In the summer of 1996, the eyes of the wrestling world weren’t transfixed on ratings or politics. They were locked onto 27-year-old American Kurt Angle, who was putting the finishing touches on one of the most decorated careers in the sport’s modern history with an Olympic gold medal victory in Atlanta.
Now, the concern in the wrestling world is whether the sport’s tradition can earn it a spot in the 2020 Games and beyond — and it’s all Angle’s icy blue eyes are focused on.
“It’s all about politics and money, and there’s no more tradition or history that really interests the IOC [International Olympic Committee], or at least that’s the way it’s basically perceived now,” lamented Angle, who at 44 is on top of an entirely different world of wrestling.
There wasn’t much left to prove after Angle defeated Abbas Jadidi of Iran for the gold in ’96. He had already captured whatever championships there were at any level: a Pennsylvania state championship with Mount Lebanon High School, two NCAA championships for Clarion University, a gold medal in the World Championships, and the Olympic gold. He had risen so high in the sport that his head was crashing against the ceiling.
“When I won the gold medal, it was one of the happiest moments of my life,” said Angle, Thursday at the Sheraton Boston. “But it was also one of the most depressing moments of my life, because when I woke up the next day, I said, ‘What am I going to do with my life? My life doesn’t end here. What can I do to outdo what I did, or at least match what I did?’ ”
He signed with World Wrestling Entertainment, a company known for promoting personality as much as talent. Angle was fashioned as an all-American goofball who couldn’t shut his mouth about being an Olympic hero, but he had all the tools to back it up.
He instantly became a hit with fans, as someone they loved to hate. He won his first of six world titles in WWE just two years after debuting, his win over The Rock in 2000 cementing his place as someone the company believed in.
He now chases gold at Total Nonstop Action Wrestling, which is celebrating its 11th birthday and will make its first visit to Boston with a Slammiversary event at Agganis Arena June 2, which Angle was in town to promote.
Angle is known for the same technical prowess and competitive fire he showed while winning the 100kg men’s freestyle in Atlanta, but he says amateur and professional wrestling are barely even two sides of the same coin.
“I am entertaining, not competing anymore,” he said. “When I started, there was controversy: ‘Kurt, don’t do it, you’re the real deal, why would you sell yourself out?’
“Hey, I’m not selling myself out. I’m doing something completely different. I went to the top of wrestling, now I’m doing something completely different. I’m not a wrestler anymore, I’m a sports entertainer.”
Being an entertainer hasn’t quenched his competitive thirst, however. Angle made a push to make the US freestyle team prior to the 2012 London Games, but a torn hamstring ended the comeback attempt. His body, it seems, has grown too comfortable with steel chairs and pile drivers.
“I’m too old,” he said. “I tried to train like I did when I was in my mid 20s, but I just kept getting hurt. My wrestling was good, but the training was just too much.”
Instead, Angle is trying to help the sport wriggle out of the headlock the IOC clamped on it by announcing its intentions to drop wrestling from the Olympic rotation after the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.
The flaws, Angle argues, are manageable. Last year, the matches were judged by rounds, not points, a switch. He thinks a first step could be finding a stable set of rules, to avoid confusion and simplify the event.
“The Olympics is not really about the sport, it’s about the story behind the person,” he said. “You keep the sport relatively simple to understand — let the fans understand that a takedown is 1 point, a turn is 2, a pin and the match is over. Keep it simple, and keep the story on the individual.”
One individual he thinks could captivate viewers is 24-year-old American Jordan Burroughs, who won gold in the Pan American Games and the World Championships in 2011, and in London last summer.
“He’s the quickest, most explosive guy I’ve ever seen, and that’s the kind of guy you want in the sport,” Angle said. “It’s not going to be a chess match where its 0-0, double overtime. It’s going to be this guy who is going to blow you off your feet and people are going to go, ‘Wow.’
“Get a guy like that, whoa boy, you’re going to raise ratings.”
Angle also thinks the amateur ranks could take a page out of the professional playbook by encouraging displays of emotion after rounds and trash-talking before big matches.
“Wrestling is such a traditional sport, it’s hard to pull it away from the beginning,” he said. “But when it first started, it was wrestling to the death.”
The popularity of mixed martial arts gives Angle hope for sustained interest in amateur wrestling. He would even support the addition of MMA to the Olympics, though it wouldn’t be as the blood sport it is now.
“Is the IOC going to let MMA come in and be what they are, as graphic as they are?” he said. “Are they going to be able to kick a guy while he’s down? Are they going to be able to ground and pound, and wear 16-ounce gloves and shin guards?
“So it’s going to become a watered-down, diluted version of MMA.”
The decision on wrestling in the Olympics is far from final, and Angle isn’t alone in his support of one of the world’s oldest, most elemental sports — one he hopes to coach when his days of vanquishing enemies with his fabled “ankle lock” submission maneuver are over. But until then, he is enjoying life in the part of the sport that makes up for a lack of competition with the razzle-dazzle and ratings the other part desperately needs.
“It’s kind of bittersweet because I want people to remember me as an Olympic gold medalist,” he said. “I love [professional wrestling] but at the same time, you know, every guy I wrestle in that ring, none of them have gone through what I have, in the Olympics and winning a gold medal.
“It’s what separates me from the rest.”