Bill Goldberg. It’s a name that evokes many emotions from wrestling fans around the world, even though it’s now close to a decade since the competitor was last seen inside a WWE ring. Goldberg’s short but powerful career was that rarest of success stories, that of a grappler who came from virtual obscurity, conquered the wrestling world, and left with both his mystique and appeal still largely in tact. In short, Goldberg’s career was like nothing that the wrestling has ever seen before, or is likely to again.
This month sees the release by WWE of Goldberg: The Ultimate Collection on DVD and Blu-Ray. In many ways, it’s ironic that World Wrestling Entertainment owns the library rights to Goldberg and is in a position to chronicle his in-ring career, seeing as the world’s number one wrestling promotion was unable to grasp what it was that actually made him such a big star in the first place – or, if it did, was unwilling to admit that, just occasionally, WCW had come up with a winning formula that didn’t need ‘enhancement’.
Goldberg’s lacklustre WWE run, from March 2003 to April 2004, is still cited by fans all these years on as an example of ego getting in the way of good business, in much the same way as the disastrously-booked WCW Invasion angle in 2001 and, more recently, the burial of The Nexus stable in 2010. Goldberg’s success in WWE should have been a phenomenal – after all, the company had purchased the hottest free agent in the country, and a competitor with a hugely vocal fan base. Instead, it never truly got off the ground, and despite a short World heavyweight title run, Goldberg left the promotion at WrestleMania XX following a hugely-disappointing battle of the big men with fellow leaver Brock Lesnar.
Now with WrestleMania XXX on the horizon, rumours are abounding of a Goldberg return to WWE for one last match. It’s an unlikely rumour, given how vocal Goldberg has been in voicing his disdain for the company on Twitter, but this is wrestling, and as the returns of both Bret Hart, Brock Lesnar and Bruno Sammartino all proved, anything can happen in the WWE.
Regardless of whether or not a return does come to fruition, few could deny the disappointment of Goldberg’s WWE tenure – but how did it happen? Let’s take a look back at the five areas that WCW got so right, and that WWE got so horribly wrong:
1. The entrance
At its heart Goldberg’s entrance to the WCW ring was pure spectacle, and a masterclass in intimidation. Integral to Goldberg’s act, it actually developed to become one of the highlights of WCW programming each and every week – especially for the live crowd. With a camera crew following the competitor as he marched through the backstage area flanked by security personnel, Goldberg would emerge each week through a sea of burning pyro (quite literally), accompanied by one of the most memorable entrance themes that the sport has ever seen.
Make no mistake – Goldber’s iconic entrance theme was a huge part of what made him a star, and the fans loved it, with loud “Gold-berg” chants reverberating throughout the area. Indeed, it would go on to become a chant almost as iconic as that of “E-C-Dub”, and can still be heard in WWE today, whenever Ryback is in the ring. Goldberg’s entrance may have been formuliac and somewhat nonsensical (it was never clear why such a competitor would need so much protection on his way to the ring), but it worked and was integral to the Goldberg brand. Even when WCW was downsizing significantly and the product suffered accordingly as a result, the one thing that didn’t change was the time and care given to Goldberg’s entrance, right up until the bitter end.
Fast forward to Goldberg’s WWE debut, and guess what? The entrance changed. It may have only been slight differences, but it was enough for ardent fans to notice, and to detract from the end result accordingly. The walk from the back? Still there, but gone were the security personnel flanking Goldberg that had previously added to his ‘superstar’ perception. The music? It was almost the same, but reinterpreted by WWE to a slightly off-tone variation, lacking the triumphant feel-good power of the original score. In short, when Goldberg arrived in WWE, he still made an entrance – it just wasn’t as grand as it used to be. And as they say, you only get one chance to make a first impression.
2. The intensity
One word sums up Goldberg as an in-ring competitor: intense. Right from the opening moments of his understated debut against Hugh Morrus on the September 22, 1997 taping of WCW Monday Nitro, it was clear that Bill Goldberg was a dangerous man to be in the ring against, and this intensity never went away throughout his WCW run, regardless of the opponent. From the initial intimidation of the entrance to the flurry of big power moves, Goldberg was like a fighting machine – and this unrelenting offence was eaten up by the fans.
When Goldberg came to WWE, of course, something had to change, and so gone was the non-stop intensity, and in its place was a softer Goldberg, one displaying touches of humility and mercy for his fellow combatants. Indeed, nothing could evidence this further than WWE management’s decision to place a blonde wig on Goldberg during an inane skit with comedic namesake Goldust – a sure sign that the company’s higher-ups did not understand the Goldberg brand. Throughout much of his WWE run, Goldberg was seen either with a smile on his face, or in a beaten-down state – the polar opposite of the Goldberg character that had helped WCW to become so dominant in 1998.
3. The power moves
If you have a friend that says wrestling is fake, and that they all know how to fall (and, let’s face it, who doesn’t have one of them?), show them a clip of Goldberg giving someone a spear. You can choose pretty much any clip from his WCW days – it nearly always looked brutal. There certainly didn’t appear to be anything easy about being on the receiving end of that, predetermined match outcome or not. One of Goldberg’s greatest strengths as a competitor was his powermoves – not just the spear and jackhammer combination used to ultimately spell the downfall of his opponents, but also the multiple military press, powerslam and suplex variations, which added a sense of unpredictably to bouts – and often left viewers wincing.
