Kurt Angle vs. Brock Lesnar. It’s arguably the most alpha, badass and entertaining short wrestling feuds in two decades.
It only featured three matches (four if you count Japan), and all of them are remembered fondly by fans and wrestlers alike. And today we revisit the match that started it all.
Today we look back at the first Angle/Lesnar match from WrestleMania XIX in 2003 when they main evented that great show.
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.
Even though this should’ve been a simple story of two badasses with incredible grappling skill, the actual story behind this match included a lot more drama to make it better (or worse, depending on your personal taste). Anyway, Lesnar lost his WWE title to the Big Show at Survivor Series 2002 after his manager Paul Heyman turned on him. Show lost that same title to Angle a month later at Armageddon, thanks to help from Lesnar. Soon afterwards, Angle revealed that he had accepted Heyman’s managerial services as well and together, Angle and Heyman vowed to ensure that Lesnar would never get another title shot. That vow failed because Lesnar won the 2003 Royal Rumble match. And yet, Angle was still galvanized enough to try and stop Lesnar from beating him.
Thus, over the next two months, Angle tried different tricks to stop Lesnar’s momentum in its tracks. Most notably, in March 2003, Lesnar beat Paul Heyman in a steel cage match to earn a title shot. Angle accepted and took part in it, but it was actually Kurt’s brother Eric Angle and not Kurt in that match at first. No one noticed the switch between Eric and Kurt because Kurt’s allies Charlie Haas and Shelton Benjamin distracted Lesnar. So when Lesnar tried to finish the match, he found himself at the mercy of a fresh Kurt who beat him for the title. Fed up with the constant shenanigans, then-SmackDown GM Stephanie McMahon sanctioned an official WWE title match at WrestleMania between Angle and Lesnar. But that match also included an additional caveat. If anyone interfered on Kurt’s behalf, or if Kurt got himself intentionally counted out or disqualified, he’d lose his title.
In other words, there were no more games for Angle. He could no longer rely on cheap tricks and numbers to stop Lesnar. This was to be a ‘pure’ match, a straight singles match without seconds, allies, or bulls**t. Which is what most people wanted in the first place.
Angle, for all his underhandedness and theatrics, was also an insanely good wrestler. He was such an over-the-top villain at this time that some people almost forgot just how skilled and dangerous he was in the ring. Angle was a technical grappling marvel that could tie his opponents in knots and counter basically everything thrown at him. He had already proven that when he retained his title against fellow grappling master Chris Benoit in one of the best WWE matches of the decade.
But Lesnar was a different creature entirely. A genetic freak of nature (I mean that in the best way possible, please don’t kill me Brock), Lesnar had an almost superhuman combination of strength, speed, agility, conditioning, and durability. He was a national wrestling champion and athlete with few peers anywhere in the world. But Angle was an Olympic gold medalist, and while he hadn’t wrestled at that most elite level in years, he still retained enough knowledge and skill to make people believe that he could. After all, Angle had already taken Lesnar down at least once before for real.
Thus the stage was set for one of the most exciting matches in years. It wasn’t a clash between two characters or two larger-than-life personalities. It was a competition between two naturally-gifted athletes. Two ‘real’ competitors fighting under their real names showing off their amateur skills and mastery of professional wrestling as well. One couldn’t possibly ask for anything better under the circumstances.
This match originally took place on March 30th, 2003. It was rated ****1/4 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer and ****1/2 by TJR’s John Canton.
Lesnar’s lower ribs are taped up following an attack by Angle on Smackdown. They jockey for control against the ropes with Lesnar getting the early advantage. Angle wrestles Lesnar to the mat but Lesnar escapes via fireman’s carry into an armlock. Angle does that exact same sequence and then they have a little chain grappling sequence that leads to a stalemate and applause from the crowd.
Another chain grappling sequence ensues that ends with Angle cinching a grounded headlock on Lesnar. Lesnar gets to his feet, shoots Angle into the ropes, and hits a shoulderblock, but he doesn’t capitalize right away due to the pain in his ribs. After another pause, Angle single legs Lesnar but Lesnar counters with more amateur-style takedowns of his own. Angle hits a back elbow and charges but runs into a deep armdrag. Angle fights to his feet and hits a knee and some punches to Lesnar’s bad ribs. Lesnar fights through the pain and hits a back elbow off a reversed Irish whip. He follows with corner shoulder thrusts and then sends Angle into the opposite corner. Angle hits a pre-emptive elbow and charges again but this time he runs into a powerslam for the first two-count of the match.
