“I appreciate this whole seduction thing you’ve got going on here, but let me give you a tip: I’m a sure thing.” – Julia Roberts as Vivian Ward in “Pretty Woman”
The return of Bill Goldberg to pro wrestling back in mid-October was one of the best and most interesting segments of television WWE has produced all year.
The build both for his appearance and the match it lead to–a showdown with Brock Lesnar at Survivor Series the following month–was likewise one of the best of the year.
During the October 17 edition of Monday Night Raw, when Goldberg returned to a wrestling ring for the first time in a dozen years, he showed the presence of a star and delivered a promo that was both interesting and believable while doing more to gin up interest in a match than virtually anything said by any other wrestler on the WWE roster this year.
The segment moved the ratings significantly upward (though still a tiny fraction of the rating Raw used to do during the late 90s and early 2000s) and got people talking.
Subsequent appearances went extremely well, with the crowd responding to Goldberg as a massive babyface–other than an ill-advised attempt to push the program on an episode of Raw from Lesnar’s home state of Minnesota–and in the process, Survivor Series went from just another “Network Special” to a show that had a legitimate big fight feel to it.
And then the match happened, though you may have missed it if you blinked.
After 12 years away from the ring and at age 49, Bill Goldberg shockingly speared Lesnar out of his boots twice and jackhammered him for the win in just under 90 seconds. The booking of the match produced a huge roar from the crowd but also a mixed reaction from fans, some of whom criticized WWE for having their biggest attraction, their indomitable “conqueror of the Undertaker’s streak,” lose so quickly to a fellow part-timer.
To those critics, I would like to offer up a phrase my parents used to say to me all the time growing up: I love you, but you’re wrong.
He has been gone for so long that sometimes it is hard to remember how “Goldberg” even came to be in the first place. Essentially, he was just a big ex-football player who showed up at the WCW Power Plant to train and eventually ended up on television in a semi-enhancement role. Somewhere along the way, the company’s booker, Kevin Sullivan, realized that with his size, look and intensity, Bill Goldberg could be something, so he yanked him off of TV.
He slowly started knocking off lower card wrestlers, then mid-carders and eventually won the U.S. title. The whole time, the formula was very simple: spear, jackhammer, pin.
That was it.
There were no 20 minute promos, no struggles with authority figures, no hokey comedy sketches that literally nobody on earth besides Vince McMahon thinks are funny. Just a simple catch phrase–“Who’s Next?”–and a guy who came out to the ring with black shoes and black trunks to kick his opponent’s ass.
As Sullivan later said himself, Goldberg was essentially patterned after Mike Tyson in the 1980s, all the way down to the ring attire. He got over for the same reason Tyson did: he won in dominating fashion and established himself as an unstoppable monster.
Eventually, he dominated so much and fans were so into his undefeated streak that there was only one thing left for WCW to do with him, and that was to put the world title on him, which they did in July 1998 when he pinned Hulk Hogan for the belt in front of a sold out crowd at the Georgia Dome on Monday Nitro (the fact that this match was not on PPV is still mind boggling, but was pretty much par for the course with the routinely dumb decision making that went on in WCW during that time).
The moral of the story here is that Bill Goldberg–an NFL washout with absolutely zero pro wrestling background–became one of the biggest stars in pro wrestling because he was pushed and treated like a star. He won his matches decisively–there were no 50/50 feuds with Hugh Morrus or Prince Iaukea–and the announcers and other wrestlers constantly put him over like he was a big deal.
In wrestling, perception is reality and there is no better way for the fans to perceive a guy as a big time badass than for him to be booked like…..um, well…..a big time badass.
That’s what made Bill Goldberg a star and it is what will keep him one.
People were complaining that the match was so short and that the indestructible Lesnar had been sacrificed, but they forget two very important things.
The first is that in addition to staying true to what got Goldberg over in the first place, he had been out of the ring for 12 years, only had a few weeks to get ready and wasn’t exactly the second coming of Ricky Steamboat in the ring during his heyday, anyway. By having him go over quickly and in such a commanding way, it kept him strong while avoiding the pitfalls of exposing his weaknesses, which would have been harder to do if the match had gone 10-15 minutes as some have suggested it should have.
The second is that, as our own Martin Stezano so poignantly illustrated, Lesnar is already a “made man” in WWE-land and can survive losses like this without too much damage to his character. John Cena, the only other star on the roster, got tossed around like a rag doll by Lesnar for 20 minutes two years ago and just lost three straight matches to AJ Styles. Does anybody seriously think any of that has “killed” Cena?
Of course not.
Heyman already worked around the brevity of the match while beginning the intrigue for the eventual rematch by appearing on Raw Monday to say Lesnar took Goldberg too lightly and is now madder than ever and hell-bent on getting revenge. Both men have officially been entered into the Royal Rumble and people are already talking about what will go down between them. Much like Survivor Series, their involvement has already turned the show from run-of-the-mill to an event even casual fans will not want to miss.
