It was at the press conference in Westpac Stadium, right before the WWE SmackDown show in Wellington this past weekend that Kurt Angle spoke of his dedication to the business to a handful of New Zealand reporters, NZPWI Editor Dion McCracken and NZPWI Contributor Troy Rawhiti-Forbes among them.
In New Zealand for the first time, Angle expressed his delight in the enthusiasm displayed by Kiwi fans, and the show hadn’t even begun at that stage. Angle and his fellow WWE Superstars were greeted at Wellington Airport with a welcoming powhiri, something they had hitherto never experienced.
“It was so overwhelming,” Angle remarked.
“This has been one of the most enthusiastic countries we’ve been to. I’ve been all over the world, but this is one of the most enthusiastic countries. The fans have been really excited, they really appreciate what we do. They’re watching our shows every week, and we’re very grateful for that.”
New Zealand fans rewarded the stars of SmackDown on Saturday night with an off-the-charts response, generating an amazing atmosphere that the wrestlers clearly revelled in. “Coming here, and being able to wrestle in that 30,000 seat arena, for the first time here that’s pretty damn good. It’s not quite sold out, but it’s close. We’re very happy, and looking for a long term relationship,” Angle said.
As most wrestling fans know, Angle first came to international sporting prominence when he won a gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics in freestyle wrestling. At that stage of his career, however, Angle had little respect for the professional counterpart. “When I was an amateur wrestler I didn’t watch professional wrestling,” he remarked. “I thought it was fake, I thought it was a joke. I was very degraded by it, because as an amateur wrestler you take a backseat to professional wrestling.” Angle was also surprised to learn that professional wrestlers were almost always more popular with the public, except, he said, “when the Olympics come about.”
Angle’s low opinion of professional wrestling would change when he accepted the offer from WWE Chairman and Owner Vince McMahon. He spoke of the hard work, dedication and athleticism that it takes to make it to the top of the heap in WWE. Citing fellow stars such as Rey Mysterio and The Undertaker, Angle describes the talent required to perform in a sport where outcomes are fixed, but the wrestling is real. “I see a lot of athletes in WWE who are just as athletic as I am, and I was an Olympic gold medalist,” Angle says.
In making the switch from amateur to professional status, Angle has been able to extend his career in the spotlight. “I had always wanted to win an Olympic gold medal,” he says. “I’d never really looked past that. And sports entertainment gave me an opportunity for life after amateur wrestling, which thank God I was able to do, because now I’ve set my standard to be one of the best ever in sports entertainment, as I was in amateur wrestling. So far it’s turning out pretty well.”
Those who have followed Angle’s meteoric rise to the top of WWE may suggest that his last remark there is an understatement. Widely regarded as one of the sport’s all-time greatest technical wrestlers, Angle has thrilled audiences with stellar performances in a relatively short space of time. “I’ve come to have a high respect for sports entertainment, and this is coming from a guy who won a gold medal at the Olympics. I’ve come to respect professional wrestling, and I know that it’s not fake.”
His enormous success, however, has come at a high price, as indeed it does for most upper-card performers in WWE. Of chief concern is the amount of time the wrestlers must spend away from their families. Being on the road up to 300 nights a year is not unusual, and it’s inevitable that relationships suffer, Angle’s included. “It was very hard on my marriage, we almost didn’t make it,” he admits. “We had to adjust, we had to get counseling.”
Turning the conference in a different direction, NZPWI columnist and photographer Troy Rawhiti-Forbes asked the question many aspiring young fans crave the answer to. “In New Zealand, amateur wrestling, grid iron, that kind of thing, aren’t really big here,” said Troy. “They’re fringe sports. So for a country like New Zealand where you’ve got rugby and cricket, what advice would you give to a young New Zealand guy who wanted to get into wrestling?”
Angle was quick to emphasise the importance of a solid basic education, one that does not include kids whacking each other with light tubes in backyards. “You need to be smart and find an independent league where they show basic technique,” he advises. “Vince McMahon is not looking for a guy who’s in his backyard doing all these high-flying tricks, and basically making an ass out of himself, and trying to hurt himself. He’s not looking for a guy who’s doing crazy stuff. What he wants is solid basic technique.”
