After 11 years away, pro wrestling legend Kurt Angle has finally returned to the WWE and is headed into the WWE Hall of Fame - and he says he didn't expect to get the call.
With just a few weeks left until WrestleMania 33 weekend in Orlando, Kurt Angle spoke to Fox Sports about his place among the greatest wrestlers of all time, how WWE has changed since he left the company more than a decade ago, and being inducted by John Cena.
Fox Sports: You’ll be meeting with fans this weekend in Cleveland. What has the reception been like for you since news broke that you would be returning to WWE to go into the Hall of Fame?
Kurt Angle: “Well I think a lot of people didn’t think I was ever going to return to WWE in any capacity. When the parting occurred in 2006… I mean it wasn’t extremely ugly, but it wasn’t pretty either. And it was just I go my way and WWE goes theirs. We never really made amends until the past couple months, so it was extremely overwhelming.
A lot of people - you would think after 11 years, there is a new generation that might not know Kurt Angle, but the WWE Network definitely helps them learn about who I was. But you have the Attitude Era and Ruthless Aggression Era generation that enjoys Kurt Angle, so they were very excited to have me back. You could see by the excitement. I never expected to be inducted into the Hall of Fame at 48 years old, I was really overwhelmed.”
Fox Sports: What was your reaction to the news that John Cena will induct you into the Hall of Fame?
Kurt Angle: “John, you know, I was his first match when he started in WWE, and I knew right then that he was very special. I also knew that this kid was going to give me a rough time being the top guy in the company. Because at the time I was one of the top guys, I would say myself and Triple H, and to have this young kid come up and the company asked me to help teach him a little bit. It was like… ‘wait a minute, I’m teaching this kid to take my spot?!’
But John was really good. He was a great student, great learner. I mean, look what he’s done. I can’t even take any credit for it. John is a 16-time WWE World Heavyweight Champion, no one’s ever done that. Ric Flair has 16 world titles, but they’re not all in WWE.”
Kurt Angle on why John Cena is the best WWE Superstar of all time:
“I would put John Cena in the history books as being the greatest WWE Superstar of all time. And It’s not because John is the best wrestler. He’s one of the best, I wouldn’t put him at the very top of the list, but he is one of the best. He also has the ability to sell more merchandise than anybody else, and at the same time he’s done a lot for charities. And the fact that John has been consistent on top for 14 years completely amazes me.
I was on top for seven, and I was ready to go crazy. And on top of that, it’s the fact that John has stayed out of trouble. I mean, he is a clean-cut kid. He’s the perfect, perfect example of what any aspiring athlete should be. So I think that having him induct me into the Hall of Fame… He is who I want my son to be. Exactly.”
Fox Sports: In an interview with Corey Graves you did recently, you said that you didn’t want fans to remember you as the guy who could have been the greatest of all time if not for your issues. When you look back on your career, do you put yourself in that class?
Kurt Angle: “You know what, to be honest with you… I haven’t been there in 11 years. You can only have so much impact when you’re in a company for six and a half years [and] you’re injured for a year and a half of it, so really five years.
… Would I put myself in the history books as the greatest wrestler of all time? Yes. But not 'WWE Superstar'. I was only there six and a half years. I also had a pro career in TNA for 11. You can’t combine them together unless you’re talking from a non-WWE standpoint. And the WWE is the monster, it’s everything. The longer you’re in there and the more successful you are, the more accolades you should have. I wasn’t John Cena, I couldn’t stay on top for 14 years. I tried. Very few individuals could do that.
I’ll give you an example: Who I think is the greatest of all time is - but he just wasn’t there enough - was Stone Cold Steve Austin. He had a great run for five years, but he was also out a year of that. So his top babyface run was about five years, but he was out with a neck injury for a year. Nobody can sustain it like John Cena has, and consistency is definitely a key when you’re talking about the greatest of all time.
Did I have consistency after WWE? Yes, but I had to go to another company and have a much-reduced schedule in order to do it.”
Fox Sports: One of the things your peers always say about you is that you picked up on the wrestling business quicker than anyone ever has. Was there a certain point in your career where you realized ‘I’m on track to have a very special career here’?
Kurt Angle: Yeah, I knew right away. I mean I literally was having matches three days in. That just doesn’t happen. From the first day I took a bump, three days later I’m having matches with other wrestlers, tryouts to get onto TV. They knew right away, I knew right away.
I just caught on very quickly. It wasn’t because I could lead the match or I came up with all these great ideas, it was the fact that I was a great follower. I just listened to the guy I was wrestling and he would walk me through it. But when you’re a great follower, you become a great leader. It literally only took me a year and a half in the business before I started structuring my own matches - nobody’s ever done that.
I think the closest person to me who’s had the success that I had is Brock Lesnar, but he trained in OVW for two and a half years. I had exactly one year to train before I was on TV. And then, not only that, but I won every title my first year on TV. So within two years I was World Champion and had won every other title. It was just very quick, very quick and brief.
It was really overwhelming, but the fact is I had some issues with my neck, and that turned into painkiller problems, and then that turned into more injuries. I couldn’t have that long career like I wanted to, and unfortunately I had to opt out.”
Kurt Angle on missing out on a part-time contract that would have kept him in WWE:
“Now back in 2006, they weren’t handing out part-time contracts at the time. I mean, I wish they would have, but they weren’t. Very few wrestlers had them, like a Shawn Michaels or an Undertaker, so it wasn’t an option back then.
What’s crazy is two years after I left, they started doing that. It was like ‘damnit! I just missed it by two years.’ I would have stayed in WWE. I went to rehab back in 2006 and I got myself straight, took Vince McMahon’s advice, and I would have stayed. I wanted to stay, I just knew I couldn’t do that schedule. At the time, unfortunately, it wasn’t an option to be a part-timer, and I do understand it, because I was only in the business at that point for six and a half years. Part-timers usually have to put in that 20 or so years. So I understood that, but two or three years later they started doing that. It kind of sucked [laughs]. I missed that moment where I could have stayed, and I could have been a 25-time World Champion!”
Fox Sports: You were backstage at SmackDown last week in Pittsburgh. What was that experience like being around a WWE event again with your family?
Kurt Angle: “It was nice. A lot of things have changed. They are much more organized now. They have better facilities they bring in for the wrestlers. In other words, the food’s better, the place where you warm up is better, the equipment.
Vince McMahon has done a stellar job with the WWE in so many different ways, and it’s made everything more accessible for the athletes. And also the drug policy, the Wellness Policy, is incredible now.
They have doctors, if you’re not cleared by them - not your own doctor, because I had my own doctor clear me many times. They have their doctors that you need to be cleared [by].
You’re not seeing wrestlers doing any types of drugs, and if they do, and there’s only a very small percentage that get caught, they get suspended or fired. You know, it’s a no-tolerance policy. The drug policy and the Wellness Policy about being healthy and not wrestling injured is very strict, and that does a lot of good for the athletes. It seems like Vince McMahon is catering more to the athletes and making sure they’re going to be OK.”