Heroes And Villains: The Golem

TIME TRAVEL AND WRESTLING LISTS

“Who will be the top wrestlers in the world (or the US, or the WWE, etc.) 5 (or 10) years from now?” I enjoy reading articles that attempt to answer these questions. I enjoyed reading an article like this on 411 a few years ago. I hope we’ll do something like that on Inside Pulse sometime in the near future–I’d love to contribute to such a column. Speculation is fun.

It’s also wildly inaccurate most of the time. Lists like these usually reveal more about the writer(s) than about the world of the future (or the world of the present). There’s just no way to make a list like this accurate. There’s probably some kid in his senior year of high school somewhere out there who will be the biggest thing in wrestling 10 years from now. Chances are that he’s not related to anyone famous, either. Chances are that somebody who seems to have a bright future today will have a catastrophic injury that will force him out of the business. Or maybe he’ll decide he’d rather play football for a living, or make movies. Maybe he’ll just never catch on.

All of these things are possible, maybe even probable. But none of them really explain what happened to Bill Goldberg. If you were able to magically go back in time and survey all the premiere IWC pundits of 5 years ago, I bet nearly every one would have predicted that Bill Goldberg would be one of the biggest stars in wrestling today. Yeah, the whole fingerpoke thing had happened, and he wasn’t the same hot commodity of 1998, but there was still a general consensus that Goldberg would be the man for WCW for years to come, ensuring a bright future for that company despite (mis)management issues and AOL’s impending buyout of Time-Warner.

We all know what happened. Over the past five years, Goldberg has only wrestled for three relatively short runs in America. (They are, in case you’ve forgotten, his anti-nWo run in late ’99 cut short by the unstoppable force of a car windshield; his Russo-era run, which included a colossally botched heel turn and ended with Buff Bagwell and Lex Luger retiring him; and the WWE run that most of you probably still remember.) He’s made clear that his commitment to pro wrestling is directly proportional to the amount of money he can hope to accumulate from promoters desperate enough to entrust their company to his clumsy hands. Injury and apathy combined to reduce the hottest thing in wrestling (excluding Steve Austin) to a 21st century Ultimate Warrior.

Goldberg is doubtlessly responsible in large part for his own woes, though he can also probably blame bad luck and stupid booking as well. During his WWE run in particular, both Goldberg and the IWC seemed to agree that his character was being mishandled (a pooch-screwing epitomized by the wig skit). “Goldberg is a monster,” you would hear people say. “Goldberg shouldn’t sell for anyone,” you would hear message board posters shouting from atop mountains (or, depending on the quality of the board, from atop medium-sized hills). “Vince McMahon is an idiot,” you would hear Goldberg himself say while in attendance at a celebrity ice hockey game. (By the way, Goldberg, you’re from Atlanta, GA. What business do you have at an ice hockey game?)

But here’s the thing: no matter how brilliantly or idiotically Goldberg was booked, there’s no denying that both WCW and WWE got diminishing returns from him in each run. Goldberg was still over, but he was never 1998 over again. Some folks are tempted to blame Kevin Nash for this turn of events. That’s fair enough, but the damage wrought by the so-called Fingerpoke of Doom is but a symptom of a larger disease which afflicted Bill Goldberg. For, you see, Goldberg never was a real character.

A WRESTLER MADE FROM THE SLIT OF THE OKEFENOKE SWAMP

Goldberg first emerged during the height of the nWo angle. The year was 1997, and the nWo had been on top for about a year. Aside from a brief run by Lex Luger, Hulk Hogan had carried the world title for almost the entire length of the angle. The tag titles were circulating a bit more freely, but clearly were the Outsiders’ to take whenever they felt like doing so. Worst of all (at least from my point of view as a 20 year old), that dumbass Syxx was winning secondary singles titles, despite having no apparent redeeming qualities.

