Kurt Angle has accomplished a lot in the world of wrestling, from winning an Olympic gold medal to capturing multiple world titles in WWE and TNA. But his latest wrestling goal may be the most important, and difficult: Saving the sport itself.
And although the brand of wrestling that Angle has competed in for the last 15 years is far removed from the kind showcased in the Olympics, Angle said he still feels a responsibility to give back to his first love.
"Wrestling is such a popular sport here in the United States. And it's growing so quickly," said Angle, while visiting New York recently to take part in Rumble on the Rails, a showcase of top amateur wrestlers from the U.S., Russia and Iran at Manhattan's Grand Central Terminal. "By no means are these three countries dominating here anymore. Wrestling is such a competitive sport worldwide."
Angle believes that misperception of an uneven international playing field is to blame for the IOC's decision to drop wrestling. And although Angle disagrees with the decision, he does believe that the sport is in need of a shakeup, especially of its ever-changing rules.
"Every four years, they change the rules. They need to keep it simple and basic," said Angle, who noted that the sport is far different from the one in which he won a gold medal at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. "There are so many things that have evolved since I wrestled. They don't have periods anymore. They have rounds . . . it confuses the younger demographic."
Despite the sport's changes, Angle hoped to return to the Olympics at last year's London games. But the Pittsburgh native has said that injuries kept him from competing at trials.
Angle's failed Olympic bid also had an unexpected impact on his pro wrestling career. Angle said his reduced role over the last year in Total Nonstop Action Wrestling is due, in large part, to the expectation by TNA management that the Olympics would have taken him away from the company for an extended period.
"Last year when I tried to make the Olympics, they had to write me off," Angle said. "They thought that if I made the team it would be another six to eight months . . . So every time I showed up, it was, 'Oh my God. He's here. What do we do with him?'"
Angle said he appreciates the ability to work with newer talent such as Wes Brisco, but he's ready to return to the main event scene. He'll take a step in that direction when he battles old foe AJ Styles in one of the featured matches at the Slammiversary pay-per-view event this Sunday. Angle will also be in action when TNA runs its annual Ballpark Brawl event at MCU Park in Brooklyn on July 5.
"This is a nice little break, but I'm getting ready to step and get back in the front seat," Angle said. "By no means am I ready to retire. I'm doing this to help the company. But pretty soon, I'll be back in the main event mix."
And before he retires, Angle won't rule out a return to the company in which he became a pro wrestling legend, WWE. Angle, who left WWE in 2006, said he's watched from afar as several top stars, including Brock Lesnar, Triple-H, Chris Jericho and The Undertaker, have all been allowed to work very light schedules -- an option that wasn't on the table when he was there.
"Since these guys wrestle part-time, obviously it's appealing. But that's what I do in Impact Wrestling now," said Angle, noting that his schedule is about 65 percent lighter than it was at its peak. "My loyalty is with Impact Wrestling right now. I can't think about it yet until my contract is up. But is there a possibility [that I'll return to WWE]? You can't throw anything off the table."
Angle is the first to admit that his rise to pro wrestling's elite class was unlikely, given the age-old stigma among amateur wrestlers against pro wrestling.
"It took me a few years to explain to my colleagues and my mentors and the people that I looked up to and I wrestled that I'm not in wrestling anymore. I'm in sports entertainment," Angle said. "'Pro' wrestling doesn't mean that we're saying we're a step up above amateur wrestling, because there's nothing above Olympic wrestling."
In fact, Angle said, other than just looking like a "bad -- -- ," there aren't many skills in amateur wrestling that translate well into pro wrestling.
In amateur wrestling, competitors are taught to block out the audience in order to focus on their opponent. In pro wrestling, performers have to involve the audience in everything they do, Angle said.
"It's hard to turn off your instincts," Angle said. "It took a long time to let somebody throw me off my feet. I would stop them. And then I realized, 'No. You have to go with it.' "
Eventually Angle got the hang of it and rose to become one of the most revered pro wrestling performers of his generation. He also opened the door for other accomplished amateur wrestlers to take the leap.
"Mine was really the deal breaker. Then you saw the Brock Lesnars, and Shelton Benjamins and Charlie Haases and Jack Swaggers."
Still, Angle said amateur wrestlers these days are more likely to be attracted to mixed martial arts than pro wrestling. Although he thinks it's great that MMA has given wrestlers "an opportunity to capitalize on what I believe is the best self-defense sport in the world," he also warns young wrestlers against rushing into the pros.
"I try to tell the college kids, and they don't understand, that when you're 22 years old, you're still a kid. You have fighters in their 40s now . . . I didn't peak until I was about 32 or 33 and I retired from Olympic wrestling when I was 26," Angle said. "Push back the MMA a little bit. Try for the Olympics . . . And if you medal, you'll get paid more."
Another big mistake Angle sees among amateur wrestlers and mixed martial artists is excessive weight cutting. Angle, who said he competed at his natural weight throughout his Olympic career, believes cutting too much weight drains competitors of their strength and energy, and wastes valuable training time.
"Wrestlers and fighters believe that if they can drop down to the next weight class, they'll be bigger and have an advantage. What they don't realize is that they're losing all their strength. They're going to lose all their endurance. They're depleting their body of everything they trained for," said Angle, who believes athletes who cut weight never compete at more than 80 or 90 percent of their ability. "You may still be good, but you're not at 100 percent."