Being ready at a moment’s notice to step back into a WWE ring is normal for Bill Goldberg. As one of the most iconic figures in wrestling history, the reality for the 54-year-old is such that it’s never a matter of if he’ll get that phone call, but rather, when.
As WWE was preparing for the upcoming Royal Rumble event — the stage-setter for WrestleMania — Goldberg’s phone rang once again.
“Let’s just say that I had time to digest my holiday dinner before I got the call. I’m not talking about Christmas,” Goldberg told Yahoo Sports. “I have to prove my worth and my worth is proven by being ready. I can’t complain or moan about the short period of time because at the end of the day it means nothing.”
Goldberg will step into the ring to perform for the first time since March on Sunday, facing Drew McIntyre for the WWE championship. With less than a month to prepare, there isn’t time to consider much beyond training despite immediately jumping to the top of the card on one of the biggest shows of the year.
“I’m a perfectionist,” Goldberg said. “I don’t really have time to be nervous or excited because I have so much on my plate to get done prior to putting the BVDs on and going out there and performing. At the end of the day, as Paul Heyman told me, I’m a relief pitcher. I like to think of myself as a Mariano Rivera. I should be ready at any time to come in, do my job and bring the heat.”
‘My mind wants my body to do things I just can’t do anymore’
The Rivera analogy is fitting for Goldberg, whose meteoric rise in the late 1990s was built on mowing down opponents in the ring in quick and merciless fashion much like the legendary Yankees closer did to opposing batters.
WCW had caught lightning in a bottle with Goldberg, an NFL player-turned-wrestler, building him into an unstoppable force and creating a 173-0 unbeaten streak that spanned 18 months in 1997 and 1998.
Despite it being more than 20 years after Goldberg and WCW’s heyday however, the formula for him largely remains the same — fast, hard-hitting matches — albeit with some natural physical limitations.
“It’s really tough. My mind wants my body to do things I just can’t do anymore, but I’ve still got it in my eyes and in my mentality,” Goldberg said. “As long as I can get my body as close as I can to where I was or to what is acceptable right now, I think physically my ability to perform will surprise a couple of people. I don’t know 10 people who are my age who can do what I can do and I take pride in that. If you know anything about me, I take it very seriously. I’m always going to be Goldberg, that’s just me. It’s still marketable, there’s still a place for it.”
Although there is still mystique to the Goldberg character, there has been a repackaging of sorts. Even though the outcomes in professional wrestling are scripted, the product is at its best when it is telling believable stories. Part of the puzzle when presenting a wrestler at Goldberg’s age — prior accolades aside — is that there needs to be some sort of flaw, especially considering he’s often sharing the ring with stars who are decades younger.
As Goldberg returned to WWE in 2016, his wife and son were shown on camera and in the years following, there have been television specials aired that offer fans a look at who Goldberg is away from the world of professional wrestling.
Opening up his home and bringing his personal life into focus was unimaginable for the Goldberg of old. When he returned to wrestling, however, it was seemingly inevitable in a world hungry for content while also providing a unique opportunity from a storytelling perspective.
“The one thing I wanted to do, and [Undertaker] may have pointed part of this out character-wise, is protect the character throughout time,” Goldberg said. “You can’t move backwards from what’s been done in front of millions of people, so in protecting that character, I never wanted to be humanized. You end that mystique.
“Bringing my family into the fray only made sense because it made sense in the story and it made me human. Therefore, I’ve allowed them to do things that I never would have imagined I would do during my wrestling tenure and that’s let them come to my house, let them video me backstage. Those are things that humanize you and detract from your character if you are a Mike Tyson who feels no pain, has no emotion, goes out and destroys people. Hopefully, it has painted the right picture to pass positive judgement upon myself.”
Blurred lines in a changing industry
While there is still a section of WWE fans that cheer Goldberg — one of the most pure babyfaces in wrestling history — there does remain a vocal subset that criticizes his ability as an in-ring performer.
When he first made his return after a 12-year hiatus, the change in fan demeanor was something that immediately stood out to Goldberg.
“It’s not that we provide the great show for them and they are a part of it,” Goldberg said. “They want to come and be the show. They want to yell and scream and start a chant that makes you stop your promo. I have never dealt with that and I think there’s no place for that in our business. I think it’s disrespectful. Maybe the product has changed where it’s more entertaining to throw that into the fray.”
Goldberg has been one of the stars who has seen a fair amount of criticism from “smark” wrestling fans. As the community became more informed about the inner workings of wrestling promotions, fans began to revolt against stars they believed were getting an unfair “push” to the top of the card and into the championship picture. As emphasis grew on wrestlers’ work rate in the ring, the once-clear delineation between babyface and heel also went away in most cases.
This change maybe hasn’t been more evident than in Goldberg’s most recent run with WWE, where, over the past four years, he has never truly worked as either a babyface or heel.
“I remember when good versus evil was all that you needed,” Goldberg said. “You didn’t need to draw blurry lines with every character. To me, it’s a simple equation. Back in the day, people didn’t care if I grabbed a spinning toe hold or put someone in a submission. They wanted me to eat people alive and that was enough for them.
“I have always been one that works on the adage of less is more. Hogan always taught me that you had to make everything count. You can’t hit a guy 50 times and have him keep standing in front of you.”
Despite WrestleMania looming, a singular focus
Should Goldberg win on Sunday night, it will be the first time in his career that he has won the WWE championship and almost certainly put him on a path for a main event-caliber match at WrestleMania.
Even without the championship, Goldberg’s presence at WrestleMania seems quite likely, as there are a slew of possible opponents for him come April.
Rumors have swirled about a Goldberg and Roman Reigns showdown after the COVID-19 pandemic led to that match being altered at last year’s WrestleMania. Goldberg also could be the perfect vehicle to bring back Bray Wyatt’s “Fiend” character or even a potential rubber match with Brock Lesnar.
For now though, mere weeks after getting that call, Goldberg’s focus is singular.
The fact is that I have to be ready to be Goldberg on the 31st,” Goldberg said. “To the best of my ability, I will try to present the best possible package and make people remember it the most.”
WWE’s Royal Rumble airs this Sunday on the WWE Network
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