Kurt Angle’s ability to persevere takes center stage when he reflects on his life story. The latest subject of A&E Network’s “Biography: WWE Legends” series, which debuts on Sunday at 8 pm ET, follows Angle’s journey from western Pennsylvania to the bright lights of the Olympics, and through pain, devastating loss, and addiction as he navigated life as a sports entertainer.
“My documentary is about overcoming, whether it be anything that you’re going through, any heartache, any difficult situations,” Angle tells Uproxx Sports. “For me, it was addiction. It was injuries on my body, it was deaths of close family members. And it really spiraled out of control. And this documentary is about redemption, and showing that anybody can come out of the gutter if they want to and they really believe.”
Leaving everything on the mat isn’t just a phrase tossed around by wrestlers, it was a way of life for Angle. He won a gold medal — as you might have heard once or twice — with a broken freakin’ neck. While he required pain-reducing shots to get him through the grueling 1996 Summer Olympics, that didn’t stop him from considering a run with the UFC.
If not for a relatively flimsy $15,000 per fight offer from the promotion, his career may have taken a drastically different turn.
“If the money was better when I came out of the Olympics, I definitely would have gone the UFC route,” Angle says. “I believe that. I don’t know if that would have been the best route for me because I had so much success in professional wrestling. I don’t know if I would have been as good of a UFC fighter as I was WWE superstar. So, I think I picked the right trade.
“I’m not upset about it, I don’t have any regrets,” he continues. “But I do wonder every once in a while how I would have done. Sure, I saw Brock (Lesnar)’s success there. And I wouldn’t even have been a heavyweight, I would have been a light heavyweight. So, I think I would have done pretty well.”
The move to professional wrestling two years after his Olympic stardom saw his WWE offer drop from a lucrative 10-year contract in 1996 to having to try out for his spot in 1998. Angle would train with Dory Funk Jr. before getting six months of experience in a Memphis territory promotion and eventually making his main roster debut.
All of this was a bit of a culture shock for Angle, who did not spend his childhood taking in the generations of wrestling stars who came before him.
“It was a big disadvantage that I didn’t grow up watching it,” he says. “I wasn’t a fan of the WWE. I wasn’t a fan of pro wrestling. I was always told by my peers in amateur wrestling, ‘That’s crap, we’re the real deal, they’re fake. Don’t watch it. Don’t listen to them. Just ignore it.’ And I think that amateur wrestling, they gave WWE a bad rap because people thought that professional wrestling was a step above amateur wrestling. It’s just a completely different career change.
“When I came into the WWE, it opened up a whole new world of wrestlers coming in after me because I was such a popular name in amateur wrestling and crossing over,” Angle continues. “Doing what I did, a lot of other wrestlers were like, ‘You know what, I’m gonna follow Kurt Angle, I’m gonna do what he did.’ It opened up new possibilities for careers for amateur wrestlers other than coaching or teaching.”
Angle’s mentality to leave it all on the mat continued throughout his wrestling tenure. He suffered four broken necks from 2003-06. Wary of keeping his spot on the roster, Angle opted against taking a year off to fix the first broken neck he suffered in WWE in early 2003.
Instead, he underwent a minimally invasive surgery that he was told would only keep him out of action for six weeks. Angle proceeded to break his neck twice more in the span of just one year, which led to a reliance on painkillers.
“When I broke my neck, the first time in WWE, that was when I was introduced to painkillers by a doctor,” Angle says. “When I took them, the first one I took, wow, it lit me up. I was like, ‘This is crazy how good I feel.’ I didn’t feel any pain in my neck. I had a surge of adrenaline. And it made me feel euphoric. And that made me feel like I wanted to kick some ass.
“That feeling continued because I continued with the painkillers,” he continues. “And when one didn’t work anymore, because your body builds a tolerance to it, one turned into two, two went to four, four went to eight, eight went to 16. Before I knew it, within eight months, I was taking 65 extra strength Vicodin a day. I was in deep trouble. I mean, I was taking enough to kill a horse, possibly. And I couldn’t get out of it. I couldn’t get myself out of it. I didn’t know what to do. I was in a bind.”
Angle was met with an ultimatum to go to rehab or be released from WWE — he left the promotion and immediately called TNA.
“Part of me does,” Angle responds when asked if he regrets going to TNA. “I mean, when you see the celebrations, 20 years of John Cena, 20 years of Rey Mysterio, could you imagine 20 years I would have had in WWE, it would have been impeccable. I honestly believe nobody would have matched my career if I went 20 years in WWE. But I spent 11 years in TNA and I had a much better career in TNA than I did WWE because I was getting more experience, I was growing. When I left, I just started getting into my prime. So, I was having better matches, which is hard to believe, because I had some great matches in WWE. But I can’t imagine the career I would have had I spent 20 years in WWE.”
Angle’s addiction peaked with multiple arrests during his time in TNA. But with the support of his wife, Angle got clean and made one final WWE run.
At 53 years old, Angle has still been met with opportunities to wrestle. Earlier this year, he revealed AEW’s Tony Khan offered him a 10-match deal with the promotion that he ultimately turned down.
“Of course I want to wrestle, I want to continue to wrestle, and that would be the greatest thing in the world for me,” Angle said. “But you know, my body at this point in time and 53 years of age, knee replacements, I have a really bad neck, my back’s starting to go. It’s really difficult. If anything, it’s kind of a hinderance. It’s disturbing to get an offer from these guys, when you know you can’t do it. Tony Khan was really cool with me, he gave me two different offers two different times. He wanted me to wrestle, and I just couldn’t do it. I wish I could, but I just couldn’t do it.
“And I also didn’t want to turn my back on WWE,” he continues. “I did it in 2006. I didn’t want to do it again, because those guys were pretty loyal to me. So, I do little things here and there for WWE right now where I make a couple of cameos on TV, do some interviews for them. I stay pretty active with that company. And I want to keep it that way for now. I like that because it gives me freedom. I have my podcasts, I do I have my supplement company that I run. And it gives me the freedom to do other stuff.”