It may sound like a backhanded compliment if you read no further, but it isn’t at all. Last night on RAW, Goldberg returned to WWE television for the first time in 12 years, and like many of you, I was counting the minutes to that moment as I watched the show. It wasn’t a great three hours, and as the third hour began, I just wanted them to get to that segment so I could have my life back.
Bill Goldberg has presence in a way that many never even approach, and because of timing - being the perfect person for the ideal role at the proper occasion - he is an unforgettable part of an era still spoken of in almost royal terms by wrestling fans. It doesn’t matter whether you liked any of his matches, or even whether you got increasingly weary from the streak, Goldberg drew money.
He drew serious money.
That 18-month run, which began with Hugh Morrus and in effect ended on the receiving end of Scott Hall’s cattle prod at Starrcade 1998, was first the secondary icing underneath Sting vs. Hogan, and eventually became the most important singular entity in the company.
Had it not been for the Goldberg booking, WCW may have fallen apart even sooner than it did, because as many have said, it was the last great idea of the Eric Bischoff regime. It was the one angle that for a while remained unstained by the remnants of the nWo, which had grown tired and tedious, and was barely even a shell of what it was during the story’s glory days. The WWE positioning of Goldberg wasn’t all that effective, but even then, when he stepped into the ring to challenge The Rock, Triple H, or even Brock Lesnar, our eyes trained on the screen and paid close attention to the events taking place.
Last night, as Goldberg made his entrance and the fans erupted into that chant, it was impossible not to be pulled back into the emotions of that time so many of us still miss today. It was before we knew everything that was going on, or before we even THOUGHT we knew the inner machinations of the pro wrestling industry. As we’ve all grown so jaded and know-it-all about the business, whether because we took part in it, or began covering it, it was nice to shut the brain down and just enjoy Bill Goldberg as an iconic piece of entertainment.
This Survivor Series match we’re going to get between Goldberg and Brock Lesnar is not going to be an all-timer folks. It won’t have the no-win feel of Wrestlemania XX, where both were hated because they were leaving, but these are now much older men, and in the case of the guy we chanted for last night, he’s now 49, and turns 50 in December. I worry about his health as he works with someone who generally just throws people around, busts them open, and leaves them in a pained heap in the center of the ring.
Jim Ross uses the phrase “bowling shoe ugly,” and as I’ve stolen that descriptor in recent years, it’s quite possible that’s what we’re going to get with Goldberg and Lesnar. The heavy smoke and mirrors Triple H and Sting employed at WrestleMania 31 won’t be available, and to make it look like a fight, these two are going to have to beat the holy hell out of each other. If it looks fake, the crowd is going to brutalize it. However, being in Canada, where Hogan vs. Rock transfixed the crowd despite being an awful match technically, the audience may help, rather than hinder the spectacle. That’s yet to be determined, as is much with this duo inside the ring.
But, I don’t really care about the match. I look forward to seeing how it plays out, but that’s not why I’m excited about Goldberg returning. I’m happy his son gets to see him perform on that stage, and thus any selfishness we might have over his limitations is largely invalid. There’s something deeper here, though, and it may not always prove to be a good thing, but it’s a reality about WWE that deserves actual discussion.
And, just like Goldberg, this is the perfect time to bring it to the surface.
When you’re looking for the best pure wrestling, where are you looking? I’m going to venture a guess and say it’s not WWE. That’s not to say Vince doesn’t give us many great matches every single year, with some that rise to the level of any other promotion in the world. But, let’s be real here, if I’m looking for the best wrestling, I’m probably heading for New Japan. If I’m on the hunt for 7,000 occasionally connected high spots, I’m on the way to a PWG show or DVD. If I’m searching for a show that will leave me utterly exhausted, I’m packing into the car to go see Ring of Honor.
Your answers to those questions may be different, but I feel I’m speaking to more of you than I’m alienating with this position. It has nothing to do with the talent level of the WWE roster. There’s a formula, it’s worked for Vince for a long time, and almost all of his television and PPV matches follow it. The components change, but the structure USUALLY doesn’t. It’s also why house shows are often more fun than RAW, because they’re experimenting, and that’s where you see those guys and gals given more freedom to entertain an audience, without care for anything outside that specific building.
