One of the biggest shocks many fans find online is that Kurt Angle NEVER had a 5-Star match as rated by the Wrestling Observer. For many, that’s inconceivable. How could a wrestler as skilled and naturally gifted as Kurt Angle never have earned that (at one time) rare achievement?
As it turns out, Angle almost made it at one point. He had a match that was so great that Meltzer said in his WON that it was ‘sniffing that 5-Star air’, only for everything to come crashing down at the end. But was this match really that awesome? And did the match’s conclusion have that strong of a negative impact? Let’s look back and find out.
(Editor’s note from John Canton: I’ve rated several Angle matches at five stars including matches WrestleMania 21, Royal Rumble 2003 and No Mercy 2002. I like Dave, but I don’t know what Dave is thinking sometimes!)
Today we revisit Kurt Angle’s quest to win the WWE Championship at SummerSlam 2001 when he challenged ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin.
As a reminder, I am reviewing Five Star and almost-Five Star wrestling matches as rated by Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. It goes back to the 1980s and I’m going to pick different matches from different eras to see how they look today. Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.
In 2001, SCSA was the biggest villain in (what was left of) the pro wrestling industry. He aligned with his nemesis Vince McMahon and turned into a paranoid ass-kisser. He constantly wanted attention and affection from his boss and got jealous when the spotlight wasn’t always on him. He was like a spoiled brat that always wanted his parents’ attention and didn’t like it when that attention shifted to any siblings. So when Austin started believing that Angle was being groomed to take his spot, Austin became an even bigger villain. During a WWF/E vs. WCW & ECW tag match that was taking place during the larger Invasion storyline, Austin turned on WWE and aligned himself with the Invasion. He turned his back on the company that made him into a global icon because he just couldn’t accept that someone else was going to stand atop the mountain alongside him.
Angle wanted revenge, especially since Austin would find many different ways to screw him out of victory. Angle challenged Austin in his hometown but Austin gave him Booker T instead. Angle beat Booker to win the WCW World title, but Booker beat Angle a few nights later to regain it thanks to Austin’s help. Austin used whatever means necessary to mess with Angle but Angle, like the most natural white-meat American hero, refused to let those roadblocks get in his way.
It seemed like Angle was destined to beat Austin at the second-biggest WWE show of the year. He had overcome almost every cheap trick Austin threw at him and kept pushing onwards, unwavering. And now that he had Austin one-on-one with no more shenanigans, could Angle do it? Could he finally beat Austin and avenge WWE by punishing Austin for his betrayal? There was only one way to find out.
This match originally took place on August 19th, 2001 at SummerSlam. It was rated ****1/2 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. John Canton of TJRWrestling rated it ****3/4 out of five in his SummerSlam 2001 review. Let’s see how well it holds up after over twenty years.
Angle comes out first to loud applause and then out comes Austin. The two men rush each other in the entranceway. They’re already fighting and the match hasn’t even started yet. Angle looks like he’s winning but Austin thumbs his eye and smashes him into the barricade. Austin taunts Angle with the title belt and throws him into the ring. The match officially begins and Angle double-legs Austin. The two men roll around trading mounted punches. Angle gets some early control with Austin-style mudhole stomps but Austin thumbs his eye again after the ref warns Angle to back up. They trade corner punches until Austin reverses a corner whip. Angle bounces out and hits a clothesline, then ducks a chop and lands a crossbody press for a two-count. Angle goes for a back body drop but Austin blocks with a neck club. Great job by Austin for going for Angle’s obvious weakness.
Austin wrenches Angle’s leg and starts working over his left knee. Angle screams out in pain as Austin attacks Angle’s ankle to damage it more after attacking it prior to this match. Suddemly Angle counters with an ankle lock of his own. Austin reaches the ropes right away and goes to ringside and then hits Angle with a big clothesline. Austin rolls Angle back into the ring but Angle tries to make a comeback. but it’s short-lived as Austin dumps Angle back outside and lands badly on his left leg. Austin limps towards him and throws him into the ring again, where he lands three vertical suplexes in a row (this was before Eddy made Three Amigos so popular). Austin pins but only gets two.
