If you watched World Wrestling Entertainment’s October and November pay-per-view events, you saw a remarkable sight: Kurt Angle, a 49-year-old wrestler and recovering opioid addict, returning to compete in the sport/spectacle that almost killed him.
Angle’s path through addiction and into a WWE-approved redemption story shows how far wrestling has come in the past 20 years. It also demonstrates how the WWE, now a publicly traded company and multimedia conglomerate, wants to amend its own history.
In 1999, when Angle debuted on television for the World Wrestling Federation (now the WWE), the company presented him as a different kind of performer, one with an athletic background unlike anyone else in the surreal, brutal world of pro wrestling. As an amateur, Angle was a two-time collegiate national champion and the gold medalist in heavyweight freestyle wrestling at the 1996 Olympics.
Angle broke his neck during the Olympic trials that year, fracturing vertebrae and herniating two discs. During the Olympics in Atlanta, Angle says, he received regular Novocain shots between matches.
As a pro wrestling rookie, Angle was marketed as the toughest of tough guys. His catchphrase: “I won a gold medal with a broken freakin’ neck!” As a character, he was half Phil Dunphy and half the Terminator. On Monday Night RAW, he would run down whatever town he was competing in that evening—a heel move as old as salt—with a series of dad jokes and digs at local sport teams. He’d then demolish all comers with painful holds and celebrate with an insufferable “you really like me!” glee. He was a natural.
Within a year, Angle was anointed a world champion. At the peak of WWE’s Attitude Era, the most profitable in the company’s history, Angle shared space at wrestling’s summit with “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson.
In 2006, seven years later, he left the WWE. By the time he left, he’d repeatedly injured his neck, torn muscles in every limb, performed in the main event at Wrestlemania a handful of times, and won every title there was to win. He was also, according to a 2016 interview, “taking about 65 extra-strength Vicodin a day.”
Angle’s story might have ended bleakly. Rick Rude, Mr. Perfect, Chyna, Sensational Sherri, Bam Bam Bigelow, the Von Erich brothers—dip into any online list of premature wrestling deaths and dozens of names fill the screen. Scores of wrestlers, famous and forgotten, have lost their lives to overdoses, or from suicides and heart attacks and other causes of death connected to drug abuse. Ad men had gin. The Beats had psychotropics. Pro wrestlers had steroids, cocaine, painkillers, muscle relaxants, alcohol, sleeping pills, and a whole lot more.
NFL teams play 16 games a year. Boxers have months between fights. Wrestlers have traditionally worked between 200 to 300 days a year, driving hundreds of miles a day from town to town. For most of the sport’s history, sick days didn’t exist. Miss a booking, and you didn’t get paid. If you missed a few shows, you were fired and likely blackballed in that territory.
By the time Angle entered the business, guaranteed contracts provided top wrestlers with a bit more job security. Still, the schedule was brutal. You’d take a hard bump in Phoenix on Saturday, then get in the car and drive to Santa Ana, California, for a show on Sunday. What you put into your body to allow yourself to perform—that was your business. Testing for any kind of drug, whether performance enhancing or narcotic, was sporadic at best. A WWE official confirmed to me that the company did some drug testing prior to 2006 but that there was no formal program in place.
In 1994, owner Vince McMahon went on trial on federal drug charges; he was accused of conspiring with a Pennsylvania physician to distribute steroids to his wrestlers through the mail. Eleven wrestlers were called to testify, and while some said they had gotten steroids from the doctor in question, all but one denied that McMahon directed them to take steroids. Star witness Hulk Hogan admitted to taking steroids to heal from injury, claiming he believed the steroids were legal because he had a prescription. But Hogan too said McMahon never asked him to take the drugs. The case against the WWE boss fell apart. McMahon was acquitted. The trial would later become a plot point for promotion, the centerpiece of a 2003 Wrestlemania feud between Hogan and McMahon. In the WWE, all is narrative.
The WWE launched an official drug-testing program in 2006. The company also instituted what it calls a “wellness policy,” one that instituted broader diagnostic screenings of its wrestlers’ health. It was this policy that helped identify a severe heart problem in one wrestler in 2007. It also featured a concussion protocol, making the WWE one of the first entities to develop such a policy around head injuries.
Angle himself would leave the WWE in 2006. The exact details of his departure remain murky. In a piece posted on WWE.com at the time, McMahon didn’t explain why Angle was released from his contract, but he noted that the wrestler had been suffering from his neck injury “since he won the gold medal; he had been masking it in many ways just so he could go out and compete.”
Angle has told a different tale. In 2008, he recorded a “shoot video”—a short film in which a performer spills the beans on his career—in which he said he’d requested time off to heal from a litany of injuries and to address his addiction. In that video, which is not available online, Angle said McMahon challenged him to forgo rehab and kick his painkiller addiction while on the road, telling him, “You can do this on your own, you’re an Olympic gold medalist.” Because he would not be given time off, Angle said, he asked for his release from his WWE contract. (McMahon did not respond to a request for comment.)
