Kurt Angle, the 1996 gold medalist in wrestling, is an example of timing being everything. A a part of him wishes he could have tried MMA, something he talked about for years, but he admits there is no chance of it happening any longer. And he's not looking back with any regrets.
"I've had meetings with them all in MMA, World Series (where he's still in talks about possibly doing a television commentary role), Elite XC, twice with UFC. Whether it was the money or the timing wasn't right, it didn't happen. I considered going until I turned 42," said Angle in an interview on this week's MMA Hour. "I wouldn't even think about doing it now, unfortunately. I don't regret it. When I met with Dana White, he wanted me to quit wrestling entirely, but I had just signed with TNA (the No. 2 U.S. pro wrestling company). I met with Dana the same week and he said I needed to quit wrestling. I couldn't tell (TNA owner) Dixie Carter I wanted to back out."
Angle was one of the top stars in the WWE, the leading pro wrestling company in the world, from shortly after his debut on the national stage in late 1999 until a falling out with management in 2006 when company officials were concerned about his behavior and health and released him. In some ways it turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because Angle, who has broken his neck countless times dating back to 1996 at the freestyle national championships before the Olympics, no longer had to work the grueling WWE schedule. That probably added years to his career.
He met with Dana White at the Red Rock Hotel in Las Vegas after his WWE release. White proposed a match with Daniel Puder, who had fought with Strikeforce. Angle and Puder had a much-talked about legitimate skirmish on a WWE television show two years earlier. White was confident he had Angle signed, until Angle called him and said he was going to stay in pro wrestling.
The background of the match that never happened in UFC came directly from WWE. It was a crazy idea at the time, something WWE learned from and undoubtedly would never do again.
The WWE was producing a show called "Tough Enough," which preceded The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) as a reality show, and had some similarities in that they took applicants and tried to train them into being pro wrestlers. The winner each season would get a WWE contract. Each week they had the competitors do stunts.
The idea that week was to pull a fast one on the trainees. They told them they were going to have a pasta eating contest, and nothing more. So with all the guys there, all but one gorged themselves on pasta until they were about to burst. Puder, for whatever reason, sensed it was a set up and purposely tanked the eating contest.
Puder was an MMA fighter who at the time was training at the at AKA in San Jose, Calif. In what would have been quite the storyline had it ever came out, he was coached as a wrestler by Dan Chaid, the wrestler Angle beat in the finals of the 1996 Olympic trials.
Next, after stuffing themselves with food backstage, the WWE brought them out to the ring in front of the crowd, and had them do squat thrusts, or burpees as they were known in gym classes, until everyone dropped and one man was left standing. Whether the idea was to have them vomit in front of a large audience for giggles, or just watch them gas out and get sick, one by one, only they knew.
The last two were Puder and another prospective wrestler, Chris Nawrocki. Running long, John Laurinaitis, who was running the show from backstage, basically said that the blond guy won. Well, both guys were blond and the ref raised Nawrocki's hand.
Out came Angle. The idea was that they were to then have a real wrestling match, on the spot, the Olympic gold medalist against a novice guy who had just gorged himself with pasta, and whose legs and cardio would have been burned out from squat thrusts. As expected, Angle went in with Nawrocki, and tore him up, injuring him in the process. He then asked if there were any other takers.
Puder raised his hand.
"When I did that thing with Dan Puder, I couldn't even do five pushups, my neck was so bad," Angle remembered about that day in 2004. "He caught me with an armbar (actually it was a kimura; Puder got off his back). Thank God he pinned himself. It was a wrestling match, not an MMA fight, but the thing is he had me."
Puder actually got his shoulder up when referee Jim Korderas counted the pin anyway, sensing a complete embarrassment to the company if one of its top stars submitted to an unknown trainee in what was really supposed to be a bullying session so the guys backstage would have laughs. In his autobiography, Korderas explained the gravity of the situation and having to think on his feet. Many WWE officials backstage, with no knowledge of what a kimura was at the time (now due to the popularity of MMA, it is a widely used move in pro wrestling), had no idea what was happening.
Puder ended up winning the contract, which was based on fan voting, almost entirely due to the publicity he got when fans figured out what happened in the Angle skirmish. But he only lasted one year in pro wrestling and returned to MMA.
"Dana wanted to go with it," Angle said. "Not that I'd say Daniel Puder would be an easy fight, but I don't think he'd have been a problem, and it was big money. But I'd just signed with TNA three days earlier.
The second time Angle nearly went to UFC was in 2008, when White envisioned a season of The Ultimate Fighter, coached by Rashad Evans and Rampage Jackson, featuring Kimbo Slice and Angle as fighters, along with some ex-football players and a ringer, Roy Nelson.
