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Angle insists he hasn't sold his athletic soul to WWF

 PITTSBURGH (AP) -- The sight of gold medal wrestler Kurt Angle dropping to his knees on the mat, tears drenching his face from joy and relief, was one of the indelible images of the Atlanta Olympics.

So, it's probably no wonder that amateur wrestling purists are troubled by this coming-soon-to-an-arena-near-you view: a bleeding Angle in a steel cage, trading fake body blows with an oversized opponent bearing a ridiculous stage name and laughable costume.

Angle's abandonment of his amateur roots probably shouldn't be a surprise in an era when once-legitimate wrestlers such as Mark Coleman and Dan Severn make their living in fake wrestling or the Ultimate Fighting Championships, a bizarre mix of street fighting and martial arts.

But it frustrates many in real wrestling, which has long held up Angle as a role model in a sport that is increasingly having trouble attracting committed athletes to fill out high school team rosters.

"I didn't even use to watch this," Angle said of the WWF, whose weekly TV shows are among the highest-rated on cable. "I was told not to watch it because it wasn't real wrestling."

It still isn't real, but the money is. And it almost certainly is the money -- or, at least the promise of it -- that persuaded Angle to make the jump after spending his post-Olympic days as a TV sportscaster, a commercial pitchman and a public speaker.

Still, in a sport where even Olympic stars such as Bruce Baumgartner make only a pittance compared with those in gymnastics or figure skating, many were surprised when Angle sold his competitive soul -- and, to some, sold out his sport -- to the World Wrestling Federation.

Angle wouldn't say how much money he's making, but he's rumored to be getting at least $175,000 a year. He could earn more depending on appearances on pay-per-view events and cable shows.

"I don't look at this as a step up or a step down," said Angle, who signed a five-year contract last summer and has been training ever since. "It's a new career, and it's only going to help my sport, which has been in the shadows too long. They don't even call it pro wrestling anymore, it's sports and entertainment."

But, in amateur wrestling, the 29-year-old Pittsburgh resident was more than just an Olympian who broke down in tears when the referee awarded him an overtime decision over Iranian Abbas Jadidi in the gold-medal match. Angle was a hero, with soap operalike good looks, limitless energy and a dedication to the sport.

Baumgartner, a two-time Olympic super heavyweight champion who trained with Angle before the 1996 Olympics, even considered not inviting him to his summertime camp after learning of his defection.

"It shocked me at first because I always thought his goals would be more of an athlete," said Baumgartner, Edinboro University's athletic director and the president of USA Wrestling, the sport's national governing body. "But every individual has to be at peace with what he wants to do with his life.

"I don't begrudge him for it. Just because it's not for Bruce Baumgartner doesn't mean it's a bad thing. I'll still hire him at my wrestling camp -- as long as he doesn't start doing crazy things."

That is the lingering worry of the tightknit wrestling community: Angle, no longer in control of his athletic destiny, will do some very crazy things in an environment where the envelope gets pushed every few months.

With the WWF and rival World Championship Wrestling locked in weekly duels for cable TV ratings and ad dollars, no stunt or gimmick is too shameless.

The boa feathers and braggadocio of Jesse "The Body" Ventura -- recently elected Minnesota governor -- is now considered tame and passe. The WWF's $1.5 million Super Bowl TV commercial, for example, depicted WWF workers engaged in gratuitous sex and wanton acts of destruction at corporate headquarters.

Matches begin in the ring but finish in parking lots. Competitors are more apt to reach for a stun gun than the infamous foreign object. Body slams from the top ropes with multiple flips and gyrations would do Mary Lou Retton proud. Rivals drop each other 15 feet onto easily breakable tables or fake electrical circuit boards.

Angle's role is still being decided as he practices aerial stunts and punch-throwing for four to five hours a day at the WWF's training camp in Stamford, Conn.

He'll probably be portrayed as a camouflage-clad good guy turned bad with a very un-Olympic like attitude. He might have another ex-amateur wrestler as a partner, and there is talk that his new wife might be written into the story line.

"Let's just say I'm going to surprise a lot of people right off the bat," said Angle, who has wrestled 10 matches in small Northeastern arenas but has yet to appear on one of the WWF's TV shows or pay-per-view events.

It is this change in persona that worries many high school coaches, some of whom had asked Angle to speak to their teams.

"He got to where he was by doing all the right things," said coach Rick LaFerriere of Shaler High in suburban Pittsburgh. "If they have him play a bad guy ... ."

Other coaches are so disappointed with Angle they probably won't ask him back to their camps or clinics. But others realize Angle's need to make a living off his athletic skills.

"No matter how much you dislike that kind of wrestling, and it has definitely hurt our sport, you can't keep a guy from earning a living," said coach Ken Lockey of Seneca Valley High School in Butler County, Pa. "There aren't too many people who would turn down that type of money."

Angle apparently couldn't, either.

"It's worlds apart from what I used to do, but I have a passion for this," Angle said. "It's fun, it's entertaining. I love wrestling, but, in my heart and in my gut, I know I've found something else I love to do."

More on Kurt Angle