By Mike Mooneyham

Sept. 3, 2006

Kurt Angle didn’t even follow pro wrestling until he joined World Wrestling Entertainment – then known as the World Wrestling Federation – in 1998.

He was a 1996 Olympic gold medalist who had never really shown an interest in the professional side of the sport until WWE came calling with a lucrative offer.

But he took to pro wrestling like a duck to water, and his love affair with the game blossomed.

He showed the same intensity and determination in the pro ranks that he had displayed during an amateur career that included two NCAA Division I titles as a three-time NCAA All-American at Pennsylvania’s Clarion University.

Angle, who combined technique with credibility and charisma, was on the fast track to superstardom the first night the Pittsburgh native stepped into a WWE ring, adding virtually every major title to his collection.

Kurt Angle

Kurt Angle

In eight relatively short years Angle went on to win the WWE heavyweight title on four occasions and became one of the most celebrated performers in company history. For much of the time, though, he couldn’t pop pills fast enough to mask the pain in his rapidly deteriorating body.

Driven to succeed

Perhaps the one word that best describes Angle is driven.

Twenty-four hours after his father died in a construction accident at the age of 55, the all-state linebacker competed in a varsity high school football game, despite the pleas of friends and family, making 16 solo tackles, two touchdowns and one interception, the best football game he would ever play.

Angle displayed the same drive and resilience when he went into the finals of the freestyle wrestling competition at the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta with a broken neck, while doctors warned him that he risked paralysis by continuing. Angle not only found a way to compete, but he found a way to win, admitting that he trained so ferociously that he would make himself sick.

It was no different in the pro ranks.

His cocky in-ring character and mic ability drew natural comparisons to The Rock. But he had a physical toughness that no one in the company could match.

“I believe I was meant to win the gold medal. But I feel more comfortable in this ring than I did the amateur wrestling ring. And that’s a tough thing to say,” he said shortly after turning pro. “It’s amazing how I caught on. I think that’s why when I went out and tried out the first day, the second day they came up to me with a contract. They didn’t want to see anything else. That was it.”

Angle’s neck never recovered, and he blew off doctors’ requests to undergo a major operation – that would have kept him out of the ring indefinitely – in favor of quick-fix surgeries that never really worked. Ultimately they only bought him more time in the ring. But that all came with a cost.

End of the road

The 37-year-old Angle’s storied career came to a crashing halt a little more than a week ago when WWE owner Vince McMahon decided it was time to pull the plug. The Olympic hero was on a path to destruction, and everyone in the company knew it.

With Eddie Guerrero’s tragic death still fresh in the company’s collective mind, McMahon could ill afford to add yet another high-profile name to a list of stars who had all died far too soon and on his watch.

Most close to Angle admit he had become obsessed with the business, and was willing to do anything to maintain the adrenaline rush he had become so fond of. The roar of the crowd made him work even harder despite his growing pain and worsening injuries.

“Vince McMahon is literally going to have to fire me in order for me to stop wrestling,” Angle had told the Chicago Sun-Times earlier this year.

The move to end the relationship may have saved Angle’s life. The jury on that, of course, is still out. There is, however, little doubt as to the outcome had he continued wrestling at the high-octane level that marked the athlete.

In the ring, he never stopped performing at that high level. Outside the ring, though, his body had been breaking down at an alarming rate. He had confided that he couldn’t get up in the morning without taking some kind of medication. His admitted addiction to painkillers had taken control of his life, and his overreliance on the chemicals only served to mask the pain.

Everyone knew it was time to cut the ties when Angle injured his groin, tore an abdominal muscle and pulled a hamstring all during the same match at an Aug. 13 event in White Plains, N.Y. The warning signs could no longer be ignored.

“Early on in the match, I pulled my groin, but I kept going, feeding off the crowd,” Angle told the company’s Web site. “Then I pulled my abdominal muscle off the pelvic bone, but I kept going as the crowd grew more wild. Finally, I blew out my hamstring, but we finished the match. The crowd stood and applauded – a standing ovation and that meant so much to me.”