Goldberg in WWE still had the raw power – but he tended to be on the defensive more often that the offensive. Implausibly booked to be the underdog for many bouts, even against a mid-carder at the time like Christian, Goldberg had to bide his time before hitting his big moves, and very rarely was allowed the opportunity to roll over a fellow competitor in a matter of moments following a barrage of one-sided offence. While it may not have necessarily made him popular in the WCW locker room, these power displays and shows of dominance were key to fans getting behind Goldberg – when he stepped into the ring, you knew exactly what you were going to get. He certainly wasn’t working by the hour.
4. The streak
Oh yes, the streak. Between September 1997 and December 1998, Bill Goldberg notched up 173 consecutive wins before suffering his first in-ring loss at the hands of the nefarious Kevin Nash and a trusty taser gun. During that time, Goldberg amassed both the WCW United States and World Heavyweight titles, scoring victories over the likes of Sting, Diamond Dallas Page, Scott Hall and Hulk Hogan in the process.
But while big names helped to give the streak gravitas, it was the talent working in the lower-rungs of the card (Alex Wright, Disco Inferno, La Parka and Glacier, for example), that bolstered the streak, quenching the fans’ appetite for destruction each week with short and powerful squash matches. The streak is something that will likely never be repeated again; partly because it wasn’t marketed from the off as such, allowing it room to breathe and build slowly, and for the fans to get behind Goldberg as a performer first, irrespective of the numbers.
Given that Goldberg was synonymous with the streak, WWE had the opportunity to replicate this, in part, upon his arrival in the company. It would have been logical for Goldberg to be marketed as undefeated in the new promotion, slowly working his way through the low- and mid-card superstars in much the same way as he did in WCW en route to championship gold at a pay-per-view, already, perhaps, with 50 or 60 WWE wins under his belt on episodes of Raw and B-level PPVs. But what did WWE do? They paired Goldberg up against their biggest and most popular star, The Rock, in a pay-per-view main event in his very first match with the company – and then booked the unstoppable Goldberg to play the injured underdog for much of the bout. Goldberg may have got the duke in his debut, but in just one night, it was clear that WWE would be going in a very different direction with the former WCW star … and it certainly wouldn’t be handing him 173 wins on a plate in a hurry.
5. The timing
As with all things in life, sometimes it’s just about being in the right place at the right time, and this certainly had a roll to play in Goldberg’s fast ascent to the top of WCW. Coming at a time of increased visibility and at the height of WCW’s success in the ‘Monday Night Wars’, Goldberg arrived in the midst of the nWo angle and served as the perfect combatant to fly the flag for WCW in its quest to take back control of the company.
At the time of Goldberg’s debut, WCW was riding a creative high and had a roster of talented stars more than capable of filling the ever-increasing air-time with quality in-ring action. WCW was attracting record crowds, and Goldberg’s arrival and enigmatic personality only served to further this, with a case in point being Goldberg’s historic World title victory over Hulk Hogan on WCW Monday Nitro in front of more than 40,000 fans in the Georgia Dome. It’s almost impossible to imagine a Raw or Smackdown! taping attracting those kinds of numbers these days.
By contrast, Goldberg arrived in WWE at a time of great unrest. The company’s biggest star – and a man to whom Goldberg bore more than a passing resemblance – Stone Cold Steve Austin, had wrestled his final match just one night previously. The Rock was off to Hollywood. And Triple H, the World champion, was in the midst of an ego-driven title reign that had already destroyed the credibility of WCW stars Scott Steiner and Booker T in just a matter of months.
While the lack of star-power within the company should, by rights, have served as an opportunity for Goldberg, instead he debuted in the midst of great creative indecision and insecurity, and in the process fell victim to a lack of joined-up, overarching vision.
Goldberg: The Ultimate Collection is a fascinating look back at an incredible career. Despite being short in length (incredibly, Goldberg’s entire professional wrestling career spanned less than seven years), it’s a run that is still talked about to this day, and rightly so.
The DVD charts Goldberg’s quick rise to the top (his US Title win against Raven and World Title victory over Hulk Hogan being obvious highlights), his run as the company’s champion (with title defences over Curt Hennig, Sting, DDP and The Giant), and the remainder of his WCW career after the controversial Starrcade 1998 loss to Kevin Nash.
While the character clearly losetsome of its appeal and mystique after that first loss, there are still some choice bouts on offer, including a rematch against Kevin Nash, a truly brutal blood-filled clash against Sid, and an absolute masterclass in powermoves against Scott Steiner – even though this is marred by the idiotic booking of one Vince Russo.
Unsurprisingly, an entire disc is given to Goldberg’s tenure in WWE – including his debut against The Rock, clashes with Chris Jericho, Christian and Batista, and his World title victory over Triple H – but the only time that Goldberg ever truly looked like ‘Da Man’ in WWE was in the closing moments of the 2003 Summerslam Elimination Chamber match, and that’s just before he gets beaten down and handcuffed by the entire Evolution faction. By the time Goldberg wrestled his final WWE bout in Madison Square Garden against Brock Lesnar, it was clear that he had lost his passion for the company, and may never find it again…
It remains to be seen whether or not we will, once more, see Bill Goldberg lace up the boots in order to spear a fellow combatant out of his. But regardless of whether we do or not, his contribution to the wrestling industry, and historic WCW run, is more than worthy of being remembered.