Another common complaint is that WWE should have saved that type of win over Lesnar for a young wrestler on the rise who could use the momentum of the win to catapult into stardom. My question for those of you who have made this complaint is this: Have you watched WWE the last decade or so?
WWE failed miserably in their most recent attempt to create a badass star from scratch as Roman Reigns flopped horribly precisely because instead of keeping it simple–spear, jackhammer, pin, “Who’s Next?”–they tried to make him John Cena. That’s fine for John Cena–mostly because he has the type of charisma and ability to talk that few others do–but with Reigns, it was a death blow because that’s not who he is.
And if WCW had presented Goldberg that way, he probably would have been out of wrestling in six months.
Which is exactly the problem with WWE: they have no ability to create stars anymore.
With all due respect to AJ Styles, who I think may be the best pro wrestler on the planet at the moment, WWE essentially has zero full-time stars right now. Brock Lesnar and John Cena pop in from time to time and on special occasions we get to see Ric Flair, Steve Austin, Shawn Michaels and the Rock, but as far as wrestlers the fans tune into Raw to see, there is not one guy presently who comes off like a super duper star.
This isn’t to say there aren’t guys on the roster who either could have been or could still be turned into big stars if handled properly. NXT has two guys in particular–Shinsuke Nakamura and Samoa Joe–who could be used that way if booked right. The problem is that while the formula for how to correctly book a star hasn’t really changed, WWE seems to only be interested in one way at this point: the John Cena style of corny jokes, silly catchphrases and long boring scripted promos.
Which is exactly why Goldberg got over so well this time: Because he was the exact opposite of the WWE way. His promos were not overly scripted, were not corny and most of all, they felt real. Sure, he was an existing star and that helped, but Dave Bautista was an existing star, too and for a variety of reasons–admittedly some that weren’t his fault–WWE failed to get him over the way they wanted to when he returned a few years ago.
But it isn’t just Bautista because in WWE, nobody gets over nowadays. WWE TV is nothing but even-steven feuds with other mid-carders and the same stale matches over and over again. All that does is provide a race to the middle where nobody is special and the audience doesn’t care about anybody in particular, or anything they may do in the future.
So that being the case, why on earth should anybody expect WWE to be able to not only pick the right guy to be the next big star, but also book him in a manner that actually makes him into a star?
WWE saw that Goldberg, unlike virtually everybody else on the roster, was being treated like a star by the fans, so they followed the blueprint Richard Gere’s character Edward Lewis laid out for them when he pursued Vivian in “Pretty Woman.”
They went for the sure thing.
Essentially, WWE found something that worked and they went with it. They didn’t try to get fancy or risk screwing it up. And with their track record of doing the exact opposite over the past few years, that sure seems like the right move to me.
As for those who were upset that the match main-evented over the five-on-five Raw vs Smackdown match despite being under 90 seconds, well, all I can tell you is the fans weren’t there to see a five-on-five match that didn’t even have any stipulations or title implications.
I was at Wrestlemania 18 when the crowd went bonkers for the Rock and Hulk Hogan and sat on their hands for the title match between HHH and Chris Jericho two matches later. I was at Extreme Rules in 2014 when Daniel Bryan and Kane had a match in a silent arena following Evolution vs the Shield, the match that show was really built around.
In that same vein, Goldberg and Lesnar were unquestionably the featured attraction at Survivor Series and putting them on earlier in the show would have killed the crowd dead for anything following it. As much as pro wrestling purists don’t want to admit it, star power trumps everything to today’s fans, so the few stars that actually exist have to be at the top of the card regardless of circumstance.
Of course, the star power issue further exposes the company’s incredible structural problem that Goldberg only exacerbates. Fans have been conditioned for years to believe that only the big names from the past are real stars worth paying to see. But sooner or later, Lesnar will go off to the woods permanently, Goldberg will decide he wants more time with his family, Rock will be too busy shooting movies to make appearances, Steve Austin will get tired of leaving his ranch……you get the point.
The company can only bank on special attractions for so long before there are none left. Who is going to be a big enough star 20 years from now to even be considered a special attraction? Seth Rollins? Kevin Owens? Sami Zayn? Dean Ambrose? Hell, none of those guys are considered an attraction now, let alone decades in the future.
Vince McMahon and HHH really should sit down soon, think about this and then be honest with themselves about how poorly the company has done in developing new talent over the past decade. They should have a heart-to-heart about where they have gone wrong, study what has worked in the past and put together a well thought out, multi-layered plan for exactly how they will build their next batch of stars, recognizing that if they don’t, pretty soon the well will run completely dry.
But that’s Vince and HHH’s problem. I’ll let them worry about that.
For me, as a fan? I’m just going to keep enjoying the storyline and be happy they actually got something right for once.
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