The Spectacle of Bill Goldberg

GOOOOOOOOOOOLDBERG. GOOOOOOOOOOOLDBERG.

It’s fall 1997, and while you don’t realize it at the time, you’re watching something special. It’s another episode of Monday Nitro—the Four Horsemen are falling apart, WCW is struggling to regroup in the face of the nWo, and Sting watches from the rafters while Hulk Hogan and Roddy Piper threaten everybody with a Halloween Havoc main event that’d quickly earn the moniker “Age In a Cage.” Out comes Hugh Morris, nobody’s idea of a good time, and out comes this dude, Goldberg, a solid wall of meat, dressed simply in black trunks, boots, and gloves. The match is not good. Goldberg is very green, fresh from WCW’s Power Plant, a wrestling school that’s largely remembered for him and a Louis Theroux documentary where he’s made to train until he throws up, and he struggles with basic things like wrist locks and a leg submission he’d struggle with through the course of his career. He’s big, he’s strong, and it looks like Hugh Morris is going to put an end to him with his No Laughing Matter moonsault, only he kicks out. Not only does he kick out, but he comes up looking pissed. Shortly thereafter, he picks the 350 pound man up in the air in a vertical suplex, transitions it into a powerslam, and wins.

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“That’s number one,” he says into the camera, Tony Schiavone talking about how he’s come out of obscurity to pick up an unexpected win, and there’s so much happening in WCW at the moment that it’s not until 1998, with the promise of the Sting/Hogan feud a smoldering wreck, that you just saw the beginning of The Streak, a year-plus run where Bill Goldberg, an unknown in the sport of professional wrestling, racked up 173 wins and two championships before going down in defeat, controversially (both in and out of kayfabe), to Kevin Nash at Starrcade 1998. There’s a certain charm to the late 1997 stuff—Goldberg’s learning on the job, the idea that he could end up in petty entanglements with the likes of Alex Wright and Steve “Mongo” McMichael—but WCW was in serious trouble when the year-long Sting/Hogan feud ended the way it did, an overbooked nightmare precipitated on Hogan not wanting to drop the title clean to Sting because Sting hadn’t been hitting the gym as hard as he used to during his year in the rafters, and new blood was desperately, urgently needed. So The Streak moved from the backburner to occupy a central position in WCW’s storytelling apparatus, and crowd reaction to him, which was solid from the start, grew in response. Goldberg matches were as anticipated from week to week as main event title matches, only Goldberg was running down the likes of Jerry Flynn and The Renegade in less than three minutes and getting a bigger pop doing so than whatever that month’s WCW Championship feud entailed.

The Squash Match, Explained

If you’re at all familiar with professional wrestling, you’ve seen a squash match, which pits established talent, or talent in the process of becoming established, against enhancement talent, wrestlers whose job is to make the offense of their opponent look good. Unless you’re a fan of seeing guys like Iron Mike Sharpe, the Duke of Dorchester, and Disorderly Conduct get their clocks cleaned on Saturday afternoon wrestling shows of days gone past, you probably dread this particular kind of match, which has become a feature of televised wrestling again in 2020, particularly as AEW tries to establish new signings like Brodie Lee, Lance Archer, and Brian Cage. The idea of “enhancement talent” is largely antiquated—Marko Stunt would have been enhancement talent in any other era but now, and wrestlers like Heath Slater, who effectively was enhancement talent in WWE, just got a featured debut at IMPACT Wrestling’s Slammiversary—but its basic functions are still invaluable. Braun Strowman’s run started with squash matches. Ryback’s brief reign as a buzzed-about, Battletoad-bodied wrestler started with squash matches. Every monster heel you can name started out as someone who got in, did their big move to a nobody, and got out. These matches often happen in silence, because what story can be told within their strictures that hasn’t already been told literally thousands of times?

In 1997-1998, we got that answer. The weird miracle that is Goldberg’s ascent to the stratosphere begins with something that should not be possible—the squash match as a vehicle for putting over a babyface. Yes, they happened, and quite frequently in the 1980s, but wrestling was a different animal, something that built to frequently untelevised supercards, so squash matches were a means of reminding the viewer what a good wrestler was capable of, enticing them to imagine what might happen when they were in the ring with someone who wasn’t framed as a young upstart. When a face wrestled a squash match, it was an opportunity for both he and his opponent to demonstrate their skills, however mismatched they were. When a heel wrestled a squash match, it was an opportunity for the heel to demonstrate the hopelessness of opposing him. By the time of Goldberg’s ascent, squash matches were mostly relegated to shows like WCW Saturday Night, studio shows that maintained the name value of wrestlers who had their time as drawing cards but were now fodder for upper card wrestlers who couldn’t wrestle basic squashes anymore, as each quarter hour of Nitro and Raw were booked with an emphasis on stars wrestling or finding themselves in conflict with other stars, no room for the still water of a match that was three exchanges, a finisher, and a three count.