Thus, even when you put the two best WWE workers in the company together on TV, unless it’s WrestleMania, SummerSlam, or the Royal Rumble, you can go in understanding what you’re going to get from that match or that show.
Occasionally, as was the case with Dolph Ziggler and The Miz, maybe a match greatly exceeds expectations. Many times, a match that delivers as you expected it to in WWE is deemed dull and fairly average. It’s just kind of how business is done in Stamford, but with its aberrations and caveats.
Today in society, people are on the constant quest for nostalgia, especially in their escapism and entertainment. I heard an interview yesterday with Roy Williams (not Chapel Hill’s Roy Williams), author of “The Pendulum,” who spoke to the idea of nostalgia as we approach the apex of the “we” generation and swing with equal and opposite force back to the “me” generation. When things get bad, or when you deem them to be going in the wrong direction, you begin to glamorize the past, and sometimes those thoughts are inaccurate. He also mentioned something I had been thinking about for quite some time, related to the belief that it’s never as good as you remember it being.
When you bought that Season 1 DVD set of the classic Transformers cartoon, was it everything you thought it was, based on your memories? Williams used the example of Norman Rockwell’s paintings, which didn’t portray America as it was, but as it could be. He spoke of Andy Griffith, and how this small North Carolina town had no racial tension, at least as far as it was presented to us as a viewing public. RAW’s Attitude Era had plenty of garbage to go with that treasure. There are many instances of these kinds of things, but the baseline is that nostalgia is a great feeling, provided disappointment is factored in beforehand.
The question that people often answer without ever being asked is “Does it hold up.” Have you ever heard anyone say, “Hey man, it still holds up,” without you asking anything that would lead to that response? It’s because they’re so excited that something they remembered actually lived up to the pedestal on which they carefully placed it. Our memories trick us, and often times, waking up from the dream is the equivalent of taking the late Rick Rude’s finishing maneuver.
Watching RAW last night, I asked myself that very question, and the answer was a resounding yes. Goldberg still holds up, because I never saw him for more than he was. The way in which he was built was stellar, and his matches were almost entirely irrelevant. It was HIM. It was always about Bill. It was never about Bill wrestling virtually anybody, with the exception of Hogan on Nitro in 1998, perhaps Raven that same April, and the Nash mistake in December. You could include DDP at Halloween Havoc, but that’s remembered more for the PPV mistake than anything else.
Goldberg vs. Brock Lesnar at Survivor Series, as a match, is a shoulder shrug, but again, that’s not what this gimmick, this superstar, this legendary figure fed his family on at any point. He was unique. He was special. He was a superhero, who began as a silent every man.
When you marry a character whose story and superstar quotient had much less to do with his success than the matches...
...with a company where the characters and their trials and tribulations, not necessarily the matches, are what the promoter conditions us to remember...
...you’ve got a recipe for great television. The build to Goldberg/Lesnar will be outstanding fun, and that’s what matters most to WWE. If it was primarily about the matches, Braun Strowman probably wouldn’t be on TV, nor would Kane, Mojo Rawley, or several others. But, it’s not.
If that’s the reality within today’s WWE - and it undoubtedly is when the heaviest hype going into this year’s Wrestlemania was the boss’ son against a tall guy who debuted at the Survivor Series nearly 26 years ago - then when you see a character walk to the ring that FEELS like a superstar, you’re in a very good spot.
Goldberg is a bona fide icon to many wrestling fans, and he’s well-known to nearly everyone who cares at all about this form of entertainment, or has ever paid attention in any capacity. When he stalked back into our lives last night, down that ramp, into the squared circle, and then cut one of the best promos of his career, it snapped into place.
I’m excited about it, because I know what it means to us as wrestling fans. There are so many places to go find spectacular wrestling matches today, and the Network makes it possible for us to see some of the greatest bouts of all time.
But, what’s sorely missing in 2016, especially in WWE, are STARS.
Ladies and gentlemen, Bill Goldberg is a big, huge, enormous freaking star.
And that’s why we need him right now.