Addicted to the center of the ring
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Peter Diana, Post-GazetteKurt Angle slams down Steve Brady during a professional bout at the First Union Arena in Philadelphia in 1999.
Nothing hurt this afternoon, and Kurt Angle looked downright unbreakable. Sitting at a table at Eat'n Park, only a Diet Coke in front of him, he folded his hands, fingers like Stonehenge, and let that famous growling tenor boom.
Angle in a TNA publicity photo.
Listen to what he'd survived: seven years on the furious pro wrestling circuit, two major neck surgeries, fractured ribs, a broken hip, a left arm that he couldn't lift, a pinky finger that he still can't feel, 250 days on the road every year, ruthless stunts, anxiety, addiction and just about a life gone to ruin.
When Mr. Angle earned a wrestling gold medal in the Olympics in 1996, he'd never, by his own account, touched alcohol or marijuana or performance-enhancing drugs.
His subsequent entrance into professional wrestling, though, stirred up a pair of addictions. He learned he needed the spotlight and the adrenaline of the ring. He also learned that mind-bending amounts of Percocet, Norco and Vicodin allowed him to perform when his body begged otherwise.
So, as Mr. Angle, raised in Mt. Lebanon and now living in Coraopolis, sipped his soda on a recent Saturday afternoon, he talked about the two subjects that have dominated his life:
Painkillers. He hoped to never touch them again. He said he'd been free of them for 18 months. "But yes," he said, lowering his voice. "I still crave it. I want it right now."
Wrestling. He won't give it up.
Mr. Angle, 37, debuts Thursday on SpikeTV with Total Nonstop Action Wrestling, a 4-year-old company hoping to nudge Vince McMahon's WWE, with whom Mr. Angle cut his ties in August, from its stranglehold on the industry.
Best case, Mr. Angle, instantly TNA's most recognized wrestler, will tilt the balance of power, all while earning close to $1 million a year. Worst case, his body will further erode, but this time, it will happen in greater obscurity.
Mr. Angle wrestled for the last time with WWE at a sold-out arena in White Plains, N.Y. on Aug. 13. During the match, he said, he pulled his groin, but fans kept screaming for more, and he obliged them. Then he pulled his lower abdominal muscle straight off his pelvic bone. Still, he kept going. In the finishing moments, he blew out a hamstring. The fans roared, lusting for carnage. Mr. Angle couldn't rise to acknowledge the ovation.
The next day, almost incapacitated, he decided to quit the WWE. He traveled with his manager, Dave Hawk, to WWE headquarters in Stamford, Conn.
Michel Lipchitz, Associated PressNothing was fake in the wrestling matches that led to this gold-medal-winning reaction at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
For the final time, by his account, he aired his grievances: The company's executives, he said, ignored his pleas for time off and undercut his efforts to dabble in acting.
Few wrestlers avoid the industry's toll. WWE star Eddie Guerrero, 38, at various times a drug and painkiller user, died a year ago in a Minneapolis hotel room. Brian Pillman, 35, died in 1997 of heart disease, again alone, again in a hotel room. Officials found an empty bottle of painkillers next to his body.
When Mr. Angle asked for his release from the WWE, he got it.
"I think it's because WWE was scared to death," said industry expert Dave Meltzer, publisher of the Wrestling Observer newsletter. "I think they were scared of another Eddie Guerrero."
Pills by the handful
Mr. Angle said he began taking painkillers three years ago after seriously injuring his neck. Family history told him to be careful. His father fought alcoholism during his life, and his sister would die in September 2004 of a heroin overdose. Still, his pill use snowballed, even as his wrestling performances remained steady, and often spectacular.
He needed the pills just to rise from bed. "Not just a handful," Mr. Angle said. "A large handful. I'm telling you, excruciating pain, all of the time. Cold sweats. I felt like a shell, like I didn't have a body or a soul. I was just a skeleton ... until I took those pills. About 18 [in the morning]. I'd lie there for five minutes with my eyes closed, and then it would kick in, and I could open my eyes again. Like, OK, I was ready to get up. That would carry me for about four hours."
The dependency allowed him a high, with waves of energy, surges of invincibility. His soreness numbed. Other things numbed, too. His family receded into the background, and his wife, Karen, temporarily left with their daughter.
"It was my fault," Mr. Angle said. "It was my abuse. It was me not caring about anything, not even myself. I was just doing my job, making a lot of money and thinking that was good enough for my family and that they should just shut up. I was happier on the road anyway, because nobody was there to stop me from taking my pills."
Mr. Angle wouldn't disclose the total number of pills he took every day, but he guessed the amount topped what anybody else in pro wrestling history had taken. He wrestled on the highs, sometimes collapsing by his hotel bed afterward, sobbing.
