At WWE’s Super Showdown event last Friday, Bill Goldberg made short work of “The Fiend” Bray Wyatt, because Goldberg makes short work of everyone. And as Goldberg ages—he’s 53 but has the ginormous trapezius muscles of a much younger man—the work has gotten shorter and shorter. Even when he’s being beaten, as in a botch-filled affair against the Undertaker at last year’s Super Showdown or in his WrestleMania 33 return match against Brock Lesnar, Goldberg goes down quickly. He’s always booked as an unstoppable force, unless he’s stopped quite abruptly. Despite the march of time—of both his age and the changing sensibilities of the wrestling audience—Goldberg remains the culmination of a particular pro wrestling dream: He’s the quintessential promoter-manufactured wrestler, the fictional tough guy booked so strong you almost believe he actually is, the attraction who attracts your attention because the booker tells you so.
From the time wrestling veered toward pure theatrics, the sport trained its collective eyes on the Goldberg archetype: the ex-footballer with charisma, a built-in audience, and the look to tie it all together. Goldberg may have had a forgettable NFL career, but he balanced that out with a memorable upper body, bald head, and goatee—the quintessential 1990s “look” of a certain type of tough guy. College football stars like Wayne Munn and Gus Sonnenberg, who had great bodies by 1920s standards but couldn’t wrestle their way out of wet paper bags, started the trend. Bronko Nagurski, an NFL legend who had some of the most legendary quads that ever slid into a pair of trunks, offered more of the same in the 1940s and 1950s. Ernie Ladd and Stan Hansen left the gridiron for the squared circle, but even though both were powerhouses, neither was unbeatable.
Goldberg, by contrast, is only unbeatable. Whereas Munn and Sonnenberg were exposed in the 1920s by shooters—men who used their legitimate grappling skills to flip the script and expose the posers—Goldberg exists in a more carefully plotted era, even if British hardman William Regal notoriously sandbagged him in an early WCW bout and ex-UFC competitor Matt Riddle ridicules him on social media even today. Hansen and Ladd were both big-gate attractions in their day, but they could afford to give and take losses because each of those bruisers was believable enough in the ring to take the “L” and come again another day. Goldberg, by contrast, has always been somewhat limited and vulnerable, outside of a spear and a jackhammer finisher that has gotten tougher with age and injury, to the point that he can’t afford to be beaten easily—the Internet Wrestling Database records a mere 31 losses, split between pay-per-views (10) and non-pay-per-views (21), across 298 career matches.
From the beginning, Goldberg was manufactured to be an attraction. He wasn’t a natural attraction, a lumbering mound like Giant Haystacks or a genuine giant like Andre, but rather a lab-forged creation, rushed from the WCW Power Plant training facility to WCW television in 1997, when he was 31. He wasn’t some young phenom, like Brock Lesnar a few years removed from tearing up NCAA wrestling mats when he arrived in the WWE, but rather a man on the cusp of middle age, with a six-year pro football career behind him. Visually, he was impressive, but no more so than lesser lights of the era like muscle-bound second-generation midcarders Shawn Stasiak and Scott Putski. And yes, he had that goatee and bald head that, combined with the black trunks he wore, linked him (at least in spirit) with trash-talking WWE superstar “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. But Goldberg didn’t really wrestle that well, and he didn’t talk that much. He let his wins do the talking.
William Regal, who wrestled Goldberg early in his 173-match “winning streak,” explains in his autobiography that he was instructed to go six minutes with the rookie as a way of improving his skills. “I got into the ring, did one or two moves on him, and he did nothing back,” Regal writes. “That’s how it went on. I had to keep attacking him to keep the match going. I was even telling him to do this or that and he just wasn’t doing it.”
Bret Hart—who got involved in a feud with Goldberg in 1999, when Goldberg’s streak had ended even as his skills hadn’t evolved much—experienced even more significant challenges, culminating in Goldberg concussing Hart with a hard kick to the head at Starrcade ’99 that more or less ended Hart’s full-time wrestling career. “Goldberg was no fun,” Hart writes in My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling. “Every night he mowed me down with his full-contact spear tackle … my ribs were sore from Goldberg spearing me. ... He reminded me of the gorilla on that old Samsonite luggage commercial.” Prior to Starrcade ’99, Hart asked Goldberg not to hurt him in the ring, though of course he did. When Goldberg kicked Hart—after calling for a “kick” that Hart says Goldberg failed to elaborate on—Hart says it “felt like someone chopped me with a hockey stick, an agonizing blow that sent me crashing to the mat where I lay holding my neck.”
Goldberg lost that match via submission, as he had the previous year’s Starrcade match with Kevin Nash, which ended his original winning streak. Here is what people forget, as fan memories of WCW get blurry with that federation’s decline: Despite those losses, Goldberg kept going, winning nearly every match he was in, mostly forgettable affairs against the likes of Scott Steiner, his aging brother Rick, early MMA star Tank Abbott (a big man who looked minuscule next to Goldberg), late-career Lex Luger (who also didn’t measure up physically, despite being the “Total Package”), and various other sacrificial lambs.
