Welcome back to another edition of Retroactive Reconstruction. Here we take a look at either abortive or not-quite-there gimmicks that should have gotten over much better than they did, as well as an attempt to save them. It's fantasy booking at it's finest! Today, we look at a man who could be best summed up as "a phenomenon."
The first wrestler I ever knew about as a little kid growing up wasn't Hulk Hogan. It wasn't Stone Cold Steve Austin. And it certainly wasn't John Cena.
In fact, it wasn't even a wrestler, really. It was a metal Hot Wheels car that was acrylic gold and featured a massive man pointing and shouting at the camera, as if threatening to rip their head off in his bloodlust. Of course, as a little kid, I wasn't thinking that critically or that abstract. I just liked the golden coloring and the fact that the guy on the front of the car looked cool.
It's one of the fuzziest memories I have as a child, yet I still remember it more than ten years later. That's the power of the phenomenon that was Goldberg.
Eventually, wrestling faded from my (fringe) interests as a kid, only to come back here in my college years thanks to WWE 2K14, Mick Foley, The Masked Man, and gaining a new respect for the sport thanks to starting up martial arts. (Brazilian Jiujitsu. Not a pleasant experience but for some reason you can't just walk away.) And to my inner-child's delight, I was glad to discover that Goldberg wasn't just some run-of-the-mill wrestler that they'd plastered onto cheesy merchandise in an effort to move sales back in the mid-90's. No, he was way bigger than that. It's funny how while wrestlers already take a sort of mythical part in the zeitgeist of modern America, Goldberg seems to be in a pantheon if not above everyone else, then perhaps certainly directly parallel to the great ones. He was tangibly flawless.
Of course, saying something is "tangibly flawless" implicitly means that it might also be "intangibly flawed." Such is the case of Goldberg, perhaps. But we'll get to that in a moment.
What makes Goldberg so important in the history of professional wrestling is that he filled a critical need for a company that, while it didn't know it at the time, was entering the beginning of the end. WCW had been milking a quite honestly electric feud between Hollywood Hulk Hogan, leader of the nefarious nWo (who WCW exec Eric Bischoff had spent a painstakingly long time making detestable again in order to sell them as the "heels"), against Sting, who had adopted a silent, The Crow-like gimmick and approach to the affair. However, at Starrcade 1997, while Sting won the title off of Hogan, the ending was so goddamned confusing and screwy that it had the unintended side-effect of wrecking Sting as a legitimate champion. Here was where we saw the particularly ugly head of Hogan's alleged backstage politicking really coming out into the forefront, as Sting was essentially buried and the nWo angle kept chugging along. It might've been exciting a few months ago, but now the crowd was starting to feel some form of fatigue.
He made his WCW and professional wrestling debut on the September 22 edition of Monday Nitro, where he essentially squashed solid worker Hugh Morrus.
That's how you sell a debut for a guy you're going to build to be a legend. A few things stand out to me in particular. First, Goldberg kicking out of Hugh Morrus' "No Laughing Matter" moonsault. The announcers are clearly shocked. Then, after Irish-whipping Morrus into the corner, Goldberg takes the time to do a standing backflip followed by a scoop powerslam. (Shades of Randy Orton's picture-perfect version of the move) The crowd noticeably pops, and though the count doesn't come until later, it's pretty much over. A few more powerslams, and then a proto-Jackhammer. Finally, my favorite two moments of the match:
1.) After winning, Goldberg glances at the camera, holds up a finger, and just barely audibly says "That's one."
2.) He completely blows off "Mean" Gene Okerlund post-match interview, but not without menacingly breathing into Okerlund's microphone like he's Darth Vader or Bane or something.
