wrestling / Columns

Ask 411 Wrestling: What Happened in Kurt Angle vs. Daniel Puder?

April 19, 2021 | Posted by Ryan Byers
Kurt Angle Daniel Puder

Welcome guys, gals, and gender non-binary pals, to Ask 411 Wrestling. I am your party host, Ryan Byers, and I am here to answer some of your burning inquiries about professional wrestling.

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Tyler from Winnipeg is the key master:

Can you break down the Kurt Angle/Daniel Puder situation for the younger fans of your column? I remember it being a fairly talked about topic at the time.

All right, given that I’ve been asked to break this down for younger fans, I’m going to assume that there are in fact some people who have no backstory for this situation, and I’m going to take a deep dive.

In the year 2000, the WWF and MTV announced that they would be collaborating on a reality television program called Tough Enough, in which a cast of young people would live in a house Real World-style while simultaneously training to be professional wrestlers. There would be one male and one female winner, each of whom would be awarded a WWF contract. After a fairly standard production, the series debuted in 2001. Three initial seasons were produced, with MTV ultimately deciding not to renew the series in 2003.

The WWF – which in 2002 underwent its name change to WWE – decided that they weren’t wiling to let Tough Enough go, though. They decided to do their own version of the series as part of regular WWE programming, specifically on Smackdown. Rather the the competitors living together and all of their interactions being filmed, they were just brought into the SD television taping each week, where they participated in a series of competitions with the participants periodically being eliminated. This version was referred to as the $1,000,000 Tough Enough, because it was specifically stated that the prize would be a $1,000,000 contract with the company. Also, there were no women in this competition, only men.

Several of the participants in this fourth iteration of Tough Enough would go on to have WWE careers. The most prominent is Mike the Miz, who had previously been on the aforementioned Real World on MTV. Also involved were Nick Mitchell, who was later Mitch of the Spirit Squad, Ryan Reeves, who was later Ryback, Daniel Rodimer, who had a cup of tea in WWE as Dan Rodman, and Justice Smith, who was a gladiator on the 2008 reboot of American Gladiators. Marty Wright, who eventually became the Boogeyman, was cut in a casting special for lying about his age.

The eventual winner of the show, though, was Daniel Puder. Prior to the $1,000,000 Tough Enough, Puder had a mixed marital arts career, winning his professional debut on September 6, 2003, defeating a gentleman named Jay McCown for a promotion called X-1 in Yokohama, Japan.

On the November 4, 2004 episode of Smackdown, which I believe was the third week of content for the $1,000,000 Tough Enough, the cast was put through a set of heavy calisthenics and then given a large meal, with most of them going to town on the food because they assumed it meant that they were done training for the day. Puder, however, seemed smart to what was going on and did not eat. After the meal, the contestants were sent to train more, first doing wind sprints and then being required to do a series of squat thrusts in the ring until they tapped out and could do no more.

The final two men in the ring for the squat thrust competition were Chris Nawrocki and Daniel Puder, and Nawrocki was declared the winner even though some observers believe that it looked like Puder was still capable of going. Nawrocki was told that his “prize” for winning the competition was a shoot match against none other than 1996 Olympic gold medalist in wrestling Kurt Angle. Angle pinned Nawrocki in less than thirty seconds and, in that limited amount of time, managed to break a few of the kid’s ribs as well.

This is where things get interesting.

Angle then asked any of the other competitors if they wanted a piece of him. Though I’ve not been able to find anybody involved in the incident who directly said this, I have to believe that, when Angle asked that question, he was expecting that nobody would take him up on it. However, Puder unambiguously volunteered to have a go at Angle, and, at that point, there was no way that Kurt could back down without losing a significant amount of face.

The two men locked up and grappled for a few seconds, after which Angle briefly got Puder into what appeared to be a front facelock. Puder slipped out, and Angle attempted to perform a go behind, ultimately looking for a take down. However, in the process, Puder managed to sink in a key lock (a.k.a. an Americana), and it looked like our Olympic hero was in a compromising position. WWE referee Jimmy Korderas, who had been in the ring for the entire segment, noted that Puder was on his back and dropped down to log a three count, even though Puder had the presence of mind to get his shoulder off the mat at two. Upon hearing the bell ring, Puder immediately released the hold and both men returned to a vertical base, with Puder offering Angle a handshake and Angle, clearly angered, reading Puder the riot act.