Within weeks of his 2006 release, Angle began to wrestle for Total Nonstop Action, a second-tier organization in Florida. There, he says, he began mixing alcohol with his painkillers. TNA, now Impact Wrestling, could not be reached for comment. The company has no published drug-testing policy. (A representative for Anthem Sports, the owner of Impact Wrestling, confirmed Angle had been under contract with the group but provided no further comment, as “IMPACT Wrestling’s executive and management teams have been completely overhauled since Angle was with the organization.”)
In the ring, Angle looked awful: His limbs appeared withered, his eyes glassy. His personal life degraded, too. He was arrested in 2009 for violating a protection-from-abuse order, though the charges were later dismissed, as the accusing party—Angle’s girlfriend at the time—withdrew the PFA before trial. (A judge ordered all parties to stay away from each other.) In 2011, Angle failed a field sobriety test in North Dakota and pleaded guilty to reckless driving. Later that year, he was arrested for DWI in Virginia. In 2013, in the aftermath of another DWI, this one in Texas, Angle entered rehab.
The WWE will now pay for rehab for any performer who has ever been under contract with the promotion. A number of wrestlers—among them Scott Hall and Jake “The Snake” Roberts—have taken them up on it. This is unequivocally a good thing. Yet the WWE’s corporate benevolence is also part of its marketing pitch. Hall and Roberts were both recently inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame, their speeches foregrounding phrases like “bad choices” and “bad times.” The official WWE DVDs for Shawn Michaels and Randy Orton, both contemporaries of Angle’s, feature motifs of addiction: piles of pills, talk about being lost and angry. Near the end of these DVD biopics, we hear uplifting music and see a montage of a new life in church or with a new child—a man made new, just in time for the final credits.
In January 2017, the WWE announced Angle’s return to the company and its plans to induct him into its hall of fame. That April, at the time of Angle’s induction, he was given a special, Kurt Angle: Homecoming, on the WWE Network. In that special, Angle blames himself for his addiction to painkillers, making no mention of the WWE’s brutal schedule or pro wrestling’s “work hurt” ethos. He repeatedly shifts blame away from the company, instead focusing on the personal wounds he says drove him to success and to addiction. His father died when he was young; his mentor Dave Schultz was killed by John du Pont, a story told in the film Foxcatcher; his sister died from a heroin overdose while Angle was at the peak of his first WWE run.
In one moving scene, he talks about his family’s struggle with addiction while standing at his sister’s grave. “Vince wanted me to get help,” Angle says in the special, a statement in stark contrast from his 2008 claims. “I didn’t want to get help. I asked to part ways, and he said, ‘Fine, but I’d like you to go to rehab and get yourself straight.’ I opted not to … that was all my own fault.” When Angle mentions his reliance on painkillers, he’s quick to add, “that would have never happened today, with the wellness policy.”
That sounds like a company line, which makes sense: He’s a company man again. (Angle was unreachable for comment for this story.) Two nights after his hall of fame induction in April, McMahon named Angle “general manager” of Monday Night RAW. And Angle has even come back to the ring for occasional performances.
Those matches have been hard to watch. At his pay-per-view appearance in October, Angle took a nasty bump through a set of tables. At November’s Survivor Series, his hands and right knee were swaddled in athletic tape. He looked stooped. He moved gingerly. While wrestling journalists and fans hold their collective breath, the wheels of WWE’s storytelling grind on. Angle might perform at WrestleMania 34 on April 8. That a 49-year-old recovering addict with a history of neck injuries might be featured at the company’s version of the Super Bowl is troubling.
Today’s WWE performers benefit from guaranteed contracts, a trend mirrored in other sport leagues. Performers are also protected to some degree by the company’s wellness policy and by a lighter travel schedule. The wrestlers from Angle’s generation toiled for a markedly different company, and the choices those men and women made to stay in the ring cost many of them greatly. In a statement provided for this article, the WWE framed those choices as a matter of “personal responsibility:”
Unfortunately, some past performers were part of a generation of wrestlers who made unhealthy and poor personal lifestyle choices, which in some cases, continued beyond their years in the ring. Today’s athletes take great pride and personal responsibility for their overall health and well-being. Notwithstanding, WWE talent are subject to random drug testing and expected to live healthy lifestyles, reinforced through our Talent Wellness Program, which was instituted in 2006.
Angle has offered unflinching testimony about his addiction. It feels right that the WWE of 2018 is willing and able to amplify his story. But it doesn’t feel like enough. The same company that’s selling us Angle’s redemption story has its own history to share. Right now, we can only wonder what it might look like if the WWE were to offer its own testimonial about drugs, wrestling, and getting clean.