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Kurt Angle: WWF's Golden Boy

Angle is about to find out if pro wrestling fans will love to hate an Olympic champion

Sunday, November 14, 1999

By Cristina Rouvalis, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

MEMPHIS, The transformation of Kurt Angle from All-American hero to dirty low-down villain is taking place in a dingy theater half-filled with rowdy professional rasslin' fans.

Wrestling was never like this when Kurt Angle was going for his Olympic championship: He lets out a scream as he slams Steve Brady to the mat during a WWF dark match at First Union Arena, Philadelphia. (Peter Diana, Post-Gazette) 

Angle's muscles ripple out of his tight red trunks as he viciously kicks his opponent, Wolfie D, a good ole boy hillbilly who wears baggy shorts and carries a rusted hubcap. Then Angle hoists Wolfie D in the air and body-slams him to the mat.

Next, Angle snatches Wolfie D's hubcap and swings it at his head. But the 1996 Olympic gold medalist from Mt. Lebanon misses wildly and falls into a heap, grimacing theatrically. Then, just as the script writers planned, it happens: The crowd, numbering several hundred, boos Angle, gold medal and all.

"His gold medal doesn't mean squat here," a middle-age man says vindictively after Angle gets bonked on the head with the hubcap and pinned by Wolfie D, right on cue.

Angle earns $40 this night to "turn heel," pro wrestling lingo for becoming a bad guy. A few of the drunker fans yell foul-mouthed insults at Angle as he stomps out of the ring during his training match in the minor leagues of pro wrestling.

Which begs the question: What's a nice guy like Kurt Angle doing in a place like this, anyway?

Kurt Angle with his 1996 Olympic gold medal. (Peter Diana, Post-Gazette( 

This Oct. 2 match is part of the unglamorous year of training to prepare Angle for the big time, the infamous World Wrestling Federation.

Angle is scheduled to make his first televised WWFappearance tonight in a pay-per-view show in Detroit:a slammin', gruntin', trash-talkin' coming-out party, if you will, in front of millions of fans. That's right before he comes to Pittsburgh tomorrow for the wildly popular "RAW"show at the Civic Arena.

"Why would he do that?" ask people who remember the inspirational image of Angle falling to his knees, weeping tears of joy and waving an American flag during the 1996 Olympics.

Why? Because even in a sports-crazed society like ours, there's no market for a wholesome, patriotic 220-pound guy who devoted his whole life to become the best heavyweight wrestler in the world. For better or worse, one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet has gone over to what America's loudest moralists consider the Dark Side of our culture.

But he makes no apologies for keeping the name Kurt Angle/Olympic Gold Medalist alive with his new job.

"People put ideas into my head that I was larger than life," he says, before performing in a warm-up match during a "RAW" show in Washington, D.C. "But it's just another career move. You can't compare an Olympic gold medal to sports entertainment. ... What people don't understand is that this is entertainment. It's like the circus. It's fun."

The morning after Angle won an Olympic gold medal, he woke up and thought, "What am I going to do now?"

Other kids grew up wanting to be a police officer one day, a lawyer the next. The only thing Kurt Angle ever wanted to be was an Olympic wrestling champion, and when he achieved his only goal at age 27, after years of grueling training, he felt a little lost.

What he didn't want to be was a pro wrestler. Like many amateur wrestlers, he looked down on the pseudo-sport that was so much more popular than the real thing. He says he turned down a multimillion dollar contract with the WWF.

The glow from the Olympics lasted almost two years. He did endorsements for many Pittsburgh-based companies such as Pizza Outlet but didn't get the national endorsements that went to star gymnasts and swimmers.

He took to being a celebrity and gave many speeches. In turn, the Pittsburgh fans rallied around the congenial and good-looking athlete.

But then suddenly, people stopped asked him for his autograph.

He took a stab at sportscasting by becoming the weekend anchor on WPGH-TV's 10 p.m. newscast but fell short. He was awkward and unpolished, and after a year, he decided it wasn't for him and left the station in October 1997.

He was pushing 30, and casting about for a career.

"What is difficult is when people expect to make a living off the sport of amateur wrestling, and it's quite frankly hard to do. The financial rewards are not there in coaching," says Bruce Baumgartner, another Olympic wrestling champion who went on to be a wrestling coach and then athletic director at Edinboro University.

Angle could have become a wrestling coach, too. There were offers.

But he wanted more, financially and personally, and figured he could always coach later.

He gave the WWF another look.

"When I started watching it, I said, 'It's crap. I could kick the crap out of any of these guys.' Then I would watch it for five minutes more. Then it became as addictive as a soap opera."

