I couldn’t contain my excitement yesterday evening when ESPN broke the news that Kurt Angle will headline WWE’s Hall of Fame class for 2017. One of my childhood heroes, and a man who in his day made anybody’s top five, is to take his rightful place on wrestling’s most prestigious platform. Given that Angle has been absent from WWE for well over a decade now (yes, it has been that long), the induction feels long overdue.
For WWE, this year’s Amway Center ceremony will mark the first time since 2012 that an Attitude Era star will feature as the Hall of Fame’s primary attraction, and for Kurt’s fans it will be an opportunity to honour one of the greatest professional wrestlers of all time. Of course, in the time that Angle has been away, an entirely new, younger generation of fans has immersed itself in the product, so many viewers will (unless they are avid WWE Network enthusiasts) not be particularly familiar with his body of work. So I wanted to spend a little bit of time outlining why I think Kurt Angle isn’t just worthy of a Hall of Fame ring, but that an argument can be made that he should have his own wing come WrestleMania 33.
I would go as far as to say that Kurt Angle is the single greatest *wrestler* I have seen in my lifetime. I use the word ‘wrestler’ deliberately, as it can easily be confused with ‘biggest star’ or ‘best performer’. Since Stone Cold Steve Austin and Shawn Michaels quite easily claim those two respective titles, the burden of best wrestler falls to Kurt. This does not, of course, mean that there is a lack of competition. AJ Styles has emerged as one of the finest talents in the world, Randy Orton is exceptional between the ropes and Brock Lesnar has conquered different styles better than anyone. I consider Angle to be the best, though, for three reasons.
Firstly, he could adapt and have great matches with opponents of all sizes. Secondly, fans always seemed far more emotionally invested in his matches than with the likes of Lesnar and Orton, who on many occasions were showered with ‘boring’ chants. Thirdly, nobody matched Kurt Angle’s intensity in the ring. Classics that anybody unfamiliar with should check out include his matches with Shawn Michaels and Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania, his match with Chris Benoit at the Royal Rumble (2003) and his match at SummerSlam (2001) with Steve Austin. And while you’re scouring through old content, try to find me a bad Kurt Angle match, because I’m yet to find one. It is no wonder that Wrestling Observer Newsletter awarded him ‘Most outstanding wrestler’ for three years straight, between 2001 and 2003. .
What is less appreciated about Kurt Angle, and indeed what set him apart from other amateur wrestlers who tried to make it at professional level, was his superb comedic timing and promo ability. To just be able to wrestle clearly is not enough to make it at the top level. When Kurt Angle’s promos and comedic timing caught up with his wrestling ability just after the turn of the millennium, there wasn’t a better performer on the card. See, for instance, his backstage segments with Edge, Steve Austin and Brock Lesnar or his back-and-forths with Stephanie McMahon and The Rock, for evidence of just how funny Angle could be. Amateur wrestlers seldom excel at this aspect of professional wrestling, likely due to how completely unfamiliar they are with it. But Kurt could entertain, and he was damn good at it. I mean, the milk truck segment, anybody?
Some months back, I wrote a blog in which I credited Kurt Angle for the greatest achievement in modern Olympic history. Winning a gold medal at the 1996 Games in Atlanta with a broken neck will forever stand the test of time, and it is symbolic of the lack of respect shown to the sport of wrestling that Angle’s win is almost never recognised by mainstream sporting commentators. I think his gold medal win showcased both mental and physical toughness, as well as his passion in doing what he loves, even at the very real risk of paralysis.
Fast a forward a few years, and just months inside his WWE run, Angle had already captured the WWE Championship. After beating The Rock at No Mercy (2000), Angle became the first Olympic gold medallist to win a world championship in professional wrestling. His list of accomplishments continued to grow, winning another five world titles, every singles championship available to him during his seven-year stint in WWE and the King of the Ring tournament. As accolades go, most do not hold a candle to Kurt Angle.
The final stop on the road to recovery
It is no secret that Kurt Angle has fought his fair share of demons. His problems with alcohol and drugs, fascinatingly recounted during his appearance on Steve Austin’s podcast, are well known. An arrest in Texas back in 2013 was the point at which I became especially worried for his life. It was his fourth alcohol-related arrest in just a couple of years, and when you look at the fate of many wrestlers who have dabbled with drugs and succumbed to the seduction of alcohol and other addictive substances, Angle only really had two options: spiral into legacy-destroying turmoil and personal hell…or fight, recover and once again stand proudly on a WWE stage, honoured and placed firmly into the annals of history. I am so proud that he chose the latter, and when he stands glossy-eyed in his tuxedo at the Amway Center podium later this year, he’ll know he deserved it. His Hall of Fame induction is symbolic, not just for the fact that it brings his career full circle, but also because it stands as a measure of his resilience and fighting spirit. He battled with a broken neck, entertaining millions, and he turned his life around after struggling with addiction.
It shall be interesting to see who inducts him in on March 31st. When I heard the news, my gut feeling was Brock Lesnar. That would seem to me the most appropriate choice, given their historic rivalry in 2003 and eerily similar career paths. But there is one thing we all know for sure: very few men are synonymous with the WWE. Even fewer are synonymous with wrestling. Kurt Angle sits in both of those elite categories. The hearts and minds of fans the world over will be grateful for him, the bar for amateur wrestlers was raised by him and the Hall of Fame wouldn’t be complete without him.
Welcome home, Kurt.