Kurt Angle – Using His Past Struggles to Help Others

Kurt Angle has lost many close loved ones. He nearly lost himself. Whether you’re a fan of wrestling or not, he has a story to share that people can relate to, especially those struggling like he once did – a story that he hopes will save lives.

Kurt Angle opens up about his past struggles in hopes that it changes lives for the better.
Kurt Angle opens up about his past struggles in hopes that it changes lives for the better.

It’s is no secret – drugs go hand in hand with professional wrestling. With the countless bumps taken in and out of the ring each day, drugs start, for some, as a pain-management mechanism. Soon then, it spirals out of control to a full-fledged addiction where all you are worried about is not what’s happening in the ring, but as Kurt said, "How am I going to get the drugs for tomorrow?"

I found myself idly flicking through my Twitter feed when I came across a tweet from Kurt that caught my attention. He was promoting a mobile app he created that was set to be released, which promised to help recovering addicts keep clean. "Truly wonderful," I thought. It hit home.

In 2005, I lost a very close loved one to opioid addiction and, since then, have felt a resolute urge to turn something positive out of this crippling life experience. This article is my earnest attempt at that.

How Kurt Angle is Trying to Help Others Fight The Same Battle He Once Did

Kurt Angle is an Olympic gold medalist, a thirteen-time world champion, and WWE Hall of Famer who helped others through his addiction recovery app, AngleStrong.

Soon after seeing his tweet, we struck up a conversation, first via DM, then on the phone. During our conversations, Kurt candidly opened up about a host of topics ranging from receiving the call from Triple H that led to him being inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame to his past opioid abuse.

We talked about fatherhood, who his best friends were in WWE, and how he lost contact with everyone after deciding to leave WWE in 2006. Angle reveals the difference in backstage environments between now and when he was coming up in the business while also discussing his WWE Hall of Fame speech.

It is our honor to share our exclusive interview with Kurt Angle.

Kurt Angle with a gold medal around his neck
[Photo courtesy of wrestlinginc.com]
*A note to publications: if you are going to use excerpts from this interview in a piece on your site, please kindly cite your source by linking back to this article.

PRO WRESTLING STORIES (PWS): Kurt, first and foremost, congratulations on your induction into the WWE Hall of Fame.

KURT ANGLE: Well, I appreciate that. I was pretty surprised that I got the call this early. You know, at forty-eight years of age. I’m not even done with my wrestling career! I got a call from Triple H, and he said how they wanted to induct me into the WWE Hall of Fame. That just puts an exclamation point to my pro wrestling career. I’ve been inducted into every hall of fame but the WWE in both amateur and pro, so this is definitely a huge honor.

PWS: It’s about damn time, too! After ten years, you’re coming back home.

KURT ANGLE: (laughs) Yeah, I know.

PWS: It is hard to think of anyone more deserving than you to get into the WWE Hall of Fame. You have had an unprecedented career, winning Olympic gold in freestyle wrestling in ’96 and acquiring countless championships and accolades along the way. But all of that pales in comparison to the battles you have won outside of the ring.

KURT ANGLE: Thank you.

PWS: It is no secret that you have had your issues out of the ring, and you have been very open about it.


PWS: How long have you been in recovery?

KURT ANGLE: I’ve been in recovery for four years. I decided to enter rehab back in 2013 when I got my fourth DUI in five years. I got pretty reckless. It started with painkillers. I was having a lot of anxiety when I broke my neck four times in two-and-a-half years.

I went to Xanax, so I was taking both of those. WWE didn’t even know I was taking it. Back in 2003, they didn’t have the drug testing they do now. They have a great drug testing policy now, but back then, it wasn’t implemented yet, so I was getting away with a lot of stuff.

Because of health issues and feeling like I was a liability to Vince McMahon, I asked for a release in 2006, and Vince granted it to me, and I moved on with my life, and they moved on with theirs.

When I went to TNA, everybody drank, and I never really drank alcohol. Suddenly, I was drinking alcohol, and now I was mixing the three – it was a pretty deadly combination.

