A few weeks ago, it was announced that former WCW and WWE world heavyweight champion Bill Goldberg will be featured as a playable character in the WWE 2K17 video game that will be released later this year. It’s surprising and intriguing when you consider his rocky exit from the company over a decade ago. Judging from The Ultimate Warrior and Sting being included in previous titles in the series, could this open the door for Goldberg to return to the company?
Nearly two decades ago, the former Atlanta Falcon was recruited by World Champion Wrestling when Sting spotted him at a gym during an attempt to make a comeback to the NFL after a series of injuries derailed his somewhat mediocre gridiron career. He was trained at the Power Plant and less than a year later, he debuted on Nitro in September of 1997. Goldberg looked like a barbarian and while his skills were unrefined, his smash mouth style became an anticipated segment of WCW programming. The formula for him was simple, he showcased his power skills and the matches were kept short to camouflage his weaknesses. Again, it was simple, but effective as he began a meteoric rise in popularity and became the most popular star in the company in just a few months. The combination of the music, the security that walked him from the dressing room to the ring, and the pryo all enhanced the presentation. Was Bill Goldberg one dimensional? Sure, but it was a gimmick that worked.
As was the case with many elements of WCW, they eventually fumbled the Goldberg project and in some ways, his career never recovered. At the peak of his popularity and the streak that had a record number of viewers tuning in each week, Goldberg defeated Hulk Hogan to win the heavyweight title in July of 1998 at the Georgia Dome with over 40,000 fans in attendance. The critical flaw for the promotion (and probably an example of why they lost money in the years that followed) was perhaps THE biggest match they could book at the time was aired on free TV instead of getting fans to pay to watch it on pay-per-view. Eric Bischoff traded a win in the weekly ratings war for millions of dollars in PPV revenue. In late 1998, Kevin Nash, a legitimate star that didn’t need the push, ended the streak, and that was followed by the infamous “finger poke of doom” when Hogan won the belt again. The office managed to end Goldberg’s streak without making another star, and tarnish the credibility of the championship within a short time frame. The problem with any undefeated streak is there’s a risk of it becoming stale or the angle falls flat when it eventual ends, and it requires a very careful booking style, something that WCW wasn’t known for during its history. Depending on what interview you watch, supposedly there was a plan to rebuild Goldberg toward another run at the title, but for whatever reason, it didn’t happen and for the majority of 1999, he was booked in mostly useless storylines. There was also the time frame when the crowd rejected Goldberg,which was probably a combination of the booking not protecting his limited style after the conclusion of the streak and the lack of any major angles. In a way, it was a “been there done that” type of situation when they tried to restart the streak. Another situation that stalled Goldberg was that in late 1999 he punched through a limo window and injured his arm and he was on the sidelines for over eight months. So, after nearly a year of pointless angles, he was injured several more months and his momentum was completed halted when he returned in 2000. He had shoulder surgery in early 2001 and then Vince McMahon bought WCW.
Similar to the majority of the top tier talent in WCW, Goldberg’s contact was with Turner broadcasting, not the actual WCW organization so even though the promotion folded in early 2001, he still had more than a year of his deal. Also similar to the majority of the top tier talent from the Turner group, he stayed home for the duration of the contract and collected the paycheck, a smart business move as signing with another company would’ve voided his deal. After a brief tour of Japan in 2002 for major money, the landscape of sports entertainment realistically only offered WWE at the time, considering in 2003, TNA was still doing weekly pay-per-views without a TV deal and didn’t have the type of cash to sign Goldberg. While Goldberg had a few matches in Japan, the early 2000s were a time when Japanese business was on the brink of collapse so a long term schedule there wasn’t going to bring the type of money that WWE could offer. For the WWE, they needed a boost of star power as Stone Cold Steve Austin had walked out previously and then returned for a final in ring run with a limited number of matches to set up his retirement match with The Rock. Was it promoted as Austin’s last match at Wrestlemania 19? No, but those behind-the-scenes knew that the biggest star in the business was on borrowed time as an in ring performer after many serious injuries. Along with Stone Cold’s impending exit, The Rock was set to make his transition full time to Hollywood, a process that had begun the previous year when he appeared in the Scorpion King. Basically, 2003 saw the conclusion of the wrestling careers of the WWE’s top two stars, along with the slump the business was in as a result of there being only one option for fans. It’s ironic that Goldberg arrived the night after Stone Cold finished wrestling since there was a time when it would’ve been considered the ultimate dream match. Plus, you have to take into account that Goldberg worked a per-per-view match with The Rock before his jump to movies. Again, this was definitely a time when WWE needed the star power.
