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On my personal Mount Rushmore of Wrestling, I would slot all spots with Kurt Angle’s face, along with a never ending celebration of fireworks, bald eagles, and milk trucks circling the monument. Look at his resume and you would agree: multiple-time WWE Champion, King of The Ring Winner, newly inducted Hall of Famer, and U.S. gold medal winner in freestyle wrestling at the 1996 Olympics – with a broken neck. After a few years away, fans were excited to see Kurt’s return to WWE programming as Raw General Manager. I spoke with him about his return, his work helping those with addiction through AngleStrong, and the evolution of body positivity in sports entertainment.

Kevin Owens and John Cena

Photo: WWE

We used to see only one muscular, athletic build of wrestler, but now we see a variety. How do you feel that this new era of differentiating looks and body types benefits sports entertainment?
It helps overall. Not everyone looks like John Cena or wants to look like John Cena. You see someone like Kevin Owens climb to the very top of the WWE. I think he looks great the way he is. It’s nice to see people of different sizes and shapes succeeding in sports entertainment where for so many years you had to look like a Greek god. It’s not like that anymore. It’s really cool to see this transformation in professional wrestling.

In trying to achieve that “Greek god” look, many people fell into issues with addiction. You were there and pulled yourself out and are now helping others through AngleStrong.
We have a really serious ongoing problem with addition today. 72,000 people overdosed within the last 3 years on opioids. 21 million people in America have a drug disorder. I went to rehab four years ago and have been clean and sober for about four and a half years. When I went in, I noticed how much structure there was. It made it easier, and I think a lot of people would agree, but when you get out there is no structure and you’re let loose in the real world. I wanted to create some form of structure for people who got out of rehab.

You can go to a counselor or psychiatrist, but that might be pretty pricey. I wanted to do something affordable for people. The AngleStrong app and the AngleStrong initiative [are the result of that]. You go to AngleStrong.com and sign up and we can give you that type of structure with the app.

Anglestrong App

Photo: AngleStrong.com

Looking through the app, I was amazed to see how personal and one to one it felt with personalized messages.
I pick those out daily in addition to holding a monthly video call with the all members of AngleStrong. I get on, answer questions, tell them my story, give them advice. It’s a really cool concept and allows you to have this structure. We have workout goals, diets, career goals. We want to be the whole ball of wax, so when you get out of rehab, you only have to do one thing: follow the AngleStrong app, follow the AngleStrong initiative, and continue on with your life. We want to save lives and keep people clean.

Everybody has a story. When I got out of rehab, I was told not to tell my story. I kept my mouth shut for four years, but was looking around and seeing that this problem was getting worse and worse. Nobody wants to talk about it. So I decided last year I was going to do something about it. It helps me stay clean through continuing to help people.

Do you feel there is a stigma in talking about addiction, personal issues, and seeking help?
It was taboo. “Don’t let anyone know you’re an addict, you won’t get a job, you won’t get opportunities.” It is now more acceptable, especially with the Affordable Care Act helping people stay and go to addiction centers almost cost free. It’s enabling people to get help for low cost or nothing. Now that [addiction] has gotten so bad, it’s 3 times worse than it was in the 90’s, people do have to start talking about it. Politicians do have to do something about it. Things are starting to turn around. People have to do something about this.

On top of the work you are doing with AngleStrong, you recently returned to the WWE as Raw General Manager. What’s it like to be away for a while and come back?
As we mentioned, there’s more sizes and shapes. There are no longer Divas, but rather the Women’s Division, with incredible wrestling where we see superstars like Nia Jax who is a beautiful woman and a bigger woman. They are giving more opportunities to these wrestlers who are incredible.

The WWE Wellness policy is incredible. No more opiates. I can’t get cleared by my doctor, it has to be one of their doctors. The WWE has done a great job of making it safer. The athlete is the top priority, not just the product.

Nia Jax

Photo: WWE

Are there any wrestlers out there you have your eye on?
There are a lot of great guys. The WWE is grabbing a lot of them right now. I knew Finn Balor from Japan, and had my eye on that kid a long time ago. He was just a bright eyed little kid with a Justin Bieber haircut back then. I never imagined him being one of the top guys in WWE, but it goes to show that these athletes’ awesome work gets recognized. You now have the UK title that the WWE recruited for. You have Ring of Honor and Impact wrestling that WWE is recruiting from. They are getting the top talent and are doing an incredible job with them.

I love Kevin Owens. He’s one of those guys that has taken the bull by the horns and done an incredible job. He’s a guy that wouldn’t normally have the opportunity, and it’s great to see him take advantage of it the way he has. Seth Rollins, Roman Reigns, Cesaro – I love that kid. There’s a lot of great talent right now in the cruiserweight division: Austin Aries, TJ Perkins, and I love Neville. He’s an incredible talent and I don’t see him in the cruiserweight division for very long. I think he’s going to end up with the heavyweights to be more of a Rey Mysterio type athlete.

