Jeff Hardy isn't the only TNA wrestler who is going to be undergoing a chemical dependency treatment evaluation in a criminal case. Kurt Angle has pleaded guilty and been sentenced on reckless driving charges stemming his arrest a few weeks ago for "actual physical control of a motor vehicle while intoxicated," meaning that he was behind the wheel of a stopped car while drunk (and on the median in this case). The Grand Forks Herald reported last night that Angle (who did not appear in the courtroom) has been sentenced to 10 days in jail (suspended), a year of probation, a $250 fine. He will also have to pay $225 in court fees and undergo a chemical dependency evaluation. An abbreviated version of the story using the facts reported by the Herald has been syndicated nationally by the Associated Press.
With the possibility of Anlge getting treatment out there, it's worth looking at how his problems developed over the years.
As I mentioned in the post about his arrest, this was his third arrest since he was hired by TNA in 2006 and the second charge involving driving and intoxication in some form, but this is the first time that the charges weren't dropped. He also has a long history of both reported and admitted painkiller addiction which he developed after many severe spinal injuries, starting with a broken neck in an amateur freestyle wrestling match in late 1995. He wasn't necessarily the most well adjusted guy before pro wrestling, as he broke his neck in that match intentionally landing on his head to avoid losing a point. When it hadn't come close to healing enough in time for the Olympic trials in 1996, he found a quack doctor to numb up his neck by shooting it full of novocaine before each match in the trials and Olympics in 1996, putting him on a pretty messed up road to a gold medal.
By the time he entered pro wrestling via WWE a few years later, he had seemingly healed pretty well and developed as pro wrestler very quickly. In 2003, he was peaking as a talent when he broke his neck again a few weeks before Wrestlemania 19, where he was scheduled to defend the WWE Championship against Brock Lesnar in one of the main events (they were going on last and the match was hotly anticipated, but Hulk Hogan vs Vince McMahon was the most hyped match). He absolutely needed surgery and the rumor mill was swirling about what WWE was going to do. He was the eighth WWE wrestler in a few years to be injured to the point of needing spinal fusion surgery (coming right after Edge, who retired last week stemming from the injuries he suffered at the time), which would have put him on the sidelines for at least a year.
Angle agreed to drop the title to Lesnar (who would then face Chris Benoit at Wrestlemania) in a quick title match that was announced for the Smackdown tapings on March 11, 2003, a couple weeks before Wrestlemania, with his surgery scheduled to be performed on the 17th by Dr. Lloyd Youngblood, who was WWE's go-to spinal surgeon at the time. Angle ended up agreeing to work through Wrestlemania, after which he would get surgery. On that episode of Smackdown, Angle did a quick, harmless match based around shenanigans where his brother Eric tried to pose as him and he won in the confusion, retaining the title. The word was that Youngblood advised Angle to have four vertebrae fused, but since that would end his career, Angle would only agree to have two fused.
Then Angle heard about Dr. Hae-Dong Jho.
Jho is a neurosurgeon in Angle's hometown of Pittsburgh who was in favor of a minimally invasive "reconstructive" surgery that would keep him out of action for 4 to 6 weeks. How Angle heard about Jho was detailed in a WWE.com story that went up minutes after Wrestlemania concluded and is archived by Online World Of Wrestling:
Surgery is on the horizon. But the questions are: Which procedure will he have? And how long will he be out? The fact that those questions are unanswered right now is actually good news, because a few weeks ago, it was a foregone conclusion that Angle would have spinal-cord fusion and miss an entire year.
But since then, Angle has found a neurosurgeon, a Dr. Jho from Pittsburgh, who has told him that he could have "reconstructive" surgery and be back in four to six weeks. To many Superstars, it sounds too good to be true. Angle is optimistic but a little skeptical himself; he's going to meet with the doctor later this week.
"This doctor is so excited and so confident, it almost scares me," Angle said.
But the doctor has done the procedure on 30-40 people, including former WWE competitor Scott Hall/Razor Ramon, who raves about him.
Instead of fusing the vertebrae, Dr. Jho takes pressure off the nerves in the spinal cord, chips off bone spurs, slightly restructures the discs and "make sure everything's naturally the way it's supposed to be." Dr. Jho, who has 30 years experience in neurosurgery, told Angle he could return, good as new, in about a month.
"He said, 'You don't need fusion. I don't like fusion,'" Angle said. "As a matter of fact, fusion is horrible, because when you fuse your neck together, that weakens the other parts of the neck and makes them more vulnerable to injury. Then you have to fuse that. Before you know it, you just have a block on your neck."
Angle called WWE's talent relations department to get Scott Hall's phone number so he could ask Hall about Dr. Jho.
"Nice guy," Angle said of Hall. "I don't know him very well, but I enjoyed talking to him. I talked to him for about 45 minutes. He had nothing but graciously good things to say about this doctor. He said, 'Kurt, nobody knows about this guy. I told this doctor, he needs to get his name out there and become the premiere doctor for neurosurgery."
