The Great, Half-Forgotten Career of Kurt Angle Draws to a Close

Kurt Angle was among the best and funniest wrestlers of what now looks like a golden age of pro wrestling. As his career winds down, it's worth taking a look back.

21 December 2015, 12:21pm

Image via McPhail/Wikimedia Commons

One of the all-time pro-wrestling greats is winding down his career with uncharacteristic quietness. Kurt Angle's been pushing his retirement from TNA, WWE's distant and perpetually near heat death competitor, for weeks. He's billing it as his retirement from that company rather than a general retirement, but it's clear the end is coming.

The problem with Kurt Angle's career arc isn't what it was but when it happened. Angle's initial burst of superstardom happened at the height of the Attitude Era, meaning that there was no promo he could cut nor match he could wrestle that could break him out of the shadows of men like Steve Austin, the Rock, and Shawn Michaels. Which is a shame, because Angle was undeniably great. In his WWE career, he won six world titles and was arguably the company's most consistent performer in the back half of his years there. It's just that there was always someone bigger, louder, brasher.

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Angle debuted as a squeaky-clean babyface, fresh off a gold medal in freestyle wrestling at the Atlanta Olympics. Just how self-aware Angle was about all this was something of an open question at first. Vince McMahon stuck him in red, white, and blue and marched him out to a triumphal trumpet fanfare. When the fans immediately and predictably took a collective shit on him, timing a repeated "YOU SUCK" chant to the beat of his theme song, Angle initially seemed legitimately confused and hurt.

The year of Angle's debut, 1998, was marked by the slow death of pro wrestling's code of kayfabe: the secret language of making pro wrestling look as real as possible. Whatever well of irony Angle may have tapped as his career matured, he was also doing his thing at a very weird time in the history of wrestling. He was deeply incensed by ECW's infamous crucifixion storyline, but later chose to sign with a WWE that had just finished a series of in-character crucifixions of its own. There was nothing else to do.

When what you're saying is true. Photo via Wikimedia Commons/Journalist 1st Class Kristin Fitzsimmons

Angle did mature, of course, and deftly turned the genuine lack of self-awareness in his early career into maybe the greatest comedy gimmick of all time: a dopey take on Hogan-era babyfaces who just needed vitamins, prayers, and Angle's three I's (Intensity, Integrity, and Intelligence) to make it in life. The fans grew so rabid in their hatred of his condescending smarminess that they began to love him.

If Steve Austin was pro wrestling's first truly great irony act, the heel who gets cheered for being too good to be booed was perhaps the truest harbinger of the era to come. We didn't end up with 20 years of Austin clones, but Angle's legit athletic background and look are still around. Angle seemed almost genetically engineered to be a pro wrestler, à la John Cena, and everyone hated it, à la John Cena. Through sheer charm and a wicked sense of ironic, faux-unaware humor, though, Angle brought everyone back around, and fans couldn't help but fall in love.

Angle was, inarguably, the greatest pro-wrestling straight man of the modern era. His eventual role as straight man rather than as a shticky caricature of a specific person or population meant that he could transition smoothly to a meaner, less humorous persona when the time came. It helped, too, that Angle was and is a phenomenal wrestler, both as an amateur and as a professional. Everything he did was effortless and, more than that, dangerous-looking. Few wrestlers could so easily make their moves look like they might destroy someone at all, much less do so consistently. Angle's juxtaposition of funny guy and in-ring wrestling machine was gold; the pure wrestling machine was just as good, maybe better.

That's where he was heading when he was let go. Angle's health was in precarious condition after years of sticking to his hard-charging style, and he's spoken openly about his addiction to painkillers and alcohol during that time. Angle also faced suspension for steroid abuse. The swirl of his last year in WWE—the character changes, the drugs and the booze, the near-unimaginable chronic pain from two broken necks—can be read as a microcosm of the changes the company was undergoing. In a sense, Angle was the last of the pre-corporate champions: the last guy too precarious to help, too valuable to alter. He bridged the final days of the deadly Wild West of pro wrestling prior to WWE's monopoly and lived long enough to see the buttoned-up safety of the Respectability Era.

His career didn't stop, of course. Angle went to TNA and became a multi-time world champion. It was a good place for him: TNA had a 1990s-era WCW vibe to it; its owner had more money than sense, and was flinging wads of cash at any WWE castoff or WCW fading star within flinging distance. Angle did fine. More than fine sometimes—he worked compelling programs with indie badass Samoa Joe and TNA mainstay A.J. Styles. But it was the wrestling version of the tree in the woods question: If a wrestler is good but nobody watches, is he still important?

It feels insane that Angle languished in TNA—a company he thinks the world of, it must be said—longer than he thrived in WWE. Yet that's where we are: he's more a TNA wrestler than a WWE wrestler, at least by tenure. The photos of him in a wheelchair backstage, whether they're from a storyline or legit, are an indication of how much Angle gave of his body for the amusement of a comparatively small audience. Maybe more telling, when the photo went public in 2014, it just seemed like that's how it was going to go. Another broken wrestler in his forties who was kept going for longer than his body and mind could take by a twisted combination of pride, love, and desperation. That backstage shot, with a lone fan on a bare soundstage, was taken a long way from WrestleMania.

For anyone who cares about wrestling, it stings to see an all-timer not get his due in a sport whose history is always so close to the surface. As Angle wraps up his TNA career, it seems high time for WWE to bring him back for a sendoff. Whether that's a Royal Rumble appearance or a last match, coupled with an induction into the WWE Hall of Fame, it's time for the sport to recognize one of its underrated greats. It's true, it's damned true.