The closest that Kurt Angle has ever come to fighting an active MMA fighter—at least in public—was on November 4, 2004. Angle was already a household name, a baldheaded, bull-necked caricature of a WWE champion who took gold in freestyle wrestling at the 1996 Olympics. The fighter in question was Daniel Puder, a 1-0 American Kickboxing Academy fighter embarking on a parallel career in pro wrestling, who entered Angle's orbit through the WWE's reality show Tough Enough.
On the night in question, in front of an audience in St. Louis, Angle bullied and injured another contestant before challenging the rest of the Tough Enough cast to a live wrestling match. Puder accepted. The events that followed are as infamous for Angle's right shoulder getting wrenched to the verge of breaking as they are for forming the backstory of a fight that never happened, all because a rookie nearly submitted the near-invincible Angle and rewrote the script beneath the reality of the evening.
It's been 11 years since the referee saved Angle from Puder's impulsive Kimura, when fans speculated about what would happen in a real bout between the two, and still the prospect of Angle either fighting or not fighting in MMA still makes headlines. This week, Angle told The Roman Show: "The chances are one percent that I'll fight and 99 percent that I won’t. I don’t plan on fighting, but if I feel good, my body's good, and my training's going well, I might consider it down the road. But right now, I’m saying no."
We have a strange, enduring fascination with high-profile athletes from other sports put on four-ounce gloves and watching what happens afterward. Brock Lesnar's UFC heavyweight title is the best-case scenario, James Toney and Jose Canseco are the worst, and Rulon Gardner and Bobby Lashley are somewhere in the middle. But if we conflate amateur wrestling credentials with mixed-rules fighting potential—which is a dangerous thing to do—Angle would have veered toward Lesnar's end of the spectrum. To hear him tell it, he beat Lesnar in an unscripted, closed-door match in 2002, and he out-grappled the likes of other wrestlers-turned-MMA-greats Randy Couture and Mark Kerr. If the UFC's 1990s-era payouts matched the figures on his WWE contract, Angle says would have pursued MMA after winning gold in Atlanta.
Instead, owing to the overlap among amateur and pro wrestling audiences and MMA fandom, he had an eight-year run in the WWE and remained a fixture on the edges of pro fighting without ever actually fighting himself. Over and over, he teased the start of an MMA career, unsuccessfully negotiating with promotions from the UFC to the IFL and Elite XC. In the meantime, the successes of Couture, Dan Henderson, and other elite wrestlers of advancing age sustained the idea of Angle's potential even as he entered his 40s.
But a laundry list of injuries—specifically his neck, broken five times by his count—and painkiller abuse conspired against him. UFC president Dana White said Angle was offered a spot on the all-heavyweight tenth season of The Ultimate Fighter, but failed the medical exam. (Angle denied the claim.) Despite the behind-the-scenes dalliances with the MMA world, he never left the familiarity of the squared circle, spending his career's second act with TNA Wrestling. Outside of his strike-less scrap with Puder, Angle's next-closest brush with MMA was playing the fictional, Fedor Emelianenko-inspired villain Koba in the movie Warrior.
But now, with the advent of Bellator MMA's de facto masters division, the idea of 47-year-old, 0-0 Kurt Angle making his debut is as plausible as it's ever been. In November, Angle convincingly and coyly played into rumors that he was about to fight then-51-year-old Ken Shamrock under the promotion's banner—before announcing that he would be commentating when Shamrock and 49-year-old Royce Gracie fought each other in February.
Angle named Shamrock and Gracie on a list of potential MMA opponents, all of the same vintage. "Of course, I'm not gonna wrestle or fight a guy in their prime—it's not gonna happen," he told The Roman Show. "It's obviously gonna be one of the older guys. But if it does come to fruition, it will be a hell of a fight, whether it's Kimbo Slice, or Ken Shamrock, Dan Severn, whoever it is—or even Royce Gracie, you never know. But if I do decide, it will be with a hall of a famer, it won't be somebody in their prime in their early 30s. No way. Not now."
An unintended consequence of Bellator's interest in having aging, big-name fighters compete is that speculation over Angle's entry into MMA can continue even as he approaches his 50th birthday. Sometimes we forget that this kind of speculation has an end date. But whether he fights or not, a name like Kurt Angle's apparently still means something, especially in a new world of old men.
Check out these related stories:
The Mixed Martial Arts of Victorian London
Before BJJ, there was Bartitsu.
Jonathan Maicelo: The Last Inca
Peru's up-and-coming boxing star.
Kron Gracie on Jiu-Jitsu, Skateboarding, Older Brothers, and Famous Fathers
The ties that bind are strong.
Joel Tudor on the Art of Surfing, Fighting, and Style
A surf icon helps MMA keep its sense of tradition.
Japan's Karate Kid: Kyoji Horiguchi
Japan's brightest MMA prospect.