WHY IT WAS AWESOME
In an earlier post, I mentioned that Muhammad Hassan got "over" as a heel because he beat fucking everybody. Well, Goldberg didn't just beat fucking everybody. He ended fucking everybody. Maybe it was a secret way to disguise his potential lack of ring talent, but Goldberg made a squash match format entertaining. Crowds were practically giddy to see how quickly Goldberg could end his foe. Or, failing that, the moment where he started no-selling the shit out of his opponent's moves, which meant that one thing was coming.
Followed by, of course, the Jackhammer 1-2-3.
He got so over it was crazy. Whereas Sting was partially popular not just because he was standing up to the nWo but also because of his famous surfer-boy babyface persona, here was Goldberg wrecking the roster in his quest for gold as a completely new face. In a company that had gotten the majority of its ratings through poaching talent or riding out the dying embers of former megastars (*cough*HOGAN*cough*), here was a guy that was getting over and was a brand new character to work with.
First, Goldberg beat up Raven and his Flock in order to win the WCW United States Championship, and then finally drew the attention of Hollywood Hogan and the nWo. Not even Hogan's team of cheating bastards could stop the Goldberg phenomenon: on the July 6, 1998 edition of Nitro, not only did Goldberg smash up Hogan's stablemate Scott Hall, he also took down Hogan for the WCW Heavyweight title in a match that, while probably would have been best for pay-per-view, was absolutely electric and is one of my favorite Bobby Heenan commentary moments.
Goldberg was a damn good title-holder too. All I have to say about his Halloween Havoc match with Diamon Dallas Page is: wow. Shades of Hogan-Warrior at Wrestlemania, where the crowd wasn't sure who they wanted to win, just that they wanted someone to win and love.
Of course, eventually Hogan's famously chummy relationship with Eric Bischoff paid dividends for the Hulkster, who got the title back…from Kevin Nash thanks to the FIngerpoke of Doom, after Nash had decided HE would be the one to end the streak that Goldberg had compiled…thanks to Scott Hall tasering Goldberg senseless. Think of how angry you were when Lesnar pinned the Undertaker clean, only imagine if Heyman had shot Undertaker in the thigh right before that. There would be riots in the streets around the Silv-Superdome. Either way, the audience reaction was palpable. We had witnessed the (dirty) ending of a phenomenon.
After that, poor Goldberg got buried along with the rest of the roster as Vince Russo (or whoever was in charge of booking) lost his goddamn mind. I would go into detail about the offensive inanity of Tony Schiavone boasting of something being "the ULTIMATE SWERVE" ending up as a Goldberg heel turn, but I think it would be best if we all agreed to forget that ever happened. Right?
When WCW finally got pinned in the ratings (and financial) war by the WWF (later WWE), Goldberg was one of several major players from WCW who wasn't signed immediately after. You could say that that was because there wasn't enough room for him on the roster, while I maintain that it was because Vince McMahon had no interest in letting the WCW people outshine the WWF stars, and getting people like Sting or Golberg might actually do that. What I'm trying to say is that Vince McMahon is a petty, petty bastard. So Goldberg, though he last wrestled in WCW in 2001, would not return to American wrestling until 2003. But even though Goldberg made his triumphant entry to the WWE, something just didn't click during his stay there, and he would only last a year before leaving WWE and essentially professional wrestling.
WHAT KILLED THE GIMMICK?
It's tricky, but I have narrowed it down to three major things that killed Goldberg's run in WWE.
First, his booking, but especially his debut. "But GrecoRomanGuy, his first feud was with THE ROCK!" You might be thinking. "That's an AWESOME way to make a debut!"
That's a totally fair point, and for the longest time I agreed with it. But upon further review, I don't think that this was the best way for Goldberg to make his entrance.
Bear with me here.
