was a surgery that was recommended to Angle by Scott Hall and in the short-term, lived up to its billing as Angle returned to in-ring action in June. However, an errant chair shot that fall undid a lot of the work, putting Angle in a constant need of pain medication to offset the physical toll.

The WWE was in flux during this era, searching for their next crossover star after losing Steve Austin and The Rock. In its absence, performers like Angle were the glue that helped build the bridge from one generation to the next. Angle never rose to the status of being the top guy but was never far. He was also putting on some of the best matches in the world, making his claim as the best wrestler within it.

Angle continued to ignore pain, sending his body’s warning signs to an internal voicemail. To offset the distractions, Angle turned to his own coping techniques, leading him down a road of excessive pill use and dependency that would plague him for the next decade of his life. In later years, Angle stated that at his worst, he was taking up to 65 pain pills per day.

Angle’s mind did not operate like the normal athlete’s. He was on a level few had experienced, possessing an internal drive that brought him an Olympic gold medal and normalized his reliance on stretching the limits of the human body. Never was this more apparent than throughout 2003 and 2004 when Angle was never shy about campaigning for a dream match against Bret Hart at WrestleMania 20.

Hart, having survived a stroke in June 2002, was lucky to be alive and had no goals of stepping into a ring with one of the best in the world. This didn’t compute for Angle – a man once nicknamed “Cyborg” – who just saw a fellow athlete that could flip his switch “on” as he did on so many nights.

By 2006, Angle’s physical and mental state were of concern. He had worn himself into the ground with a demanding schedule, painkiller addiction and a determination to get himself to the next match by any means. The breaking point occurred during the summer in a closed-door meeting with Vince McMahon, resulting in Angle’s release from the company.

WWE was cutting ties with one of its biggest stars. Angle would maintain that he asked for a reduced schedule and only requested his release when he was turned down. The company’s language at the time stated, “WWE and Kurt Angle came to a mutual agreement on an early release from Angle’s contract.”

“I think Kurt has some issues he has to face, as we all do from time to time. We all have our demons, and as human beings, it is important for us to overcome them and become better human beings, athletes and business people”. – Vince McMahon, August 2006

At 37 years old, Angle’s body was breaking down and yet, he saw his future in the UFC. Angle was courted by the red-hot company in the summer of 2006. The UFC was shattering their own pay-per-view records, drawing 620,000 buys in May when Matt Hughes fought Royce Gracie, topping themselves seven weeks later with a rematch between Tito Ortiz and Ken Shamrock that drew 775,000 buys.

The two sides had discussions with an idea to pair Kurt with Daniel Puder, playing off of a legitimate rivalry developed on SmackDown in October 2004 when Puder applied a “shoot” kimura onto Angle. Referee Jimmy Korderas thought on his feet and counted Puder’s shoulders on the mat to get Angle out of a dangerous spot. A tense exchange between Angle and Puder followed:

Angle would ultimately sign with TNA Wrestling. It was likely his best option on the table, providing him with a safer environment than MMA and a significantly lighter schedule than the demands of a full-time WWE performer. Angle would always flirt with the idea of an MMA fight, including talks about entering The Ultimate Fighter in 2010, negotiations with Elite XC, IFL, Bodog Fight and always keeping MMA closely tied to his persona within TNA.

While his time in TNA will never receive the attention of his WWE run, Angle never slowed down and created classics during his nine-year stint with the company. With a mix of established veterans and rising stars, Angle would have memorable matches with AJ Styles, Christian, Jeff Jarrett, Jeff Hardy, Bobby Roode, Christopher Daniels, Frankie Kazarian, Jay Lethal, Abyss, and many others. His best drawing opponent was Samoa Joe; a dream match scenario when Angle first arrived in September 2006.

The introductory head butt delivered by Angle that split Joe’s head open was among the most memorable visuals in the company’s history. Their pay-per-view matches in November and December were among the highest rated the company ever produced. With a sports-like build up and an authentic MMA presentation, the two generated the best pay-per-view number in TNA history at the Lockdown event in April 2008, ending with Joe winning his first TNA title.

It was also in TNA that Angle was forced to confront his mounting personal problems.

Angle developed a trend of getting caught up with the authorities in a series of very public arrests. He was charged with driving under the influence in 2007, arrested with human growth hormone found in his car in 2009, driving while intoxicated in 2011, driving under the influence in September 2011, and a final DWI in August 2013.

As a former talent for the company, Angle was able to enter WWE-sponsored rehab in 2013. He believes it saved his life, stating that he has been clean ever since.

After departing TNA in March 2016, Angle was hopeful of returning to the WWE. He got his wish with an induction into the company’s Hall of Fame over WrestleMania 33 weekend in 2017. The Hall of Fame opened the door for Angle to assume a regular on-air position as Raw General Manager.

Inevitably, Angle wrestled for the company after being cleared, although his return was not treated to the degree reserved for major stars from the past.

After a series of events led to talent being removed from the TLC card in October 2017 (including Roman Reigns suffering a case of the mumps), Angle was chosen as a last-minute substitution, teaming with Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins against Braun Strowman, Kane, Cesaro, Sheamus and The Miz in a 3-on-5 handicap match.

Angle was used sporadically, with his high point of the past two years occurring at WrestleMania 34 in April 2018, teaming with Ronda Rousey in her debut match against Triple H and Stephanie McMahon.

Angle’s march towards his retirement has been anything but memorable. It’s been a struggle.

For years, there were stories of Angle hobbling backstage, only to flip the switch on when it was time to perform like the Kurt Angle of old. At 50 years, that switch has become harder and harder to turn on. Over the past few months, Angle’s body has shouted instructions loud and clear with Angle finally answering the call. As a father, husband, accomplished athlete and recovering alcohol and drug addict, Angle’s goals should no longer be focused on producing match-of-the-year contenders. He has a lifetime of those matches to reflect upon, burning the candle at both ends while nearly extinguishing his own flame in the process.

Kurt Angle’s legacy will not be defined by the final year of his career, nor the height of his highest moonsault from a steel cage, nor the condition of his neck in his battle with Abbas Jadidi. Instead, perhaps Angle should be most remembered for accomplishing everything he has in the face of great tragedy.

Despite experiencing the loss of his father at a young age, the murder of a long-time coach, the death of a sister due to a heroin overdose, a career rival’s murder-suicide, the imprisonment of a brother for voluntary manslaughter, and the death of his mother to cancer, Angle –  through a series of ups and downs – managed to endure, persevering to become the best at any athletic endeavor he attempted.

The popular saying is that “Every athlete dies twice. Once when they take their last breath, and the other when they hang it up.” For Angle, he has argued with the message his body has sent him and triumphed despite it. Today, it’s time for him to finally acknowledge those messages and leap into the next phase of his life. It’s a move that is easier said than done.

There is no way of guaranteeing that Sunday will be Angle’s final match. In wrestling, there will always be the allure of “one more match” and “one more offer”. The question will be if Angle can resist taking the call.

About John Pollock 1211 Articles
Born on a Friday, John Pollock is a reporter, editor & podcaster at POST Wrestling. He runs and owns POST Wrestling alongside Wai Ting.