PWS: You saw your life spiraling out of control, so you chose to step away from the WWE only to go to TNA, where another vice was added to the mix. What would you say worked well for you once you did decide to seek help and go to rehab, and what didn’t?

KURT ANGLE: I just had to get my mind straight. There was a lot of psychological damage. Deaths of family members. The death of my coach [Dave Schultz]. With the Olympics, when I broke my neck and wasn’t cleared by the doctors, it felt like my life, my dream, was taken away from me.

The same thing happened in the WWE. My neck kept breaking on me — four times in two-and-a-half years, from 2003 to early 2006. It just felt like I just started in WWE in late ’99, early 2000, and now in 2003, I’m at the height of my career, and it’s being taken away from me. I just wanted to numb it.

I was also in a terrible relationship. That didn’t help, either. I felt like as long as I was medicated, I would just keep working as hard as possible and make the best career that I could while it lasted, and that would be fine. As long as I could take the pills and not feel the pain, I would be okay.

I got remarried and had more kids. I realized that there’s more to life than wrestling. My new wife really pulled me out of my mess. She was there at my worst, and she was the one that said, "Listen, you need to do something. If you don’t, I’m going to leave you."

To me, that was too valuable. I didn’t want that to happen. I had the love of my wife and my beautiful kids. I went into rehab for them.

PWS: That tough love from your wife is what fortunately pushed you to change and save your life. As you said, it was psychological. Everything you were going through and the fact that you were at the height of your career experiencing these injuries understandably played a toll on your mental state.

Many athletes and everyday people suffer from chronic pain, and they look to opioids as their only resort for pain management. What has been the best way for you to treat your chronic pain now that you are clean and in recovery?

KURT ANGLE: Well, I do a lot of different things. I probably spend three hours a day working on my body. I do anything from anti-gravity for my spine to traction for my neck to stretches to yoga. I have all these different devices now that I use. I have vibrating balls and tubes that I use.

Basically, you have to work hard and take care of your body. I do everything every day, and I have a routine. It helps that it keeps me, I wouldn’t say completely pain-free, but less pain-free. I’ve also been using these supplements that are pain-relieving supplements called Levare [non-narcotic pain relief].

I got them from a former professional football player and also the brother of Mike Tomlin, the head coach of the Steelers. I’ve been working with them, and it does help. It’s not like opiates, but you have to learn to alter, and you have to learn to adapt to your surroundings and know what you are capable of taking and know what you’re not capable of taking.

I’m an addict. I can’t take painkillers. I can’t take anything.

In the past, I crossed over from alcohol to benzos [a type of medication known as tranquilizers such as Valium or Xanax]. None of that stuff is good for me. I was even taking muscle relaxers at a certain point in time, so none of that stuff is good for me, and I know that the only way I can do it is if I stay clean.

PWS: You turned your life experiences into a huge positive with your new addiction and recovery management app called AngleStrong (Editor’s update: his app is unfortunately no longer active). What was the catalyst that brought the idea of this together?

KURT ANGLE: There have been other recovery apps out there, but nothing like the AngleStrong app. I teamed up with Dr. Harold Jonas, who is a recovering addict of over thirty years. He came up with the app. He was the one who created it.

The great thing about this app is that it holds you accountable for what you do every day. You check in every day. If you don’t check in, your lifeline – your loved ones, your sponsor, your family members – they get notified.

It’s one of those things that if you’re not doing so well, at least you have loved ones around you attached to you and know what is going on in your life. It has so many great features. It’s GPS enabled, so if you’re going to relapse, we’re going to find you. It’s an incredible app, and I think Dr. Jonas has done an incredible job with it.

We started this about a month ago, and we’re getting a great response.

PWS: The beautiful thing is you can have loved ones and family members connect to this, so everybody is in on this journey together.

KURT ANGLE: Yes, absolutely. We encourage the loved ones and the family members and sponsors to engage with the recovering addicts without being overbearing. We don’t want people breathing down their necks, but we want them to be engaged so that they are a part of it.

You know this as well as I do, ninety percent of the time, recovering addicts relapse when they are isolated. We want to take that isolation away to a certain degree so that they know that people are looking out for them and that it’s not just me and AngleStrong, but it’s their family members and loved ones as well.