Austin goes for a fourth suplex but Angle lands behind him. Angle connects with a German suplex. Followed by two more. Austin elbows out of a waistlock but Angle ducks a clothesline and hits that fourth German. He follows with three more for a total of seven German suplexes, all of which target Austin’s historically bad neck. Angle goes for an Angle slam. Austin escapes and thumbs his eye and then kicks him face-first into the turnbuckle pad. Austin goes for a superplex but Angle fights out. Austin hits more haymakers and tries again. this time the superplex lands. Austin follows with a Stunner! Stone Cold Stunner! One, two, and, NO, Angle kicks out! Austin’s furious and gets in referee Earl Hebner’s face. Austin hits a second one! A second Stunner! But this time it sends Angle to the floor.
Austin decides to punish Angle further by driving Angle’s head into the steel ring post several times. The referee isn’t counting them out for whatever reason. I guess he’s too engrossed in Austin’s carnage as he keeps smashing Angle into the post to make him bleed even more. Austin grabs the title belt to use as a weapon but Hebner pulls it away. He’s going to maintain some integrity in this match, dammit. Austin responds to this by just beating Angle senseless and ragdolling him around the ringside area. Austin continues this merciless assault to the point that Angle’s blood sprays onto Austin’s forearms and chest. Austin goes for another pin…but Angle kicks out again. Austin throws him to ringside yet again and then throws him into more objects. He goes to slam Angle onto the announce table when Angle counters. Angle slips behind Austin and drives him over the barricade. But Austin gets up first. Austin suplexes Angle onto the concrete. Austin tosses Angle around some more and goes to climb back over the barricade when suddenly, Angle catches him in another ankle lock. Angle cranks that hold with all his might as Austin screams and squirms in pain! Angle realizes that he can’t win the title if Austin taps outside. So he pulls Austin back into the ring by his ankle and reapplies the lock once again. The crowd goes nuts. JR’s going nuts on commentary! Austin gets a rope break and rolls to ringside. He thinks he’s safe. But he isn’t. Angle goes after him and hits a belly-to-belly suplex on the ringside mats. Both men collapse. Austin gets up first and lands some punches, but Angle ducks a third one. Angle follows with a back suplex right on the mats.
Angle gets some minor revenge by smashing Austin’s head into the commentary table and then tosses him into the ring. he gets that cray look in his eye as he goes to the top rope. Diving moonsault by Angle! Perfect execution! But Angle collapses beside Austin! He can’t capitalize right away. He eventually gets an arm across Austin’s chest for the cover. One, two, and – no, Austin survives.
The two of them trade Irish whips and powerslam counters until Austin locks in a cobra clutch. Angle tries a takedown to get into a pinning position but Austin rolls out. Angle looks like he’s fading but then he wakes up and makes his comeback. Angle pulls of the Bret/Piper corner bridge pin. One, two, Austin gets his shoulders up. but the Cobra clutch is still locked in. Angle slumps down. His arm falls down once…twice…thr – no, Angle’s still alive. Angle runs to the ropes and dumps Austin outside. But Austin gets up first and readies the killing blow. A third Stone Cold Stunner! One, two, and thre – Angle kicks out at 2.99! Angle’s still in this. Austin’s furious. JR is shocked. The crowd’s cheering like crazy.
Angle uses Austin to pull himself up as Austin looks down at him with a look of disbelief and disgust. Austin slaps Angle a few times and goes for another Stunner. Wait, no, Angle grabs his leg on the kick. Counter into an Angle Slam! Both men collapse again. Angle covers Austin. One, two, Austin kicks out at 2.8.
Angle tries another ankle lock but Austin’s already at the ropes. Suddenly, Austin delivers a huge right hand…to Earl Hebner! What? What a lame move. Austin grins, even as Angle hits him with a DDT. Another ref comes running down as Angle covers Austin again. One, two, and th – Austin survives yet again. Angle gets up and Austin kicks him in the groin. Right in front of this new ref. The ref asks Austin what he’s doing but Austin gives him a Stunner! This is going south fast. Austin gets his title belt and prepares to swing it at Angle, when a third ref comes out. This one stops Austin but he takes a belt shot to the head. Austin gets caught up in his bedlam that he doesn’t notice Angle getting up. Angle lands an Angle Slam. Angle gets a visual three-count as a fourth referee makes it into the ring. He counts one…and then waves it off. The ref orders the bell rung!