Goldberg also became costly, earning a guaranteed contract in the millions of dollars, so he didn’t make the jump to the WWE after Vince McMahon acquired the remnants of early WCW in 2001. But he got there soon enough, arriving in 2003 after a successful detour in All-Japan Wrestling, and immediately was placed into high-profile feuds. Goldberg was, after all, perhaps the biggest homegrown WCW star of the “Monday Night War” era. (Most of that company’s other notable names—Rey Mysterio, Chris Jericho, Eddie Guerrero, Chris Benoit, even Booker T—achieved greater fame after coming to WWE.) So Goldberg, for a time, could serve as a “fantasy booking” offering to the fans: beating the Rock, Chris Jericho (who had memorably trolled him in WCW), Triple H, and finally Brock Lesnar in a WrestleMania 20 match that would be the last for both men in the company for a long time. He also took some beatings, albeit not many, with Triple H’s heel stable Evolution putting a bounty on his head and powerhouses like Mark Henry trying to collect on it.
After 2004, it seemed like there wasn’t much left for Goldberg in wrestling. He was 38, still reasonably fit (if nagged, like all aging grapplers, by various injuries), and he had done his thing, which entailed winning most of his matches in rapid-fire, crushing fashion. He did this over and over, such that by the time he beat Lesnar at WrestleMania 20 to an antagonistic crowd reaction, it didn’t seem like there was much fan demand left for his steamroller routine. He came, he conquered, and the audience had seen enough.
Then in 2016, Bill Goldberg came back. He was 49, and hardly as spry as he used to be, but he looked roughly the same, if slightly reduced in size and grandiosity: big traps, bald head, goatee, glowering stare. He entered a WWE caught in the throes of real-life tough guy Brock Lesnar’s seeming invincibility, and he offered a way of complicating that paradigm. Somehow, Goldberg was booked in such a way that he gave Lesnar pause. He squashed him at the 2016 Survivor Series, squashed then–Universal Champion Kevin Owens at Fastlane 2017, and finally lost a short but poignant match at WrestleMania 33 to Brock Lesnar, potentially vanquishing Goldberg once and for all. Goldberg, whose arsenal now consisted of a rapid-fire spear and jackhammer, didn’t have any other tools in his toolkit; Lesnar was once again the WWE’s immovable object at the top of the title picture. A year later, he went into the WWE Hall of Fame—and, I assumed, into retirement.
But this is wrestling, and invincible wrestlers yield to nothing, even the passage of time. Goldberg returned to have a painfully bad match against the Undertaker at Super Showdown 2019, in which he was concussed, and then a decent match against Dolph Ziggler at that year’s SummerSlam, which seemed to be a way of writing off the miserable prior showing against ’Taker. Once again, I figured this was it for Goldberg: He had squashed someone else like a bug, and now he could rest.
Not so. Much as the WCW took Goldberg, whom they had painstakingly built into a 173-0 force, and had him lose to Kevin Nash at Starrcade ’98, the WWE decided to take Bray Wyatt, whom they had rebuilt into the indestructible and hugely popular Fiend, and had him lose to Goldberg. And he lost, despite the Fiend’s seeming infallibility, in humiliating but Goldberg-style fashion: spears followed by a very unsteady jackhammer, a 1-2-3 count, and the Fiend’s nigh-instantaneous resurrection and sudden disappearance while Goldberg celebrated his victory.
The question remains: whither Goldberg? There is obviously a certain nostalgia value, a certain vintage cachet, that surrounds Goldberg. Although he was in his 30s when he emerged, he was still a critical part of the wrestling youth movement that preceded the subsequent youth movement of Randy Orton, John Cena, and Dave Bautista.
The fan in me, eyes always glued to the WCW product, remembers Goldberg as some kind of major advance in the sport, an evolutionary step forward. He was, quite simply, the man who beat everyone, the man who was booked to beat everyone; there was nothing like it that I could recollect. Streaks had always been part of the sport, but rarely had they received this attention: Monster heels like Kamala and King Kong Bundy entered territories and usually didn’t even go off their feet until they suffered a crushing loss to the local hero before departing; the similarly unbeatable Road Warriors ran roughshod over other tag teams in short, Goldberg-style matches that obscured their grappling inexperience. The Undertaker’s WrestleMania streak, ended by Brock Lesnar at the 30th iteration of that event, was more an acknowledgement of the dead man’s main-event prowess than his overall win-loss record, as he won and lost his share of matches between those dates.
Goldberg, however, embodied his own special streak. He had the spear, the jackhammer, and 173 wins in a row. He had huge trapezius muscles and a goatee. And here he is in 2020, still the Universal Champion, still haunting our fantasy booking dreams. Nobody can think of anything better than the best, no one can beat the unbeatable Goldberg, and they won’t until the WWE decides to beat him again.
Oliver Lee Bateman is a journalist and sports historian who lives in Pittsburgh. You can follow him on Twitter @MoustacheClubUS and read more of his work at oliverbateman.com.