When former Olympic champion Kurt Angle lost a hair versus hair match back in 2002, little did he know that six years later he'd still be sporting the Mr. Clean.
Says Angle: "Vince McMahon said I look meaner bald, that I was too All-American looking with hair. He wanted me to have a more intense look so off went the hair. Don't be fooled, though, I can still grow it back, I just like being bald."
These days, the intense (and proudly bald) Kurt Angle is not only the star of the up-and-coming TNA wrestling brand, he's also the face of the video game. "This game is huge for us," Angle told me at a recent premier party in New Jersey as we sat down to talk wrestling. "This video game shows the world that this little company, who just six years ago was nothing, is now putting 28-million dollars behind this one project. Video games always put the stamp of approval on fan's faces, and we're already working on the second video game right now. How do we make it better the next year, that's what we're already thinking, but for our first game, we have something pretty special and it means a lot to everyone in the company."
As other wrestlers like Samoa Joe and Christian Cage circled the room and greeted guests, Angle took the time it usually takes for him to wrestle another classic to discuss the sport he has come to own as its top performer while also looking ahead to what the future of wrestling might look like in a couple of years. Here's what he had to say.
ESPN: Do you think professional wrestlers get enough respect from sports fans for their athleticism and the punishment they put their bodies through on a nightly basis?
Kurt Angle: We actually get a lot of respect, not only from sports fans, but from professional athletes across all sports. A lot of professional athletes are big fans of professional wrestling. As far as from a fan's standpoint, it's so much different. I know what it's like to be a world class athlete -- I was, I am, I always will be -- I was an Olympic gold medalist. But do a lot of fans take pro wrestling seriously as far as being great athletes? That depends who the fan is.
If it's a loyal fan, they know how good the athletes are. If it's a fair weather fan, well, then they are just going to look at us as fake wrestlers while not understanding the technique and athleticism that it takes to be a main event wrestler in this business. But I'll say this: It's every bit as hard to make it in professional wrestling and make the main event as it is to make it big in baseball, basketball, football, or hockey. Just like anything else, the cream of the crop make it and there just aren't that many great wrestlers in the world anymore. It's an art that is losing its luster. Not losing fan base, but a lot of wrestlers are losing the art of pro wrestling and are losing the art of telling that story in the ring, the art of psychology in a match.
ESPN: Do you think all of the big spots younger wrestlers seem obsessed with have contributed to that story telling being lost?
Kurt Angle: Definitely. I was watching a match last night and a kid went to the top rope then his opponent went up as well to try and suplex him. The kid pushed him off so his opponent gave him a ball shot then went up and did a Frankensteiner from the top rope. Then instead of covering him, the guy goes back up to the top rope again. They went to the top rope like five different times and I'm just shaking my head. When you hit a big move like that you need to get the cover and go home right away. Either the good guy overcomes it and kicks out of the finish or you finish him right there.
There's a certain psychology to delivering a match. The other night I worked a headlock with AJ Styles for about eight minutes and we had the crowd on their feet. A headlock. We ended up wrestling about 17 minutes but the crowd was with us the whole match and all the false finishes at the end because we told a great story. AJ kept frustrating me and putting me into a headlock and every time I got out of it he put me back in it again. So I would cheat, work my way out of it, beat him up a bit, but then he'd pull me right back in again and the crowd could feel my frustration. That's the kind of story you need to tell.
Some guys have it and some guys don't. Some guys just like to go out there and do the high spots, and to their defense, a lot of fans cheer when these guys do that. So I look at it like this, let me go out and do it my way, tell my story my way, then let those guys go out and do the crazy spots and let the fans enjoy both. Instead of all the matches being exactly the same, in TNA you're getting a variety of match types because all these guys are so completely different. These are the best independent wrestlers who have competed; they're not all coming from a farm league where it's a cookie cutter, same-style of match all the time. I'm not picking on WWE, they're a phenomenal company, they're the monster, they're who we need to chase after, but we let our guys be more creative. We let our guys do more of what they want to do and that's what makes TNA so different.