How Goldberg’s matches took that form, worn out and on its way to the dustbin of wrestling history, and made them spectacle is something I’ve tried to figure out for awhile now, and I’m not sure I can. The idea of wrestling as a sport, if you’ll allow wrestling to convince you that it’s a sport, is grounded in fairness. Sportsmanship. Faces are good because they believe in it and refuse to cheat. Heels are bad because they take shortcuts when they don’t need to. When you consider the difference between face squashes and heel squashes, the idea of sportsmanship comes into sharp relief. A nobody local wrestler who showed up to the venue with his gear and a dream doesn’t stand a chance against someone with a name like King Kong Bundy or Earthquake—to borrow a phrase, the cruelty of the mismatch is the point. But to look at Goldberg in comparison to everybody he wrestled invites the narrative question as to whether or not any of his matches were fair, whether he, sporting or not, was placed in situations where his opponent didn’t have a prayer.

Which is why his first match against Morris, however disjointed it was, is so important to his ascent. In this contest, he is the nobody. Morris is entirely in control, he even hits his finisher. WCW was littered with Power Plant guys who ate pins because they weren’t that good, so his losing despite his build, despite his obvious presence, was somewhat plausible—the fans even pop for Morris’ moonsault like it’s the expected finish of the match. He is, after all, dressed like enhancement talent. Watch the mood of the audience change when Goldberg gets up, does a backflip, and hits a powerslam. You can actually see a star being born in that moment, because this man has undone years of squash match conditioning—he comes from nowhere, he has no appreciable experience, he shrugs off the whole form and wins. It’s an incredible piece of booking, frankly, one of the more unappreciated bits of what made Eric Bischoff’s WCW good that gets lost in the justifiable complaints about wasted talent and sticking with established guys long past their relevance.

The Spectacle of Bill Goldberg

From there, Goldberg matches had two modes: either he ran his opponent down, or his opponent tried and failed to figure out how to beat this man who seemed handcrafted by a higher power specifically to destroy other wrestlers. Those matches, which were against the likes of Morris, Ray Traylor, and Scott Norton, look a lot like the heavyweight clashes that typify the zenith of the NEVER Openweight Championship, or recent title reigns by Brock Lesnar and, well, Bill Goldberg: big boys hucking bombs until, at last, one relents. For all of the criticism of Goldberg as a worker (there has been a lot of criticism of Goldberg as a worker over the years), the above three minute match between him and Scott Norton has everything I want out of a wrestling match. It feels huge, the crowd is nuts, a title is on the line, both guys are obviously tough and won’t back down for anybody. Goldberg is 75 matches into his run, so Norton, a future IWGP Heavyweight Champion with years of experience over the then WCW United States Champion, takes advantage immediately, running through his power spots, focusing on Goldberg’s shoulder because the shoulderbreaker is his big move. Norton, in shrugging off a Goldberg shouldertackle and hitting the shoulderbreaker, actually takes a move from Goldberg’s playbook in taking pain and responding with his finish. But it’s not enough. It never is. Goldberg wins, 76-0, and the crowd is molten for it. This is just, you know, something that happened in the middle of a WCW Nitro. And it rules. A straight-up banger.

But time has not been kind to Goldberg. One of the minor inconveniences of Goldberg’s rise to the top of professional wrestling was that he was a bald guy in black trunks, and that across the dial there was another bald guy in black trunks who was at the top of the world, unquestionably the most popular wrestler of the era. In WWE documentaries produced in years the company hasn’t had a business relationship with Goldberg, it’s routinely suggested that Goldberg’s success was due in no small part to his looking similar to “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, as if the two were the subject of some kind of Pepsi Challenge where it’d be easy to mistake the two until you got a taste of each and chose Austin, as if America had an insatiable thirst for bald men in black panties. In shoot interviews, Kevin Nash has gone on record as saying that the decision to put him over Goldberg at Starrcade 1998, in effect starting the chain of events that killed WCW, was that he couldn’t really go for longer than five to eight minutes, that fans were starting to tire of the routine. When WWE decided to rechristen longtime jobber Duane Gill “Gillberg,” his entrance music had an unenthusiastic crowd hockey chanting his name to mock the frequently insinuated notion that the WCW audience’s “GOOOOOOOOLDBERG” chants were piped in through the PA. In other words, it isn’t cool to like Goldberg.

But look, Goldberg is incredible. If you believe in wrestling as a spectacle, you have to give Goldberg your attention because he manages to pack all of that into a neat, condensed package. His theme music (stock music that became indelibly his), the way he banged his head on the locker before a match, the march through the corridors, the pyro, the way he breathed smoke. He had presence.  And people ate it up. A 1:36 match against Disco Inferno? Delicious. A thirty second match against Lodi? Seconds, please. Ten minutes with Raven? How many members of the Flock can a man spear in ten minutes? How long can a crowd roar? Say what you will about piped chants and workrate, in 1998 most Goldberg matches, squash or otherwise, had the look and feel of a WrestleMania main event.