Goldberg was a phenomenon, yes. WCW fans loved him. But WWF fans worshipped The Rock. He was funny, he was athletic, he was cool, he was everything that we wanted to be as a person (even if we knew deep down was completely impossible). So if you're bringing Goldberg, ostensibly you're gonna bring him in as a good guy, because that was literally what he was during his stay in WCW. A cool, badass hero. Like what John Cena wishes he could be. But Goldberg is going to end up being the de facto heel in a Rock feud, and Rock can just run circles around anyone when he has a microphone, but especially a guy who was never a strong speaker like Goldberg. It didn't matter that Goldberg essentially "won" the feud, the crowd never really got behind him. Not his fault, he was dealing with the bona fide movie star that Dwayne Johnson was about to become.
So, really, Goldberg never had a chance.
The second reason? This fucking guy.
Okay, I'll admit that I laughed at his ridiculous facial expressions, but the very existence of a character like "Gillberg" only highlights the poorly-kept secret about Vince McMahon that we all know: he will gladly undercut anything that is successful but that isn't connected to him in any way he can, and if that relies on borderline mean-spirited parody, then he'll do it. (As well as hypocritically tell his workers to adhere to a phoney-baloney code of conduct, but that's neither here nor there)
And Gillberg, with apologies to Duane Gill and his dedication to the gimmick, was about as damning as a parody as one can get. Because Gillberg was around a full five years before Goldberg's WWE debut (Gillberg primarily ran from 1998-2000), this was WWE's not-so-subtle way of telling their fans: "Oh hey, you know that bald guy from that other company that wins a lot? This is our way of telling you that you shouldn't take him seriously. Like, at all. Because our wrestlers are so much better and stronger and faster and awesomer and they love Mr. McMahon because he is the best thing that happened to our industry." (Might have gotten carried away with the analogy at the end there…)
My point being this: It's hard enough to get yourself "over" again when you're jumping from company to company in any field of work, but it really doesn't help things when the very fans you're trying to win over aren't able to fully commit to your monstrosity because they're giggling at the memories of Gillberg.
Third, his reputation for injuries tending to happen. Both to himself and to others.
For example, there is a sizable portion of the wrestling community that will never forgive Goldberg for kicking Bret Hart in the head and concussing him, ending the Hitman's wrestling career in such an ignominious way. The Hitman deserved better, and even though Goldberg didn't mean to he always will carry that stigma of being too stiff of a worker in the ring. Listen to DDP's interview with Stone Cold Steve Austin on Stone Cold's podcast (excellent listening, by the way) about the Halloween Havoc 1998 match: DDP is far too nice of a guy to completely bury a guy, but you can tell by his tone of voice that he was legitimately terrified of getting hit by Goldberg's spear. Hell, Goldberg injured himself during that match! He spears Page, drove his own head into the mat, and was essentially in lah-lah land for the rest of the match. (Add to the fact that he also supposedly injured his shoulder during the fight as well, making that hellacious spot where the crowd exploded as he couldn't quite lift Page in the Jackhammer all the way at first a bit wince-worthy when you know he wasn't acting.)
Part of this comes from the ending of the Goldberg mystique and "the Streak." Once you've stripped that away (THANKS KEVIN NASH), what you're left with is a guy that is big and strong…but isn't really a technical wizard who can hide his brutality behind pulled punches. Now, there have been plenty of guys in the business who worked stiff and made it just fine, but Goldberg was one of those guys in the Brock Lesnar mold: even if he didn't mean to, he was built in such a way where he could legitimately wreck your shit. You have to build a program carefully around him, so that nothing gets pulled apart by overly-skeptical fans or wrestlers getting hurt thanks to miscommunication.
Of course, the WWE didn't really do this, because why should they? They were a monopoly like the US Postal Service; they didn't have to worry about any meaningful competition. They could do as they damn well pleased!
What's nice about Goldberg's debut for the WWE is that he'd been away long enough that his return to wrestling could be met with legit excitement. But here's where we deviate from the script a little bit.
Don't have him interrupt the Rock. Have him break down a couple of mid-level heels. Like, let's throw the Dudley Boyz out there being obnoxious and mean-spirited. They've got a pair of tables out, and they issue an open challenge to anyone on the roster to beat them in a handicap two-on-one tables match. And then have Goldberg come out and spear Devon through one table and then Jackhammer Bubba Ray through the other. All the while, have Jim Ross going out of his mind.