ESPN: As an old school wrestler, don't you think there are entirely too many gimmick matches in TNA right now, though?
Kurt Angle: Way too many gimmick matches. There are some people in TNA who think all these gimmick matches is what makes TNA innovative. Wrestling 101 is what makes TNA innovative, though, because of the innovative styles they naturally have. They do stuff that I didn't think was possible. Let them do that. They don't need a chair or a ladder to do that, they can do that on their own. I've struggled a little bit due to the fact that we've had too many gimmick matches. We need to go back to the roots of TNA and have straight up, traditional one-on-one matches, no gimmicks, and I guarantee we'll get more viewers and the crowd will like the matches better.
What we do now, we have a pay-per-view that's themed Hard Justice that is supposed to be all street fighting, but leading up to Hard Justice we had street fights all the time on TV, so we're giving the pay-per-view away for free. We had a weapons match that aired the Thursday before Hard Justice and I told everyone that if I got hit by a bat, I wasn't going to move so they told me to get creative and don't get hit. But there were eight guys in the ring and everyone had a weapon, so they told me to get rid of my weapon. But why would I want to get rid of my weapon if everyone else had one? Don't get me wrong, I love TNA. I love the writers, I love the bookers, but there are some things I agree with, some things I don't, and I just think if we cut down on the gimmick matches, we'll find a lot more success.
ESPN: Do you see the future of the sport evolving into more of a mixed martial arts style similar to the match you had with Samoa Joe a few pay-per-views back?
Kurt Angle: I do. The thing is, trying to start MMA then working in the professional wrestling with all of the false finishes is a hard thing to do. You either have a worked shoot, you have a shoot, or you have a wrestling match. It's hard to have all three, but Joe and I did. If you have a worked shoot or a shoot, you don't tell a story. Joe and I had to tell a story as we progressed into the match and it was hard. I think Joe and I did as good as we could, but do I think it was the greatest match ever? No, but I thought it was a good progression and I think that might be the direction professional wrestling is going to go, but you still have to tell that story and you have to have those good false finishes leading up to the finish. It was fun doing it, but at the same time I wanted to make sure it wasn't too much MMA and it wasn't too much pro wrestling. We needed to find that balance.
ESPN: What do you do in the ring when your opponent hits you a little too stiff? Do you hit them stiff back or let it go?
Kurt Angle: I just tell them to ease up. If they do it a second time, there is no third time. I don't care what we're doing, if we're in the middle of a spot, they hit me stiff again, double leg takedown and put them in a choke hold. That's my way of letting them know they need to ease up. Then we slowly work our way out, hit the ropes, and get back to the spot. I can stop a match that quick and I will to let them know that ain't happening again. I'm alright to the guys. I don't want to be a jerk. I want them all to succeed and I want to do my best to make them all look good out there, but I'm in it for the long haul and want these guys to learn. Hopefully I can teach them.
ESPN: When you were first coming up, who were the wrestlers who took you under their wing and helped you make the transition from your amateur background to pro wrestling?
Kurt Angle: Dory Funk and Tom Prichard started teaching me, but I'd have to say that Steve Bradley, an independent wrestler from the northeast, he was the guy who was with me every time, no matter where I went because WWE sent him there to help me. He was always teaching me. He was a phenomenal wrestler who really taught me a lot. Then when I started in WWE, Triple H taught me a little bit. Undertaker, Rock, and Stone Cold all helped me out and I was a real good listener, so in about two years I really started coming into my own, then I think I became a good leader. That's when I started leading matches, even with guys like Chris Benoit and even Eddie Guerrero. Eddie always wanted to lead, he was a stubborn guy, God bless him. [laughs] Shawn Michaels let me lead, even Undertaker let me lead him. I garnered a lot of respect in a short period of time. Usually it takes a lot of years for guys to get that type of respect. I did it in two years.
ESPN: WWE threw you into the fire in some high-profile matches right away. Did you think you were going to make it?
