Kurt Angle Grapples His Toughest Opponent: Drug Addiction

By McCarton Ackerman 05/17/17

"I’ve put my body through a lot of hell and that withdrawal was the most painful, tortuous experience I’ve ever had."

Kurt Angle posing with fists in front of red
An interview with Kurt Angle about the Anglestrong initiative and his own recovery

When it comes to evaluating the greatest wrestlers of all time, Kurt Angle has to be included in any list. The Pennsylvania native was a two-time NCAA Heavyweight Wrestling Champion before capturing headlines by winning a gold medal in freestyle wrestling (with a broken neck) at the 1996 Olympics. Angle then transitioned into the WWE and won numerous belts during his career, including four stints holding the WWE Championship.

But the one opponent Angle couldn’t beat was drug addiction. He began taking Vicodin after undergoing neck surgery in 2003 and consumed 65 pills a day at his worst. Drinking also began to play a role in his life and he had four DUI’s in five years.

But after entering rehab after his last DUI charge in 2013, Angle has remained clean and sober. He recently launched the Anglestrong initiative for addicts in recovery, including a website and app. Angle even returned to the WWE this year after an 11-year absence and is now the General Manager for WWE Raw.

In this exclusive interview with The Fix, Angle talks about the conversation that got him sober, the history of drug addiction in the wrestling business and what he hopes to achieve with the Anglestrong initiative.

Where are you in your sobriety these days?

At this point, I’m 4.5 years sober. I got clean in 2013. It was a blessing. Ever since I got out of my one stint in rehab, I’ve been able to stay in recovery pretty strongly since then.

You’ve said that your addiction began after neck surgery and that you were taking 65 Vicodin per day at the height of it. How do you even wrestle at that point?

Everybody has a different effect from the drugs. Opiates can make you feel tired, drowsy, give you energy. For me, it made me feel invincible. It wasn’t like I was taking 65 from the first day. I started out with one or two a day and I doubled the dose when that didn’t work, then doubled the dose when that didn’t work.

My body had built a tolerance and it wasn’t helping the pain after a while. It also wasn’t giving me that invincible, euphoric feeling. Before you know it, it’s out of control and you’re taking it just so you don’t go through withdrawal. I think that going withdrawal before getting clean is the biggest thing that addicts are afraid of. I’ve put my body through a lot of hell and that withdrawal was the most painful, tortuous experience I’ve ever had.

We’ve lost so many talented wrestlers over the years due to drug addiction. Do you think there’s something about the lifestyle of pro wrestling that fuels it or would people be susceptible to it no matter what?

I think they’d be susceptible to it. Before I started, these guys were doing nine shows a week, one per day Monday-Friday and then two per day on the weekends. That’s a lot of wrestling and abuse on the body. You’d keep that schedule for two months, have a week off and then go back on the road at that pace. It got out of control in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Guys were taking drugs before they got in the ring and it was just a rock star mentality. But when I started, we were doing five shows a week.

And back in the early 2000s, there wasn’t a drug policy. If you were injured and came back to wrestle, your own doctor cleared you. But now the WWE has an incredible wellness and drug policy that’s packed. When I left in 2006, they implemented every policy you can think of. You have to be cleared by a WWE doctor to wrestle again now, not your own. They have a two-strike system with their drug policy where you’re fined and suspended 30 days for the first strike, and fired for the second strike. You’re not allowed to take opiates for anything.

The athletes are in a much better position now because they’re not abusing their body and taking pills nightly. We’re down to four shows a week now. The company has actually catered to the athlete. There are so many things they do for the athlete to make sure these things don’t happen anymore.

Vince McMahon is known for offering free rehab for any WWE wrestler, past or present. Did you ever take advantage of that?

I was wrestling for another company at the time and they still paid for my rehab. They contacted me about it, not the other way around. I didn’t even know that was possible until my manager brought it up, so I commend them for it. They keep a tight leash on their former employees and how they’re progressing.

With your own addiction, was there a specific moment when you knew something had to change?

There were two reasons. I still didn’t want to go to rehab and just thought I was having bad luck. You make horrible choices when you’re drinking and taking drugs, and don’t think you’re as bad off as you are. I had four DUI charges in five years, but managed to get all of them reduced to reckless driving because they were all on the threshold. I wanted to go to rehab just because I thought it would help with my final DUI case.

Finally my wife sat me down and said, “I love you, but I’m going to leave if you don’t get clean. I don’t want your money. I’ll go live with my parents.” I didn’t want to lose her or the kids, so I decided to go to rehab for them.

You recently released the Anglestrong app for people in recovery. What was the inspiration for launching this service?

It was easy to stay clean when I was in rehab because there was so much structure and you’re taking care of yourself. But when you get out, it’s gone and nobody is checking on you. That’s why so many people relapse.

I’m traveling all the time for work and I’m a husband and father to five kids, so I just don’t have time for AA meetings. I could go to a counselor or a psychiatrist, but that’s pricey and still just one day a week. Where was I going to get this structure now?

That’s why I launched the Anglestrong initiative. There’s a website, anglestrong.com, and then the app. We’re going to start offering workouts, diet tips, positive daily messages, video chats, helping people with career goals. We want to give addicts the structure they need to hold themselves accountable and follow some kind of program.

The app is all about accountability, so who or what holds you accountable these days?

What keeps me clean is talking about my addiction. I do it daily, whether it’s in the form of talking to a group, an interview or a video chat. And at the same time, I’m giving back.

When I went into rehab, my PR company got hold of me and said keep your mouth shut, don’t say a word about it and move on with your life. But then I started hearing about the opioid epidemic in America and how 21 million Americans have a drug disorder. Politicians only just started talking about it this past election and its been going on for years. It’s an epidemic that’s not going to get better until people start talking about it and trying to help each other.

I just met with the office of Pat Toomey, the Senator of Pennsylvania. We’re also looking to talk with Chris Christie about the Anglestrong app since he’s chairing a special commission to fight the opioid epidemic for Donald Trump.

You’re now back with the WWE again this year. You said they canceled an in-person meeting with you two years ago, so are you surprised they noticed how much you progressed and gave you a second chance?

Make no mistake, the WWE keeps tabs on anyone they’re interested in. I think the WWE saw everything I’m doing with the Anglestrong initiative and how I’ve turned my life around. They saw I was helping people and giving speeches.

But I also know that even though they hired me, they’re going to hold me accountable. I’m going to be drug-tested and have to come back to the company slowly before they can utilize me the way they’d like. It started out with my Hall of Fame induction, then being an ambassador for the company, then being General Manager of WWE Raw. I would have done the exact same thing.

I need to build that trust again with Vince. He offered me rehab and I just wanted to leave the company at that point, so we parted ways and didn’t speak for 11 years. I tried to come back the past few years and Vince kept saying no. I understood why. They’re a publicly traded company and are going to protect their own asses first, but I just wanted him to see that I was okay and had turned my life around.

Has the response you’ve gotten from the fans in your return, seeing that you’re still loved and well-received, helped you stay sober as well?

It helps a lot. I was really surprised by the response. I was out of the WWE for 11 years and missed a generation, which is why their marketing is so incredible. What company brings you back as a Hall of Famer first? That’s supposed to be the end of your career. To have a new generation of fans respect what I’ve done and also start to have more opportunities to do things within the company has been amazing.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.