Kurt Angle got on a plane in 2006 bound for Las Vegas. The former Olympic wrestling gold medalist was potentially about to embark on a new career path. He was finishing up after an excellent run with WWE that made him a prominent national name. And after a decade in pro wrestling, Angle was interested in jumping to MMA.
Angle’s manager reached out to the UFC and promotion president Dana White flew Angle out to Las Vegas to meet with him. The UFC put the wrestling star up in a penthouse suite and rolled out the red carpet for him. An offer was made during a meeting, but Angle had to turn it down.
Right before the meeting, Angle signed a deal with the wrestling promotion Total Nonstop Action (TNA). It would have let him compete in MMA and professional wrestling, if he so chose to do so. But the UFC was not as flexible.
“Dana White would not let me wrestle and fight at the same time,” Angle told ESPN. “And I didn’t want to go back to TNA and say, ‘Listen, that contract I just signed is null and void.'”
That was one of three times Angle said the UFC had offered him a contract, though he never tried his hand at MMA. While he admits to always having that “what if” in his head, Angle’s achievements in athletics cannot be overstated. He’s in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and the WWE Hall of Fame. Angle was an NCAA heavyweight champion and, of course, the 1996 Summer Olympics gold medalist in freestyle wrestling, winning the title with a broken neck.
A documentary on Angle’s life will debut Sept. 2 on Peacock. He said that it covers mostly his amateur wrestling career and about “40 percent” of it is about his run in WWE. Angle was a four-time WWE champion and a Triple Crown champion, winning the top title, the Intercontinental title and the tag team belts. But nothing could top winning the Olympics, Angle said.
“I want people to remember me as synonymous with the Olympic gold medal,” he said.
Right after he won the medal, Angle said, was the first time the UFC contacted him. Semaphore Entertainment Group (SEG) owned the promotion at that time. Zuffa, led by White, Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, acquired the UFC in 2001. Back in 1996, the UFC was not the multi-billion dollar company it is now. Angle said he was offered $150,000 to compete — but that was over the course of a 15-fight contract.
“I love fighting, but I don’t love it that much to get my butt kicked for 15 grand [per fight],” Angle said with a laugh. “So, I decided to go to WWE and when I got there, I had so much success early on. And then UFC started becoming mainstream in the early 2000s, and this is when I was having a stellar career in WWE, winning world championships, beating The Rock for the world championship, beating ‘Stone Cold’ [Steve Austin] for the world championship. And I thought, ‘Man, I would love to fight, but I already had this great career going on right now.'”
Things didn’t work out in 2006 due to his situation with TNA. But when he was done with that promotion, Angle and the UFC spoke again. There was a plan for Angle to compete on The Ultimate Fighter reality show in 2009, a season of heavyweights that included the cult favorite Kimbo Slice. Angle said the UFC offered him $500,000 to do the show, promising a UFC contract thereafter.
But Angle was 41 years old by then and had broken his neck five times, including four times in a two-year stretch in WWE.
“I started training for it a little bit and I realized, ‘I’m past my prime, I can’t do this,'” Angle said. “So, I had to turn it down. But I’m very grateful for the offers Dana White gave me. He is an incredible person.”
White said in 2011 that Angle really wanted to fight in the UFC, especially after Angle’s friend and fellow amateur wrestling champion Brock Lesnar made the move and became heavyweight champion in 2008.
“We worked out a deal, he wanted do it [and] he didn’t pass the medicals,” White told reporters back then.
Angle and Lesnar knew each other very well. The two worked together often in WWE. Early on, in the early 2000s, Angle said the two ended up tangling in an “impromptu” real wrestling match in a WWE ring before a show. Lesnar was talking some light trash backstage and Angle said he challenged him to a match. After Lesnar was doing some wrestling sparring with Paul “The Big Show” Wight before a show, Angle slipped into the ring and the two went at it. Angle said it was very close, but he took Lesnar down twice while Lesnar failed to take him down.
“I was just proud that I was able to get in that ring with a 310-pounder when I weighed 215 and I was able to hold my ground with him,” Angle said.
In 2008, Angle had an indirect impact on the world of MMA. When standout amateur wrestler Daniel Cormier was finishing up at the Olympic Training Center after being on the U.S. Worlds or Olympics team six times, he asked Angle for advice on his future. Cormier had been a pro-wrestling fanatic since he was a child in Lafayette, Louisiana. But MMA was taking off and Cormier loved to compete. Cormier wasn’t sure if he should try to get into WWE or the UFC.
Angle told him to do the real stuff first, to go into MMA. He could always try pro wrestling later. Cormier followed Angle’s guidance and became a UFC heavyweight and light heavyweight champion — at the same time — the first and only fighter to ever accomplish that feat.
Cormier, now 44 years old, never ended up having a match for WWE, though he has made appearances. Angle said he would have been excellent in that realm, too.
“He’s an entertainer, man,” Angle said of Cormier. “He’s, what would you call it? Click bait. This guy, he says stuff and the media picks it up. I think he would’ve been entertaining. I think his wrestling would have been incredible. I think Daniel would’ve had a stellar career [in WWE], probably equal to mine, I believe.”
Angle would have likely been tremendous in MMA, if he had gone in that direction. Sometimes, he wonders what would have happened if he had taken the UFC up on any of those three offers.
“Every once in a while, it gets to me,” Angle said. “And when I watch these fights, I’m like, ‘Gosh, man, I think I would’ve done pretty well in this. Seeing Brock Lesnar, my friend, be UFC champion and seeing Randy Couture, who I trained with for the Olympics, being UFC champion. It makes you question, did you do the right thing? But I look back and I say, ‘You know what? I had a pretty stellar career in pro wrestling.’ So, I can’t regret that.”