This coming Sunday, Bill Goldberg faces WWE Universal Champion Kevin Owens in the main event of the Fast Lane pay-per-view and all signs point to him taking the belt away from Owens, and into WrestleMania. In his limited appearances on WWE television since returning in October, Goldberg has been extremely well received, being cheered and celebrated by fans both young and old at live events. Despite defeating Brock Lesnar, an extremely popular draw in his own right, in record time, fans continue to clamber for more Goldberg, buying his merchandise, giving standing ovations and proudly chanting his name to beckon him to the ring.
This is a vast contrast to the reception Bill received during his first run in WWE during 2003 and early 2004. Within weeks, fans were sick of Goldberg and WWE producers actually had to resort to pumping Goldberg chants through the speaker system in an attempt to encourage the fans along. The ingredients of both runs are, seemingly, the same: an aging big man with a limited moveset thrust into the main event picture at the expense of younger talent… so why is his current run being received far better than his first?
What went wrong?
When Goldberg made his WWE debut on the night after WrestleMania XIX in 2003, fans were excited. His debut came at the expense of The Rock, who was himself receiving a poor reception from WWE fans upset with The Rock’s on-again-off-again event schedule; fans were happy to see Goldberg put a heel Rock in his place and send him packing to Hollywood.
Soon, though, many fans started to turn on Goldberg, citing his repetitive wrestling style and continual “squashing” of younger, newer WWE talent. In addition to this, Goldberg began to make mistakes. There were times where Goldberg failed to keep wrestlers up in the Jackhammer or drop people awkwardly from body presses. On more than one occasion, Goldberg fell over during his entrance and producers failed to match the pyrotechnics to the timing of Goldberg’s punches and kicks. All this combined began to create the impression that Bill Goldberg was past his prime.
To make things worse, WWE began to mismanage Goldberg as he entered into a feud with Chris Jericho. The real life difficulties between Goldberg and Jericho were highlighted in an attempt to endear the fans to Goldberg but the opposite was achieved and Bill came off as a bully, threatened by younger, more versatile wrestlers.
This negative opinion was perpetuated by association with Triple H. Goldberg went to war with Triple H over the World Heavyweight Championship for the remainder of 2003. At the time, Triple H had, rightly or wrongly, developed a reputation for ‘holding down’ the younger WWE talent to serve his own interests and, unfortunately for Goldberg, this opinion extended to him as he blitzed through the locker room in pursuit and defense of the Championship. By the beginning of 2004, it was becoming clear that Goldberg was on his way out of the company and Goldberg was unable to shake the stigma of a declining, part-timer that was abandoning the fandom. In his final match, Goldberg faced the also disgraced Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania but nobody cared. In his final moments, he drank beer with Stone Cold Steve Austin, received a stunner for his trouble and fizzled out into wrestling obscurity.
New year, same Goldberg?
It stands to reason, then, that twelve years down the line a second Goldberg WWE return could only end the same way as the first, right? Now 50 years of age, there’s no way that Goldberg can be effective in the ring against guys half his age, right? The older fans will still be bitter about what happened in the past and the young fans won’t even know who he is, right? You’d be forgiven for thinking these things, but you’d be wrong. The stars have aligned such that, despite the odds, Goldberg can and has been successful in this second run. There are a lot of reasons why this run is working and Goldberg has a lot of people to thank for changing the way things happen in the WWE, paving the way for his return:
- Who are you?
Before Goldberg made his return on the October 17th, 2016 edition of Monday Night RAW, WWE had gone to lengths to put him in the minds of WWE fans new and old. Promotional material was recorded for the release of WWE 2K17 that included Goldberg himself, coupled with footage of his time in WCW, which began to remind long-standing WWE fans what Goldberg offered in his prime. New, younger WWE fans were introduced to a character that stood for everything WWE has been presenting to children in the last 10 years… this guy from the video game was John Cena, Roman Reigns and Brock Lesnar all rolled into one.
Playable in the video game, available as a pre-order bonus, you could pit an in-his-prime Goldberg against any current WWE superstar and there was a massive appeal to that. When Goldberg came to WWE in 2003, there weren’t really that many superstars in WWE that Goldberg hadn’t wrestled before, now there are a huge number of dream matches you can play out in front of your eyes. Fantasy warfare has been a long-standing selling point of the WWE video game franchise. If this promotional model seems familiar to you, it’s because it is. The same strategy was used a few years ago, to bring Sting back into WWE. Clearly, Sting’s introduction to the modern audience was so successful, WWE were content to employ the same tactics all over again. Thank you, Sting!
