It’s only fitting that Kurt Angle wrestled his greatest in-ring year with a broken neck.
His story is one of a man achieving the remarkable while suffering unimaginable pain. Angle famously suffered two cracked vertebrae in his neck during the 1996 Olympics, yet still went on to win the gold medal in freestyle wrestling. In 2003 ahead of WrestleMania XIX, his neck was in such wretched shape that doctors urged him to undergo fusion surgery. Angle felt he first had a duty to give fans a main event worthy of the grand stage, and so delayed repairing his neck and wrestled anyway.
He gave his all in a battle against Brock Lesnar at Safeco Field, a headlining match in which he had only 20 percent strength in his left arm, in which he was fearful of failure and paralysis, and managed to put on a classic in spite of it all.
Angle missed only three months after surgery post-WrestleMania. By June that year, he was back working the SmackDown house show loop, back being a wrestling machine, back to having world-class matches.
Rewatching his preeminent work was a reminder for me of how simple and beautiful this sport can be. A wrestling match is essentially moves plus emotion. Not many have executed that formula as masterfully as Angle. There are few things as perfect, true, and poetic in this medium as Angle’s suplexes. Add his ability to emote, to inject personality into the athletic side of things, and it’s easy to see why he’s considered one of the greatest.
He adapted superhumanly quick from the world of amateur wrestling. In 2000, just two years into the pro game, he was tearing it up against The Rock and Triple H. Angle went on to become one of the best technical wrestlers ever, a Hall of Famer, an absolute legend.
So not surprisingly, narrowing down his best year is not easy.
He rocked every one of his early years with WWE. Later in ’05, he and Shawn Michaels had themselves a masterpiece at WrestleMania, during what was another strong 12-month stretch for him. Angle put on thrillers against Samoa Joe, AJ Styles, Mr. Anderson and Desmond Wolfe (Nigel McGuinness) during an impressive run with TNA starting in 2006.
2003 outdid it all. Even with the time he missed and his body ailing, it remains his magnum opus.
Look to his bevy of awards that year as proof:
- Pro Wrestling Illustrated Match of the Year (vs. Brock Lesnar)
- Pro Wrestling Illustrated Wrestler of the Year
- Pro Wrestling Illustrated Feud of the Year (vs. Brock Lesnar)
- Wrestling Observer Newsletter Most Outstanding Wrestler
- Wrestling Observer Newsletter Feud of the Year (vs. Brock Lesnar)
- Power Slam Wrestler of the Year
- Power Slam Match of the Year (vs. Chris Benoit)
None of this is surprising. Lesnar, perhaps Angle’s best rival, was his opponent again and again in 2003. The Olympic Hero thrived in those bouts, as well as in underrated match against Undertaker, one of John Cena’s early bangers and some tag team contests with a variety of partners.
Going from his Royal Rumble pièce de résistance to a showcase against Cena at No Mercy, we now look back in awe at what Angle put together some 17 years ago.
Kurt Angle vs. Chris Benoit (Royal Rumble)
Before the WWE Championship showdown got underway, the ref tossed out Team Angle. That left two masters alone to work unhindered by shenanigans. And boy did they work.
Two technical wizards and former tag team partners went at it with some of the most fluid and well-paced stuff you’ll see in an American company.
In the most straightforward of stories, each man went after the other’s bad wheel. Benoit focused on Angle’s injured knee; Angle preyed on Benoit’s surgically repaired neck. Through twisted limbs and heads colliding against the ring apron, the rivals told a tale of survival and toughness.
Angle, his mouth bloodied, eventually sunk his teeth in too deep and Benoit had to submit.
Writing for GameSpot, Kevin Wong called this “the greatest single match of Kurt Angle’s career.” It’s certainly in that conversation.
With that win, Angle had kickstarted the year with a great pure wrestling match. The hits would only keep coming.
