#43 Kurt Angle
Angle of course, is the most decorated amateur wrestler to ever make it big in professional wrestling. Angle was a three time All-American and a two time NCAA National Champion wrestling out of Clarion University. In 1995 he won a gold medal at the World Championships in Atlanta, and the following year he won a gold medal at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, which he famously accomplished with two fractured cervical vertebrates.
After the Olympics, Angle was offered a contract by the WWF, but he turned it down. After working in marketing briefly, he decided to get involved in pro wrestling after all. He famously attended an ECW show that saw Raven tie Sandman to a cross and left the promotion in disgust. In 1998 he signed with WWF and began training out of their Memphis based developmental program. He made his in-ring debut for the WWF in 1999 and after vignettes aired he made his televised debut at Survivor Series.
Angle's character came about during a time when the WWF really understood what their fans wanted out of their wrestlers. Angle came about preaching the three Is, Intensity, Integrity and Intelligence and bragged about being a legitimate American hero. In the past, with stars like Lex Luger and Hulk Hogan, bragging about how much you love America and preaching strong moral values would make you a babyface. By 1999 the WWF knew that fans would trash that character, so instead wasting a guy that won a gold medal in amateur wrestling, they used those same principles and turned him heel.
The most outstanding thing about Angle's career is how quickly he grasped the entertainment aspects of pro wrestling. There have been plenty of great amateur wrestlers to come along in pro wrestling, but most of them who have had great success in professional wrestling, like Verne Gagne, Bob Backlund and Danny Hodge, were the stereotypical humble, honest babyfaces that America looks up to. Angle came right in and was a great heel for the WWF. Almost from his debut Angle was not only a tremendous wrestler, but he could cut promos and get involved in storylines. Angle grasped the concepts of the business faster than arguably anybody else in the history of pro wrestling.
Angle won both the Intercontinental and European Championships, although he lost both of them at WrestleMania 2000 without being pinned. By the summer of 2000 Angle got involved in his first major storyline, working with Triple H in a love triangle between Triple H, his wife Stephanie McMahon and Angle. They worked the main event, along with The Rock, at SummerSlam in a Triple Threat match, meaning that Angle had main evented the WWF's second largest show of the year, less than a year after his debut, during the most profitable year in company history.
After losing his feud to Triple H, Angle got right back on track, defeating The Rock at No Mercy for the WWF World Heavyweight Champion. He retained the title in the return match against The Rock and then in the famous Armageddon Hell in a Cell match against six other competitors. Angle lost the championship back to The Rock at No Way Out in February, which gave him a fourth month title reign, which was pretty long by Attitude Era standards. At WrestleMania X-7 he began working a program with the equally pugnacious Chris Benoit, which saw them eventually clash at Judgement Day in a Two out of Three Falls match that Angle won.
When Stone Cold Steve Austin turned heel and became the leader of the ill-fated invasion of WCW and ECW wrestlers, Angle briefly became a huge babyface, leading the WWF against the Alliance. After Angle helped the WWF defeat the Alliance, Angle reverted back to being a heel after claiming that he and he alone was responsible for the destruction of the Alliance. He then worked a great feud with Edge that culminated in a Hair vs Hair match that saw Angle shaved bald. He then worked with Hulk Hogan and carried Hogan to some of the best matches of his career.
Once Angle went bald, he really became the best wrestler in the world. He was always good, but when he went bald it was a sign that he had enough experience to become truly great. He also looked way more like a badass then he did with a receding hair line and really stressed his trademark intensity. My personal favorite moment of Angle's career was his match against Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania 21, when Angle had Michaels trapped in the ankle lock and was screaming for Michaels to tap. The blood vessels and the veins in the back of his head looked like they were about to explode Angle was gripping Michael's ankle so hard, it was a perfect sell of an intense moment between two generational stars on the biggest stage in wrestling.
Angle would begin to work a long feud with WWE's newest main event star, Brock Lesnar. Lesnar, who was also a NCAA National Champion in amateur wrestling and was as close to an equal as a mat wrestler as Angle was going to find. They had a sensational match in the main event of Wrestlemania XIX and after Angle left for several months for surgery, he came back as a babyface and continued to feud with Lesnar, culminating in a 60 Minute Iron Man match that saw Lesnar defeat Angle. Following the feud with Lesnar, Angle became a top rival of Eddie Guerrero and turned heel again, feuding with Guerrero at WrestleMania 20 and then working a fake-injury angle where he became the General Manager of SmackDown! and ultimately cost Guerrero the world title.
After working the aforementioned feud with Michaels, Angle was transferred over to Raw, where he became a top contender for John Cena's newly won WWE World Heavyweight Championship. Angle, as a legit veteran heel, was the perfect opponent to start Cena's title reign on Raw and helped establish Cena as the top babyface in the company.
When Batista had to sacrifice the World Heavyweight Championship due to an injury, Angle was the surprise entrant in a battle royal on SmackDown! to crown a new champion, and he won the championship. He would only hold it for a short time however, as he dropped the title to Rey Myserio at WrestleMania 22. At this point Angle was then weirdly drafted over to the reborn ECW show, but only wrestled there briefly before WWE.
Angle would then go to TNA, where he was a total coup for the company. Angle was a huge name that every casual fan recognized as a top star, and Angle came in and worked some awesome feuds, mainly with Samoa Joe. He also had great feuds with many of the top stars, including AJ Styles and an underrated feud during Nigel McGuinness's (Desmond Wolfe) brief stay in TNA.
While Angle continued to add to his pantheon of great matches in TNA, ultimately his time in TNA doesn't move him much further up this list. While the matches were great, the fact that TNA was only doing around 10,000 PPV buys hurts his legacy. At the same time as Angle was having those matches, CM Punk or John Cena were having house show matches that were seen by the same amount of people. Now Angle had different personal issues, health issues, and the WWE schedule is tough, so I don't begrudge him at all for going to TNA and making the best of things and doing what was right for him, but at the same time it doesn't help him build his legacy. Angle was only a top draw in wrestling for about six or seven years, which is better than most, but when you are comparing him to guys that were big draws for decades, it is hard to rate him favorably, no matter how great in the ring he was.
Next week, #42 will be revealed on the countdown, a current star that has been the face of a company for the last decade.
The Top 50 so far:
50. Ted DiBiase
49. Superstar Billy Graham
48. Akira Maeda
47. El hijo del Santo
46. Gene Kiniski
45. Bruiser Brody
44. Mick Foley
43. Kurt Angle