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WWE wrestler Kurt Angle signs autographs at West Valley mall in Tracy Calif. on July 28, 2007. (Antonio Franco/The Oakland Tribune)
TRACY — After a lifetime of amateur wrestling, training eight to 10 hours a day, and winning an Olympic gold medal, Kurt Angle flipped on a then-World Wrestling Federation show one Monday night in 1999 and was quickly hooked.

"Stone Cold" Steve Austin was the blue collar, beer-drinking hero of every man who regularly defied his boss, and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson was becoming the hottest wrestler in the business.

"I didn't want to do Olympic wrestling anymore, I was burned out from training ... but I still wanted to do something athletic," Angle said. "I figured if I showed my personality, and let go in the ring. I could be like one of those guys."

In 10 short months, Angle defeated the Rock for the world title and was the top "heel" — the industry term for a bad guy — in the company.

Nearly a decade later, Angle, who is now the champion of Total Nonstop Action Wrestling, was in Tracy Saturday afternoon signing autographs for hundreds of people at the West Valley Mall.

Mat Martin, 28, of Stockton, was the tough looking guy with tattoos up and down both arms. He idolized Angle while on the wrestling team in high school, and after meeting his hero, Martin was happier than a kid at a wrestling show.

"I used to watch tapes of him in high school wrestling," Martin said. "My coach used to bring them in. He's not the pro wrestling superstar to me, he's the Olympic wrestling superstar ... I'm shaking right now."

His girlfriend, Reanna Pfeifer, 28, of Manteca, alerted him to the event and said Martin was "very excited" about meeting Angle.

"I was teasing him the whole time in line," Pfeifer said. "I kept saying, 'Let me see your hands' and they were shaking and all sweaty ... He's going to be talking about this all day long."

It was a family affair for the Matuskas. Jeff Matuska, 60, was holding up the end of the line with his daughter Christy Matuska, 33, and his grandson Jaron Matuska, 9.

Jaron has been a fan of wrestling for the past five years. He's met a handful of other professional wrestlers, but Angle was one of his favorites.

"He's cool," Matuska said. "He has big muscles."

Big-muscled wrestlers have also caught the attention of Congress, which is beginning its own review of steroids in the industry in the aftermath of the double-murder/suicide involving for WWE superstar Chris Benoit.

Last month, after failing to appear for a show, Benoit, his wife and child, were found dead in their suburban Atlanta home. Investigators have said Benoit killed his family before taking his own life.

Benoit wasn't a victim of the industry, but was responsible for his own actions, Angle said.

"As much as I loved him, and what he stood for before that happened, the WWE did not kill Chris' family, Chris decided to do that on his own. I decided to become addicted to pain killers on my own. WWE didn't do it, I did it. I took responsibility for what I went through.

"We're all independent contractors and we all take responsibility for our own actions," Angle said. "If our job is affecting our lives, and it's going to drive us crazy, quit."

Angle said there are ways for former wrestlers to make money without "having to beat themselves up" in the ring.

He cited options in Japan, independent shows, his current company, TNA Wrestling, and the public appearance circuit, which can be very lucrative.

He said politicians who want to examine the use of steroids in professional wrestling should give the industry a classification similar to rock stars and actors.

"If you take the percentage of rock stars and actors who have ended up in rehab, or overdosing, it wouldn't be any different than pro wrestling," Angle said.

"You cannot put pro wrestling in a real sports atmosphere because we're not a real sport. We're sports entertainment. We're more or less Hollywood stunt men where some of us can act."

Mike Martinez can be reached at (209) 832-3947 or at mmartinez@trivalleyherald.com.