Meanwhile, the good guys who represented WCW couldn’t get it together. DDP and Lex Luger were squabbling as tag team partners. Ric Flair’s ego kept himself and the Four Horsemen from being team players. Roddy Piper seemed like a novelty more than a savior–and a particularly unstable novelty at that. And the man who represented the best chance at restoring glory to WCW, the man who most of us couldn’t wait to see take on Hulk Hogan, spent most of his times hiding in the rafters with a baseball bat, emerging only to perform cryptic actions (usually poking other wrestlers in the chest with said baseball bat).

Just when things looked their darkest, people started noticing this big bald guy who won all his matches in less than two minutes. He didn’t talk much, and he didn’t have a gimmick. He just exuded intensity and aggression–his two signature moves, the spear and the jackhammer, were both quick and violent bursts of power. Now here was a guy who could just steamroll through the henchmen of the nWo, and possibly even the top level guys.

Brief autobiographical intrusion: In the summer of 1997, I got a job working for a dollar movie theater in Columbia, SC. I started out doing the shit work (cleaning up, selling popcorn, rousting drunks, etc), but I soon moved up to being a projectionist, and finally the head projectionist. Don’t laugh–it’s the best non-academic job I ever had, even though it paid almost nothing. Since there were only five screens in the whole theater, I had a ton of spare time. And in 1997-9, when I worked for this theater, everyone watched wrestling. I frequently conversed with the managers and fellow employees alike about wrestling. In fact, having moved out of the dormitory and being too cheap to get cable, I relied on my assistant manager to tape the weekly shows for me. I would then watch these tapes on Friday nights while getting drunk on PBR (or, when we were feeling especially festive, fortified wine or malt liquor) with my friends, most of whom were still a few months away from turning 21. I would call these “good times,” but looking back on it, they really weren’t that good. Being a real, full-fledged adult is much better”¦.

Anyway, my point is this: among the people with whom I discussed wrestling was a security guard who worked at the theater on weekends. His name was George, and he reminded me of a more sedate Roscoe Coltrane. I liked George a lot, even though (or perhaps because) wrestling was just about the only thing we ever discussed. George was the kind of wrestling fan that Dave Meltzer is always talking about. He had watched Georgia Championship Wrestling and Mid-Atlantic Wrestling, and followed them as they permutated into WCW. He never watched WWF, and I’m willing to bet that he doesn’t watch WWE today. He might watch TNA, but only if he has an illegal box, or if he isn’t doing anything else on a Friday afternoon. And, to return us to the topic of this column, George loved Goldberg.

WRITE THE WORD “JOB” ON HIS FOREHEAD AND HE WILL SLEEP

Now Goldberg was not the sort of wrestler that guys like George had grown up watching. Goldberg was descended from the WWF school of characterization. Faces in the traditional Southeastern promotions were, by the 1980s, usually good ol’ boys. Some were shitkickers, some were earthy pretty boys like Bo and Luke Duke, and others were good natured weirdos like Dusty Rhodes. Not all of them were Southerners, but nearly all of them had feet of clay. They weren’t the biggest, the fastest or the strongest, but instead relied on hard work or cleverness to win their matches. This model may have been partly inspired by the presence of Ric Flair, whose Nature Boy character naturally (ha ha) leant itself to good ol’ boy foils like Rhodes or Magnum TA. (Of course, one could also point out the success of preexisting good ol’ boys like Dusty Rhodes might have influenced the direction of the Nature Boy character.) Meanwhile, the WWF was defined by the “monster” face character, particularly Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior.

Goldberg represented something of an aberration from WCW’s tradition of babyfaces, though he was hardly the first monster face in that promotion. Though Nikita Koloff and the Road Warriors were certainly “monsters,” WCW’s first real attempt to build around a WWF style hero was Lex Luger. Luger’s Hogan-like character, however, fell flat within the WCW/NWA environment, as did most subsequent attempts to transplant WWF style faces into the Southern style promotion. (Some may point to Sting as an exception to this, but two things should be kept in mind. First, Sting was not a full-fledged copycat. His character actually combined elements of both WWF and WCW/NWA face characters. Second, though Sting was popular in his heyday, his popularity was not nearly as great as either the traditional faces he replaced in WCW/NWA, or the WWF faces he somewhat emulated. Sting probably merits deeper discussion in a future column.) Rather than abandon the WWF style face, however, WCW eventually brought over the prototype, Hogan himself. Even this proved unsatisfactory, however, leading in part to Hogan’s heel turn in 1996 (and the subsequent resurrection of his career).