PWS: Are people able to connect with you through the app?

KURT ANGLE: Yes, eventually. Once we get approved through the Apple store, which should be very soon, I will be doing a monthly video call with all the AngleStrong Initiative members. Every member will be able to see me on video, answering questions and giving a monthly speech.

We have a great thing where we have positive daily messages, workout routines, things to better your life. If you’re looking for AA meetings, I highly encourage the twelve-step. Even though this is not a twelve-step, this is for everyone. You know, AA meetings which are close to you, rehab centers that are better suited for you, whatever you need. We’re trying to fulfill everybody’s needs with the app.

Helping People Who Are Struggling

PWS: What you’re doing is inspiring and encouraging. If your story and your app can change one person’s life, then everything you have gone through was worth it.

KURT ANGLE: Yes, absolutely. I have had a lot of turmoil in my life. It’s been tough to accept. That’s one thing that I’ve had to learn: to accept everything.

I’m not in this to make any money. This is just me trying to help other people because the epidemic has gotten so bad, especially with opioids. Sixty-thousand people died in the last two years from opioid overdoses.

There are twenty-one million Americans with a drug disorder, and only ten percent of them go to rehab. Of that ten percent that go to rehab, only five percent stay in recovery, so you have 2.1 million people that go to rehab every year, and one hundred thousand are the only ones that stay in recovery. It has to change.

PWS: It does have to change. What you’re doing is going to save lives. We both know the power of drugs and the importance rehab plays in the lives of those addicted. Having this app keeps people accountable while also letting people know that they are not alone and that others are out there rooting for them. I think it’s quite incredible what you’re doing.

KURT ANGLE: I appreciate that, man. I’m really looking forward to helping people out.

You know, my wrestling career is almost over. I was meddling in an acting career when I thought, "What do I really want to do?" God put me in this direction. He said, "You have experienced all of this. You have a great story. It’s not a happy story, but it’s a good one that you can tell people, and you can relate to other people that are struggling with this." 

I’ve been very blessed. When I was in rehab, the thing that was always going through my mind was, "They keep telling me that I can never take a drug again. I can’t handle this! They’re telling me never? I can’t promise anyone I can do that!" 

I think I just took the basic step of I’ll stay clean today. I’m not going to worry about yesterday or tomorrow. I’m just going to do it today, and I feel good today!

The worst feeling in the world is that withdrawal feeling. Knowing that I don’t have that anymore just makes me feel good. I don’t have to worry about that anymore. I’m free. I’m not a prisoner of these drugs.

I used to have to worry about how I would get the drugs for the next day. That’s what consumed me.

I can’t believe I had as great a professional wrestling career as I did because all I was thinking about was, "How am I going to get the drugs for tomorrow?" And that’s what we all do.

Us addicts, we all do this. We worry about how we’re going to get high again, so we don’t have to hit that withdrawal effect.

It’s not even about getting high anymore once you’ve done it for a while. It’s about, "How do I refrain from getting withdrawal?" It’s the toughest thing in the world.

I just talked to a lady today; this is crazy, I just spoke with her, and she met me at church. She said to me, "Two of my kids are struggling. They’re on opioids. They’re now taking Methadone," which is horrible.

She said, "I don’t know how to get these kids off of them." 

I said, "What are you doing?"

She replied, "Well, I got them an apartment, and they live in it."

I was like, "WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT? Why would you want to get them an apartment? You’re enabling them!" 

They don’t even drive; she takes them to the methadone clinic every day.

I said, "You have to stop. Get them in rehab."

Methadone doesn’t work. Yes, it gets you off the big drugs, but it’s another drug, and they’re going to have to go through withdrawals with that, too. That’s all they worry about is getting to the methadone clinic every day.

"Get them into rehab, check them in, have them go through withdrawal, and have them stay the entire time. If you don’t stay the entire time of rehab and you just check out after going through detox, you’re going to go back again."

I saw it. I was there. I witnessed it. I went through it. I saw people coming back. At least eight different people came back within that month. They left after they had gone through detox. That isn’t enough.