WWE followed up on this by doing . . . absolutely nothing.

Seriously. Though the live audience reacted huge to the interaction between the two men and appeared smart to what was going on and though it generated quite a bit of buzz in the following days, Tough Enough just continued as though nothing out of the ordinary had occurred. There was no further Puder/Angle interaction on television, and video of the incident was scrubbed from WWE.com.

However, Puder did eventually become the fan favorite and he did wind up winning the whole thing, with the finale being a boxing match (yes, a shoot boxing match) against the other finalist, Mike the Miz, at the 2004 Armageddon pay per view.

So, what actually happened during the brief interaction between Angle and Puder?

There are, as always, a few different perspectives. Bruce Prichard, on his Something to Wrestle With podcast, indicated that he was opposed to the idea of there being any kind of shoot wrestling on Smackdown even with Angle. Al Snow in a shoot interview also stated that he was opposed to this idea. However, Prichard also claimed that Paul Heyman was backstage psyching Angle up about the possibility of dispatching these young kids in the ring, which resulted in Angle being gung ho about the idea and pushing it through. All of the calisthenics and food prior to the segment with Kurt were, in fact, designed to make sure that the Tough Enough crew was softened up for him, but Puder showed up in significantly better shape than anybody would have guessed and also didn’t overeat like the other competitors did, meaning that he was game to try to make his name when Angle issued an open challenge.

Kurt has discussed this in multiple shoot interviews, and his story is remarkably consistent between them. He downplays what Puder was able to do to him, claiming that he was going into the segment injured and that the two men were supposed to have had an amateur wrestling match, not a submission bout, meaning that Puder shouldn’t even have been looking for the Americana. (This is despite the fact that Angle had used a couple of holds in Nawrocki that are not legal in amateur wrestling.) Angle also denigrates Puder for letting himself get pinned and claims that, even though Korderas counted to three and Puder got a shoulder up at two, he was the rightful winner because, in an amateur wrestling match, a pinfall logged with a one count.

Jimmy Korderas also weighed in on the situation, basically saying in a shoot interview with Hannibal TV that he knew something bad was going down and that he instinctively made the count. Prichard claimed in his podcast that Gerald Brisco was in Korderas’s ear over a headset and told him to count, but Korderas denies that and claims he did it all on his own.

In his own accounts of the situation, Puder doesn’t really say anything that didn’t actually happen. He doesn’t acknowledge the fact that Angle is thirteen years his senior and was in bad shape headed into the segment, but that’s what you’re going to do when you’re trying to capitalize on your fifteen minutes of fame.

What became of Puder?

He did receive his $1,000,000 contract with WWE, which was actually a four-year deal under which Puder would be paid $250,000 per year with the promotion having an option to renegotiate after the first year. (In other words, only the first year of pay was guaranteed.) He wrestled Hardcore Holly twice on Smackdown house shows in January 2005 and then appeared in that year’s Royal Rumble match, taking a beating from several wrestlers that was essentially a hazing. From there, he spent the remainder of the year in Ohio Valley Wrestling being treated like any other developmental wrestler. At the end of his first year in the company, WWE told him that they wanted to renegotiate his deal so that he would earn less than the $250k he got in year one, and Puder told him that he wasn’t interested.

In 2006 and 2007, Puder focused on his MMA career, winning five fights, four of them for Strikeforce and one for Bodog. Puder’s general rep in MMA circles is that he always looked impressive but that he never actually faced anybody who was worth a damn, so his undefeated record might not mean as much as it otherwise would. Puder also had one independent wrestling match during this period, defeating Tough Enough season one alumnus Greg Matthews for a promotion called “NWA Wrestling on Fire” in Lodi, New Jersey on April 8, 2006.

In 2008, Puder did not have any legitimate fights but had a brief run with Ring of Honor, where he was part of Larry Sweeney’s Sweet n’ Sour, Inc. stable and had a series of “submission challenges” against guys like Claudio Castagnoli (now Antonio Cesaro) and Rhett Titus. However, Puder did not make it a year in ROH, being cut allegedly due to budgetary issues in the promotion.

