Kurt Angle

Fame, popularity can't keep Angle from considering another run at Olympic gold

By Matt Townsend
TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Sunday, July 28, 2002

Away from the sold-out arenas and television cameras of World Wrestling Entertainment's glitz, Paul Wight, a.k.a. the Big Show, challenges Kurt Angle to a "real" wrestling match.

Despite a considerable size disadvantage (the Big Show is one of the planet's largest humans at 7-foot-2 and 500 pounds), Angle, at a mortal 6-2, 220, dismisses the giant.

"I had an easy time with him," Angle said of the impromptu-match eight months ago.

More recently, Angle challenged Brock Lesner, a 2001 NCAA Division I heavyweight champion who recently joined the pro wrestling ranks and had also done away with the Big Show in convincing fashion.

"I said 'let's see what you got,'|" said Angle, who hadn't been in a wrestling room since shortly after winning the 220-pound freestyle Olympic gold medal in 1996. "(Lesner) was pretty fresh, peaking pretty good, and I had been out of the Olympics for five years."

But again, Angle prevailed.

"I was a little nervous, and he was 75 pounds bigger," Angle said. "I held my own, and I beat him. Everyone crowded around the ring. We were going to takedowns, and I got the better of him. I thought 'I'm not that rusty, I'm not that bad for an old man.'"

Not bad at all. In fact, it is those triumphs and watching the 2000 Olympics from his recliner that have the 33-year-old Mt. Lebanon and Clarion graduate contemplating a return to the world of amateur wrestling for another run at gold.

"Some days, I say 'I'm going to do it' and others I think 'no way,'|" Angle said.

Angle's wife of four years, Karen Angle, encourages the latter.

"I don't think even if he would win a gold medal again, he could repeat the feeling of winning it the first time," said Karen, a 29-year-old Greensburg native. "He fulfilled his dream and he can look back and be happy with it. It would also be really hard. He's older now and in three years he's been with the WWE, he's experienced more injuries than in 20 years of amateur wrestling."

Karen is wise to question the possibility because Angle will be 35 during the 2004 Olympics in Athens, trying to come back after more than a six-year hiatus from the sport and leaving the WWE as the major draw he is now could be detrimental to his popularity — especially if he doesn't win.

"It's a very touchy situation to leave the company at this moment when you are considered one of the top guys," said Angle, who resides in Coraopolis with Karen. "I'd love to see the company prosper like it did two years ago. I'll see how I feel at the end of 2002."

Performing for the WWE has kept Angle in tip-top shape. He's still a svelte figure with a body fat percentage that Adonis would covet, but amateur wrestling isn't considered sports entertainment like the WWE , and for good reason.

"Personally, it would be extremely tough for him to take that time off and bop in and make the team," said Steve Fraser, a former Olympic champion and current coach of the Greco-Roman national team. "That would be a huge feat. Wrestling is the type of sport where even if you are in shape, it's a totally different ball game."

Angle realizes how tough the sport can be. He dedicated the first 27 years of his life to winning a gold medal. Just 10 weeks before the 1996 Olympic trials, he suffered two cracked vertebrae and two bulging disks, but subsided the pain and made the team.

At the 1996 U.S. Open, Angle unknowingly fractured his neck during a semifinal match, but kept competing and advanced to the finals thanks to Novocain shots.

"It wasn't a very clever thing to do," Angle said. "That was crazy."

WWE management, including chairman Vince McMahon, have said they will back Angle, who signed a five-year contract extension earlier this summer, if he decides to pursue another Olympic dream and will continue to pay him while he trains.

"They've been nothing but generous to me," Angle said. "It shows, they have a lot of faith in me."

Training for the Olympics would be almost as time-consuming as being a WWE star, which now has Angle averaging less than two days at home per week. He would spend much of his time working out at the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs, Colo. or with former Olympic champion Dan Gable and his Iowa wrestling team. More time away from home would also weigh heavily on Angle because Karen is expecting the couple's first child, a girl, in early December.

"I just want to see if I can do it, probably more than anything," said Angle, who would wrestle in the 211.5-pound weight class. "Seeing the last summer Olympic games and seeing Rulon Gardner (win a heavyweight title in Greco-Roman), seeing someone do it again … I retired before I hit my peak. I was kind of burned out at the time, but I feel I could win another one if I stay healthy and train hard."

TRANSITION

Angle doesn't lack faith in himself.

His amateur wrestling accomplishments include two NCAA titles, two Senior National freestyle titles and he's a 2001 member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.

He wasn't a bad football player either, earning all-state linebacker honors in high school and a tryout at running back with the Steelers after graduating from Clarion despite not playing college football.

"He's a self-motivated individual," said Dave Hawk, Angle's manager and former Mr. World bodybuilder. "A lot of times, the difference between winners and losers is not who is the biggest or strongest. Kurt may not be the most talented in what he competes in, but it's his strong will and desire to be the best that makes him a champion."

When Angle won the NCAA heavyweight title as a senior, he only weighed an undersized 199 pounds.

"Others take their gifts and don't understand what they've been given and fluff things by," said Hawk, who befriended Angle in 1994. "He's someone who puts his mind, body and soul into being the best athlete. He's been able to achieve phenomenal achievements in wrestling and football because of his shear drive."