His then-fiancee, Karen, was skeptical initially before coming around. At first she worried that he might get injured. Plus there was pro wrestlers' bad-boy image. "When he first signed, I thought my marriage is going to last two months. But wrestlers are very family-oriented."

His manager, David Hawk, encouraged him to do it, even though Angle had a few lingering fears that it would tarnish his golden-boy image.

"He worked so hard for that gold medal. He didn't want to tarnish that gold-medal image," Hawk says. "I told him, 'Kurt that is secondhand news. It is here one day and gone the next.'

"He doesn't get flustered anymore when people say, 'Why would he do this?' This is like a role in a soap opera."

With announcer Dave Brown, Angle lets go with threats and taunts at Wolfie D, an opponent he will wrestle later that evening. (Peter Diana, Post-Gazette) 

The first lesson Angle learned in the pro wrestling business was how to take a "bump."

Even though most of the combat in pro wrestling is choreographed and winners are preordained, the falls can be dangerous and painful for the performers. Angle joined the WWF in October 1998 and went straight to the WWF training camp in Stamford, Conn., to learn the fine art of falling without breaking your neck.

Every morning, the aspiring wrestlers would get hoisted in the air by their opponent and slammed on the mat 250 times. And then they would lift their big partners and slam them 250 times. After attending camp one week a month, Angle would come home with black and blue marks on his back, his rear end, his eyes. It hurt to move.

"I'm a firm believer that the best way to learn how to fall is to fall until you get it right," says Dory Funk Jr., a former pro wrestling star who was one of Angle's coaches. Angle was a natural, Funk says, and unusually acrobatic for an amateur wrestler.

Angle had to let go of his killer instincts. "Nobody ever did that to me. I would never let them. Now you have to put yourself in the hands of other people, and they had better do it right. You are not in control of your body."

Mic Tierney, a pro wrestler known as the Irish Assassin, says Angle adjusted well to the give-and-take in the ring and would "sell" his opponent's punches.

"Wrestling is like a dance. He's the best wrestler in the world, but he doesn't have any ego. He could probably kick the crap out of any guy in the ring, but he makes you look good. Some guys couldn't fight their way out of a paper bag, and they are the ones who try to kill you."

Angle had to learn to play another game. It was a different world, the rules of amateur wrestling vs. pro wrestling:

Never show any emotion vs. snarl and groan theatrically.

Keep your feet close to the ground vs. jump off the top ropes and into the air.

Move quickly vs. slow things down and wind up your punches and kicks.

Never talk trash vs. always talk trash.

In fact, pro wrestling was so different, Angle says, "I would never call it wrestling."

For the next six months, Angle was always on the road, going to Nashville on weekends to perform in Power Pro Wrestling, the minor leagues, and then traveling with the WWF to do untelevised warm-up matches.

He didn't know whether he was coming or going. He would only spend a day or two a week at his new home in South Fayette with his wife, Karen.

The couple had married in December, just two months after he started attending training camp. She asked him if he please wouldn't show up all black and blue for the wedding.

Karen missed him when he was on the road. To make matters worse, she had to listen to people bad-mouth his new profession.

"You get upset because the public downs wrestling so much. People don't give them the credit they deserve. These guys work very, very hard training and traveling."

Angle liked his new job, but sometimes he would think, "You have to have a screw loose to do this."

With his square jaw and congenial manner, Angle would seem like a natural good guy in the ring.

Especially when you see him backstage with a cast of ominous-looking characters.

Over there is Stone Cold Steve Austin, who looks imposing in a military camouflage jacket and matching cap that covers his big bad bald head.

Then here's Mankind, the scraggly, hairy 300-pounder who could stop traffic even without his trademark mask.

But in the twisted morality of pro wrestling, where superbad Stone Cold Steve Austin is a beloved hero, a squeaky-clean Olympian may start out as a bad guy.

"Kurt's clean-cut and well-mannered, and people will hate him for that. He will be the only well-mannered guy out there," says Mankind, aka Mick Foley, who is giving Angle pointers on developing a persona.

The idea of an unlovable Olympic champion is subtly being planted in the heads of WWF fans during a promotional spot that runs during a Nov. 1 telecast. Angle, who will wrestle under his own name and wear red, white and blue, is shown with his Olympic gold medal hanging around his massive 20-plus-inch neck. He ticks off his NCAA championships and many other amateur wrestling accomplishments.

"Kurt Angle: The Most Celebrated Real Athlete in WWF History" is the kicker of the spot.

Angle beams as he relates how Vince McMahon, the famed owner of the WWF, saw Angle's vignette and tells him, "I hate you already."

Angle says a long prayer before his matches and never goes out to bars afterward.