2009 saw Puder have the final two matches of his MMA career, both of them victories in a promotion called “Call to Arms.” Again, his opponents were not noteworthy, though he does still have an undefeated record.

Puder’s last significant run in combat sports was in 2010, where he was brought in first by Antonio Inoki’s IGF promotion and then by New Japan Pro Wrestling, primarily to be the partner of Shinsuke Nakamura in that year’s G1 Tag League tournament. Nakamura and Puder finished the tournament with a 2-3 record, including matches with teams like Hiroshi Tanahashi & Tajiri and Giant Bernard & Karl Anderson. Puder also had singles matches on this tour with Nakamura, Tomoaki Honma, and Satoshi Kojima, all of which ran less than eight minutes which probably tells you just how much pro wrestling Puder actually picked up.

Since largely leaving pro wrestling and MMA in 2010, Puder has primarily worked as a motivational speaker but has also done coaching in the MMA world. He did have one last professional wrestling match in 2019, doing a tag bout in Miami with Gangrel (who also promoted the show) of all people as his partner on June 6 of that year.

And that’s the story of Tough Enough, Daniel Puder, and Kurt Angle . . . probably all a little bit longer than we thought it would be.

War Bot is pulling double duty:

I think I know the answer, but wrestling history can be tricky and I think I’d like to ask a professional to be sure. What year of the Royal Rumble was the first to Feature a wrestler in both a match and the Rumble itself? And who was the first wrestler to do so? My guess is Roddy Piper in 1992. But again, the mind boggles at all these names and numbers.

You’re 100% correct. It was Roddy Piper at the 1992 Royal Rumble. He began the evening by defeating the Mountie for the Intercontinental Championship and then entered the Rumble match at number 15, ultimately becoming one of the final five men in the ring before getting tossed out by Sid Justice.

Ben is taking us back to the Mall of America:

I was watching the Jushin Liger retirement matches on NJPW on ROKU Channel this morning, when I started flashing back to Liger vs. Brain Pillman, as in the first match on the first episode of WCW Nitro from September ’95. Having been spoiled by later cruiserweight-style matches and living in the modern day where everyone seems like they’ve stolen liberally from both men’s playbooks in some shape or form, it felt to me like these guys were working at half-speed. From what I could tell, the Mall of America crowd wasn’t blown away either, at least not as much as, say, the audience for Eddie vs. Rey Mysterio Jr. at Halloween Havoc ’97 (bet you get sick of hearing that one!). Was the general reaction to this being the lead-off match of WCW’s new flagship any better or worse than what I just stated, and did this particular contest have any lasting influence on the eventual cruiserweight division or American pro wrestling in general worth noting?

Pillman and Liger had a series of matches in 1991 that were considered revolutionary for the United States at the time, and the idea behind having them open up the first Monday Nitro was to give the show some hot action right out of the gate given the reputation of their prior encounters.

However, it didn’t quite work out that way. By and large the reaction to the match was that it was very solid – it would be near impossible for these men to have a bad match – but that it was not anything groundbreaking or an instant classic. For whatever this is worth, Dave Meltzer in the Wrestling Observer Newsletter rated it ***1/2.

Why didn’t it connect like the matches from four years earlier did?

There are three real reasons:

1. The time. The Nitro match between the men ran a hair under seven minutes, while most of the classic Liger/Pillman matches had at least twice that amount of time for the men to work with.

2. The live audience, which Ben alluded to in his question. Anytime you do a show in a venue like the Mall of America, you’re most likely going to get a mix of actual fans and those who just happened to be in the area at the time, which will never get you the same level of reaction that a crowd of paying fans would.

3. Liger’s conditon. The first Nitro took place on September 4, 1995. In September 1994, the Japanese legend suffered an ankle injury that kept him out of the ring until August 1995. The match with Pillman was only his sixth match (and second singles match) back after the injury and, prior to September 4, his last match had been on August 15. Thus, the masked man was not quite back into his top form when he arrived in Minneapolis, though I’d still take a weakened Liger over 90% of the world’s wrestlers in their top form.

