Kurt Angle vs Brock Lesnar: WWE’s greatest “wrestling” rivalry

There have been countless great professional wrestling rivalries but unquestionably Kurt Angle vs Brock Lesnar is the greatest “wrestling” rivalry in WWE history.

The Rock vs Stone Cold Steve Austin. Bret Hart vs Shawn Michaels. Hulk Hogan vs Randy Savage. All great rivalries and ones that defined their eras, but when it comes to realness, nothing compares to Kurt Angle vs Brock Lesnar.

The two men are by far the most legitimate wrestlers in WWE history. Kurt Angle is the only Olympic Gold Medallist to compete in the company, until Gable Steveson makes his in-ring debut anyway. He won that medal of course with a “BROKEN FREAKIN’ NECK.”

Brock Lesnar’s wrestling pedigree and achievements fall one rung below, with a NCAA Division 1 Championship to his name, but also the UFC Heavyweight Championship.

Angle and Lesnar brought all of this and more to the industry, something that had not been seen before and certainly has not been since. Lesnar’s enduring drawing power is a testament to this.

The two simply are in a class of their own when it comes to “pure wrestling” and really put the “sports” into “sports entertainment.”

Both experienced rapid rises in the professional sphere after transitioning from the amateurs, and the first point of rivalry and contention between the two is the question of who had the better debut or rookie year in WWE.

Angle, nine years Lesnar’s senior, was the first to make the leap into the world of WWE, signing an eight-year contract with the company in October 1998.

After time spent learning and training in the WWE style, Angle made his televised in-ring debut at Survivor Series 1999, entering to the sound of his now-iconic theme music.

Kurt Angle in UFC? Imagine it!

His gimmick of an Olympic Gold Medallist and an American hero was as accurate as could be but did not wash with the Attitude Era audience, who rejected him as a babyface. This led to Angle becoming a conceited heel who spoke down to fans and boasted about the “3 I’s” he possessed – Intensity, Integrity, and Intelligence.

An unbeaten opening run lasted until the Royal Rumble when he lost to a debuting Tazz. Angle’s first titles in WWE followed soon – the European and Intercontinental Championships were secured in February 2000.

Unfortunately for Kurt, he lost both at WrestleMania 2000 without being pinned or submitted in a two falls triple threat match against Chris Jericho and Chris Benoit.

The disappointment of this quicky subsided with Angle’s anointment as “King Kurt” following victory in the King of the Ring tournament. At this time, the tournament winner usually was set up for a main event run, which duly happened for Angle.

Just 11 months into his main roster career, Angle ascended to the top of the company when he defeated The Rock (with heavy interference) to become the WWE Champion.

It did not seem possible that any wrestler could top Angle’s debut year in the company but Brock Lesnar flew up the roster in even more stunning fashion.

After graduating from the OVW “Class of 2002”, Lesnar made his main roster debut on the Raw after WrestleMania 18, destroying Spike Dudley, Al Snow and Maven mid-Hardcore Title match on the directives of Paul Heyman. The birth of an all-time duo.

Lesnar was billed as “The Next Big Thing” and lived up to the hype. With a rocket strapped to his back, he ran through the roster in record quick fashion, becoming a main-event talent in a matter of weeks. His look and legitimacy made this instantly believable.

Brock Lesnar's 20-year body transformation from SummerSlam debut to now
Brock Lesnar’s 20-year body transformation from SummerSlam debut to now

Like Angle, King of the Ring glory came in June 2002, which earned Lesnar a WWE title match at Summerslam. Prior to this showdown, Hulk Hogan was defeated clean and by submission, a feat achieved by few let alone a newcomer.

In a dream match titled “Rock vs Brock,” Lesnar defeated The Great One to become WWE champion, just 126 days into his main roster run. At just 25, Lesnar was and is the youngest man to lift the title.

Both Angle and Lesnar defeating The Rock for their maiden titles shows the trust the company had in them, as well as successful defences against The Undertaker (inside Hell in a Cell for Lesnar), another titan of the industry.

So, it was clear the two were destined for greatness from the offset. It was also clear that the two men would one day meet. With both men now main event talents and on the Smackdown brand, it was only a matter of time.

A competitive rivalry and friendship quickly formed between the two men, which seemed natural given their backgrounds. Angle has said that he had heard Lesnar say he was “too small” and that he would “kill him” if they ever wrestled for real before meeting him, leading to a shoot match between the two backstage. Angle won, according to himself anyway.

On-screen, the two men’s rivalry began on the road to WrestleMania 19 with Angle now the WWE champion and Lesnar having won the Royal Rumble in January 2003. A main event was set, the first to feature two amateur champions and quirkily the first with two superstars wrestling under their real names.

Angle at the time was also aligned with Heyman, who had turned on Lesnar, and “Team Angle,” featuring Charlie Haas and Shelton Benjamin, the latter a college roommate of Lesnar at the University of Minnesota.

Angle convinced Lesnar to go to hospital after WrestleMania 19
Angle convinced Lesnar to go to hospital after WrestleMania 19

In the weeks leading up to the match, Angle suffered another broken neck at the No Way Out pay per view, yet somehow was able to compete. During the match itself, Lesnar nearly broke his own neck, or worse, when he attempted a shooting star press onto Angle from the top rope.

He had not done the move on the main roster and miscalculated the jump. Despite his concussion and all of Angle’s ailments, the two delivered probably the greatest “pure wrestling” main event in WrestleMania history with Lesnar emerging victorious.

Their rivalry would resume in the summer of 2003 following Angle’s early return from neck surgery. This led to a mini-series between the two, with Angle reclaiming the title in a triple threat with The Big Show before defeating Lesnar by submission at Summerslam.

Lesnar would eventually best Angle in a 60-minute Iron Man match on the September 18th, 2003 episode of Smackdown, ending the feud.

Throughout this time, comedic skits brought a side out of Lesnar that few had seen before, largely because of his chemistry and relationship with Angle. The shift of face-heel dynamics in the rivalry also further displayed the versality of the performers as individuals and as a tandem.

After both left WWE for a first time, “Champion vs. Champion” match pitting Lesnar, the IWGP champion, against Angle, the TNA World Heavyweight Champion, allowed for one final match between the two greats. Angle making Lesnar tap to the ankle lock, taking all the gold and leaving Brock to take on the world of UFC.

Lesnar Angle
Lesnar Angle

The on and off-screen rivalry between Brock Lesnar and Kurt Angle pushed both to new heights in WWE, with their shared desire to be the absolute best enhanced by the presence of the other. Angle’s character transitioned to that of “The Wrestling Machine” while Lesnar became a more rounded performer, being able to highlight his amateur wrestling skills as well as his freakish power and strength.

JBL said it best when he stated that “Angle could outwrestle anyone and Brock could outfight anyone.” Together it made for the greatest “wrestling” rivalry in the history of WWE.

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