BALA CYNWYD, Pa. – So long steel cages, pyrotechnics and theme music. Kurt Angle wants to get real about wrestling again.
Angle believes the time is right to swap that big gold TNA Wrestling championship belt around his waist for another shiny gold medal around his neck.
Creeping up on 43, Angle is serious about becoming an Olympic wrestler for the second time.
The 1996 220-pound freestyle wrestling gold medal winner in the Atlanta Games has scaled back his professional commitments for TNA and dedicated the last seven months to training for a run at making the U.S. team for next summer's London Olympics.
Like Angle once blurted out for a catchphrase: It's true! It's true! Yet, this improbable comeback seems straight out of a storyline in the fantasy world of pro wrestling.
Angle understands the skepticism that he can make the team, much less contend for a medal, against amateur wrestlers more than 15 years younger than him who have not been hardened by the grinding of a body wracked by 13 years of arduous travel, devastating injuries, and an addiction to painkillers.
His Angle Slam is useless in Iowa.
His suplexes are grounded in London.
Angle has to get back to the amateur basics, the style that made him a worldwide force in the 1990s that culminated with him on his knees as tears poured down his face when the referee awarded him an overtime decision over Iranian Abbas Jadidi in the gold-medal match.
"I love pro wrestling," Angle said, "but I'm glad I'm going back to the Olympics."
Up first, a date in the main event of his real job.
Angle defends his TNA title against Bobby Roode in the promotion's Bound For Glory pay-per-view event Sunday night at Temple's Liacouras Center. Hulk Hogan vs. Sting is the other headline bout for a company still looking to make a dent in WWE's sizable grip on the sports-entertainment industry.
From there, it's back to work for his longshot bid for a medal.
Angle has been training three to four hours a day with former wrestling All-Americans at various colleges and a training facility around Pittsburgh. Angle said he's been smarter this time around, training fewer hours and days, and feeling less pressure than in '96 when it was gold medal or bust.
"I know what I did back then was completely insane. If you ever followed my regimen, you'd think I was out of my mind," Angle said. "But I thought the harder I trained, the better I'd be. To some extent, it was counterproductive. I also burned out quite a bit. Now the pressure's off. I won it. I have an Olympic gold medal. This has been a lot more fun for me rather than being nervous all the time."
In the ring, Angle has no nerves — and few peers who can match his ability.
He's been at the top of the sport for more than a decade and long ago proved his decision to spurn his amateur roots and potential career as a high school wrestling coach for the lucrative, outlandish, and scripted world of professional wrestling was the right one. He burst on the scene with the WWE three years after Atlanta and was quickly pushed into the main event picture. He took on The Undertaker, The Rock, Brock Lesnar, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin and main evented the company's showcase PPV cards, like WrestleMania.
In sports entertainment, crushing injuries and an overbooked schedule are part of the price for taking hazardous bumps in a new city every night. There are no lockouts, no offseason in wrestling. It's an unrelenting schedule that can tame even the toughest tough guy.
Angle was no exception, finding little time to take a breather and heal serious injuries.
He won the gold medal months after suffering a broken neck that almost forced him out of the Olympics. He said he needed 12 shots of Novocain in the neck before his Olympic trials and Atlanta matches, which numbed the pain during competition, but left hours of excruciating pain once the drug wore off.
His neck woes continued deep into his WWE career. By Angle's count, he broke his neck five times, including twice in 2003 — once courtesy of Lesnar's wallop with a steel chair over his head — and again in 2004. In late 2003, Angle became hooked on painkillers, starting a two-year addiction to drugs like Percocet and Vicodin that could never be quenched. Every two weeks, Angle claimed the number of pills he needed to get through each grueling day on the road and the next punishing main event would grow into a staggering and, nearly lethal, number.
"I was taking 65 extra-strength painkillers a day," he said. "It wasn't enough."
Angle said WWE officials, especially chairman Vince McMahon, ordered him to quit when his addiction and erratic behavior became obvious to the company. He said he went against doctor's orders to wean himself off the drugs and decided to quit the pills cold turkey — and without a stint a rehab.
The ride back from the physician's office where he detailed his addiction and desire to stop was one of the worst days of his life.
"I cried the whole way home," Angle said. "The next five days I watched 'Harry Potter' movies with a blanket around me to get through it. It was one of the toughest things I've done in my life and I'll never touch a painkiller again in my life — and I've been offered.
"I will never let something consume me the way painkillers did in 2004. That was the devil taking over."
Angle was granted his release from his WWE contract in 2006 and signed later that year with TNA. The company has been attractive to former WWE stars like Angle, Hogan, Ric Flair, Jeff Hardy, and Rob Van Dam because of a lighter schedule and fewer dates set for TV tapings. The WWE castoffs, however, have done little to bolster TNA's brand recognition, TV ratings or PPV buyrates.
Outside the ring, Angle has had enough run-ins with the law to make him a staple on TMZ as much as TNA.
"I've done a lot of things I'm ashamed of," Angle said.
He admits to using human growth hormone and steroids — big no-no's at the Olympics — and has been charged with everything from reckless driving to assault and harassment. In most instances, however, charges have been reduced or dropped. He says he's never had a problem with alcohol.
Not exactly the portrait of an All-American Olympic hero.
He shattered the stigma that came with crossing over from the serious stylings of amateur wrestling to the wild and wacky world of doublecrosses from rule-breaking bosses. NCAA stars like Lesnar and Shelton Benjamin soon followed him to the WWE, and any animosity USA Wrestling had toward the amateurs who swapped their real names for stage names has mostly subsided. Angle's potential return has been greeted warmly — yet with great curiosity.
"It's obviously good for the sport and we're excited to hear it," said Rich Bender, executive director of USA Wrestling. "You can't deny that Kurt Angle was one of America's great wrestlers. Hopefully, if he's serious about the comeback, he'll make the effort to get to Colorado Springs and do some training camps and get into some competition prior to the trials."
Angle said he's at about 90 percent of where he'd like to be ("I need a little bit of conditioning and polishing my technique") and has no plans to compete until the U.S. Olympic Team Trials are held April 21-22 at the University of Iowa.
History could work against him. Unlike his current profession where geriatric stars like Hogan and Sting work into their 50s, the oldest Olympic wrestler to medal was Chris Campbell, who won bronze at 37 at the 1992 Barcelona Games. Angle turns 43 on Dec. 9.
Driven to succeed at everything from his blossoming movie career to running his own food company (Angle Foods), Angle strongly believes he has one more serious run left as an Olympic champion. If not, it's back to going for the 1-2-3 count against his high-flying foes in TNA.
"As long as I give it my best shot, that's all I can ask for," Angle said. "It's not do or die."