Hogan and his allies in the nWo were, in fact, responsible for creating the situation that allowed Goldberg to (briefly) flourish. The nWo invasion was, at least initially, intended to coyly suggest that the WWF was invading WCW. It’s no surprise, then, that the major theme of the angle was tradition (embodied by WCW) vs. the nWo, which represented several different things which stood in opposition to “tradition,” such as a lack of respect for elders, sneak attacks, style over substance, cowardice, etc (all of which, it should be noted, are themselves longstanding traditions in wrestling–but those seeking absolute rationality from wrestling are apt to be frustrated viewers). There is no doubt that tradition was losing–badly–to anti-tradition during the nWo storyline. Even Sting, who was certainly not a “traditional” figure by the time of Starcade ’97, couldn’t get the job done.

Here’s where Goldberg comes in. Goldberg was not a traditional WCW/NWA face (though I heard frequent comparisons to Nikita Koloff). He was not a plucky underdog, or a gutsy everyman. He was an unstoppable monster, very much in the same vein as the Ultimate Warrior. His matches were short, his psychology (or, in kayfabe terms, finesse and strategy) was virtually nonexistent, and he seemed to employ only a handful of moves. Like the Warrior, Goldberg relied on overwhelming brute force to win his matches. From the moment he stepped in the ring, there was no doubt who was going to win–assuming it was a fair fight.

Goldberg was, essentially, WCW’s attempt to fight fire with fire. Its traditional heroes (and villains) had failed to eliminate the nWo menace. So the fans, announcers, officials, and other wrestlers put their faith in a modern day Golem, and unstoppable force whose loyalty to WCW seemed less important than his ability to smite its enemies. Fans didn’t cheer for Goldberg–they cheered for his actions. Goldberg was the ultimate monster face. He was a force of nature, righting wrongs and restoring order.

And that is why there was never any chance for Goldberg to hold on to the same success he had in 1997-8 once he had beaten Hogan. Yeah, the nWo did reform–twice–in order to set up more epic battles between Goldberg and the men in black and white. But, as the old cliche goes, sequels are rarely as successful as the original. After Goldberg’s first major triumph over the nWo (his title win over Hogan), the bad guys lost their edge, and every subsequent resurrection of the New World Order has been greeted with a chorus of groans. Meanwhile, Goldberg was left with little to do. No threat seemed as monumental, no struggle as Manichean. Maybe Vince Russo was on to something when he tried to turn Goldberg heel–the out of control Golem might have been an interesting storyline. It certainly worked in the original folktale.

In the end, George the security guard liked Goldberg because Goldberg promised to redeem WCW by exterminating the nWo. George didn’t like him because of who he was, but what he did (or promised to do). After Goldberg beat Hogan, George’s attention shifted to other matters in wrestling, like who would be inducted into the new Four Horsemen. He wasn’t all that upset with the Fingerpoke of Doom incident, maybe because he didn’t really worry about the nWo anymore. He never expressed any desire to see Goldberg regain the belt. For George, and, I suspect, countless other wrestling fans, Goldberg lost his mystique when he lost his purpose. A slumbering Golem is of interest only to the devout and to the folklorist (i.e., us IWC folks).

STABBING ISSUES

STABBING ISSUES is a new feature in the column–pending how this works out. With the new format of columns here at Inside Pulse, there is no longer a distinction between news reports and regular columns. I plan on keeping the format of this column intact, to some extent. Every week I’ll address the issue of character development in wrestling, or at the very least some topic related to it (hopefully not too tangentially). But, I’d also like to add a brief commentary at the end as well, to address some issue that’s currently causing the collective IWC brow to furrow. Not necessarily the #1 topic, but something that I think relates somehow to the spirit of the column. And this isn’t necessarily going to be IWC-bashing, as we frequently get things right. Just not this week.

