He may not make an in-ring appearance, but Sunday night will be Kurt Angle's first WrestleMania appearance in 12 years.
The last four matches that Angle has had at WrestleMania are as strong a final chapter in WWE as you could write. Three of those four were world title matches; twice he entered WrestleMania as a world champion; he main-evented against Brock Lesnar and beat "Mr. WrestleMania" Shawn Michaels in an instant classic.
During a recent visit to ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut, Angle reflected upon his memories of this incredible four-year stretch at WrestleMania.
WrestleMania XIX: versus Brock Lesnar for the WWE championship
"I loved the buildup," recalled Angle. "I thought that it couldn't have been more perfect for me to have a former amateur wrestler face me in the main event of WrestleMania. Now, I was a little concerned, as Brock was only on TV for about six months [prior to that]. A guy that big and strong and fast, who could maybe not be ready for that spot could get a little anxious and mess some things up, and by that I mean me, physically."
Thrust into the spotlight because of his size, look and instant charisma, Lesnar could have shriveled in the lead-up to the match or looked overmatched against a savvy in-ring artist like Angle. But, as it would become clearer over the rest of Lesnar's career, he stepped up to the challenge.
"Brock held his composure. He was a true pro," said Angle. "He showed that he belongs in the business, and he belongs at that very top spot. I wished that we could have built it up a little better, but with my neck injury, there wasn't a lot I could do in that last month [leading up to the show]. We were able to give the WrestleMania performance we wanted to, so I was happy about that. The program continued on after I came back from surgery, and Brock and I kept going."
In one of the pivotal moments of the match, Lesnar, a man of tremendous size, attempted a daredevil move he'd successfully completed a few times in his career -- a shooting star press, normally reserved for smaller wrestlers. He under-rotated on the move, though, and landed directly on his head and neck. While it would have severely injured most people, the sheer volume of muscle helped protect Lesnar; not only was he able to finish the match, he was able to get Angle up for his patented F-5 to seal the victory.
"First of all, this is selfish, but I was like, 'Damn, he broke his neck. I'm going to have to hold this title another month,'" recalled Angle, who was in serious need of neck surgery at that time. "Then I was concerned about him because he wasn't responding. When I covered him, he did kick out. I did tell him to kick out, and he kicked out. I remember asking him, 'Can you give me an F-5?' He didn't respond. I was getting really worried. I started picking him up. I said, 'Could you F-5 me?' He said, 'I think so,' and he did.
"Brock's a pro. He came out of that. Let's face it. That's one of the most famous moves in WrestleMania history. It's because he came up short, and everybody remembers that. If you want a WrestleMania type of memory, that's a good one. Unfortunately, Brock got his bell rung. But he didn't have any long-term damage, and thank God for that. I'm very proud of that match -- it's one of my favorites of all time."
WrestleMania XX: versus Eddie Guerrero for the WWE championship
The 20th edition of WrestleMania went back to where it all began -- the hallowed halls of Madison Square Garden in New York. Angle was set to challenge Eddie Guerrero for the WWE championship, and it was a tremendous opportunity for both men to show what they could do in the ring.
For more than 20 minutes, they put on a physical classic, but what gets remembered the most about that match is the crazy finish that allowed Guerrero to retain his title.
"Eddie and I spoke about it two weeks prior to WrestleMania, and he came out with this finish that he was going to slide his boot off. The whole psychology of the match was to wear his ankle down, get it to a spot where I'm going to be able to make him tap out. We did that. We followed it perfectly, built to that moment, and that's what made it so special.
"Eddie's entire character, it was all about that lie, cheat and steal gimmick. I had him in the ankle lock, and he was able to slip that boot off. I think that's one of the best finishes in WrestleMania history, period. I really enjoyed being part of that, and winning and losing was never important to me. I've always been about the quality of the matches, and that finish is my all-time favorite finish I've ever been a part of."
WrestleMania 21: versus Shawn Michaels
The only match during this stretch for Angle that wasn't for a world title was arguably the best match of all. Angle and Shawn Michaels were at the absolute peak of their creative powers, and in a nearly 30-minute classic, they tore the roof off the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
"It was a lot of fun for both Shawn and I. I will say Shawn and I deserved to be in the main event that year, but it wasn't in the cards for us," said Angle. "But to be a featured match was special, too, because even though on paper that was a middle-of-the-card match, it wasn't really a mid-card match. That was the match that lit up WrestleMania 21. Nobody came close to the match that we had."
What makes that match even more special is that they let the moment and the crowd speak to them throughout, creating a masterpiece on the fly.
"The first time I met him was at Survivor Series -- I think it was around 2002 or right around that time. I watched him sell that whole match. He went through five guys, he got down to Triple H and pinned him to win the title. I remember him coming backstage. I didn't know him. I never watched pro wrestling before that. I said, 'Hey, uh, Shawn. You're, you're pretty good.' He just started laughing like 'who the hell is this guy telling me I'm pretty good?' It was a compliment from me, saying damn, man, I haven't seen anybody like you without being overbearing. He would tease me about that in the years to come."Kurt Angle recalls meeting Shawn Michaels for the first time
"Shawn and I knew we were going to do it, even though we never [met in the ring] prior to that. We never had a match. We never locked up. We didn't even go over anything physically before the match," continued Angle. "We might have talked a few things out, but you have that whole week before WrestleMania to get prepared for the match, and while a lot of wrestlers are going over mat stuff, technique and moves, Shawn and I just sat down and got to know each other. I am still amazed that two athletes were able to have that type of chemistry without ever having wrestled prior to that night.
"I commend Shawn for that. I think that he is one of the best of all time," concluded Angle. "He proved that to me, and I think he proved that to everyone when we had that match. Let's not forget he was already in the business, gosh, 20-something years at that point. Shawn's always been that good. When I finally had the opportunity to wrestle him in 2005, I was shown firsthand how good he was."
WrestleMania 22: Rey Mysterio and Randy Orton
Angle's final WrestleMania match was less a moment for him, and more about Rey Mysterio realizing his true underdog dreams by turning his Royal Rumble title shot into a world championship reign at WrestleMania.
The atmosphere surrounding that match, and Mysterio's entrance in particular, was as memorable as anything that happened at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Illinois. But because the length of the entrance came out of their allotted match time, Angle feels as though the trio was robbed of a true chance to shine.
"That match could have easily stolen the show. We had prepared well for it," said Angle. "It was a great match, don't get me wrong, it was awesome. I really enjoyed being a part of it, with the buildup of Rey and [everything] in memory of Eddie, but his entrance took about eight and a half minutes.
"I was in the ring waiting, and here comes Rey and he goes up the staircase. I'm thinking 'God, we're going to lose about 10 minutes of the match,' and we did. I think the match is only about 12 minutes, and it was one of the co-main events. I was so mad about that, but looking back at the match, it still didn't disappoint. It was a main event-level match. I just wish we'd had that extra 10 minutes to do more of what we had planned to do. I wanted to give them a five-star match, but I believe if you can give anybody a four-star [rating] in 12 minutes, we were able to do it that night."