Angle went on to explain the importance of ring psychology, and the ability to tell a story inside the ring, of being able to gauge audiences and play off crowd reactions. “What you need to do is go to independent leagues and find somebody that will teach you the basics of professional wrestling. And once you get those basics down, and you learn how to tell a story in the match… when you’re out there entertaining the fans, you’re not just doing high-flying spots, and doing things to impress them… some of these guys here do.
“But the real meaning of professional wrestling is to go out there and tell a story. When I’m wrestling Undertaker, I’m wrestling a very big man. It’s the big man against the little man. How is the big man going to beat the little man? By overpowering him. How is the little man going to beat the big man? He’s going to chop him down until he gets him down to his size, and basically work the lower half of his body and try to take away his strength. Psychology has a lot to do with it. So, going to these independent leagues and learning basic wrestling, learning psychology, that’s what Mr McMahon’s looking for. And that’s what a lot of professional leagues, like in Japan, United States of America, the very big companies, are looking for.
“So it’s not very smart to go out in your backyard like these kids are doing and hitting each other over the head with trash cans, that’s not impressive to Mr McMahon, he basically sees that tape and throws it away. What he wants to see is somebody that has some kind of ‘look,’ a distinctive look. He doesn’t have to be big, he doesn’t have to be small – just something that catches his eye.”
It was the classic “Big Man vs. Small Man” scenario in Wellington, as Angle prepared to take on the 6-foot-8, 300-pound Undertaker and the World’s Strongest Man, 400-pound Mark Henry, in a triple threat match for the World Heavyweight Championship. “You’re defending that World Heavyweight Championship tonight against two of the biggest guys in WWE,” said NZPWI Editor Dion McCracken. “What sort of strategy do you take into a match like that? What sort of mindset going two-on-one?”
Angle is quick to point out the importance of conditioning in a match such as this, of having the stamina to wear a bigger man down. “The way I won the Olympics was my conditioning. I always wore my opponents out, and they were all bigger than me. I’m only 5-foot-10, about 220 pounds. I’ve always been undersized. But I’ve always trained harder than my opponents, and been better conditioned. So, this match will not be a short match. I have to wear my opponent down to where he gets tired.”
Angle’s determination and intensity have been the crucial factors in both his Olympic success and his rise to the pinnacle of WWE. “What I found out in the Olympics, and later on in the WWE, is that my intensity, nobody can hang with. One guy that was close to being able to was Chris Benoit. He’s a very intense individual. But you can turn men into mice by getting them tired. That’s my strategy for tonight, and it’s no secret. That’s how I wrestle guys bigger than me. I wrestled Undertaker at No Way Out. We had what I would call one of the greatest matches in the history of wrestling. If you’ve seen it… if you haven’t, you have to see it.”
When prompted to compare his Olympic gold medal and the World Heavyweight Championship, Angle insists there is no comparison. He stressed how special both of them are to him, but also how different, and how they need to be viewed separately. Which one means more to him though? On that score, Angle has no qualms. “Which one do I favour? The Olympic gold medal. Why? Because there’s not another Olympic gold medalist in WWE, I’m the only one. I trained for the Olympics for 20 years, I’ve only been in professional wrestling for six.”
Angle made it very clear that he has no plans to unlace his boots and hang them up just yet. He describes with animation his passion for the business, and how seriously he takes the responsibility of carrying the World Heavyweight Championship. “For Vince McMahon, I was the go-to guy. When the other side’s in trouble, they say ‘let’s bring Kurt Angle in.’ It’s good to be that person, but now it’s time for me to carry the ball. I’m not the go-to guy, I am the guy.”
And it’s also clear that Angle plans to make the most of the time he has left at the top. Though plagued with neck injuries, including another vertebrae fracture sustained immediately after winning the World Heavyweight Championship, Angle insists that he’s smart enough to know just what risks he can take, exactly how much stress his body can take. He will take no unnecessary risks with his health now, in order to continue performing as long as he can, not just for his legions of fans, but for himself.
“The passion I have for professional wrestling right now, for WWE, I don’t want to quit, and I know it’s not my time to quit. I’m a fighter, I’ve always been a fighter, nothing’s ever been easy for me, not since I’ve been little. Not since I’ve been training for the Olympic gold, not since I’ve been here. And I’ll continue to fight the good fight.”