The WWE Network recently debuted its latest WWE 24 episode, Kurt Angle: Homecoming. As the title suggests, the documentary focuses on Angle’s return to WWE after parting ways with the world’s largest professional wrestling promotion in 2006. While the film follows Angle in preparation for his 2017 WWE Hall Of Fame induction, what makes Angle’s return to WWE truly a ‘homecoming’ is his close, and at times turbulent, relationship with WWE Chairman Vince McMahon.
Growing up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Angle and his older brothers were turned on to amateur wrestling by their father, David. Unfortunately, David, who struggled with alcoholism, died unexpectedly in an accident on a construction site at 55 years old when Kurt was just 16. Around that time, Kurt began to excel at amateur wrestling.
“By the time I got in high school and my dad passed away, unfortunately, I started catching on. I won a state title in high school and I went on to college.”
Prior to embarking on a career in sports entertainment, Angle famously won a freestyle wrestling gold medal at the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, despite having a self-described “broken freaking neck”. Angle secured his greatest professional accomplishment after being injected with Novocaine in his neck to manage the pain. McMahon would come calling with a contract offer shortly after Angle’s big Olympic win.
“In 1996, after I won the gold medal, Vince McMahon said he’d like to meet with me. He threw a contract at me right away. It was a 10-year deal. It was more money than I ever saw in my lifetime at that time. I looked at the contract and stared back at Vince and said, ‘Mr. McMahon, thank you for the offer. I hope you know I’m an Olympic gold medalist, so I could never lose.’ I didn’t hear from Vince McMahon after that. I didn’t get it. I didn’t understand what this was. As a kid, I was taught by my brothers and coaches, ‘don’t watch that stuff. It’s fake. You’re real.’ So I never did.”
After reaching out to then-head of Talent Relations at WWE, Jim Ross, Angle was told that the contract he was offered two years prior was no longer on the table, but that Angle was more than welcome to try out. Angle wanted to quit before the first day of tryouts was over, but caught on so well that he was offered a contract by Day 3. Although Angle eventually realized that it was ludicrous to think he would have an undefeated pro wrestling career, it did not mean he would accept all of McMahon’s ideas without pause. RAW’s current General Manager remained skeptical of McMahon’s plan of making Angle ‘The Most Celebrated Real Athlete In WWE History’.
“I said, ‘look, you’re this hero. At the same time, when we bring you into WWE, you’re going to be a heel, so to speak, because you’re so good. You’ve accomplished so much. You’re above the business. ‘I’m a real wrestler.'” McMahon continued, “and I said, ‘what’s going to happen is people are really going to boo the hell out of you.’ ‘Oh no, Vince, that’s not going to happen.'”
Despite early doubts about being a heel, Angle would come to admit that McMahon was right all along.
“I doubted Vince McMahon the whole time. I doubted him from Day One. I said, ‘there’s no way in hell they’re going to boo me. There’s no way in hell they’re going to disrespect me. I’m an Olympic gold medalist. These people are going to love me.’ And he said, ‘no, they’re going to be the opposite.’ And he was right.”
Just as a young Peter Parker began to embrace his new identity as Spider-Man under the tutelage of Tony Stark in Spider-Man: Homecoming, Angle’s Homecoming demonstrated how he came into his own as a heel persona under the watchful eye of McMahon. Angle recalled that McMahon started to really take ‘Your Olympic Hero’ under his wing the night after Angle debuted. Angle doubted his hometown of Pittsburgh would boo him and was amazed at his icy reception in ‘The City Of Bridges’.
“I got the negative response. It was a lot of fun to taunt the fans and to make them believe I hated it, but in reality, I loved it. I loved every second of it.” Angle added, “after Pittsburgh, Vince took me under his wing and that’s when the Kurt Angle character was born.”