As far as lasting influence of this match is concerned, there really wasn’t that much. It’s the 1991 matches that people are referencing when they talk about Liger and Pillman’s impact on wrestling in the United States. However, the fact that Erich Bischoff was willing to put this bout in such a high profile position showed that he did have plans for the cruiserweight division, with their championship being created about six months after the Nitro debut.

Night Wolf the Wise is also going retro:

2021. We are 20 years removed from what I consider to be one of the most botched storylines in wrestling. The Invasion. As we look back in that storyline, I have a couple questions for you.

1. What did you like about the Invasion?
2. What didn’t you like?
3. How would you rewrite the Invasion storyline?
4. Why did Vince have Stone Cold turn on WWF and side with the Invasion? That to me was the most head scratching move he made.

With all due respect to Night Wolf, there has been a LOT of ink spilled about the Invasion over the last twenty years, and I do not think that my opinions on it are anything that haven’t been expressed elsewhere by others, so I’m going to keep these relatively brief as I take his questions one at a time:

1. No matter what you say about the booking, you cannot deny that there were EXCELLENT matches throughout the Invasion, with Steve Austin, Chris Jericho, Booker T., the Rock, the Undertaker, and Kurt Angle tearing it up in the main event and the likes of Rob Van Dam, the Hardy Boys, Edge, Christian, and others right there underneath them. As I believe came up in another question in a recent edition of this column, I believe the post-Invasion WWF had the strongest roster in the company’s history from an in-ring performance standpoint. (Yes, better than the current roster.)

2. There’s no real surprise as to what I didn’t like, because it’s what the vast majority of people didn’t like. The invaders were never given an opportunity to dominate in the early going, which means that there was no adversity for the good guys to overcome and therefore no real tension or drama. Some people are critical of the WWF for not sinking money into bringing in some of WCW’s biggest stars like Sting, Ric Flair, Goldberg, Hulk Hogan, Kevin Nash, or Scott Hall (especially when most of them came in less than a year after the angle was over) but I don’t think that is nearly as big of an issue as the WWF’s failure to make the guys that they did have into legitimate threats.

3. As far as rewriting the angle is concerned, that really builds off of my answer to number two above. I would have foregone the initial infusion of ECW into the storyline and instead let guys like Booker T., Diamond Dallas Page, Lance Storm, Mike Awesome, Sean O’ Haire, and Chuck Palumbo run roughshod over the WWF for the first three to four months of the angle, with the WWF only getting a rare win here or there so as to not totally have the fans lose faith in them. Then, when things finally start to turn around for the WWF and they perhaps recapture the WWF Title from a WCW star who had been holding it hostage for a long time (Page being the most logical choice), BAM, you debut Goldberg on the WCW side and begin a new chapter of the war. Have him dominate for a while, then, BAM you bring in the Rock – who Vince McMahon had “suspended” just before the angle began – to feud with him. You could repeat this same basic cycle at least twice more with the original nWo members (plus perhaps X-Pac and Big Show defecting from the WWF side) and then again with ECW to get an angle that lasts at least two years.

4. Why was Steve Austin a heel? Because Steve Austin wanted to be a heel. You might recall that he had already been turned at Wrestlemania before the Invasion began, then turned back for the early days of the Invasion before ultimately turning heel again at end of the Inaugural Brawl. Austin thought he had run his course as a babyface and wanted the new challenge of playing a different role. When the WWF originally acquired WCW, the plan was not for there to be an immediate invasion but rather for the two brands to exist as separate television programs, with interpromotional play not happening for many months if not years. However, when the WWF failed to secure an adequate home for WCW programming, the Invasion was hastened. The invaders were going to be the top heels in the company, and Steve Austin, the biggest name in the company, wanted to be a heel, so Steve Austin became an “invader” of the company he’d already been part of for the past five years.

That will do it for this week’s installment of the column. We’ll return in seven-ish days, and, as always, you can contribute your questions by emailing [email protected]. You can also leave questions in the comments below, but please note that I do not monitor the comments as closely as I do the email account, so emailing is the better way to get things answered.