The hot issue in the IWC this week appears to be HHH and Evolution’s attack on Randy Orton. Matthew Michael, on thewrestlingblog.com, was the first to point out how quickly this sentiment spread through the IWC, and Hyatte took a similar position in his column on Thursday. All the leading sites (including out own, though in much less of an “Oh God why?” sort of way) featured somebody or another lamenting the decision to drop plans for a slow-burn storyline short, thereby ruining a sure classic. Instead of months guessing who would turn when, we instead witnessed Vince’s umpteenth capitulation to HHH’s allegedly insatiable ego.

I think this is another case of the IWC (including some of our, uh, “leaders”) getting ahead of itself. Dave Scherer and others are lamenting the loss of something that, frankly, never existed in the first place: a classic, simmering feud between HHH and Orton that would have resulted in a match at Wrestlemania. There are a couple of problems here. First, this mental image of the lost classic feud is based on the rumor that the two would be squaring off at Wrestlemania. That might not happen; in fact, there may never have been serious, structured plans for this to happen. We have allowed our expectations to shape our vision of reality; would anyone have reacted quite this strongly had there not been rumors of an Orton-HHH match at Wrestlemania? Would there be this sense of outrage have been so great had we not all had a couple of months to construct our own fantasy versions of an Orton-HHH feud?

Second, everyone seems to be assuming that the slow burn feud would have kept us guessing, and been full of great suspenseful moments leading up to the eventual breakup of Evolution. And yeah, that would have been great. Let’s not forget, however, that not every long term angle is a good angle. Yes, the first 6 months or so of the nWo angle was great, as was the first year or so of McMahon vs. Austin. But for every classic, there are many more mediocre angles like Who Ran Over Austin? or The Higher Power. And then there’s always the occasional stinker, like Jericho vs. HHH (2002 edition). Let’s not forget that we’re talking about potential, not reality. There’s no way of knowing how the actual feud would have turned out, especially given the possibility of injuries, or McMahon’s personal whim. Assuming that plans were changed on Monday night, better to make that change now than in the middle of the feud.

And, as “Vince McMahon” noted in Hyatte’s column yesterday, there are plenty of opportunities to make this a memorable feud. I see there being two basic possibilities. It’s inevitable, barring injury or other calamity, that HHH and Orton will wrestle. The question is whether it will happen in the next month or so, or not until Wrestlemania. If it’s in the next month, then we could see HHH take the title and Orton struggle to regain it, presumably at Wrestlemania (bearing in mind Ric Flair’s shoot comment that the second reign means more, which could be adapted to fit this kayfabe storyline). If they hold off on a match until Wrestlemania, then the writers will have to come up with some other compelling reason to keep the two apart, while still keeping heat on the feud. There’s also the possibility of a double turn, with the revelation that Orton was pulling the strings all along and that Evolution is loyal to him. Whatever path is chosen, there are still plenty of good storyline possibilities–many of which could keep the audience guessing. However, if we get another lame, Jericho vs. HHH type feud, then I think the IWC may bitch with impunity.

NEXT WEEK

First off, a quick plug for the comics section. I’ve been catching up on reading the archives, and the enthusiasm of those guys inspired me to pick up some trade paperbacks that I really enjoyed. They give good advice over there, so be sure to check them out.

Next, I want you to tell me what you think of the new format. Is STABBING ISSUES a good addition? If so, should it remain in the backseat to the character analysis? Once you’ve done that, then come back next Friday as I continue to strip mine the subject of monsters in wrestling, when I examine the issue of size in wrestling. Is bigger and buffer always better? This won’t be another column on steroids. And maybe I’ll try to pin down exactly what a “hoss” is supposed to be, anyway.