For any former amateur wrestler trying to make a name for themselves in WWE, it is hard to escape the huge shadow cast by Kurt Angle.
An Olympic gold medallist in freestyle wrestling at the 1996 Games in Atlanta, Angle transitioned to the world of professional wrestling in 1998, becoming a six-time WWE champion and a household name of the "Attitude Era." He paved the way and has been the measuring stick ever since -- no one from the amateur ranks has come close to matching his accomplishments in a WWE ring.
Jason Jordan and Chad Gable, the upstart Smackdown Live tag team duo known as American Alpha, could be the first WWE superstars to buck that trend.
"Kurt's a huge inspiration," Jordan admitted to ESPN on a conference call to promote WWE's upcoming European Tour, with Raw and Smackdown heading to Glasgow, Scotland, in November.
American Alpha is one of WWE's hottest tag team acts, having enjoyed a meteoric rise from Performance Center obscurity to capturing the NXT Tag Team Championships at Takeover: Dallas over Wrestlemania 32 weekend in April. Given the crowd reactions they received and the quality of matches they put on in WWE's developmental promotion, it was only a matter of time before they earned a call-up up to the main roster. And sure enough, they were duly drafted to Smackdown Live in July.
Their amateur backgrounds -- Gable wrestled for the United States at the London 2012 Games, while Jordan attended Indiana University where he became a three-time national qualifier for NCAA at the Division I level -- have seen them draw not just favourable comparison to Angle, but also likened to his former proteges, Shelton Benjamin and Charlie Haas. That pair burst onto the WWE scene in 2002 as part of 'Team Angle' and would later call themselves the World's Greatest Tag Team, with a gimmick centered around their amateur proficiency.
Angle himself is a huge fan of Jordan and Gable. Having departed TNA Impact Wrestling in January, he talked up the possibility earlier this year of a return to WWE as a mentor to American Alpha.
"I'm 47 years old. And that's why those guys would be perfect as my team, like a Team Angle, because they could do the wrestling for me until the big one comes," he said in March. "I've watched them wrestle and they're really good. I could do the big matches; the SummerSlams and the WrestleManias. I think that would be a good mix. And it would also give them a great rub, a rub that they need."
But Jordan insists he and Gable are intent on forging their own path.
"I grew up watching Kurt and so I've studied him a lot and figured out what it is that made him so great, what made him so amazing to watch," Jordan told ESPN. "So trying to make sure that I picked up some of those things, but at the same time being myself, because I never wanna try and mimic somebody else. I wanna be myself and be the first Jason Jordan. I don't wanna be the second Kurt Angle.
"And it's the same concept where we always get a lot of comparisons to the World's Greatest Tag Team. We wanna be the first American Alpha. We don't wanna be the second Team Angle or World's Greatest Tag Team. We've worked so hard to get to where we are, and we feel like we're unique and different. Yes there are similarities but we're still different. As much as we look to Kurt, and as much as I've studied him and been a fan of Kurt Angle's, he's been an influence, but it's nice to have a little bit of a separation between us."
Jordan and Gable are primed for success in Smackdown's tag team division, but it was only fewer than 18 months ago that both were floundering in NXT with no direction. For Jordan, a tag team with Tye Dillinger had failed to catch fire at Full Sail University. They were split up in February of 2015 and both had to go back to the drawing board at the Performance Center again.
It was nothing new for Jordan, who had been with WWE since 2011 at their former developmental territory Florida Championship Wrestling. He admitted it crossed his mind in the past that he might never make it.
"There was definitely the thought," said the 28-year-old. "I was always confident in my ability, I was always confident in the talent that I had, and I felt WWE was a very good fit for me. After it didn't happen for a couple of years and I had a knee surgery and everything, there were times I had doubts. Not that it wasn't gonna happen, just that maybe it wasn't the right time and maybe I had to take a step back and really find myself before I can move forward and be successful in WWE.
"But just trying different things and really searching to be myself and be comfortable with who I am and letting the world into my background, and what's gotten me here to this point, that removed all doubt. When I started tagging with Chad Gable, we knew it right away that there was something special here between us. We had this chemistry, and that really allowed me to bring out my personality and be who I am and let everybody see what I have to offer, and that allowed me to bring myself to a whole other level. From that point I feel it's been sky's the limit.
"It's been an incredible ride and a lot of fun. It helped me move past that point of having any doubt. It's a struggle, extremely difficult. This is the place to be. Everybody wants to get to there from NXT. Everybody is hungry and chomping at the bit and trying to figure it out. It's very possible you can get lost in the shuffle. I feel like maybe for a little while I was at that point where I was kinda getting not necessarily overlooked, but in the mix, among the middle of pack. Now I feel like I definitely rose to the top there. It's been a pleasure and it's been a journey, but I wouldn't trade that for anything in the world."
Jordan has endured plenty of personal struggle in his life; he revealed on the WWE Network's Performance Center-based documentary series "Breaking Ground" last year that all three of his older brothers have been incarcerated.
"I was always close with them, had ups and downs with them," Jordan said. "But there's a brother-like relationship with me and Chad. It's definitely something special and I'm glad to be a part of it. It's pretty obvious to see -- a lot of people see that. It's not like, 'let's see where it goes.' We're dedicated to staying together and making sure, when you look at WWE history, that we want to be ones that stand out; that this tag team American Alpha, they are arguably the best tag team, period. In order to do that you have to have that legacy. We're building that legacy now. We're looking forward to continue building on it. Long story short, we plan on staying together for a very, very long time."
Jordan put attending dental school on hold after graduating college, in order to pursue his dream of becoming a professional wrestler, and admitted winning the NXT tag team titles was just reward for all of his hard work and sacrifice.
"That was an amazing feeling. So many times throughout my life that I've worked so hard for a thing, then been so close to achieving the goals that I've set, and fallen short sometimes," he said. "To have people constantly telling me, 'Don't worry, hard work pays off, hard work pays off' -- you hear it, and you wanna see the results, so that you can truly believe them.
"And that was just literally everything coming together where it was, 'You know what? Everybody was right.' I'm so happy that I didn't get lazy, that I didn't get complacent, and I continued to put in the effort, continued to put in the hard work, and tried to make sure that no matter what happened, at least I can walk away saying that I gave it my all.
"But for everything to finally work out, to achieve our goal and achieve our dream, and to win the tag team championships in NXT, it was the best feeling of my career to that point."