But that's not to say he hasn't experienced doubt. After winning the gold medal, a 27-year-old Angle was left wondering what he should do with the rest of his life.

"When I met him, it was right after he won the gold medal. He should have been on top of the world, but he was wondering where am I going to go and what am I going to do now," said Karen, who met Angle when she was a sales rep for Pittsburgh Brewing Company and he was a company spokesman. "He was scared to death. His dream was to win a gold medal. He'd never thought beyond that point."

Angle turned down professional wrestling then and tried his hand at television broadcasting as the weekend anchor for Fox 53's weekend sports. He had little training, however, and left the station in October 1997.

"His first gig was the Super Bowl and he never did interview questions before," Hawk said. "Yeah, you want to capture that Olympic gold medalist, but at least you should help your guy to get brushed up. They did a disservice to him, but he sucked it up and after a while did OK."

A year later, Angle reconsidered pro wrestling and signed with what was then the World Wrestling Federation — the company has since changed to WWE after losing a dispute with the World Wildlife Fund.

Angle spent a year in training and made his official debut with WWE in November of 1997 and hasn't stopped ascending through the company since. He defeated The Rock in October 2000 to become the WWE champion to cap one of the best rookie campaigns in WWE history.

"As you see now, he's been given time to develop," Hawk said. "They put him into a camp for a year. It took him time to develop the character. Now, he's one of the funniest guys out there."

Because of injuries and absences of several WWE stars, Angle's star and value to the company has soared even higher. His Kurt Angle character, an egotistical bad guy fans love to despise, draws out tons of emotion. And Angle uses it to perform like a smooth point guard, making those around him better.

"It's not about who holds the title, but the whole point of what we do in this company is how good you can make the other people look," Angle said. "When you can go into a match, you want to make yourself and your opponent look phenomenal. If you can make it the match of the night every single night, you are the man."

FANDOM

People began lining up for the opportunity to meet Angle at the Kmart on Clairton Boulevard in South Park at 10 a.m., a mere seven hours before his recent appearance would begin.

There are bobble-head dolls and T-shirts of Angle's likeness engulfing him as he sits with Karen at a table flanked by two security guards while signing autographs and posing for snap shots.

Jenny Belcher, a 23-year-old Kmart employee from Baldwin, stands a few feet away with camera in hand, reciting Angle's catch phrase "I'll make you tap out", with a smile and a fixed look toward his direction.

"I love Kurt Angle," she says matter-of-factly.

Belcher had only found out a few weeks ago that her Kmart had been selected to host Angle's appearance to promote customer appreciation. Her manager, John Kutlenios, asked her to read the press release out-loud at a staff meeting. Unbeknownst to Belcher, she was about to utter the name she had been dreaming of for so long.

"I almost died," she said. "I started screaming."

Belcher isn't alone in her devotion to Angle, who has become a professional wrestling megastar as one of the marquee performers in the Smackdown portion of WWE's product line.

Since skillfully making the transition from Olympic champ to WWE headliner, Angle's popularity has ballooned like an Internet stock in the bull market of the late 1990s. But Angle's fame doesn't appear ready to fizzle as quickly as William Shatner's stock options.

"I remember (after the Olympics) when we used to do appearances at Giant Eagle or 7-11 and 100 people would show up," Hawk said. "That's nothing like now. We do an appearance and 6,000 people show up. We did one military appearance with (Angle) and (Terry) Bradshaw. Kurt was the headliner and we had 20,000 people show up (near Fort Hood, Texas). We had to have it at a stadium because there were so many people."

Using a digital camera, Belcher has already compiled 20 frames of mostly the same shot, Angle and his bulging neck, tanned skin and gleaming eyes smiling and seeming genuine to toddlers and war veterans alike.

"I can take 200 pictures on this thing," Belcher said.

It would be hard to do that, but Belcher seems up for the challenge. Her infatuation with Angle is strong, bordering on fanatical.

"He's just awesome in the ring," Belcher said. "He makes such an attractive bad guy."

Even with Angle's recently shaved head, a consequence of losing to the Edge in a lose-and-shave-your-head match.

"I cried because he lost, and he lost his hair," Belcher said.

Belcher even cut her honeymoon short, so she wouldn't miss one of her beloved's performances.

"I just had to see him," she said.

Although Belcher's enthusiasm was tangible, she was quite reserved and respectful of Angle's space, a trait not every fan has in this country's celebrity-worshiping culture.

"It's not his personality to ever say no," Karen said. "My biggest thing is when he chose to do this for a living, we took that on. I try to be pretty good about it. But my biggest problem is in a restaurant when he's eating and people do not have the manners to know you don't go and interrupt when someone has a plate of food in front of him."

And that's when Karen makes her presence known.

"My wife Karen is very good for me," Angle said. "She's the bad one. When something gets out of hand, it's not me that will put my foot down, it's my wife. A lot of fans might go too far and that's when my wife will step in and say, 'You're out of here' and I smile and say, 'See you later.'|"

Matt Townsend can be reached at mtownsend@tribweb.com

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