Lesnar hits some corner stomps and goes for an Irish whip but Angle counters, ducks a clothesline, and lands a German suplex. Angle celebrates but Lesnar bounces up almost immediately and clotheslines Angle to the canvas. He shoots Angle into the ropes again but this time Angle escapes to ringside. Lesnar chases Angle around the ring but Angle stomps away on Lesnar’s ribs once they both return to the ring. Angle goes for a corner Irish whip but this time Lesnar counters. And not into a suplex but into a gorilla press slam. Lesnar sends angle into another corner but Angle blocks a charge and Germans Lesnar into the top turnbuckle. Awesome move by Angle.
Lesnar escapes to ringside but Angle gives chase and drives Lesnar ribs-first into the barricade. Angle hits forearms to those same ribs and follows with both a back and a vertical suplex, both of which get two-counts. Angle follows that with a freestyle bow-and-arrow hold to further stretch and damage Lesnar’s ribs. Lesnar tries escaping via back elbows but Angle maintains the hold. Angle soon switches to a side choke/chinlock while still putting immense pressure on Lesnar’s ribs. Somehow, Lesnar gets to his feet and drives Angle into a turnbuckle while on Lesnar’s back but Angle holds on. Angle lets go of a second push into a corner and he tries to capitalize with stomps. But angle’s in better condition as he reverses a corner whip and hits an overhead belly-to-belly suplex. Angle follows with two running kneelifts to Angle’s ribs and kidneys which send Lesnar to the floor. Angle throws him back in and charges but Lesnar hits first with a huge spinebuster. Both men collapse.
Angle gets up first and lands punches but Lesnar hits back with kneelifts. Angle rakes his eyes and sends him into the ropes but Lesnar answers with a flying double ax handle and some other running strikes. Lesnar follows with more shoulder thrusts but gets shut down as he tries another corner charge. Angle rushes him but Lesnar hits an overhead belly-to-belly of his own. Then he hits another. Lesnar pins but only gets a two-count. Lesnar attempts a third one. Angle counters with a second German. Followed by three more. Angle goes for the Angle Slam. Lesnar escapes and attempts the F-5. Angle escapes and rolls into an ankle lock. Lesnar gets a rope break but Angle pulls him back to the middle of the ring. Lesnar tries kicking Angle off but Angle switches into a single leg crab. Lesnar gets a rope break so Angle hits more stiff strikes to Lesnar’s ribs. Angle charges again but this time Lesnar dumps him to the floor.
Lesnar buys himself a few seconds of recovery time until Angle returns to the ring. He rushes Lesnar in a corner but Lesnar sidesteps, allowing Lesnar to hit more shoulder checks to Angle’s midsection. Lesnar tries another Irish whip. Angle counters into yet another German just like before. Angle pins but only gets a two-count. Angle slam connects! Lesnar kicks out again. Angle tries the Slam again. Lesnar rolls into a cradle for a two-count of his own. F-5 connects! Lesnar slowly makes his way over for a cover. The referee counts one, two, and angle kicks out. Lesnar grabs Angle by his head. Angle counters with an ankle lock. Lesnar crawls to the ropes but Angle pulls him away and grapevines his leg. And yet, Lesnar drags himself and Angle forward until he reaches the ropes to break the hold.
Angle tries reapplying the ankle lock but Lesnar kicks him away. Lesnar hobbles over and tries another F-5 but this time Angle cradles Lesnar. One, two, Lesnar kicks out. Angle ducks a clothesline. Lesnar escapes an Angle Slam. A second F-5 connects! But Lesnar doesn’t cover right away; he’s too tired. Instead, he eyes the top turnbuckle.
Here we go: The most iconic botch in modern WrestleMania history.
Lesnar ascends to the top rope. Shooting Star Press…misses BADLY. Lesnar barely touches the angle and hits his head on the mat and Angle’s side.
Angle sees this and covers Lesnar instinctively. One, two, and thr – Lesnar kicks out. Somehow, after nearly “only” concussing himself, Lesnar still kicks out. Angle tries picking Lesnar up but Lesnar hits first. A third F-5 connects. One, two, and three! Lesnar beats Angle to win the WWE Championship for a second time!