You need to stay the entire time, so you learn how to get clean, you learn about your disease, and you’re going to be able to be well-suited. But there is no aftercare after rehab. There is only AA meetings and counseling. That’s why the AngleStrong app is here so that we have aftercare after rehab.

PWS: As you said, it’s one day at a time. It’s good to get this message out there so that hopefully, those who need to hear it most make the choice that could ultimately save their lives.

Kurt Angle with two of his closest friends from the road, Christian and Edge
Kurt Angle with two of his closest friends from the road, Christian and Edge [Photo courtesy of sportskeeda.com]

Kurt Angle on Fatherhood

PWS: So tell me, I’m a new father, do you have any good advice to give?

KURT ANGLE: Yes, stay clean! (laughs)

Do you know what the crazy thing is? It’s a cycle, man. If you don’t break the cycle, your kids are going to do it, too. My family did it, and I did it. You know, it got to the point where I saw the pattern from my great-grandfather to my grandfather to my dad to me. It was just a chain effect. I didn’t know this until I became an addict.

The only way is to break the cycle. If you start doing it, your kids are going to start doing it, too. That’s my number one piece of advice.

The other? Always make time for them. Even though they are young, one year old, two years old, three years old- it’s not that they are going to remember and think, "You never spend time with me, dad!" It’s the fact that they get used to you being around.

Even if it’s one hour a day, that will mold them so much to be better parents as well, and they are going to be better, more responsible kids. Always take in an hour or two a day to spend time with them. It really helps out. It really helps nurture them, and it gets their brain patterns in the right direction.

PWS: That’s really sound advice. Have you encouraged your kids to go a similar path as you by going into sports or wrestling?

KURT ANGLE: You know what? I have, and unfortunately, my two older kids don’t live with me, so I have no control over that. They both have dabbled in sports.

\My son Kody will most likely become a pro wrestler, which I’m not, you know, I can’t tell him what to do. He’s only ten years old. But he is just so obsessed with it. He also has autism, and he is a special kid. I love him to death. He’s a terrific kid. He’s more interested in pro wrestling than any other sports.

My daughter Kyra was an incredible tennis player. What made her want to stop? I don’t know, but I don’t have control over them.

I do, however, have control over my three other little ones. That’s Giuliana, Sophia, and Nikoletta. They will play sports. If it was important in my upbringing, it will be important in this family and this house.

My Sophia, my four-year-old, I’m already taking her to wrestling school. My brother has a wrestling school. She’s a really physical girl. The US Olympic team now has women wrestling, and this is more her cup of tea. The other two love princesses, but my Sophia? She likes to kick ass! (laughs)

PWS: (laughs) Good on her. I look forward to hearing about her ten to twelve years from now!

Kurt Angle on WWE Hall of Fame Induction

PWS: Well, I can’t let you go without asking some wrestling questions.

KURT ANGLE: Yeah, let’s hear some!

PWS: Many of our Pro Wrestling Stories readers are interested in hearing about what happens behind the curtain. For as long as you’ve been in the business, I’m sure you could spend hours just telling stories from the road. But if you could pick one or two, what are some fun stories you have to share? Who were some of your favorite people to travel with on the road?

KURT ANGLE: Well, to be honest, I don’t really remember a whole lot because, you know, most of my career, I was taking some form of medication. I remember spending a lot of time with Edge, Christian, and Rhyno. They were my closest friends. Also, Big Show and Brock Lesnar. It was a lot of fun.

There is a brotherhood in professional wrestling. The sad part is, once you leave it, you lose touch with everybody. Pat Patterson was the one that told me that. I didn’t believe him because I was like, "Pat, these are my brothers! These are guys I hang out with!" 

I spent a lot of time hanging out with Austin, Rock, Undertaker. We were all good friends, but once I left WWF? I never talked to them again.

I really believe that if you make an effort, you can stay in touch with them, but I had a lot of fun. It was a lot of fun traveling with these guys. If you can’t be with your family, you want to be with the next best thing, and that’s the guys you wrestle and train with.

