WWE announced that Kurt Angle is going into the Hall of Fame on WrestleMania weekend. The first thing that came to mind for me is that this is a tremendous headliner for WWE to have going in. Angle was the proverbial shooting star. He had a meteoric rise to the top of the card and then was gone from the company within seven years thanks to a combination of injuries and reported drug problems. Thankfully he makes his return to the company while landing a much deserved honor. I know that I personally am thrilled. I wonder, what are your favorite memories of Kurt, and how do you think he fits into the WWE landscape today?
As I continued thinking about Angle, I was reminded not just of the great moments that he had in the ring, but also of how WWE used to, in my opinion, do a much better job of two things. I think they did a superior presenting their heels, and a better job creating an organic push. While they still manage to hit some pretty good shots on the former from time to time (Braun Strowman has grown on me folks) and occasionally on the latter, it seems much more hit or miss than it used to be. To me, that is sad because the formula isn’t a complicated one.
The great part about Angle was that he was a heel in the eyes of the fans, but the character viewed himself very much as a hero to the masses. Preaching his “Three I’s” of Intensity, Intelligence and Integrity, Kurt Angle made his debut and was quickly loathed by the fans of the “Attitude Era”. A character that once would have been an excellent traditional white meat babyface knight in shining armor was viewed entirely differently by the jaded more adult crowd of the era. It made for a remarkable character. It was almost an admission by WWE that characters like Rocky Maivia didn’t work as faces anymore. Instead they learned from the past and parlayed it into a brilliant character. Angle played his character up to the hilt, he was goofy, he was funny, he was arrogant; he was our “Olympic Hero” and he won the Olympic Gold Medal with a “broken freakin’ neck”. Despite their booing he never really seemed to consider that the fans were doing anything but loving him. When Bo Dallas burst on the scene I thought that WWE had a chance to build a heel in the manner that they built Kurt himself, but the ball was absolutely dropped on him.
His character was nuanced and evolving. He always found something to hang his hat on. At first it was his undefeated streak, then he was even used as the sacrificial lamb to make Tazz’s WWE debut a rousing success, that in and of itself was a tremendous testament to the quick impact he made in the eyes of the fans. From there he got his heat back immediately by saying he’d lost to an illegal move…then he was the EuroContinental Champion. He would spend his entire career doing that. He could play comedy as well as anyone, but his Olympic background gave him a leg up when he switched gears to a more serious character. He even used his ever thinning hairline as part of his character when he would lose a hair vs. hair match to Edge and shave his head.
What’s remarkable is that we saw with Angle someone brought into the fold and pushed immediately where it really worked. Angle took only 343 days to capture the World Title, but somehow never felt over-pushed, at least not to me. In fact despite his meteoric rise Angle was brought up organically, feuding with Chris Jericho, Chris Benoit, and others. He made his bones in the midcard even if his stay was brief. He faced guys with Main Event pedigree and he handled himself exceedingly well. It quickly made sense to see Angle rise up the rankings and face the upper echelon of the WWE roster before eventually becoming part of the upper echelon himself.
His ability to evolve and his time in the midcard mark a stark contrast between what we’ve seen with guys like Roman Reigns and Sheamus; handpicked guys who didn’t have the crowd response that should go with being a World Champion. Fans don’t buy into them. They aren’t given the time to find a reason to like or hate the character. Beyond that, neither of those guys has shown much evolution from their debut singles characters. Roman has been around for a long time and hasn’t shown a fraction of the evolution that Angle showed in his first year. And this is coming from someone who considers himself a fan of Reigns. Outside of a mohawk Sheamus has been much of the same. This is a drum that LOP’s own Mr. Tito (amongst others) has beaten for a long time. Most of the biggest headlining acts in WWE history have grown through the midcard. They find a character that resonates, tweak it in the midcard and then make waves at the top of the card. Randy Savage, John Cena, HHH, Shawn Michaels, Bret Hart, Steve Austin, and The Rock are all examples of this phenomenon being used to create long term successful characters.
The thing that WWE doesn’t seem to realize is that it doesn’t have to be an eternity spent in the midcard, just a brief time for fans to latch onto someone. It’s one of the reasons (beyond the fact that I don’t like his finish, or care much for his character) that I was lukewarm on Finn Balor becoming the first Universal Champion. Speaking of the Universal Champion, Kevin Owens has had a similar rise to Angle. While it took Owens a year and a half, as opposed to Angle and his less than one year odyssey; Owens was built through the midcard. He debuted in a strong spot vs. Cena, and then was an established midcard act. Between his Intercontinental Championship run and his tremendous feud with Sami Zayn, when the time came for a replacement for the injured and aforementioned Balor, Owens was a prime candidate. So WWE has shown that they still do know how to grow stars organically, it just seems that they’re less and less likely to do so, they seem to want a quick fix for an upper card that can’t seem to draw the way they’d like. Unfortunately, for every A.J. Styles (admittedly a world traveled veteran) that WWE straps a rocket to who succeeds, there is a failed pile of Jack Swaggers.
There’s a great saying that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Unfortunately there are times when the reverse is true. Those who don’t learn from history aren’t wise enough to repeat it. You can’t make an army of Kurt Angles; he is truly a generational performer. He had a legitimate amateur background, and took to the entertainment and technical portions of professional wrestling like an absolute natural. Still, I do believe that they can create more stars by following some of the blueprint that has been tried successfully for years.
It’s true…it’s damn true.