"The second time I met with Dana, I took the physical," Angle said. "He wanted me to do The Ultimate Fighter with Kimbo. He was great. He was willing to pay me a good bit of money to be on the show. But he wanted me ready in four-and-a-half weeks. It just wasn't in the cards. I think it would have been great TV. He was willing to sign me to a six-fight deal after the show, but he wanted me on the show. But it wasn't going to happen in four-and-a-half weeks."
Years back, when White told the story, his claim was that Angle failed the physical, which representatives for Angle denied.
Angle is now 46, and still wrestling with TNA. He signed a one-year contract at the end of last year, which he said may be his last wrestling contract. He said he may possibly do one more year after this one, but only on a limited schedule.
"I'm older, a little wiser, and my body doesn't repair as quickly," he said. "I've had to reduce to a part-time schedule, and I'm okay with that. As long as I go part-time, I can do those five star matches. I can't do it every night. The old man can still go, but not as many times per year.
Angle noted his contract called for 40 dates this year.
"They were very gracious with me," he said of TNA wrestling. "They gave me everything I wanted and more. That's why I stayed. They were very loyal. I can't do enough to repay them. All I can do is do my best in the ring."
TNA was canceled at the end of last year by Spike TV after more than nine years on the network. The ratings were still strong, hovering at about 1 million viewers per week, but wrestling has a hard time attracting major advertisers, so it's value to stations is not nearly at the level of the ratings it delivers. Publicly, Spike officials said they were looking in a new direction with more original programming, but privately, the ratings, which had steadily dropped in recent years, were a major part of the decision.
The company was picked up by Destination America, a smaller station in the Discovery Channel family, starting in January. The Friday night shows have done between 300,000 to 510,000 viewers, which makes it the highest-rated show in the history of the station.
On this past Friday night's show, Angle was shown defeating Bobby Lashley, who doubles as an MMA fighter with Bellator to win the TNA's world heavyweight championship in a match taped on Jan. 31 in London, England.
"We've never touched," Angle said about the first time the two ever wrestled each other, in London, even though both have been stars in pro wrestling for years. "We've never gotten in the ring. We've never practiced technique. It was as cold as cold gets. Bobby is a beast. I'm really impressed with his ability."
He compared Lashley as an athlete to Brock Lesnar.
"I think if Bobby focused on one, not both (pro wrestling and MMA), he'd be ten times better at either," Angle said. "Bobby is really, really good as a pro wrestler. I know he does some damage as an MMA fighter. I think if he focused on one he could be the best. He's like Brock Lesnar, he's a beast, powerful, explosive, I haven't wrestled a guy with that much athletic ability and at that size since Brock."
Regarding Lesnar, whose WWE contract expires at the end of the month, Angle believes Lesnar will fight again, but he's not sure if it'll be now or a year from now.
"I think he's going to fight again. I don't know when. I believe everyone knows he wasn't 100 percent in his last two fights. He was really having a hard time when he went back to pro wrestling. I think if he went back now he could still do some damage. He's a beast. He's a great athlete. But I don't know if he'll do it when this contract expires."
Angle noted that had MMA been as big when he came out of the Olympics in 1996, things would have been different.
"I believe I'd have been as good in MMA as I was in pro wrestling, but I don't regret it. If the money was there in MMA when I came out of the Olympics, I'd have gone into MMA. But it wasn't there until I was four years into my WWE career. But I love pro wrestling, so it wasn't meant to be for me."
Angle is one of only a handful of pro wrestlers who previously won Olympic gold medals, and one of only two pro wrestling Hall of Famers to have done so, having been inducted into three different pro wrestling Halls of Fame along with the national amateur wrestling Hall of Fame. The other gold medalist turned wrestling Hall of Famer was Henri Deglane of France, in the first half of the 20th century. But he recognizes his time is limited in that profession, and for the past few years has dabbled in acting, having appeared now in 15 movies.
Ironically, his best known acting role was as an MMA fighter, playing the role of Koba, a Russian world champion who was based on the real-life Fedor Emelianenko in the movie "Warrior."
"I've been debating if it's time for me to hang it up," he said. "If I do one more year (after this one), that will be it. Two years ago, I'd have said I was going seven more years. I'm okay going out the way I'm doing it. I've had a great career in WWE and a great career in TNA. I can honestly say I've had a better career in TNA, and there are a lot of WWE fans who haven't seen that, and that does suck, but the TNA fans have seen Kurt Angle at his best."