I was more sick of my buddies than my family at home because we lived on the road three hundred days a year. It’s a close-knit family, and you learn how to get along with everybody regardless of whether you like them or not.

PWS: The good thing now is you’re back in the family.

KURT ANGLE: (laughs) Yes, that’s true.

PWS: You’re going to have the WWE Hall of Fame ceremony coming up soon, which perhaps will open up the door for you to connect with some old friends you may not have otherwise been able to keep much in touch with over the years.

KURT ANGLE: Yes, absolutely. Right now, WWE and I have talked about possibilities for after Mania, but they really want us to focus on the Hall of Fame as of now. We have discussed other things that we want to do, but they want to keep that under wraps until we get to the Hall of Fame, and I respect that.

Triple H said, "Listen, let’s just focus on the Hall of Fame. Once we get there, you and I will talk after that." And I’m cool with that.

If the Hall of Fame is the only thing that they offer, I will be happy. But, obviously, there is a great possibility that we do something after that.

collage of Roman Reigns and Kurt Angle posed headshots
Kurt shares who he’d like to share a ring with if he were allowed to have a few more dances in WWE [Photo courtesy of inquisitr.com]

PWS: Now, I have to ask this. Hypothetically, if you were to step into a WWE ring again for a few more dances, who would be some of the current performers, you could envision yourself working with?

KURT ANGLE: Well, there are always guys that I have already wrestled like Cena, Brock Lesnar, Undertaker, and Triple H. And, you know, Randy Orton. I love that kid! I think he’s awesome.

I’m going to have to put AJ Styles up there, too. He is frickin’- he is the best in the business without a doubt right now. I just watched him and Dean Ambrose on Tuesday. Gosh, does that kid ever have less than a five-star match? He’s phenomenal.

I completely understand why AJ is so much fun to work with – you don’t have to do anything! He does all of it for you. Any other wrestler who would tell you different is lying. AJ does all the work. That’s what’s so cool about it.

You know it’s going to be a five-star match if he matches your ability. I’m talking the Ambrose’s and the Rollins’, the John Cena’s and Kurt Angle’s. As long as you’re up there with him, you’re going to have that type of match with AJ because he is so easy to work with.

I also love Seth Rollins.

I know this will be a little bit of a surprise, but I really like Roman Reigns. I think he’s going to win the fans over eventually. It’s only a matter of time. I think he was pushed fairly quickly, and the fans like to see that process.

The US title, the Intercontinental title, the King of the Ring, and then the WWE title. He just went straight up. I think that’s the reason why a lot of fans, some fans, I should say, are rejecting him.

I love Dean Ambrose, Kevin Owens. Gosh. That kid’s size. The way he looks. I haven’t seen a talent like that since Samoa Joe. I would say Cesaro, Rusev. With Rusev, I think that’s pretty plain to see that that would be a pretty great program. There are a lot of guys.

Right now, the talent in WWE is as good as it’s been since the Attitude Era. I think that there is a lot of great talent there to work with.

PWS: What advice do you have to give for young wrestlers coming up in the business right now?

KURT ANGLE: I’m going to now give you a part of my Hall of Fame speech! I’m going to tell you now. Learn how to protect yourself. Learn how to bump, and then don’t bump so much! (laughs)

If you want a nice career, you know when I first started in the Dory Funk dojo camps, they were brutal. We had to bump three hundred times a day, every single day.

Remember this- you only have a certain amount of bumps in your career, then your career is over, so why would you bump three hundred times a day? Just learn how to do it, get it through, and then get on with the process of learning everything else.

The other thing is, live with your mistakes. We all make mistakes. Some are big, some are small, but just be smart. Look at your surroundings, stick with the people that are doing the right thing, and don’t go with the people that are doing the wrong things. That’s what I did, and that’s how I got caught up in the medication and the alcohol and the drugs.

I just went with the flow with who I felt would feed me my next drug for the next day. For me, it’s about just being smart. Limit the number of mistakes you make, and you’ll have a nice and successful career.

PWS: There is something in this advice that everybody can learn from.

In your opinion, what’s the difference in backstage environments between now and when you were coming up?