"BAH GAWD, IT'S GOLDBERG, KING! I CAN'T BELIEVE HE'S HERE!"
During this time, rolls of duct tape or tranquilizer darts are to be used to keep Lawler from opening his mouth and even slightly ruining the moment with his insipid commentary.
After he's finished the Dudley Boyz off, have Goldberg look at the camera and hold up two fingers. He doesn't even say anything. He just walks away.
It will continue like that for a few months. Goldberg will run roughshod through the mid-to-upper-card wrestlers. This will have the dual boon of establishing his unstoppability while at the same time convincing Vince McMahon (behind the scenes of course) that he's paying his dues. Everyone is happy.
And by everybody I mean Vince is happy.
At the same time, references need to be made to Goldberg's dominance in WCW, as well as The Streak. Here's how you protect it without being ridiculous. Imagine this spot, as Goldberg Irish Whips someone like Billy Gunn into the corner.
Jim Ross: "And it is amazing to think, King, as Goldberg continues to run roughshod through the WWE, that his streak of wins in WCW ever ended. If it hadn't been for a legitimate taser attack, I think it would still be going!"
Jerry Lawler: *Mouth duct-taped, nods up and down while making muffled noises of agreement.*
Boom. Streak protected. WWE seems like it's the top place to be. (Again, Vince is made happy.)
Also, you know how Goldberg was never the greatest talker? Cut out the middleman entirely. Don't have him speak ever…except in really tense moments. And even then keep it short and sweet and menacing.
Eventually, as a Goldberg winning streak grows, transition him into less of a wrestler (so as to protect his somewhat below-average ring talent past three minutes) and more into a force of nature again. You can even have him feuding with guys like the Rock and Shawn Michaels and John Cena (ugh…) I want countless moments like this.
That to me is even better than his famous spearing of Chris Jericho through the pod wall. Against Jericho, he had a running start so it made sense that the wall would break. Even though it's clearly plastic, having Goldberg nonchalantly kicking through the pod to get at Triple H (while that delightfully obnoxious "WOO!"ing Ric Flair practically has a heart attack) is an amazing moment. Top that, angry-face Sheamus!
After a certain amount of time, it will be okay for him to lose again. But only give it to guys you're looking to give a legit main-event push to, and not to ego-stroking punks like Kevin Nash. First have him lose while outnumbered, and then he can lose singles matches. The endgame here is to create a phenomenon again, and maybe even a character that rises above the concept of Face and Heel, much like the Undertaker during the twilight of his career. We just will cheer him again. And because there's enough talent to go around, it will be totally reasonable for Goldberg to build a winning streak again, and then get massively over even after a miracle happens for an up-and-comer who defeats him, AND become a legend…without overexposing him and revealing that he isn't the greatest of technical workers.
Because at the end of the day, wrestling isn't just about the high-flying luchadore types or the ground based technical wizards or the powerlifter types or the sultry divas or the cookie-cutter good guys: it's about the legitimate forces of nature whose mythical stories match if not overshadow their actual successes or failures. Goldberg was a phenomenon in 1990's WCW; it's a crime that WWE couldn't think of a way to resurrect that phenomenon in the WWE. I don't remember nor do I really want to remember Goldberg the "wrestler," I want to remember the Goldberg of myth, the guy that was plastered on my crummy little Hot Wheels car back in the 90's.
And of course, if they'd done that then we'd be spared from this abomination.
What do you guys think? Agree with my suggestions? Think there's something I left out or shouldn't have touched? Let me know in the comments below. In addition, let me know if you have any suggestions for future reconstructions in the series.
For those that want to do some catching up, here are the rest of the entries so far.
Tune in next time, where we look at a "vintage" example of why colorful commentators need to be handled with nuance. Until then!