But in the ring, he would rather be a bad guy than good guy, because it's easier to get jeered than to seek approval.

Bad up to a point, that is.

Though Angle will act out any role, good or bad, created for him, his contract specifies that he won't do anything sexist or racist.

"Everyone has their price. Let's face it," Angle says. "People are human. We are not Jesus Christ. I have to sit down and decide what I want to do and make sure I don't cross that line."

But even as he distances himself from the most objectionable aspects of pro wrestling, he defends most of it as harmless entertainment.

"Everyone criticizes it for being too brutal," he says. "But it's OK for Arnold Schwarzenegger to blow up people or break people's arms. It isn't as violent as 95 percent of all movies. It is not as sexual as 99 percent of movies. If you don't like it, turn it off."

Even so, the WWF's image is why he lost a few of his old sponsors.

Some coaches in the amateur wrestling establishment also winced when he joined the WWF. But Baumgartner wishes Angle well. "Just because I didn't go down that path, I won't begrudge him."

Angle has new marketing opportunities through the WWF and its fanatical following. Angle is endorsing a WWF meat snack called Ostrim, a sort of low-fat version of a Slim Jim. But not too low-fat. Originally, Protos, the Greensburg company that makes it, came out with a no-fat ostrich bar, but added some beef and a little fat to suit wrestling fans' taste buds.

Angle isn't looking for a long career with the WWF. He has signed a five-year contract, but there is no job security because he says the WWF can cut a wrestler at any time.

He won't divulge his salary, and will only say it's more than what some rookies make -- $75,000 the first year and $125,000 the next. Only a handful of superstar wrestlers, like Stone Cold and the Rock, he says, get the multimillion-dollar deals.

"I want to do this for five years," he says. "I respect these guys who do this for 20 years. But I can't believe they can keep their bodies for 20 years. The public wants to see a lot of slams, bumps and people getting dropped out of the ring."

Angle gets a jarring reminder of the occupational hazards on Nov. 2 when he and other WWF wrestlers visit Darren "The Droz" Drozdov at a rehabilitation hospital in Philadelphia before a show there.

The strapping wrestlers try to joke and cheer up Drozdov, who is a thin shell of his former muscular self after fracturing his neck in the ring in early October. He is paralyzed from the waist down.

"You wanted to cry for him," Angle says afterward. "But if you did, it's probably the worst thing you can do."

If Drozdov is the tragic side of pro wrestling, then Mankind is the charmed side.

The hulking man has survived many hard landings and injuries to ride the celebrity train.

Before performing in a "RAW" show, the megahit that reaches about 4.5 million households, Mankind visited the White House to take a special tour and to film a vignette there. He signed a copy of his new autobiography, "Have a Nice Day! A Tale of Blood and Sweatsocks" for President Clinton. It's third on The New York Times best-seller list, he tells Angle. He's also done some acting.

"I never thought wrestling would be this big," says Mankind politely, hours before he puts on his deranged persona and hits an opponent with a garbage can lid.

Angle admires Mankind and hopes that he, too, can branch out to other opportunities in entertainment.

Before he does that, though, Angle has to become a WWF star. Can he develop the showmanship to excel in the over-the-top melodrama of the WWF? About half of a pro wrestler's airtime is giving interviews at the mike.

"Kurt Angle is definitely good-looking, but he needs a little more attitude. If he ever got real attitude, watch out," says Adonis Middlecoft, a 33-year-old woman watching him admiringly during a minor-league match in Memphis.

As Angle finishes his training, many people are eagerly waiting to see what image he projects when he makes his WWF debut on television.

"I can't picture him doing this kind of wrestling. I can't wait," his mother, Jackie, says excitedly.

But the mother in her is almost afraid to look. "Everyone says it's all fake. Then how come they end up in the hospital?"

Plus, she has other motherly concerns about the youngest of her six children, a boy who never raised his voice to her. "I hope they don't make him say anything immoral."

Bruno Sammartino, the retired pro wrestling legend who hates what wrestling has become, hopes so, too. He wonders whether a "classy guy" like Angle will fit in.

"The fans go for the bizarre and ridiculous. Can Kurt Angle be molded into that? I don't know. ... But I don't blame him for trying to make a good living. He's a good guy, and he deserves something after all the struggle of the Olympics. It's a shame he has to do it this way."

But Angle doesn't look as if he needs much sympathy as he walks down the runway in his star-spangled ensemble during a warm-up match in Washington, D.C.

Kurt Angle waves to the enormous cheering, sign-waving crowd before he climbs into the ring and wins. He's back in the wrestling spotlight.

Cristina Rouvalis is a Post-Gazette staff writer. Peter Diana is a staff photographer.

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