Ten months into this run, it was time. Monday Nitro, July 6, the Georgia Dome. Goldberg was a backup defensive tackle for the Atlanta Falcons in that arena, a starter for the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia before that. The official attendance that night was 41,412, the largest in WCW history, and an absolutely absurd number for a television show. The main event, a WCW World Heavyweight Championship match between Goldberg and Hollywood Hulk Hogan. The semi-main event, a match between Goldberg and Scott Hall. Unlike 1997, when Lex Luger capped off an incredible run with a short WCW Championship reign meant to take some pressure off of Hulk Hogan while they maneuvered their way towards an eventual match with Sting, this was a coronation, a man storming a castle and becoming the king.

Unlike most Goldberg matches, this one didn’t have an air of inevitability around it. This was Hulk Hogan, after all, and WCW had been known to fuck up a sure thing on account of Hogan’s ego. But for a crowd, and for what he considered the right reasons, Hogan was willing and able to put over the new guy. This match, in a way, is the WCW version of his WrestleMania VI match against the Ultimate Warrior, a clean loss in a big arena to a man heralded as the future of professional wrestling, even if that future didn’t come to pass. I saw this match as a 10-year-old I had goosebumps. I watch this match once or twice a year because it’s fun watching Hulk Hogan get smashed, and I get goosebumps every time. This match isn’t peak WCW—no match featuring Hulk Hogan can be—but it is, I think, the peak of the Monday Night War. It’s the biggest possible match, on a stage Eric Bischoff had made the largest in wrestling, a celebration of everything that was possible with his vision of the medium, in all of its sloppy, overbooked splendor.

The nWo always won. That’s the thing. Even when they lost, they found a way to screw WCW out of anything resembling catharsis. They either cheated to win, sued to keep titles, or jumped the ring to cause a disqualification. It sucked, it was frustrating, and the WWF was really no better when it came to satisfying finishes, so given a choice between the two I kept watching WCW, where Goldberg kept piling up wins and, even if it wasn’t voiced, the question was “what happens when this guy fights Hulk Hogan?” I wasn’t a smart fan—not even remotely—but Hulk Hogan had been the towering figure of my life in wrestling to that point, and I was bracing for him to crush my dreams despite everything about Goldberg, that’s how infrequently Hulk Hogan lost.

The match hits differently now—I have cause to dislike Hulk Hogan as a person, I have cause to take up Bill Goldberg as a matter of identity—but boy does it hit. I haven’t quite figured out what it is about wrestling that triggers the pleasure center of my brain, but rewatching this match for the sake of this piece, it was on fire. It’s not just Goldberg, nor is it the crowd’s response to him. Hogan is incredible here, his run from 1996-1998 truly legendary so far as coward heels go, and, at last on the other side of a stadium crowd’s love for a performer, he is visibly shaken. He is constantly backpowering, consistently terrified in the face of Goldberg’s power. It’s an even match, for the most part—it’s a Hulk Hogan title match, after all—but it’s like Hogan has taken in every Goldberg victory, from the Barry Darsows to the Scott Halls, and internalized his own unmaking. He doesn’t want to end up like them, so he does.

There are things in this match I’ve never seen before or since, like Hogan utilizing the ropes to escape the above knuckle lock. Hogan breaking out some of his “Good In Japan” playbook of chain wrestling and the Axe Bomber lariat. The sustained roar. The way the crowd manages to get louder when Goldberg fires back. Like Randy Savage in his retirement match against the Ultimate Warrior, Hogan spams his finishing move, the Atomic Leg Drop. Like Randy Savage in that match, his utter disbelief when Goldberg kicks out is electrifying. You know what’s happening, even if the nWo is coming out for a premature celebration, even if DDP and Karl Malone are there to hype up their Bash at the Beach main event against Hogan and Dennis Rodman. Bobby Heenan’s ecstasy. The spear. The Jackhammer. God, the three count, as clean as any Hulk Hogan loss gets.

What happens next doesn’t matter. Goldberg vs. Hulk Hogan is a 22 year old match at this point, and wrestling’s past is something one can liberally pick and choose from, wheat separated from chaff not by best of DVD collections or star ratings in the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, but by what makes you feel good. Being a wrestling fan in 2020, covering wrestling as a job, has been a bruising experience, and it’s often difficult to remember why you like the thing, why you think it’s important, what made you a fan in the first place and why you continue to be in spite of it all. I needed a reminder. This week, Bill Goldberg was it. The Man, as they used to call him, eternal.

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Colette Arrand

Colette Arrand is a minor transsexual poet and nu-metal enthusiast.

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