However, for whatever reason, very little was done to help Goldberg get over with the WWE audience and in many ways, he wasn’t booked in a way that had any legitimate chance for success. The WCW formula kept the matches short in an effort not to exposed his weaknesses and when he was building the streak to a record audience on Nitro, he was usually booked with opponents that could make him look good for the brief time he was on TV. Granted, the WWE is a different level and performers have to be more well rounded there, but at the same time, you know what you’re getting with Goldberg. It seems as though more often than not he was booked in scenarios that he would’ve had to carry the majority of the match and that’s not something he had been known for at any point in his career. Keep in mind, Bill Goldberg only had five years experience when he debuted for the WWE so while he was an established star, he wasn’t going to be able to carry main event matches. Goldberg vs. Batista or Mark Henry in 2003 wasn’t exactly going to make anyone look good on TV, despite the fact that those matches would probably be solid now. There was also the infamous Elimination Chamber match at Summer Slam that year when Triple H was injured and only wrestled about five minutes in the actual match before he defeated Goldberg. Even though he was the top star in WCW for a period of time, Goldberg was only the World Heavyweight champion in WWE for about three months and he didn’t get the chance to main event any marquee pay-per-views. Plus, his last match in the WWE with Brock Lesnar was memorable for all the wrong reasons.
So, why didn’t Goldberg translate from WCW to the WWE?
There are several reasons, but in my opinion, there were a few key factors as to why the WWE wasn’t going to let Bill Goldberg run with it. Maybe this is being too cynical, but the WWE has a history of taking jabs at WCW whenever possible and specifically in 2003, there were numerous examples of former WCW talent being made to look inferior. If the WWE made one of WCW’s top stars look secondary in comparison to their own stars, it only reinforced the notion that WCW was an inferior product. Granted, WCW had a laundry list of problems, but when you look at the situation objectively, it’s obvious that the promotion did something right to almost put Vince McMahon out of business in 1997. Another aspect to consider is that Goldberg only signed a one-year deal with the WWE and without a long term contract, there was the risk that they would invest the TV time to reestablish him as a star and not get a major return on the investment if he decided not to sign another contract.
Will Bill Goldberg return to the WWE?
It’s tough to say because it’s very possible that he does the video game deal and definitely a Hall of Fame induction without actually wrestling again. On the flip side, he’s friends with several well known stars, including Brock Lesnar and there was a slight “cryptic message” with the suplex city sign being featured in the commercial so that could provide an opportunity for a Wrestlemania match, similar to Sting a few years ago. The debate on if Bill Goldberg is a Hall of Fame level performer is another discussion for another time, but there are a few points to consider. In some ways, Goldberg was a flash in the pan because he was extremely successful for a short period of time, but it faded quickly because of his limited in ring ability. That being said, he was almost as popular as Stone Cold Steve Austin during a time when pro wrestling was drawing record numbers and that itself makes a good argument for a HOF induction. The question is, will Goldberg get inducted? The answer is simple, if the WWE can make money from it then it will probably happen.
More than anything, it would be great if Bill Goldberg received some recognition for his career because it was somewhat disappointing for one of the biggest stars of the 90s to conclude his in ring career with such a lackluster match in 2004. This certainly creates some interesting scenarios for early next year and considering that nobody thought Sting would sign, it’s more than possible that Goldberg returns to the WWE.
Until next week
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