By Mike McMahon
Since he was eight years old, wrestling, be it the rigors of the amateur sport, or the showcase that is professional wrestling, has defined Kurt Angle.
Angle has dominated since storming onto the scene in 1996, winning the gold medal in freestyle wrestling at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. But, wrestling in junior competitions as an 8-year-old, Angle went 2-16. Starting the sport mainly because of his brothers' influence, it didn't appear that he had the "it" factor his siblings had.
"I heard my brothers talking one time and they said that I just didn't have it. I thought, 'What are they talking about?' I was just a kid, but I wanted to prove them wrong," said Angle in a telephone interview. "My dad was a great halfback in the Army and he got a lot of awards. My brothers were all great wrestlers, my sister was a great athlete, and here I was, and I stunk."
Little by little, Angle's record and skills improved. By his senior year, he won the state title.
Angle's sophomore year at Clarion State in his native Pennsylvania he went undefeated and won the national title. After his senior year, he started to train for the Olympics.
"I was an alternate in 1992, but that made me realize that I was pretty close," he said. "I trained the next four years, eight or nine hours a day, literally every day. By 1995 I made the national team, and I won the World Championships. People thought it was a fluke because it was my first time at the Worlds and I won, and that just doesn't happen."
Pressure was mounting on Angle for a repeat performance at the '96 Summer Games. But, a few months before the opening ceremonies, he broke his neck.
"I had a doctor with me traveling during the games, and would get 12 Novocaine shots before every match. It was the most grueling thing I've ever experienced. In the Olympics, I had to wrestle five matches, and had shots before every one. I couldn't train between matches, I could barely walk between matches.
Angle continued, "I made it though, I won the gold and thought I had accomplished everything, so I retired."
After about three years of retirement, Angle's neck was healed and his competitive juices started to flow, again. One night, he was flipping through the channels when he saw pro wrestling on television.
"I thought to myself, 'I can do that,'" he said. "I tried out with World Wrestling Entertainment, made it, and 10 months later beat The Rock for the title, and never looked back."
Although he was on the fast track, it wasn't as easy as he made it appear.
"Amateur wrestling and pro wrestling are two completely different animals," said the 39-year-old Angle. "It was tough for me training to be a pro wrestler at first. In amateur wrestling, you're taught to never be on your back, so you don't get pinned. Well in pro wrestling, you take bumps (falling) by landing a certain way on your back and it cushions the fall.
"In amateur wrestling, I was taught to be a machine. You don't acknowledge the crowd, you show no emotion, you just pin your opponent. In pro wrestling, it's more about playing off the crowd and your acting ability as it is actually performing athletically. Besides, in pro wrestling, you play a character."
Angle stayed with the WWE for eight years. While there, he helped mold West Newbury's John Cena, who has been a multi-time champion. Angle wrestled Cena in his first televised match, and also worked a six-month program with him.
"I remember he was really green," recalled Angle of Cena's first match. "He was really nervous that first night. My job that night was to make him look good. I was going to win, because I was the established guy and the company thought I needed to keep that momentum, but I wanted to make John look good.
"I set it up with him so I would win, but he would look better than me. He kicked out of my finisher, and I won with a quick pin. I knew John would be special. I give him a lot of credit; he works so hard at it. He's a great kid, and when I worked him, we were on TV every week, but my job was to teach him, and he was a great learner. He's one of the guys in the WWE I still really respect. I'm proud of him, and I'm proud to say I helped him a little bit."
Angle wouldn't stay with WWE, however. He ended up breaking his neck four more times, but avoided fusion surgery.
He admits that even today, he still has some problems with his left hand, that he likely will have for the rest of his life.
The last incident, which resulted in four broken vertebrae in 2006, changed the course of his career.
"I wanted time to really heal my neck," said Angle. "I went to Vince McMahon, the head of WWE, and asked for the time off and he basically said, 'No.' That incident really made me look at my life. That year, I was on the road for 304 days, and my marriage was just falling apart, my wife had filed for divorce.
"I went back to Vince and asked to go part-time, like some of the older veterans had done. He said no to part-time, so I was fed up and told him I wanted to quit, and he got really mad, and I mean really mad, almost like he wanted to fight me. I took real offense to that. My life was falling apart, and I felt like they didn't care. My neck was in tough shape, and they wanted me to keep performing every night. I felt I deserved to at least go part-time, even though I really needed the time off."
While healing at home, Total Nonstop Action Wrestling, an upstart organization which hopes to compete with WWE, caught his attention and he signed with TNA.
Angle joined the company late in 2006, and is currently the TNA world heavyweight champion. He'll battle Samoa Joe in the main event of this Sunday's Lockdown pay-per-view at Lowell's Tsongas Arena.
What: TNA world heavyweight title bout
When: Sunday, 8 p.m.
Where: Tsongas Arena, Lowell
TV: Worldwide on pay-per-view
Tickets: visit www.ticketmaster.com.
Angle on his main event with Samoa Joe: "I think we're going to put on a much different match, something that wrestling hasn't seen before. It's going to be closer to a mixed-martial-arts style match. I'm really looking forward to it."