He often asked Mr. McMahon for time off but, according to his account which is disputed by the WWE, promised vacations often evaporated. He described one stretch during which three promised rest periods never occurred, undone each time by phone calls demanding he leave his couch and tough it up. Trips to Europe, then Connecticut, then Fresno, Calif.
Even when retelling the story, Mr. Angle became incredulous: "I was on my knees, begging for a month off!" he said, as nearby diners turned and looked. "Why? Because my neck was broken!"
After three months of separation from his wife and daughter, Mr. Angle sought help, he said. Friends and WWE officials expressed concern.
"Near death," Mr. Angle called it.
"I told him there was no way we'd work out [our marriage] unless he got through this," his wife said.
So he tried to quit the pills, he said, depending on the same trait that had led him to the Atlanta Olympics -- the ability to ignore logical human boundaries. He said his doctor suggested tapering the daily pill intake: 55, 40, 25 ... but he refused, demanding a cold turkey approach, though the doctor warned such a drastic change could kill him.
What happened, precisely, during the period Mr. Angle now refers to as rehab stirs debate. He says he never went to a clinic. He asked WWE officials for time off, he said, but they refused. Mr. McMahon, he said, ordered him to fight withdrawal while continuing to wrestle.
Jerry McDevitt, principal outside legal counsel for the WWE, said Mr. McMahon made no such demand. It was Mr. Angle's desire to compete, no matter what, that kept him in the ring, said Mr. McDevitt, a member of the Pittsburgh-based Kirkpatrick & Lockhart Nicholson Graham law firm.
"Every day," Mr. Angle said, "I was just uncomfortable the whole time. I felt like I had to go to the bathroom, but I didn't. I was cramping, sweating, head hurting. Every part of the body is aching. Skin is crawling. It hurts to touch. It hurts not to touch. It's impossible to get comfortable, just shaking all of the time."
Although he said he gave up painkillers last year, talk within the wrestling industry of Mr. Angle's problems resurfaced this summer following his 30-day suspension from the WWE.
Once Mr. Angle left the WWE for good, most wrestling followers figured his career was over. A letter he posted on his personal Web site suggested as much. He recounted his injuries, explained that life on the road can be a "living hell" and thanked his fans. God bless, he wrote, and then he signed his name at the bottom. WWE officials, Mr. McMahon included, hoped their old wrestler would use the break to recuperate, Mr. McDevitt said.
"The WWE has done everything it can to help Kurt and continues to be concerned about his wellbeing," Mr. McDevitt said. "I think Kurt needs to direct his tremendous competitive heart to solving his issues and getting them squared away."
A date with Samoa Joe
Michael Buckner, Getty ImagesAngle arrives at the premiere of the movie "See No Evil" in May in Orange, Calif.
Mr. Angle promised his wife he'd take six months off, minimum. That way, he could spend time with Karen, their daughter, Kyra, almost 4, and their son Kody, born Oct. 26. But soon, offers of new jobs interrupted his plan. He thought about an opportunity with the Ultimate Fighting Championship and spoke with its president Dana White. Then he heard from TNA President Dixie Carter.
She said all the right things. He could spend less time on the road, performing roughly a half-dozen shows a month. He could use the exposure, perhaps, to find roles in movies or television shows. Plus, of course, he could wrestle.
"They basically said to us, 'We're a growing company that needs a great athlete,' " said Mr. Hawk, Mr. Angle's manager.
Highlights of Mr. Angle's TNA brawl with Samoa Joe, taped a month ago, have already become a YouTube sensation. Mr. Angle, at one point, head-butted his 290-pound opponent, leaving him with a wide open gash on his head. Later, he danced around the ring, wearing nothing but black tights emblazoned with a star. He knocked Samoa Joe to the mat, later falling down himself, the victim of a sneak attack as he preened for the crowd. Soon, the two behemoths rolled off the mat and scuffled near the carpeted arena entranceway, where security and refs separated them.
Fans chanted, "Angle! Angle! Angle!"
Mr. Angle said later, "I felt like I was home."
He'll know when to retire for good, he said recently. Just not yet. Others will watch the action, out of both fascination and fear.
"Everybody in wrestling puts their long-term health on the line," Mr. Meltzer said, "but he does it more so than everybody else. Others understand the point where they have to slow down. But with Kurt, I don't think he will ever slow down. He is going to be Kurt Angle until he is, maybe, incapacitated."
A few fans at Eat'n Park stopped by Mr. Angle's table, interrupting him as he told the story of his career's next chapter. He smiled and posed for pictures. One girl, a runner, told him about her Olympic hopes. Several asked about his wrestling career, or requested autographs. For one, he signed on a napkin.
Kurt Angle, he wrote.
Then, in all caps, he added two words below his name, TNA. SpikeTV, and handed the napkin back to the fan, asking him to watch.
First Published November 12, 2006 12:00 am