Hall told Angle that three hours after surgery, Hall drove himself to the airport and flew home. By the next day, Hall was already lifting heavy weights. By contrast, Superstars who have had the spinal-cord fusion have had to wait six months - enough time for the fusion to properly take hold - before they can touch weights. Angle, who turned 34 in December, has been dealing with chronic neck pain and gradually decreasing strength in his left arm since the six-man tag team match at No Way Out, when his left shoulder jammed into a turnbuckle, jarring his entire head. Angle said the real cause of the injury was years of abuse, and the No Way Out incident was merely the straw the broke the camel's back.
Also at the Online World of Wrestling link are Jho's comments to Wrestling Observer Newsletter editor Dave Meltzer explaining the surgery:
"I have invented a new surgical technique, which can remove the herniated portion of the disc or bone spurs that is compressing the spinal cord or the nerve root. Instead of accessing the herniated portion of the disc straight at the midline of the spine by removal of the remaining disc, my surgical approach is made at the side of the spine," he explained. "Although a surgical skin incision is similar to the conventional anterior approaches, my technique will make a surgical corridor at the side of the spine once the spine is exposed. Then, diagonally, herniated portion of the disc is approached behind the remaining normal disc. Thus, remaining disc is kept intact and spinal motion at the operated level is well preserved."
Another different thing from the traditional procedure is the resume of normal daily routine tasks after surgery. Superstars such as Steve Austin, Chris Benoit, Rhyno and all the others who had the neck fused, they had to stay in a hard collar for the first few months then move to a soft collar for a couple of more months after that. Dr Jho told us that symptom relief is immediately after surgery and postoperative discomfort is very minimal however healing from the surgery will take approximately one month, which is the time period required in normal surgical healing when skin is cut open.
Dr Jho added that he performed his procedure on nearly 1,000 patients and reported this techniques in many neurosurgery journals. "Risk is very minimal and surgical outcome is very satisfactory. Most of my patients are very happy at the results," he said. So why aren't other surgeons doing this technique? "It's due to their lack of training, skeptics, and initial denial to new developments as any other scientific advances," he exclaimed.
For what it's worth, I don't know why the number of patients varies so widely between articles (an error by Jho or an interviewer), but anyway, Angle went with Jho's surgery, as did former wrestler/WWE backstage employee Steve Lombardi a few weeks later.
As far as Wrestlemania went, Angle didn't take any care with his body, took a number of wild bumps, and did so much more damage that he went into traumatic shock in the locker room and had to be rushed to the hospital. This was covered in "The Mania of Wrestlemania," a WWE-produced documentary film that was televised a year later and included in the Wrestlemania 20 DVD set. Even after that, Angle was back in action pretty quickly. A few months into his return, he took a chairshot to the head, which undid all of Jho's work. It's unclear how many times Jho has operated on Angle since then.
There was a healthy amount of speculation online about Jho's credentials, but it was eventually concluded that the surgery was probably a reasonable alternative for the average person or a wrestler who was retiring (or working light matches occasionally like Hall), but not somebody who would be taking bumps and working a hard style afterwards. With his spine so wrecked, Angle developed a terrible painkiller problem. After Eddy Guerrero died, the Pro Wrestling Torch reported a blind item about a wrestler who was reportedly in such bad shape that he was "on death watch" and that "his credentials" would make the mainstream coverage of Guerrero's death look like nothing. The "credentials" part led many to guess that it was Angle, who commented publicly (on a blind item, albeit an obvious one) to say that he was fine. Days later, WWE announced they would soon begin a new drug testing program. A video of the meeting where McMahon advised the talent of the changes was posted on WWE.com. Many fans took notice of Angle, sounding very worried, asking McMahon if they would be able to tell exactly how many pills the wrestlers were taking.
What exactly happened when is unclear and depends on if you ask him or someone else, but based on most reports, he was hitting rock bottom in 2006. He was sent to the newly revived ECW to be a top star, with booker Paul Heyman repackaging him as "The Wrestling Machine." He was working an easier style based around amateur style mat work and it was getting over well, but he was suspended for 30 days for failing a drug test, reportedly because the prescription he provided for the anabolic steroid nandrolone (which is intended to treat osteoporosis in post-menopausal women and some types of aplastic anemia, and is otherwise used illegally as a bodybuilding steroid) was expired.
When he came back, he wasn't himself in the ring or behind the scenes. He quickly suffered a pulled groin, torn abdominal muscle, and torn hamstring. He dropped Rob Van Dam on his head and blamed Van Dam. He complained his way into a PPV match he wasn't originally booked to be in. He was reportedly being escorted everywhere by handlers WWE had hired because he become so far-gone that he needed their help getting around. He sent bizarre messages to WWE executives.
When he called John Laurinaitis of talent relations to tell him that he was being pushed around an airport in a wheelchair because he had suddenly lost use of his legs, WWE brass was scared something very bad would happen, and gave him the "rehab or you're fired" ultimatum. Angle refused rehab and was released. Various wrestlers claimed that he had been in worse shape than Shawn Michaels and Brian Pillman at their worst.
He gave a number of bizarre, rambling interviews that made no sense and then jumped to TNA, where he was first introduced on TV with a series of sit-down interviews where he spoke of overcoming Vicodin addiction while slurring his speech. Miraculously, he at least became functional again, and the reports coming out of TNA were postive. He's still acted erratically, but there are no more rumors of him being so far gone that he's "on death watch." Still, since then he's clearly had some serious issues with drinking at the very least and hopefully he'll get some treatment.