Winner and NEW WWE Champion after 21:07: Brock Lesnar
Just like with the Austin/HHH vs. Benoit/Jericho match, there’s something that needs to be addressed before we get into the meat of this review. And in this case, it’s how badly Lesnar hurt himself on that botched SSP. Though he had done the move many times before in OVW, his decision to bust said move out for this match (as a sort of ‘super-finisher’) came with major risk. Not only was Angle way too far out of the way for Lesnar to land the move correctly, but Lesnar hesitated as he balanced himself on the top turnbuckle. That hesitation cost him dearly. His rotation wasn’t done properly, so when he landed, Kurt Angle thought Lesnar was dead.
Thankfully Lesnar was decidedly not dead, but he still suffered for his craft. He suffered such a severe concussion that he became disoriented and almost combative with the people that were trying to help him backstage. So while he didn’t break his neck or worse, he still left WrestleMania worse for wear. Lesnar has since revealed that he was miserable during that first run of his and he was abusing alcohol and painkillers to deal with the toll it took on his body. And while he has put most of the blame on the travel-intense schedule, I wouldn’t be surprised if a big part of this that he wasn’t telling people was the pain he suffered from having his entire 300-plus-pound frame come crashing down on his own neck. Lesnar really is an anomaly, which makes him so captivating to watch.
This match was no exception. Angle and Lesnar had fantastic chemistry together. They gave us the best of their amateur grappling skills and their professional wrestling abilities. The chain grappling and constant counters showed just how even both guys were until the very end. Momentum shifted back and forth so convincingly and so many times that either wrestler could’ve won by the end. It really was a competitive and unpredictable match befitting the WrestleMania main event.
The match was as dramatic as it was macho. It was about two equally-skilled bulls locking horns trying to over-power and one-up each other. And even though Lesnar was bigger, heavier, quicker, younger, and healthier, he had enough disadvantages to make this a compelling contest all the same. Lesnar had less experience and had a notable weakness/injury that Angle exploited often and blatantly. He targeted Lesnar’s ribs to try and cut his giant challenger down. He went back to that well to try and keep Lesnar on the defensive and prevent Lesnar from hitting his explosive power-based offense. Hell, even an early shoulder tackle by Lesnar caused Lesnar to wince, which showed that Lesnar wasn’t fighting at 100% (and neither was Angle, what with his neck issues and all that).
Also, this is one match that absolutely does benefit from having good commentary. I know it’s shocking to read that in 2022, but this match was improved by Tazz proving special insight into what was going on. As a real martial arts practitioner, Tazz gave critical insight into the moves and holds both guys were using and what they did. He added even more legitimacy to this match and did wonders selling the idea that this match was between two ‘real’ athletes bringing outside combat sports and grappling expertise into the over-the-top and exaggerated world of pro wrestling.
But it could’ve been better, though. This is one of those matches that would’ve been improved with just a bit more time and a different closing stretch. And no, I’m not suggesting that the SSP shouldn’t’ve happened. Instead, Angle and Lesnar should’ve avoided hitting their finishers successfully until the final minute or so. Like many people, I find it boring when big WWE main event matches descend into repetitive finisher spam à la Steve Austin & The Rock. That has become such a staple of WWE matches in recent years that it actively harms the overall quality of a big match, which happened here. Based on how the match was going, it was obvious that Lesnar was going to kick out of Angle’s first Angle Slam. And when Lesnar hit his F-5 and Angle kicked out, the reaction to it was middling at best. Lesnar’s finisher has been way more protected than Angle’s yet here it was being reduced to another inconsequential move because people were kicking out of it before the match even reached its dramatic peak.
Final Rating: ****1/2
While most people remember this match for Lesnar’s nearly suicidal SSP, the match itself was much more than that. This was one of the purest wrestling matches in WrestleMania history. It was refreshing to see something so grounded in reality from a company built on theatrics and being over-the-top with almost everything. Angle and Lesnar wrestled a great match here, and while it’s far from perfect it still holds up very well after almost two full decades.
Many matches reviewed in this series have a once-and-done quality about them, but not this one. It’s short enough and exciting enough to warrant revisiting more than once. Whether you like seeing two badasses try and top one another or you have a morbid obsession with seeing a man nearly kill himself, this match has enough going for it to be seen more than once without really dipping in quality.