Kurt Angle: I didn't know what I was doing. I honestly didn't have a clue. I didn't think I was going to be as good as I ended up and I really didn't think I was going to catch on as quickly. Most of the critics, not all, but most think I'm the best wrestler in the world. I thought I'd be a good wrestler but I didn't think I'd be as good as I am, but I became the wrestler I am because I listened to guys like Pat Patterson. I listened to Vince McMahon and Stone Cold and Undertaker and Triple H. These guys were all very generous to me and they taught me how important it was to have good psychology in matches and this was always important to me. So whenever I put a match together, I always question whether or not it makes sense.
Here is an example of a simple spot: You put a guy in a headlock, then you turn and put him in a hammerlock only to turn again to get him back in a headlock again. You didn't progress, you just finished where you started. Why would you want to do that? Instead of doing the same move, take him down, hit him, get him closer to being pinned, do something that makes sense. That's psychology. A lot of guys like to be flashy. They like to get a guy in headlock, twist into an armbar, give him a drop toe hold, then put him in a headlock again. Why would you do all that just to get him in a headlock again? It doesn't make sense to ever end up where you started. Meanwhile you could've been doing so much more. It's a very difficult art to learn. Some guys think of wrestling as a series of high spots. They don't think of wrestling as telling a story for the fans.
Every time I wrestle, I know that nobody is going for popcorn or souvenirs. They are sitting in their seats and watching wrestling. I have fans tell me all the time that a show might be entertaining, but when Angle comes out, that's when things are getting real. They start to believe in the character I am because I'm such an intense individual. I'm trying to take fans on a fantasy ride because the reason they paid is they want to get away from reality for a while. Take them out of reality and show them a movie for 30-minutes.That's basically what it is. It's an athletic movie and if you can get the fans emotionally involved, then you've got them.
ESPN: A lot has been made of a steroids link to pro wrestling, and you have talked a lot about your past painkiller addiction, what do you think is more harmful for athletes? Are painkillers a bigger worry than steroids in the wrestling industry?
Kurt Angle: The steroid thing, with my situation, it wasn't my fault. I was sent to a doctor because of my neck. My doctor legally prescribed me something and told me that he was going to give me the prescriptions. I told him I was going to go to the drug store to get them, he told me 'No, I'll have them sent to you. It's easier. More private.' I said I didn't care, I had a broken neck, can't feel my arms, I needed something because I was losing all size in my arms. I said they wouldn't have sent me here unless I needed your help. He went online illegally and got them and that's why I ended up in Sports Illustrated. Not because I took them. Not because they were illegal. Because he went online illegally and bought them for cheaper so he could make money from me. The doctor robbed me is what happened.
But the painkiller situation is a lot more serious, not just for me, but for a lot of wrestlers. I went through a very difficult time for painkillers and now it's behind me three and a half years and I'll never touch them again. But I had a hard time with that. It was a very difficult time for me. I was taking so many and the thing is, it didn't hurt my performance in the ring and I was making money for the company, but it hurt my marriage and I wasn't really there for my kids. I was always sleeping, passed out or on the road traveling taking painkillers to keep myself going. I backed myself into a corner and it's something I'll never do again. Then finally, when I got over it, about a year later I realized this schedule was just too hard for me. Vince couldn't book me part time, he wished he could and he really wanted to. Vince has a good heart, but he thought when he released me that I was just going to take six months off and come back. But I knew I just couldn't go back there and work that schedule.
So I went with TNA and they have a lot lighter schedule. I've been really happy here but I still miss the 15,000 seat arenas and the 80,000 fans at Wrestlemania. I miss that. But at the same time I like being at a company where I can help make history. This company is growing so fast and I'm a huge part of it. That makes me feel good, but it humbles you when you step into an arena and there are only 1,500 fans at a house show. But you know what, a few years from now there are going to be 8,000 or 10,000 fans there and I can say I was there when it was just starting out. It's an exciting time for TNA.