“My body is so beat up and run down, I can’t even think straight,” said Angle, who has a history of heart disease. “I need my body to re-heal and rehab, I have done this for too long without a break. I haven’t been able to really enjoy my life. I haven’t seen my family, I’ve had problems with medication – I’m just fried physically and mentally.”

His business manager admitted as much.

“Kurt’s in a tremendous amount of pain, he’s used prescription medication to deal with it,” said David Hawk. “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.”

In reality, there wasn’t any other option for Angle. He had failed a drug test several months ago after large amounts of pain medication were found in his system, and was forced to sit out a 30-day suspension. The drugs weren’t going to go away, nor was Angle’s obsession to remain in a business that was literally killing him.

Ignoring the obvious

McMahon deserves credit for acknowledging the problem and openly speaking about it. The company’s new wellness policy that calls for suspensions for positive drug test or other evidence of drug use no doubt has cast an unfavorable light on some WWE performers. No longer should the company turn its back and pretend that cases such as the late Eddie Guerrero don’t exist.

Perhaps that’s why it was so strange the see the reactions of some of Angle’s colleagues concerning his departure from the ring.

Said Rey Mysterio: “I was shocked. I just couldn’t believe it. I go back a long way with Kurt, and this has really affected me. I hope he can get his issues straightened out. We all have issues with this lifestyle because it’s not easy. I hope he keeps plugging away because I’d love to see him in the ring again someday.”

Said Chavo Guerrero: “He’s a machine; there has to be something else going on.”

When told Angle was so banged up that he admitted he couldn’t enter a wrestling ring without using prescription painkillers, Guerrero offered, “This isn’t ballet. We all get banged up, but Kurt’s a different animal; he doesn’t know how to downshift into a lower gear. I wish him the best.”

Those statements seem amazing in light of the fact that Mysterio and Chavo Guerrero were probably the two closest to Eddie Guerrero on the WWE roster. That Guerrero and Mysterio should seem anything but relieved only shows that they are part of a much larger group that live in a world in which the line between fantasy and reality is blurred at the very least.

Eddie Guerrero, who died last November at the age of 38, battled demons for most of his career, and they eventually cost him his life. Kurt Angle is no different. His true friends should be rejoicing over the news that someone threw him a life raft while his head was still above water.

The truth is, had the issue not been forced, Angle would still be working in a WWE ring.

“I’ll always be in the WWE,” Angle once said in an interview. “I’ve had offers to fight and wrestle over in Japan. I’ve gotten offers for three matches for six million dollars. That’s a lot of money. But I would never leave Vince – not for what he’s done for me and what he is in this company. I’m going to stay with Vince and pursue my wrestling career for as long as I can.” “Not to have Kurt with us is really unfortunate all the way around … but circumstances were such that Kurt should have been, and was, granted his release,” McMahon said in an official statement. “Kurt has been dealing with that pain, and the advancement of that pain, as well as other injuries. He had been dealing with that injury since he won the gold medal; he had been masking it in many ways just so he could go out and compete.”

Paul Heyman, who had foreseen Angle as the centerpiece of his ECW brand, perhaps summed it up best.

“This is the best thing for both parties. Kurt has spent his entire life driven to be the best at what he does. Kurt’s body, however, could no longer preform to the level that he envisioned for himself. Kurt was prepared to drive himself into an early grave simply to live with himself striving to be No. 1. This is a recipe for catastrophe, and taking time off to get his mind and body in sync is the only way to deal with these issues.”

Uncertain future

Thirty years of nonstop wrestling has taken a toll on Angle’s body, his mind and his family. His life has been spiraling out of control.

He is going through a divorce with his wife who is pregnant with their second child. Friends say she had spent far too much time wondering if her husband would be spending the rest of his life in a wheelchair.

Angle admitted in an interview early last year with the Baltimore Sun that he was having trouble playing with his young daughter due to his injuries. “If he gets to the point where he really can’t play with her, that will be it,” said wife Karen. “No matter what you have in your house, no matter how good your life is, you can’t give that up. If that’s what happens, that’s when I’ll put my foot down and make him stop.”

According to the paper, “At that moment, Kurt Angle smiled and said, ‘I’ll never stop.'”

Karen Angle divorced her husband in the summer of 2005. They briefly reconciled in early 2006, only to separate again recently.

“I think Kurt has some issues he has to face, as we all do from time to time,” said McMahon. “We all have our demons, and as human beings, it is important for us to overcome them and become better human beings, athletes and business people.”

Also uncertain is the status of Angle’s $1 million-per-year guaranteed contract that typically pays wrestlers while healing up – including drug rehab. He realizes he’ll have problems the rest of his life whether he wrestles again or not.

Two herniated discs that were putting pressure on his spine has caused him to experience numbness in his arms, hands and fingers. He can longer hear out of his left ear after having it drained more than 80 times.

The Olympic hero has always subscribed to the motto that a champion never quits and a champion never dies. Preserving his legacy has been paramount in the world of Kurt Angle. To him it was worth the risk putting his body on the line every time he stepped into the ring.

Angle’s words shortly after joining the company now sound prophetic in light of recent developments.

“It’s important to be happy with your life and what you’re doing. I know everybody has problems & we all do, I do & but for the most part, you want to enjoy your life and get through your problems. If you don’t like what you’re doing, try to find something that can take up your time that you can enjoy.”

Hopefully Angle will get that second chance.

– (Chris) Jericho is Raw, but he certainly wasn’t Celebrity Duets.

The former WWE champ was the first contestant eliminated in the premiere of Fox’s “Celebrity Duets” reality show Tuesday night.

Jericho, who fronts a heavy metal band dubbed Fozzy, sang a country ballad with Lee Ann Womack and later joined Peter Frampton for a rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.”

Wrote one reviewer: “And I haven’t even gotten to wrestler Chris Jericho, who wore a shiny leather jacket with the collar popped and a velour blazer last night. Even if he could sing, I’m pretty sure they’d have to vote him off for stealing from Siegfried & Roy.

“But he can’t sing. Like at all. Instead of singing, he does cheesy white boy dancing and stares alluringly at the camera. ‘Duets’ found the heir to Ace Young’s throne. By the time he started running around the stage like Mary Katherine Gallagher I could no longer hear his song over my laughter. He was one of the loudest of the deliciously, unintentionally funny notes the show struck …. But seriously, get him to guest host SNL. It’ll be awesome.”

– Rob Van Dam and Sabu both pleaded guilty to drug charges in a court appearance last week in Ironton, Ohio.

Van Dam (Robert Alex Szatowski), 35, pleaded guilty to speeding and third-degree possession of marijuana and will pay $140 in fines and court costs. A charge of possession of Vicodin was dropped because the wrestler had a valid prescription for the painkiller.

Sabu (Terry Michael Brunk), 42, pleaded guilty to third-degree possession of drugs and was sentenced to 10 days in jail and $500 in fines and court costs. Another charge against him, possession of drugs paraphernalia, was dropped as part of a plea bargain. The jail sentence was suspended.

According to a story in the Ironton Tribune, Van Dam and Sabu refused to talk to media, and both men directed obscene hand gestures towards reporters in the courtroom.

– Batista (Dave Bautista) is in the process of getting divorced and is now dating Rebecca DiPietro, from this year’s Diva Search.

– Independent World Wrestling Superstars is presenting a fund-raiser Oct. 13 at the Horizon Convention Center in Muncie, Ind. The show, billed “Halloween Havoc,” is raising money for youth centers in Muncie. Scott Steiner vs. Buff Bagwell and Greg Valentine-Bobo Brazil Jr. will headline the card.

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