WWE may be a multi-million dollar corporation, but it remains in many respects a family business. Seemingly many past and present WWE performers view McMahon as a father figure and Angle is no different. According to current WWE United States Champion, AJ Styles who shared a locker room with Angle during their time together with Impact Wrestling, ‘The Wrestling Machine’ always talked about how McMahon treated him like a son.
“When Kurt wasn’t with the WWE anymore, he talked about Vince all the time and Vince treated him like a son. Vince gave him an opportunity to be something bigger than an Olympic hero, as crazy as that sounds. He became bigger than that because of the WWE”
At many points during the film, Angle acknowledged that he loved McMahon as a father figure.
“Vince and I had a connection. He wasn’t just a boss. He was a friend, a father figure, and I actually loved him. I loved him like a father.”
McMahon suggested that Angle’s sentiment may have been damn true.
“I always had great chemistry with Kurt. He was like a son to me in a lot of respects and I was very proud of him.”
Angle broke his neck in WWE for the first time in 2003, wrestling Brock Lesnar at Backlash. Angle compared the bad timing of the injury to when he broke his neck prior to the ’96 Olympics.
“I knew I had to have surgery and I was going to opt out of WrestleMania. It was at the highlight of my career too. It was my time to main event WrestleMania.”
In a video clip from March 30, 2003, Angle claimed that the doctors told him he could compete in one more match before having neck surgery; however, McMahon was against Angle wrestling at WrestleMania 19. The proponent of ‘The 3 Is’ convinced McMahon to let him work. Interestingly, Angle revealed that McMahon told Angle that he loves him during that exchange and Angle cried.
“Vince McMahon’s actually against me wrestling. I called Vince and I told him, ‘I want to be the one to wrestle Brock at WrestleMania’ and he said, ‘hey, I’m against you doing this, but if this is what you want to do, then I’m going to support it.’ And I said, ‘thank you, Vince’ and he said, ‘I want to tell you just one other thing. You’re not going to like it, but I’m going to tell you.’ And I said, ‘what?’ and he said, ‘I love you.’ And I actually started crying.”
Angle stated that he rushed McMahon and the medical staff to clear him for competition and the six-time world champion started to abuse painkillers and broke his neck again after only six months.
“When I had the surgery after WrestleMania 19, I was hounding the hell out of Vince. I was rushing the doctors to get me back.” Angle said, “I never let Vince know, I never let anyone at WWE know, but I started abusing the painkillers and trying to hide the pain, physically and emotionally, and I did that for six months and I broke my neck again, so I had to have surgery again.”
As Angle continued on his self-destructive path, the former Eurocontinental Champion broke his neck for the fourth time as he wrestled Eddie Guerrero at WrestleMania 20.
“I kept rushing back. I kept rushing back because I wanted to be in the mix. I was hitting the painkillers even harder.” Angle recalled, “but I got cleared to wrestle Eddie Guerrero at WrestleMania 20 and I broke my neck again at WrestleMania 20.”
Notably, Angle divulged that he attempted suicide when he thought his pro wrestling career was over.
“I remember I grabbed about 25 painkillers and shoved them in my mouth and just swallowed them, hoping I wasn’t going to wake up the next day.”
Angle indicated that he was at a very dark point in his life, still abusing painkillers and lashing out at McMahon and WWE.
“Things were just not panning out for me. The painkiller problem was still there. I was backing off, adding more, backing off, adding more. I was still hiding it from everybody.” Angle remembered, “I was very angry, very bitter, because I couldn’t keep myself together. I lashed out at Vince. I lashed out at the company. I saw this young whippersnapper named John Cena coming up through the ranks and basically taking my place and there was nothing I could do about it.”
Angle explained that he parted ways with WWE in 2006 because Angle could no longer keep up the charade of sobriety. When McMahon requested that Angle go to rehab, he refused.
“The broken neck didn’t help. The painkillers didn’t help. Vince saw a change of behavior and he had to do something about it. Vince wanted me to get help. I didn’t want to get help. I asked to part ways and he said, ‘fine, but I’d like you to go to rehab and get yourself straight.’ I opted not to.”