Kurt Angle, Shelton Benjamin and Charlie Haas vs. Brock Lesnar and Chris Benoit (No Way Out)
A six-man tag morphed into a Handicap match when someone assaulted Edge before the action. That left Team Angle to corner two rabid animals with a clear advantage.
Angle had far from a starring role in the first half. He threw in lots of quality heel work, playing the coward and the scavenger, but it was Haas and Benjamin who carried the bulk of the in-ring weight early.
When Angle did get the spotlight, he showed off his great chemistry with both Lesnar and Benoit.
As the match went on, the energy lived rose. The third act surged with compelling chaos. We then saw Angle and company steal the show.
Kurt Angle vs. Brock Lesnar (WrestleMania)
The final bout of the greatest WrestleMania ever was a classic. The fact that Angle pulled off this big-time performance with his neck in absolute disrepair is stunning. Imagine LeBron James scoring 40 in a playoff game with herniated discs in his back. That’s essentially what we saw in Seattle that night.
Angle shouldn’t have been medically cleared, but managed to deliver, pain surely swallowing him up the whole time.
Of the bout, Kevin Pantoja for 411 Mania: “My goodness, these two went at it. No nonsense, just let the two best wrestlers go in the ring and wrestle.”
He’s right. WWE left the overbooking out of this. It decided against heavy-handed storytelling. Instead we got The Next Big Thing looking to dethrone the gold-medal winning champ, a blend of mat wrestling and two guys pummeling each other, an exhibition of 2003’s best feud.
There is a sense of urgency and desperation throughout. This feels like a big, big match from the opening bell on as Angle and Lesnar suplex each other into oblivion. An early methodical pace crescendos beautifully to a thrilling climax.
Lesnar’s dangerously off-target Shooting Star Press is often what fans remember of this match, but that’s just the exclamation point at the end of a top-notch performance by both guys.
Kurt Angle vs. Brock Lesnar vs. Big Show (Vengeance)
After WrestleMania, Angle finally get his neck attended to. He opted for a non-fusion surgery to shorten his time away from the ring.
He missed the rest of April and all of May before coming back to action in mid-June. His first matches back were mostly tag bouts and house show performances. At Vengeance in July, he had his first true standout match in a Triple Threat against two big bulls.
Unlike the Rumble and Mania matches, this was no mat-based showcase. On a blood-stained mat, Angle wielded garbage can lids. Chairs, tables, fisticuffs and dripping blood all played a part in a demolition derby style match.
You get to see Angle slam a 300-pound man through the announce desk. The Olympic gold medalist goes ballistic with a chair in hand and hits a release suplex that is an absolute thing of beauty.
This isn’t the best Angle bout by any means but a strong showing and part of his return to form following his surgery. A month later he would be full-on ace Angle again.
Kurt Angle vs. Brock Lesnar (SummerSlam)
You know you’re having a barnburner of a rivalry when a match this good is the weakest of the trilogy.
In this, the crown jewel of the ’03 SummerSlam card, Angle looked to cling to the WWE title he won back at Vengeance. He was off to a great start early when his quickness and mat wrestling mastery had Lesnar constantly on the defensive. He frustrated the big man with a string of arm drags and headlock takedowns, basic wrestling moves made beautiful by the Olympian.
After Lesnar was done pouting and flipping over the ring steps, he used his power to take control. Domination was the story at this point with Angle making a comeback in spurts.
As this plays out, we see Angle’s uncanny ability to kick out at the last possible nanosecond, milking the near fall for every drop of drama.
Angle would crank Lesnar’s foot so often and so hard that he left him essentially one-legged. Not even a Vince McMahon chair shot could derail the champ. He twisted his enemy’s weakened leg until victory was his.
This was a mat-wrestling display as usual from Angle, with some shenanigans thrown in. The formula worked quite well, especially at the bout’s climax. As John Canton of TJR Wrestling wrote, “The last 10 minutes of this match were absolutely fantastic.”
