Wrestling is often an escape. Much like other forms of entertainment across the world, it provides an opportunity to run away from life for an hour or two and become immersed in the fantasy world of pomp and circumstance. The larger-than-life characters that grace our screens tell us stories and allow the paintings that depict our everyday lives to drip literal life into imagination – if only for a moment. For many of us, professional wrestling gives us our greatest opportunity as full grown and busy adults to look through the eyes of innocence once again – loving something so fantastically and fearlessly without prejudice. We give it everything, just as the superstars on screen do, and we are all of us better for it.
There may have never been anyone in professional wrestling to understand all facets of what makes this thing of ours so great as one, Kurt Angle. He was an animal in the ring, sure, but he could so freely utilize comedy and personality to bridge gaps and captivate not just the hardcore wrestling fan but the casual one as well. This is an art not easily found, especially in the space we all live in now. Wrestling evolves like everything else does, but when as multifacetedly talented as the Olympic hero himself, I wonder if it feels like it does at all, or if it even matters.
Up until his retirement a couple of years ago, Kurt Angle’s magical career spanned almost my entire life as a wrestling fan. Many might not have known the name then as a child, but I did. My parents were passionate about many things. During the Olympics, especially when the United States had a decent chance at medaling, their focus was otherworldly. I do not specifically recall the Olympics in which Kurt won gold, as I wasn’t even four years old, but I do remember him as a topic at the holiday table in the years to come. My uncles would mention his name with such pride and excitement, telling stories of their own wrestling days in school – before life came calling.
After my Grandad introduced me to the wrestling world in late 1998, I can recall his name first being mentioned within the family in relation to professional wrestling. I still didn’t know who he was, only that he had to be a big deal. My Grandad was a loyal WCW supporter. I look back now and still I struggle to wonder how, especially in those sometimes-ridiculous final months. So, we didn’t tune into WWF regularly, save for one exception. Our Olympic hero.
Fiercely loyal as he was, my Grandad proudly supported the man who had won the United States of America a gold medal with a broken freaking neck. In doing so, he crossed enemy lines, lines he had only ever looked across a few times before in the many years prior. I remember this with amazement still. It wasn’t the nuanced horror of the Undertaker and Kane. It wasn’t the man who had captivated a world in an era defined by his vicious rebellion, Stone Cold Steve Austin. It wasn’t the people’s champ – next in a long line of wrestling thoroughbreds to conquer New York. It wasn’t the Heartbreak Kid, the Hitman, or any others in a long line even before them. It was Kurt Angle and Kurt Angle alone.
Perhaps it was his pride as an American citizen, something he valued almost as much as he valued only one other thing in his life – his granddaughter. It’s a viewpoint one could argue isn’t as strong as it was years ago. You see, he heard Angle’s name and that’s all he needed. The support was there from the jump and was given solely through gratitude. Gratitude for wearing his nation’s colors. Gratitude for representing the country he loved with professionalism and inspirational strength. Gratitude for the pride he felt in his own heart for a man who risked it all for something bigger than himself.
So, I got an education in Kurt Angle from the start. Let me tell you, I hated him. I didn’t yet understand the psychology of a hero simultaneously acting as a villain. Why was he so mean? Why did he talk down to people? Why did he have to wear those gold medals around his neck and wipe everyone’s face in them all the time? You’ll have to forgive the much younger and innocent me. She had much yet to learn.
It didn’t take long to appreciate not just Kurt’s character, but also his dedication to both his company and his legacy. He was brilliant to watch work inside of the ring I had grown to see as something akin to the Louvre – a sanctuary which held the memories of yesterday and the possibilities of tomorrow. His movements calculated and mind sharp, he reminded me of my first favorite wrestler, Chris Kanyon. He looked like he belonged from the first moment and that feeling never once faded, not even when he was pinned by Baron Corbin at WrestleMania 35.
Balancing all that he did in his career, he was able to pull in fans from all over the wrestling map, in an age when fans became increasingly difficult to please. He was athletic and innovative. Funny and humble. Aggressive and violent. Kurt had an innate ability to tell stories on screen that pierced imagination itself and questioned that very real suspended disbelief we all hold so dear. When he was on screen – talking about his love of country, his almost unbelievable accomplishments, or his desire to be great – it almost felt like there existed no television screen at all. When Kurt talked, he talked to us. When he joked, he joked with us. When he left in all in the ring every match, he left it for us.
I’ve never watched anyone over the course of my life as a fan who has given me as many favorite matches as Kurt Angle has. There was a time – a long time – that when he was advertised, I couldn’t miss a moment. I knew in my heart that he was giving me my money’s worth. If it wasn’t the best match, the story made it so. If the story lacked, the match overdelivered. He made memories, and for a wrestling fan, what’s better than that?
It wasn’t always easy for Kurt, and that still makes me sad to this day. We all struggle at times. Pain. Loss. Disappointment. What have you. Seemingly, there are never any answers, certainly no easy ones. We do what we can, right? We survive in the ways we have to in the moment to see the next day and we hope it’s enough. Sometimes it is. Sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes we find a light to bury the darkness and sometimes the darkness buries us instead. Life is hard.
For Kurt, life was hard. The destruction he put his body through to pursue a career he scaled the mountain to the very top of is unfathomable. As fans and as people, I think that often we like to say that we’d go to the ends of the earth for the things we love. It makes us feel strong. It allows us to take active accountability for things we’ll likely never have to be so radically accountable for. The sacrifices one makes to a business that sometimes doesn’t return the love given are enormous. He is living proof of that.
He not only sat atop his mountain of regality for two decades – he turned away would be usurpers that he may have never expected to have to face. Sure, he defeated men like Austin and the Undertaker. The Rock and Cena. Styles and Sting. Joe and Edge. Michaels and Lesnar. But he also valiantly battled time. Adversity. Addiction. Failure. Regret. Remorse.
I can understand why Kurt Angle took the steps he did along his path. Every one of them. We dictate our own destiny sometimes. At least we like to think we can. Kurt’s journey is like no other. A legend nearly impossible to live up to – doomed from the start – yet he succeeded anyway. I would argue that the kind of success that Kurt willed out of himself and out of a business that is miles better for his inclusion within it changed the landscape of professional wrestling for the better. To do that even slightly after generations have helped build it into a nearly solid foundation of immovable stone speaks volumes.
I wished for more when Kurt walked into the horizon after WrestleMania 35. Not every hero gets the ending they wish for or deserve. That’s just life. I find solace in what Kurt accomplished before being pinned that one final time. I look back and remember laughing when I had nothing else to laugh about. I remember the smiles when smiles were impossible to come by. The tears when he surprised me with yet another match I’d never forget or the awe of the matches in which he didn’t because my expectations couldn’t have been higher, and he’d hit them anyway.
I remember it all still and I smile when I do.
That’s what a legacy is. Not in how a career ends but in how one is made. I worried late in Kurt’s career that he might be worried about something unforeseen or out of his control knocking him off of the mountaintop he had built himself and defended bravely for two decades. I worried he would feel pressure to do more than he needed to do. In all reality, I just wanted him to feel as appreciated as he deserved to feel. Legends don’t desert their rightful thrones. They don’t cede their seat because their time is over – they just bask in the glory that is a career worthwhile. Forever enshrined in the hall of fame that exists in all of us. We defend his mountain now, an honor observed for generations before and will be for many after.
Oh, it’s true. It’s damn true.