Kurt Angle didn't expect to be a heel. When he made his World Wrestling Federation debut in November 1999, three years after winning an Olympic gold medal in the 220-pound freestyle division, he flirted with fantasies of being a good guy—a baby-face, in industry parlance—celebrated, as he was in Atlanta in '96, for his skill and dedication to his craft. Minutes into his maiden match, however, the rapid-fire catcalls of "Angle, you suck!" disabused him of his pretensions to popularity. And when WWF impresario Vince McMahon called instructions into the referee's earpiece, Angle's persona became clear. "The ref told me McMahon wanted me to wrap it up quick, then grab the microphone and lay into the crowd," Angle says while plowing through a breakfast of steak and eggs at a midtown Manhattan hotel. "So I did. I started telling the crowd, arrogant as can be, 'You do not boo an Olympic champion!' When the boos got even louder and the people got even more pissed, I thought, 'Now I know what they want me to be.' I talk about my success. I tell the fans they can't be me. I take my gold medal and stick it right up their rear ends."
By pairing a wildly egomaniacal character with unrivaled amateur wrestling credentials, Angle has become one of the WWF's biggest draws, a heel (trade slang for villain) whose meteoric rise points to an astute change in the WWF's business plan. Though the federation concedes that its product is "sports entertainment," it has in the past eight years actively courted elite athletes like Angle.
"When I took this job in '94, our roster was old, recycled and not as athletic as it should have been," says Jim Ross, the WWF's senior vice president of talent relations. "If I just wanted showmen, I could go to Hollywood or Gold's Gym and find the guy with the biggest arms or the guy who cuts the best promos. By recruiting legitimate athletes, I get guys who are physically durable and mentally tough. What we do is showmanship, but getting slammed, getting tossed over the ropes 200 nights a year—if you don't have that toughness about you, you're not going to make it."
The federation is now quick to promote the athletic backgrounds of its biggest names, including The Rock ( Dwayne Johnson, a former defensive lineman at Miami) and Stone Cold Steve Austin (defensive end at North Texas). Half of its 100-odd wrestlers have traditional sports backgrounds, up from one fifth a decade ago. Most remarkable is the federation's success in poaching former amateur wrestlers, who have traditionally had a strong distaste for the phony pro game. The defections of Angle and 2000 NCAA heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar of Minnesota to the WWF were greeted with hostility by many in the amateur wrestling community because for years pro wrestling has been perceived as sullying the sport. "I was told I would damage my gold medal," Angle says. "I was told I wouldn't be remembered as an Olympian."
That attitude is beginning to change, especially given the paucity of postcollegiate options available to elite wrestlers, whose career choices are essentially limited to coaching or Olympic training. "Those old-school coaches, if they want to sit and starve and not change with the times, they can sit and rot—that's my philosophy," Lesnar says. "You've got to be open to new things. Those guys, they're just hard-nosed and hardheaded, and they're a dying breed."
Angle's success—and sudden wealth—has shifted the conventional wisdom among amateur wrestlers. Bottom-rung salaries in the WWF approach six figures, and a wrestler of Angle's stature can take in $1 million annually. "If you stay with wrestling up to the Olympic level, you don't have a career. You're paying the bills," says four-time Olympic medalist Bruce Baumgartner, the athletic director at Edinboro (Pa.) University. "Pro wrestling isn't continuing your athletic career, but it's an avenue to use the skills you have to pursue other goals—performing, acting. There's not the same resentment of pro wrestling as there was when it professed to be real."
The attention-starved world of amateur wrestling, however, hardly prepares its athletes for the bawdy spectacle of the WWF. Although former amateurs can draw on technique, they must prove quick studies in the theatricality required of pros. "It may be harder for amateurs because of what we're taught," Angle says. "Amateur fans are most impressed by what they don't see: a takedown that happened so fast they missed it. Fans here don't go for that. They want to see people jumping off the top rope and flying through the air, they want to hear the loud slams, the smacks on the canvas—they want it all laid out slowly. In amateur wrestling, the quicker the better."
The irony is that each discipline has something to teach the other. For all the WWF's focus on (often comic) violence, amateur bouts are just as potent. "I wish people were more knowledgeable about amateur wrestling," Lesnar laments. "They don't understand the physicality of it. It's a one-on-one legal fight. Without punching or eye-gouging you go out and literally try to beat someone up. It takes a tough s.o.b." For their part, the cash-poor and underpublicized amateur ranks could benefit from a fan-friendlier approach. "I like the amateur who thinks about entertainment, whether it's his flurry of moves or his style," says wrestling legend Dan Gable, now assistant to the athletic director at Iowa. "We need more crowd appeal, we need more entertainment, we need better promotion. We could take a page from the WWF there." Such a boost may be imminent: The WWF has already approved a two-year paid hiatus for Angle to train for the 2004 Olympics. He pegs his odds of making it at 50-50.
"Wrestlers," wrote the French critic Roland Barthes, "remain gods because they are...the pure gesture which separates Good from Evil." While the signature of pro wrestling is the bright line its melodramas draw between babyfaces and heels, the similarly sharp distinction the amateur community has attempted to maintain between pure sport and sellout has begun to blur. As amateur wrestling evolves, the likelihood of future crossovers only increases. Amateurs can look past the money for only so long, and as the most accomplished of their number, like Angle, arrive, the simple lesson to critics is this: You do not boo an Olympic champion.