Kurt Angle vs. Undertaker (SmackDown)
Between PPV collisions with Lesnar, Angle defended the WWE title on SmackDown in quite the underrated match against biker Undertaker.
This was a clash of striker versus wrestler, power versus skill that clicked from the get-go. Angle suplexed the big man and kept him grounded as much as he could. Undertaker took over once he was able to make this a brawl instead.
A fiery pace in the middle, anger, escapes, and intensity powered a hot match.
His cheek busted open, sweat and blood dripping off his face, Angle was a hugely compelling warrior in there. Lesnar leaped in, steel chair in hand, to rob us of a more satisfying conclusion. WWE was trying to set up the next Angle/Lesnar bout, so went for a DQ finish that ended things abruptly before these two greats could take the bout to classic status.
Kurt Angle vs. Brock Lesnar (SmackDown)
The rubber match of this great feud came in form of a 60-minute Iron Man match, a rarity in the WWE world.
These matches can often be beset by filler. Not here. Angle and Lesnar delivered one of the finer paced Iron Man bouts to date. This was the World Series, the NBA Finals, a back-and-forth athletic drama.
Angle outquicked and outwrestled his foe early. He looked well on his way to an easy win over a frustrated Lesnar. Then a barrage of chair shots derailed those hopes.
Angle went up by one thanks a disqualification, but not the mat wizard was left dizzied and weakened, a stunned animal caught in the paws of a great beast.
He had to then fight like hell from what was soon a 1-3 deficit and later a 2-5 disadvantage.
The gripping comeback attempt saw Angle throw fiery punches, hit Lesnar’s chin with a gorgeous missile dropkick, and coil around his opponent’s leg, clamped on him like a vice. The image of a desperate Angle trying to submit Lesnar before time ran out is simply powerful.
On a Facebook Q&A in 2019 (h/t Fightful), Angle said of this bout: “That match was 2 world class athletes going toe to toe for 60 mins. Intense.”
Intense is right. They packed a lot of hard-hitting and big drama into that hour. In the process, Angle and Lesnar had put on arguably the best SmackDown match ever.
John Cena vs. Kurt Angle (No Mercy)
Cena’s ascension to WWE elite was powered in part by his tussles with Angle. It began with his SmackDown debut in the summer of 2002 and continued in this singles bout on PPV where Cena looked like he belonged in there with The Wrestling Machine.
The upstart Cena couldn’t keep up with Angle while the match remained a pure wrestling showcase. He had to veer the action towards a brawl. The Olympic gold medal winner handled himself quite well in the slugfest portions, though.
Angle sold the heck out of the potential upset fans saw brewing. He reacted to a DDT out on the ring apron like a baseball bat shot to the head, the shot leaving him curled up and coiled in pain.
Cena used Angle’s Olympic gold medal as a makeshift pair of brass knuckles. But a weary, and worn-down Angle was able to battle back.
A slower, rest-hold heavy middle act kept this from reaching the level of a classic, but it was a key part of the star-making process for Cena and yet another strong PPV performance for Angle.
Angle’s workload slowed from this point. He was in 11 total matches after defeating Cena, and only one of those was a singles bout.
His phenomenal 2003 came to end at Survivor Series where he led a five-man squad against Lesnar’s team of bruisers.
While he came off like a herculean force on TV all year, Angle was very much human and hurting badly. As Jonathan Snowden noted in Shooters: The Toughest Men in Professional Wrestling: “The decision to go with the less invasive neck surgery came back to haunt him. He needed corrective surgery and then suffered issues with a blood clot.”
Angle made great physical sacrifices in 2003 and throughout much of his year. His commitment to his craft through anguish and injury is part crazy, part courageous.
In pushing through where most of us would have folded, he left us with a wealth of wrestling gold to admire from an award-winning year.
The Year of Years is an ongoing series examining and celebrating the best bell-to-bell years from great pro wrestlers. Be sure to check out these previous editions: