The announcement that Bill Goldberg would be the cover boy for WWE 2K17—the latest release of the annually average video game series—was an obvious sign that the 49 year old was coming back for another match or two. Despite the mediocrity of the series, both WWE and Take Two Interactive make big bucks each year on the small tweaks made to the basic grapple game formula. Most of those tweaks are the addition of stars of yesteryear, forever in their primes, never aging and eternal—many of the traditional additions are long deceased. Goldberg, whose prime was nearly 20 years ago in the defunct WCW, fit the demands perfectly.
There was nearly a sense of dread accompanying the prospect of Goldberg's return. There was something unseemly about the nakedness of the marketing tie-in. The tail was wagging the dog—pro wrestling should drive what's in the video game, not the other way around. Also, Goldberg has been absent for so long; his return wouldn't be a still semi-active Sting returning or the annual Undertaker appearance. This would be a man who had been away for nearly 12 years and who often seemed very mercenary about his role in pro wrestling toward the end of his active career. Wrestling fans can forgive many things, but not loving pro wrestling as much as they do is a big ask.
It was never a bigger ask than in Goldberg's final match in WWE, a notorious stinker against Brock Lesnar at Wrestlemania 20. It's worth watching in full. Each man was on his way out for variations on money, MMA dreams, and fame, and word had leaked that this was each's last match. What had been billed as a dream match turned into a nightmare. The crowd relentlessly shit on both men, booing nearly non-stop, with the only respite being an unsettling boredom rippling through the stadium. Goldberg and Lesnar were obviously inclined to go through the motions; the crowd's hectoring pushed them into rest holds and an obvious unease with their surroundings which made a bad match worse. The only real cheers came when special referee Stone Cold Steve Austin gave each of them a Stunner in turn, a sort of emblematic Vince McMahon middle finger to them.
Lesnar came back, of course, but Goldberg seemed more than content to stay far away from WWE. He was vocal about it. It was a strange thing; outside a rare appearance or interview, Bill Goldberg, the last of WCW's superstars, simply disappeared.
When it became obvious that Goldberg wasn't just returning, but returning for a rematch with Lesnar after that godawful Wrestlemania match, the most fervor anyone could muster was a muffled groan. Here we were again, with part-timers taking full-timer paydays, only this time tied to a match most people try desperately to forget.
But a strange thing happened on Monday's episode of Raw. Bill Goldberg came out at the end of the show to finalize his Survivor Series match with Lesnar. And it was magic.
Understand that, even in his prime, Goldberg was never a good promo. It's pretty arguable whether he's even a good wrestler, given that he's always had a reputation for working stiff and also delivered the kick which concussed the legendary Bret Hart so badly he had to retire. He leaned on an outsized, nearly feral charisma more than his words. He never talked; he spit and snarled.
So there was a physically smaller Goldberg, nearly 50 years old, making the same intro as always. He marched from the back, a game face made of carefully cultivated, barely sublimated, method actor rage. He walked into his pyro, inhaled and then exhaled the smoke. He yelled. He kicked the air—not as high as he once did, but he kicked it anyway. He made his way to the ring and got in.
And then he cried.
As the crowd chanted his name and chanted "holy shit", he raised his hand and thanked the fans for not forgetting him. He sounded legitimately amazed at this in the way that only that unique blending of the real and unreal of pro wrestling can conjure. The mercenary, the guy the wrestling world dumped on, the guy who disappeared, the guy who always seemed so disaffected in public but who we always heard had a heart of gold in private, was clearly shaken by the reaction.
Goldberg talked about his wife and his son who was born too late to see him wrestle. He did standard wrestling promo boilerplate: ass kickings, his dumb opponent, etc. Through it all, the raw emotion of the moment was eating at him, spurring him on. He delivered a variation on his "you're next" catchphrase, telling Lesnar "you're last", an admission that this was it for him. Then he picked his son up on his shoulder and paraded him at ringside.
It was the promo of his life. The cynicism melted away, if only for fifteen minutes.
The match between Lesnar and Goldberg is almost certainly going to be bad. Goldberg is old, and there's no away around that. Lesnar has slowly seemed more disinterested as his second WWE run has worn on. They stank it up last time we did this.
But for that brief quarter hour on Monday, this was exactly what we crave in our pro wrestling comebacks. It's a motif written about in this column often, but it underpins each weekly entry: pro wrestling is irrevocably wedded to its past. That can be a good thing, when it uses the past to give weight to the present or when the sheer immensity of decades of story show themselves. Or it can be a bad thing, when the past stifles future stars who endlessly have to repeat the same things.
On Monday, it was the former. The world faded away and we were left with the essence of wrestling's dramatic side: an actor/stuntman/athlete, in front of a crowd, feeding on their energy as they fed on his, with the weight of pro wrestling's years bearing down on us. The whole world became pro wrestling and it was the best moment of the wrestling year.