10+ years ago the name Kurt Angle was synonymous with success. Olympic Gold Medalist, multiple time World Champion, King of the Ring, Intercontinental Champion, Tag Team Champion, European Champion, the list goes on. Angle in 2005/2006 was a sure fire Hall of Famer and would likely leave one of the most impressive legacies in all of Professional Wrestling. To say I was a Kurt Angle fan would be a huge understatement. Even today the man still holds a place in my mind as one of the very greatest of all time. Defending 2016 Kurt Angle seems to be a daunting task though. Recent speculation and “confirmation” of an imminent Kurt Angle return to WWE has me thinking back at his career, WWE departure, and if a return is really a good thing.
Angle would debut on WWE television in 1999. That first year is one that nobody else has ever come close to replicating. Angle would capture the European, Intercontinental, and WWE World Championship’s, all within a years time. Angle took to Pro Wrestling like a fish to water. He had every tool it took to succeed. He looked the part, he could work with anyone, he could handle himself on the mic, and he was a legitimate athlete with real credentials. Great feuds with Triple H, The Rock, and Chris Benoit, started Angle off on the right foot.
WCW title reigns would follow in 2001 during the much maligned “Invasion” angle. Kurt would capture both the WCW Heavyweight Championship and the United States Championship during the arc. Much like the “Invasion” storyline, Angle’s hairline was also wearing thin. He would go onto lose a “hair vs hair” match against Edge and would adopt the shaved head for the rest of his career.
By the end of 2002, Kurt Angle was a 3x WWE Champion, and had captured the WWE Tag Team titles with Chris Benoit, becoming a WWE Grand Slam Champion, having captured every major championship in the company. 3 years in and he had already accomplished what most guys can’t in an entire career.
Legendary feuds with both Brock Lesnar and Eddie Guerrero would follow the subsequent year. Easily my two favorite Kurt Angle opponents, nearly every match had with either was of epic proportions. I would recommend his matches against Brock at Wrestlemania XIX and the Smackdown Iron Man match to anyone. His Wrestlemania XX match against Eddie is equally as good.
Angle’s last great WWE feud was with Shawn Michaels, which culminated at Wrestlemania 21 in one of my favorite matches of all time. I vividly remember watching the match live and knowing that we were all witnessing a classic. They would also go on to have two other classics at Vengeance and a 30 minute Iron Man match on RAW.
2006 would see Angle battle Undertaker at No Way Out in an instant classic. But it would also see the decline and departure of Kurt Angle. The man had gone hard for 7 years in WWE, and had years of wear and tear from his hugely successful amateur wrestling days. Kurt Angle has one speed, he has one gear, and he doesn’t know what the word slow down means. Being involved in competition nearly your entire life will do that to a person. Obviously the human anatomy sometimes can’t keep up with the minds motivation. Angle would turn to painkillers and drugs to mask pain and continue delivering the quality of matches fans and himself had come to expect. On August 26th, 2006, Kurt Angle was released from his WWE contract.
“Due to personal issues, Kurt Angle has been granted an early release from his contract. WWE looks forward to establishing a new relationship with Kurt in the near future.”
Based on WWE’s release it seemed that the door was open and this was a needed and agreed upon situation, but much more was going on then what was being let on.
The full story released on WWE.com a few days later contained quotes from both Angle and his manager which again alluded to the door being open.
“My body is so beat up and run down, I can’t even think straight,” Kurt Angle tells WWE.com in an exclusive interview Saturday concerning his early release from his contract with World Wrestling Entertainment. Angle and WWE officials mutually agreed to end Angle’s relationship with the company on Friday.
Angle’s business manager David Hawk claims, “Kurt’s in a tremendous amount of pain, he’s used prescription medication to deal with it. Kurt has come to the conclusion that unless he can get in the ring without the use of pain medication then he doesn’t need to be in there. He realizes he was just endangering himself and his opponents.”
But Angle says WWE Chairman Vince McMahon told him the door is always open. “Vince says when I’m ready, if I’m ever ready, to come back just sign on the dotted line. I’ll tell you if I do return I’m going back to my roots, training on the mat like my amateur days. Longevity is the key.”
It seemed on the surface that this was a mutual decision, and neither party was to blame for the release. If anything it seemed Kurt specifically asked for this. The story bubbling beneath the surface told a different tale though. Angle was coming off a 30 day wellness policy suspension. WWE had put both Chris Masters and Joey Mercury through rehab roughly around the same time. Why would they release one of their biggest stars and pay for mid-carders to go to rehab? Simply because Angle refused. He was subsequently fired and WWE posted the articles to help the Olympic hero save some face during a trying time. He was reported to be worse than Shawn Michaels or Brian Pillman at their peaks of drug abuse.
The fact remains that if Kurt Angle would have taken the rehab offer and gotten clean, he could have came back and we could have potentially gotten many more years of Kurt Angle in WWE. Instead, TNA hired a known drug abuser. Much like they did upon Jeff Hardy’s first release from WWE.
Angle would go on to praise TNA for saving his career and life, which can only be seen as slap in the face to WWE. WWE had gone above and beyond to make sure Kurt Angle looked good upon his departure. He turned 2 months later into TNA’s open arms. Hindsight is 20/20, but it is easy to look back and see why WWE has a bit of resentment and hesitation to bring Kurt back.
Kurt would have a near 10 year run in TNA. Longer than his WWE run. Yes he would go on to still have great matches, and legendary moments, but much of his TNA run was accompanied by me cringing anytime the man took a bump, and shaking my head at every moonsault. Nearly all of his TNA run just leads me to a giant what if? Angle was still having stellar matches and his work ethic was never in question. Imagine if he would have just went to rehab and what his WWE career could have looked like if he had.
Here we are. 2016. It has been an insane year in Professional Wrestling. Who’s to say Kurt Angle isn’t coming back? I will sincerely mark out and get excited just thinking about the opening crescendo of his theme hitting. I just hope Angle is truly clean. He deserves one last great run, and with the current crop of WWE Superstars some interesting match ups certainly await and I am sure a Hall of Fame induction follows.