With a gold medal draped around his neck, Kurt Angle couldn't hold back the tears as he stood proudly on the podium, his right hand across his heart, as "The Star-Spangled Banner" played.
It was the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, and Angle had just won the 220-pound freestyle wrestling competition.The fact that he even qualified for the Olympics was amazing, because he did it with a broken neck, which he had suffered while winning the nationals.
Coming from a blue-collar background, the clean-cut, baby-faced Angle was quickly embraced as America's newest sports hero. He was a guest on national talk shows and even had two parades in his honor.
Currently one of the main attractions in World Wrestling Entertainment, Angle still invokes a spirited reaction. But instead of adulation, he routinely has an arena-full of fans chanting "You suck" at him, and he expects a similar response tomorrow night when he performs on WWE's SummerSlam pay-per-view show at MCI Center.
Now, is that any way to treat an Olympic hero?
It is in the bizarre world of professional wrestling, where milk-drinking straight-arrows like Angle are portrayed as the bad guys, and beer-guzzling rebels are the fan favorites.
A legitimate world-class athlete like Angle might seem out of place in that world, with its over-the-top theatrics and pre-determined outcomes, but he couldn't be more serious about his often-mocked profession. He is as driven to be recognized as the best pro wrestler of all time as he was to win the gold medal.
"A lot of people in this business claim to be the best," Angle, 36, said, "but I truly believe there's nobody better than me. I want to be considered the greatest ever."
To put his comments into context, he's not talking about wanting to be the biggest star in pro wrestling history. He knows the fans will never put him in the same class with Hulk Hogan and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.
Holds nothing back
Angle is speaking in terms of a well-worked pro wrestling match being an art form. Despite WWE's sometimes-farcical presentation as a testosterone-laden soap opera -- and Angle readily admits what he does is entertainment, not true sport -- his goal always is to deliver the most compelling, realistic and athletic-looking match on the card.
"I want to steal the show every time I'm out there," said Angle, who is 6 feet 2, 220 pounds. "When you watch Hulk Hogan, he doesn't look quite as crisp and sharp and his technique isn't what mine is. Not to put down Hulk, but I have to look real because I am real.
"I actually have more of a passion for this than I did for amateur wrestling."
Angle, who has continued to battle severe neck injuries since starting with WWE in 1999, already has earned a reputation in the pro wrestling industry as one of the top in-ring performers.
"He may not go down as the greatest of all time because of the injuries and [lack of] longevity, but he is already an all-time great," said Dave Meltzer, editor and publisher of theWrestling Observer Newsletter.
"The Kurt Angle of two years ago, match after match, was as good as anyone I've ever seen. I don't know if he can still do it at that level night after night, but he's still at the top of the list of the best guys in the business today."
Angle didn't always have a passion for pro wrestling, however. Like most amateur wrestlers, Angle - who was a two-time NCAA Division I heavyweight champion at Clarion, is a member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and was recognized last year as one of the 15 greatest NCAA wrestlers of all time - never paid any attention to pro wrestling and considered it a joke.
In fact, when WWE chairman Vince McMahon offered him a lucrative contract a few days after he won the gold medal, Angle turned it down, later remarking that there was a better chance of his joining the circus than becoming a pro wrestler.
But after a brief stint as a sports anchor in his hometown of Pittsburgh and a failed attempt to land a spot with the Steelers as a fullback, Angle decided to give WWE a second look.
Signed to a developmental deal for significantly less than WWE's initial offer, he proved to be a natural in the ring and charismatic on the microphone. Less than a year after his debut, Angle won the WWE championship from "The Rock."
He also had to lose a few matches along the way, which didn't sit well with him initially.
A new mind-set
"When I first started, I said, `Vince, I don't ever want to lose,' " Angle said. "He was like, `Are you crazy? Nobody goes undefeated.'
"I had to forget everything I learned in amateur wrestling. I had to learn how to give my body up to my opponent, how to [show pain] -- and not just to the person in the front row; the people in the rafters need to see the pain, so you have to overdo [your facial expressions]."
Angle certainly wasn't the first amateur wrestler to go into pro wrestling. A number of amateurs had made the transition, especially in the 1940s and 50s, with varying degrees of success. Angle, however, was the most high-profile amateur to do it.
That did not please some in the amateur wrestling community, who were having a hard time watching one of their most-decorated athletes playing comedic foil to WWE's good guys and trading pulled punches with guys named The Undertaker and Scotty 2 Hotty.
"It raised some eyebrows and there were some people that spoke out about it," said Rosedale resident Tom Gaylin, an NCAA wrestling official who was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame with Angle in 2001.
"We usually never even discussed pro wrestling -- it was taboo. A lot of people, particularly in the hierarchy, had mixed emotions."
Angle went on to become one of WWE's marquee performers for several years before his career was nearly derailed just as he was about to reach the pinnacle for a pro wrestler - headlining WrestleMania, WWE's Super Bowl, in 2003.
He was scheduled to face Brock Lesnar, the 2000 NCAA heavyweight wrestling champion at Minnesota who followed Angle into the pro ranks, in the main event of the annual pay-per-view extravaganza. But two months before the show, Angle called McMahon and told him he was unable to lift his arms above his head.
The neck injuries that occurred during the 1996 nationals, when he cracked vertebrae in two places and had two disks pushed directly into his spinal cord, had gradually worsened as the result of getting bumped around the ring in WWE.
Doctors told him he needed spinal fusion surgery, which would keep him out of the ring for at least a year and maybe permanently.
A few days after backing out of the match, however, Angle had a change of heart. And just as he did in '96, he ignored the doctors and risked possible paralysis for the opportunity to achieve one of his goals.
`One more match'
"It was my first chance to be in the main event at WrestleMania, and I had only been in the business three years," Angle said. "I figured I could go one more match, and then I'll have surgery and see how it goes."
Angle delivered his usual quality performance at WrestleMania, then underwent a minimally invasive surgical procedure and returned to the ring a couple of months later.
The neck problems kept occurring, however, and during one match he briefly lost feeling in both his arms. It got so bad that McMahon asked Angle to consider retiring last year.
"I told him, `I ain't gonna retire. Let me take a break and heal up and I promise you there won't be any more problems,' " Angle said.
"I knew I wasn't stretching my neck and doing the right things to prevent the injuries from getting worse. Now, every day, I stretch five times a day. I do everything I can to keep my neck and back in condition, and I don't have any problems with my neck right now."
Angle realizes he's still only one bad bump away from a tragic situation. But despite the physical toll pro wrestling has taken on him, as well as the emotional one -- he said he and his wife recently separated due to the strain of his constant traveling -- Angle is determined to leave an indelible mark on the industry.
"Vince McMahon always tells me this is in my blood. I know this is what I was meant to do," Angle said. "I've done everything there is to do in this business, but in order to have that iconic status, you can't do it in five years. So I'm going to do all I can to show people that I'm as good, if not better, than anybody that's ever been in this business. I'm looking to go another 10 years."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times