McMahon described the stalemate as “heartbreaking”.
“It was heartbreaking. When you see someone hellbent on self-destruction and there’s nothing you can do about it. You can’t threaten them losing their job. There’s just nothing you can do. That’s really a rotten feeling when you care for somebody. And then, I said, ‘goodbye’.”
On an episode of WWE Byte This from October 2006, McMahon suggested that Angle’s release was over a health matter.
“Some of it is confidential. I’d love to tell you exactly what the story is, but it really revolves around Kurt’s health more than anything else.”
Angle would migrate to Impact Wrestling, where his addiction issues would continue. Interestingly, Angle continued seeking McMahon’s approval, hoping that ‘The Boss’ was watching his TNA matches.
“When I left, I didn’t kick the habit of the pain medication. I started going to Xanax and alcohol, but what was most important to me was my wrestling.” Angle reflected, “regardless of what was going on in my personal life, [the wrestling ring] was my playground and I was having some kickass matches. I was always hoping in the back of my mind that Vince was watching them. And whether he was or he was not, I don’t know, but I wanted him to know how good I still was. But it didn’t make me a better human being. I was still doing the bad stuff I wasn’t supposed to be doing.”
Angle would continue to spiral out of control, having four DUIs in five years. With the help of his lovely wife, Giovanna, ‘The American Hero’ endured a 30-day stint in rehab and has not looked back. Eventually, Angle would get the call to return to WWE.
“It’s one of those things where I went to a different company, lived a different life, not so good of a life. I had to get my stuff together before I came back and I did that.”
While making his way to WWE headquarters in a limousine to see McMahon for the first time in over a decade, Angle admitted that he always wanted to make amends with McMahon.
“I just always wanted to make amends with Vince, but with my circumstance and the way things occurred, it’s kind of eerie doing this again because I never thought I would.” Angle admitted, “I was a bit nervous before I came to meet with Vince. You say a lot of things and you don’t talk to him for 11 years.”
The emotional Angle described meeting McMahon in his office for the first time in over a decade.
“I went in the office and the first thing he did was hug me and he didn’t let go. Well, Vince was always a father figure to me. I lost my dad at a young age and he always gave me direction when I was in this company. The first second I saw him, the first thing he did was put his arms out and hugged me. Hold on.” Angle broke down in tears before adding, “I haven’t seen him in 11 years, so it was good to catch up and to know he’s okay with me. And he’s proud of me because I’ve been able to clean myself up and get my life together, so it was good. It was good. I’m just glad to be back home.”
In McMahon’s view, reuniting with Angle was like no time had passed at all.
“We picked up right where we left off in terms of appreciating each other and enjoying what we were doing together. And he’s the same guy today as he was 10, 15 years ago.”
Angle shared that he remembers McMahon telling him 12 years ago that Angle could have a job for life at WWE and he finally believes it now.
“I have a company that I can be a part of for the rest of my life. It depends on the choices make. 12 years ago, I remember Vince telling me, ‘listen, if you do right by me and do right by yourself, you’re going to have a job here forever.’ I thought he was just being nice. I never took Vince seriously and now I do realize what he meant. It’s really good to be back home. I always thought someday I’d get back there. It’s too important to me. Even when I was out of it, this company is what kept me going. This is my first love.”
The episode closed with very telling words from Angle. As much as Angle’s WWE Hall Of Fame induction was a well-deserved career achievement award allowing ‘The Olympian’ to reclaim his rightful place in the annals of WWE history, it is also a beacon, lighting the way for Angle’s possible future with WWE, as well as an olive branch, extended from one estranged family member to another.
“It’s just nice to know that Vince can forgive. He can move on. I know I’m going to have earn his trust, but I’m willing to do that. But at least I know the WWE Universe hasn’t seen the last of Kurt Angle.”
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