I wrestled a kid named Zack Sabre Jr. over in the U.K. I look to him to get signed soon. Another guy named Joe Hendry has a great gimmick in the U.K. I see him getting signed eventually. There’s so much great talent out there that’s coming up through the ranks that you are going to see very soon.

The UK is bringing out a ton of talent right now. It’s so exciting to see them making a name for themselves in the U.S. and worldwide.
They have always had great talent. They have gotten so much attention because of social media and YouTube that WCPW and ICW have been drawing thousands of fans, and the WWE could no longer ignore that. It was their doing, WCPW, ICW, and the wonderful U.K. fans that brought the attention to the WWE. It gave the WWE an opportunity to say let’s work with these talent, bring them over here, they are some of top talent in the world. You got to give credit to the U.K. fans on what they have been able to establish over there.

Kurt Angle Hall of Fame

Photo: WWE

You mentioned in your Hall of Fame speech that new superstars don’t always have to be so serious. Is there any talent currently you feel have a great sense of comedic timing on the current roster?
I love Enzo and Cass. They have it. Right now, because of NXT and the tremendous job Triple H has done with that, wrestling came first. I agree with that, but now it’s time to take a chance with characters. Be entertaining. Be funny. Be the funny good guy. Be the funny bad guy. It’s time to capitalize on not just the wrestling side, but also the entertainment side. You need to create moments with the fans. They will remember the wrestling for a long time, but the moments like driving a milk truck or sexy Kurt, they’ll remember those forever. Bring on the entertainment, not just the technical wrestling.

What is one piece of advice you would then give this new talent coming in, and yourself in 1999 when you began?
I would give the same advice to both: limit your mistakes. I said it in my Hall of Fame speech. Don’t make mistakes that are going to cost you your job. Don’t make decisions that are going to make your career come to an end. I made some stupid decisions and fortunately my career did not come to an end. I do regret decisions I made when I left the WWE. Denying rehab when Vince McMahon told me that’s where he wanted me to go. I just wanted out of the company so I could do my own thing and go wrestle somewhere else. I made some horrible decisions, and some good ones too.

I tell the talent to this day, limit your mistakes. You are going to make mistakes, big ones and little ones, but limit those mistakes and try not to make any. We are all going to make them. I made some big ones and I am regretting that. Do you really think I wanted to be away from the WWE for 11 years? No. When I got clean 4 and a half years ago, I had to slowly earn their trust for the last 4 and half years to get back where I am now. It wasn’t like they were going to say “Hey, Kurt went to rehab! He’s ok. Let’s bring him on!” It was show us that you are going to stay clean, show us that you are not doing it anymore, show us that you can continue on with your life, be a good family man, be a positive member of society before we do hire you. It continues on now.

Kurt Angle

Photo: WWE

I signed on the company as Hall of Fame. That was it. Then they came to me and said we want you to be an ambassador and that was it. Then, I got to the Hall of Fame and they said we want you to start as the GM of Raw on Monday, and that was it. No wrestling yet. They are not going to allow me to wrestle until they see that Kurt Angle is ok. He’s staying clean. He’s in the company, and he’s coming every week, continuing to stay clean and he’s doing the right things. It’s been a process, and it’s something I have had to earn.

I have some rapid fire questions before we wrap up. What is your favorite match you have ever been a part of?
Wrestlemania 21 against Shawn Michaels. I would say Chris Benoit in the 2003 Royal Rumble, but there’s a reason it’s tainted. Undertaker at No Way Out 2006. I wanted that to be the Wrestlemania match, but I’d have to say Shawn Michaels at Wrestlemania 21. You can’t deny Shawn Michaels might be the best entertainer of all time.

Brock Lesnar

Photo: WWE

Toughest opponent?
I would say Brock Lesnar. I’ve never been with anyone so physical, someone that matched my physical abilities and probably exceeded them. He’s not a dangerous wrestler by injuring you, but he’s very physical. You can feel the blows that are coming. He’s going to throw you and when he throws you, you’re going to land hard. Brock Lesnar.

If you were to create an ideal stable for yourself, who would you put in it?
I’d love to get my hands on American Alpha. We’re all shooters and I had my own Team Angle back in the 2000’s and I’d love to reproduce that with the American Alpha team.

Happiest moment?
My happiest moment would have to be my first world title when I defeated The Rock. I was only in the company on TV for 11 months. I wasn’t even wrestling for 2 years from the day I took my first bump. I knew nothing about what I was doing, and The Rock carried me through that match. To beat The Rock and win the world title and have the trust of the WWE at that time was an incredible feeling.

Do you think we may see another possible title run from Kurt Angle in the future?
I don’t know. I would hope so. It’s up to the WWE and where they want to go,, but seeing Goldberg do that and seeing Sting in a world title match, I wouldn’t doubt it.

Last, but not least. Kurt Angle is one of the greats. Is that true?
It’s damn true.