Winner via Disqualification after 23:11: Kurt Angle (Steve Austin remains WWE World Heavyweight Champion)
Post-match, Angle is rightfully pissed off and so are the fans. Angle grabs referee Nick Patrick (who made the final decision) and puts the ankle lock on him.
WHAT THE F**K?!
That was well on its way to being a truly great wrestling match until that crap-tastic ending. What a terrible bait-and-switch. Even though it was completely logical on Austin’s part since Angle wasn’t giving up, it was a BS thing to do. It was a classic case of pulling the rug from under someone’s feet. This was Angle’s time, his moment. His whole story with Austin led to this moment. The ideal conclusion would’ve seen Angle claim the WWE title and end on a high note. But I guess to pull off another ‘gotcha’ swerve, WWE booked Austin to do something that, while expected and justifiable from his character’s behavior, sucked the life out of everyone watching.
At first it was getting Austin/Bret WM13 vibes from this match. From the opening brawl, to the great wrestling and counter-wrestling, to the chaos around the ring, to all the blood, it was looking like another legendary match was underway. Austin tried everything he could to keep Angle down. All his tricks, brutality, unhinged violence, cheap shots, and Stunners couldn’t get the job done. No matter which direction he attacked from, Angle kept pushing forward. The fans saw this and remained steadfast in their support of Angle. And each time he came back, they (plus JR on commentary) grew louder and louder. They believed in Angle’s determination and will to win. They saw Angle survive such violence and cheered like crazy when he got a moment of offense in. And as Angle crept closer and closer to the finish line, it seemed like it was only a matter of time before Austin would give up.
But all of that came crashing down with some utter nonsense. Within two minutes or so, the match made a 180-degree turn and went from exciting and serious to exaggerated and nonsensical. Austin stunned Hebner in the perfect display of underhanded douchebaggery. Fine, I can buy that. it made sense since Austin realized Angle had a lot left in the tank but Hebner – who held all the power at that moment – was made of glass. But what happened next was just dumb. A second ref came down and instead of calling for the DQ right away, he counts another pin as if Austin’s actions hadn’t happened. That same ref didn’t call for the DQ after a blatant groin shot right in front of his eyes and then he got stunned. Then a third ref saw all of this and decided to play the idiot hero by trying to stop Austin from using the belt, instead of calling for the DQ on the spot. And then he, too, got stunned. It wasn’t until a fourth referee – a WCW referee, this time – came down and ended the match. So instead of having a great match lead to a single predictable but acceptable conclusion, we got a convoluted mess that saw Austin spam Stunners like he was having hallucinations of facing The Rock again. It was such a monumental letdown. Angle sold his anger over the stipulation like he was legit angry, and odds are many people watching were as well.
Maybe I’ve been spoiled from watching so many other matches that received similar or higher praise than this one. Maybe I’m so used to seeing clean finishes that a DQ ending like this rubs me the wrong way. Still, looking at this match with a cool head, the finish was so far out of left field compared to everything that preceded it. I’ve never been a fan of matches where the referee becomes more than an official. Reliance on ref bumps, crooked refs, inconsistent officiating, or in this case, a parade of refs being sent down to be stunned like lambs to the slaughter, to me is a storytelling crutch. It doesn’t help as much as we think.
The cheap finish made ‘justified’ booking a rematch, but by then it was too little too late. Angle would end up winning the title from Austin a month later at Unforgiven 2001. But by that point the circumstances were different. Angle won the title a month after his story had peaked, and like the HHH/Goldberg feud from two years later the new guy’s victory came across as hollow. In Angle’s case, it was actually worse because his title win took place against the backdrop of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Angle beat Austin to win the title because he was a patriotic hero at a time when the US was facing major geopolitical turmoil. And even that win was short-lived because Austin won it back on Raw shortly thereafter.
Final Rating: ****1/2
Dave Meltzer isn’t right about many things, but once in a while not only does he give a proper rating for a match, but his justification makes perfect sense. After watching this match, I felt the exact same way. This was on its way to being a genuine classic. Austin was perfect as the villain here and Angle had proven himself to be a spectacular never-say-die patriotic hero. The story was going in one specific direction and people were expecting the ending. Sometimes there’s nothing wrong with that, as should’ve been the case here.
But WWE’s decision to throw some chaotic shenanigans into the finishing stretch here for no good reason ruined what would’ve otherwise been one of the best matches in WWE history.