KURT ANGLE: I think it’s less cut-throat now. Not to knock on the Attitude Era guys, but back then, it was so competitive because everybody not only wanted to be on top, but everybody had the capability of being on top.

In other words, I don’t care what anyone says, but the Godfather? A tremendous worker! If the WWE decided to have pushed him back then in the Attitude Era, he could have been on top even though he was a pimp.

Val Venis? Great worker. Pornstar? He could have been on top.

Crash Holly, Bob Holly, you know? I’m talking about guys that were middle-card and upper-middle card.

And then you had the Austin’s, the Rock’s, the Triple H’s, the Undertaker’s, the Kane’s, the Big Show’s, the Kurt Angle’s, the Brock Lesnar’s, the John Cena’s, the Randy Orton’s- it was just so competitive, the Attitude Era. Even the Ruthless Aggression Era.

I think now guys are more prone to working together, making it great for the product and not so much for themselves. That’s what’s really cool now. I’ll give you an example, the great John Cena. He wins that title from AJ Styles, and the next night, he does a job in the middle of the ring. 1-2-3 pin.

That is the way that it should be. He just made another person. He complimented another wrestler, and he’s still the world champion. That’s really cool that they’re doing that now.

Back when I was there, when John Cena became champion for the first time, he didn’t do any jobs. He was unbeatable and indestructible. Nobody was going to touch him. Nobody was going to beat him, even though I made him tap once! (laughs)

No, but seriously, I’m just saying that things are different now. I like how they complement each other, and it’s not just about one person getting the huge push. It’s about everybody working together as a team to make the product better.

PWS: Absolutely. Not to mention a lot of guys seem to be more into video games instead of drugs and alcohol!

KURT ANGLE: Yeah… I don’t know which one is worse! (laughs)

PWS: Does this sadly mean we won’t be seeing you as a guest on Xavier Woods’s YouTube channel UpUpDownDown in the near future?

KURT ANGLE: (laughs) You never know…

I remember I’d walk into the TNA locker room, and AJ Styles would be there with Samoa Joe, Christopher Daniels, and Frankie Kazarian playing video games. I would be like, "What the hell are you guys doing?" They would be there all day; it was so competitive.

You are right; it is different now. Don’t forget that there are drug policies. If they do the drugs, they’re getting fined. Or at least suspended and fined the next time. I commend WWE because of their drug policy, and I commend them because of their health policy for guys like Daniel Bryan, who they wouldn’t clear to wrestle.

Don’t forget, thirteen, fourteen years ago, I had the same issues. It wasn’t that hard to get cleared by a doctor to get back in there. I actually wrestled at WrestleMania 19 with a broken neck!

Things are different now, and I commend Vince McMahon for doing the right thing and looking out for not only the company but the wrestlers, too. He’s done an incredible job.

PWS: He definitely has. Have you been approached about being a guest coach down at the Performance Center? With your host of experience, you would be a priceless asset to the future generation of wrestlers.

KURT ANGLE: I believe that this will be something that I will do. It will be one of many things, but I would expect that after the Hall of Fame, as I said, I have not spoken to anyone about what I’m doing after that. Just right now, the focus is the Hall of Fame. They want to make this as successful a night as any night.

Graphic of Kurt Angle with gold medal on his neck for this Hall of Fame Induction
[Photo courtesy of skysports.com]

And a successful night Friday, March 31st became. It was the night Kurt Angle finally came home – a night where he will get the chance to share his story with millions of people while also being honored for his countless contributions to the world of sports entertainment.

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JP Zarka founded Pro Wrestling Stories in 2015 and is the creative force behind the website as editor-in-chief. From 2018-19, he was the podcast host and producer for The Genius Cast with Lanny Poffo, brother of WWE legend Macho Man Randy Savage. His diverse career includes work as an elementary school teacher, assistant principal, and musician, notably as a singer-songwriter with the London-based band Sterling Avenue. Zarka has appeared on TV programs like “Autopsy: The Last Hours of” on Reelz (U.S.) and Channel 5 (U.K.) and has contributed research for programming on ITV and BBC.