- But wait, there’s more…
WWE 2K17 didn’t do the job on its own, though. Another thing that is different now to in Goldberg’s first run is the advent and popularity of the WWE Network. In 2003, it wasn’t possible (or rather, it was extremely difficult) to go back and watch Bill Goldberg in his prime. WWE collated a collection of videos on the Network, mostly from his time in WCW and left out anything that made Goldberg look bad, such as his title loss at Armageddon 2003, a match in which Goldberg bounced a door into himself before even coming to the ring. Put simply, the WWE Network provided exposure of Goldberg to 2016’s WWE fan in a way that it just couldn’t for 2003’s WWE fan. Thank you, WWE Network.
- He’s how old?!
There is an argument to be made that Goldberg is in the best physical shape he’s ever been in in his life. He’s thinner and more defined than he was in 2003 and, in addition to his looks, he just seems to be moving better than he ever has before. When Goldberg displayed his power during his first WWE run, he’d often lose his balance after impact and stumble around. His 2003 spear looked genuinely dangerous and, therefore, something people didn’t want to see happening to their favourite superstars. Now, Goldberg’s limited interaction with talent, as well as his time in the Royal Rumble, show us a different Goldberg. This Goldberg is sharp and impactful; each move is considered and precise. It doesn’t seem possible that a 50 year old man can be a better athlete now than in the prime of his life but that’s what we’re seeing. It’s impressive. Thank yourself, Goldberg.
- Dirty part-timer!
The WWE Universe hates a part-time wrestler, don’t they? Not any more, I’d argue. Goldberg was lambasted by fans for his one-and-done year and intermittent superstars since have been derided by the hardcore for their lack of commitment to the business. The culture has changed in recent years, though. Part-timer is no longer a dirty phrase (as much as WWE tried to make a big deal of it during the recent John Cena/AJ Styles fued) and there are a number of guys that have made a good living doing limited or short term runs in WWE. The most notable of these is Brock Lesnar. Brock Lesnar has changed the mindset of the audience to one of anticipation. Lesnar’s limited schedule helps to present him as a star attraction. You simply cannot miss a show that Brock Lesnar is on because he isn’t around very much, so every appearance could be a big one. Goldberg’s schedule successfully follows the “Lesnar model,” with Fast Lane being only his third match in the ring. Going over Brock Lesnar in 1 minute and 26 seconds made Goldberg more exclusive. You have to watch an event with Goldberg in it, but don’t blink ‘cos you’ll miss it! Thank you, Brock Lesnar.
- Less TV time = less squashing young talent
Goldberg’s limited match schedule has the added benefit of not putting him in the ring with too many of today’s WWE superstars. Through the development of NXT, the WWE has done an excellent job of deepening their roster with skilled, charismatic talent and is these guys were to be served up to and “squashed” by Goldberg, I don’t think that it would sit well with the WWE Universe. Not being on TV as much means that this doesn’t need to and hasn’t happened; long may it continue. Thank you, Goldberg’s contract.
- WWE Creative have got their act together
Back in 2003, you got the impression that WWE didn’t have any idea what to actually do with Goldberg… His win/loss record was consistent with his character but they didn’t really set him up with anything memorable, it was just business as usual, presenting Goldberg as nothing particularly special. The storylines for Goldberg’s return, however, seem to have been planned from start to finish. He came back to fight Brock Lesnar. When he defeated Lesnar, he refocused on taking another run at a Championship only to have Lesnar interject himself in those plans once again. Those plans will culminate at WrestleMania and the arc will be complete. A realistic, well thought out story that has been executed to perfection by all involved. Thank you, WWE Creative (as well as Brock Lesnar, Paul Heyman, Kevin Owens and Chris Jericho).
A perfect storm
With all this in mind, it seems that both Goldberg and WWE have learned from the mistakes of 2003. In every way that Goldberg’s first foray into WWE failed, choices have been made this time around to ensure Goldberg’s popularity and prosperity. I predict that that Bill Goldberg will be crowned the third WWE Universal Champion this Sunday, take the belt into WrestleMania to face Brock Lesnar and drop the belt to the beast. Either way, I don’t think there’s any way that Goldberg’s current run in WWE could not be branded a success.