The WWE returns to Dallas this Sunday night for its inaugural “Great Ball of Fire” wrestling extravaganza. Yes, it's really called that.
We talked with the event's general manager, Kurt Angle — an Olympic gold medalist, WWE champion and Hall-of-Famer — about how wrestling has evolved over the past 10 years, as well as the Netflix series GLOW, which has brought wrestling back into the spotlight.
Dallas Observer: First of all, we need to know the story behind the name “Great Balls of Fire."
Angle: That’s a pretty incredible name for a wrestling show, isn’t it? The head honcho Vince McMahon thought that the name was hilarious, and that’s pretty much the entire story. You never know when it comes to Vince, but he’s usually right, so we trust him. Vince loves the name, so I expect it to become an annual event.
You left the WWE 13 years ago and then returned last year at the Hall of Fame. What's different now?
Today, the WWE caters to the athlete more than they ever did when I started wrestling. I had a big problem with painkillers, and as long as I had a doctor’s prescription, I could take them. I broke my neck several times when I was wrestling and my own doctor would clear me to wrestle even though I probably wasn’t physically well enough to. That’s all gone today.
The drug policy is very strict. You can’t take painkillers unless prescribed by WWE’s doctor, and you can’t wrestle unless the WWE doctor clears you to wrestle. In addition to that, the WWE provides catering for the wrestlers all day long and there are professional massage therapists at the shows. It’s a much better atmosphere for the athlete.
The wrestling also seems less violent than it was a decade ago. You don’t see a lot of blood shed, or chair shots to the head.
You can’t even do certain moves anymore if the company feels it can be detrimental to the wrestler’s health. But to WWE’s credit, they have limited the amount of concussions and injuries. WWE wants the athletes to not only have a long, healthy career but also a healthy post-career too.
How else has WWE’s style of wrestling evolved since you started out in the early '00s?
When I started, I was taught to begin each match with lots of action. Very few of our matches began with a traditional wrestling hold. The "Attitude Era" was all about the action. It was big move after big move and lots of punches.
Today, the wrestlers in the ring tell a better story. The boys and girls in the locker room can really wrestle and there is a great focus on storytelling and ring psychology. It’s sort of back to basics, but I think it’s a better style. The crowds today aren’t as bloodthirsty as they were back then.
When you debuted, you were billed as an Olympic gold medalist and an American hero, but you were portrayed as a villain. It’s rare for someone in red, white and blue gear to be universally booed. Was that difficult for you?
Vince did everything he could to make me look like a good guy. I was the Olympic hero. But when I came in, the bad guys were the ones who were cheered. The crowds loved the guys who went against the rules and were rebels. If Stone Cold Steve Austin wrestled as his Stone Cold character in the '80s, he would have been the biggest villain in the business.
Anyway, Vince McMahon thought to make me cleaner than clean, and he figured that the crowds would hate me. I told Vince that it would never work and that if you portrayed me as a baby face, I would be cheered. But within six months, I was the most hated wrestler in WWE. It was a brilliant move by Vince.
In your Hall of Fame speech, you mentioned the importance of having fun with your character. Do you see that in today’s WWE?
Well, it’s not only the wrestler’s responsibility but also the writing staff. There are guys today that I love. Sami Zayn and the Fashion Police are a couple examples of guys who approached me for advice on how to improve their characters.
It’s about taking chances. Rarely do fans approach me and say, “I remember the classic match you had against so-and-so”. Instead fans usually say to me, “I remember that time you drove a milk truck to the ring. Or when you wore a tiny cowboy hat and sang with Stone Cold Steve Austin.” It’s the moments that the fans love and remember. It goes well beyond just wrestling.
GLOW has brought wrestling back to mainstream consciousness. Last week, women headlined matches on the WWE TV shows RAW and Smackdown.
I would say that GLOW’s popularity had an influence on us having women’s main event matches. But the WWE has been working on their women’s division for years, and we’ve already been leading up to having the girls main event TV shows.
A few years ago, WWE made the decision to stop referring to the women wrestlers as “divas.” When I was in WWE the first go-round, the women were having bikini pillow fights and it was all about the look of the girl. Now it’s all about their in-ring ability. GLOW is helping bring more attention to wrestling and women’s wrestling in particular. I think people who watch WWE will watch GLOW and vice-versa.
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So, the "Great Balls of Fire" show is this Sunday. What should fans look forward to?
Personally, I can’t wait to watch Braun Strowman and Roman Reigns wrestle again. These two guys are in the running for being the top guy in the company. And the possible match of the year will be Brock Lesnar versus Samoa Joe for the Universal Championship.
I’ve wrestled both of these super-athletes and can tell you that it will be a very physical match. These two have defied the laws of aging. They are both nearing 40 but can still go in the ring.
Can we expect to see you in the ring?
I won’t be wrestling at the pay-per-view. I still need to pass the physical. But maybe in the future.
Great Balls of Fire, 6:30 p.m. Sunday, July 9, American Airlines Center, 2500 Victory Ave., $25 and up, ticketmaster.com.