Bill Goldberg in WCW was a star. Along with Sting, Goldberg was the main man, and the WCW fans adored him. Now also a three-time WWE Champion and a WWE Hall of Famer, you could be forgiven for thinking his career was as successful as one of his intense squash matches; short, powerful, and impressive. However, Bill’s first WWE run was far from this. A short 12-month deal led to mishaps, poor crowd reactions, and a year that almost tarnished the Monday Nitro Monster’s career once and for all. Here, we take a look at that brief period — a gamble that WWE, and ultimately Goldberg himself, made a mess of.
Goldberg After WCW Closed Its Doors
When WCW sadly closed its doors in March of 2001 and was gobbled up by the WWE, it soon became apparent that they did not own the contracts to all the Nitro and Thunder talent. Numerous big stars were on huge money deals with Time Warner as opposed to the departed wrestling company. Main event players like Sting, Scott Steiner, Hogan, Hall, Nash, and Rey Mysterio were not coming over to join Vince’s promotion. Instead, they elected to sit at home and see out the remainder of their hefty contracts. Bill Goldberg was another of these talents who thought, why should I go to work when I can collect a wage for sitting at home? With WWE not willing to match these more substantial contracts, that is what some of the prominent names from WCW did.
Eventually, the names mentioned above would work for WWE with varying levels of success. Goldberg, taking an early buyout in his contract, started negotiating with the WWE in late 2002. At the turn of the year, various reports and rumors began circulating; why were the talks between Goldberg and WWE taking so long? The WWE clearly wanted Bill Goldberg, and Goldberg seemed keen to go to work. The apparent sticking point could have been money, but reports from wrestling dirt sheets at the time hinted at the number of dates being the issue. Bruce Prichard would later back this up on his podcast, Something to Wrestle With. Prichard explains that Goldberg wanted to come in but did not want to work anywhere near as often as Vince McMahon wanted him to. Goldberg was only interested in doing TV and major shows, as opposed to any house shows or smaller events. In hindsight, this could have been the very first warning sign about the former WCW Champion’s views towards the wrestling business.
Goldberg was notorious for not being a wrestling fan and seeing this crazy world as more of a business. The consensus is that Bill was more concerned with how much he can earn above all else. While there is nothing wrong with that in many situations, perhaps this was not the best way to approach a contract discussion with the world’s top promoter in Vince McMahon. Eventually, a deal was set, and the wrestling world awaited the WWE debut of a true WCW legend.
Goldberg Arrives in the WWE
At WrestleMania 19, a video played declaring Goldberg was coming. In typical WWE fashion, it set the stage for an exciting moment to look forward to. The music, the words on the screen describing a “Two Year Exile,” the timing of the clip, everything built major excitement. The following night on RAW, the moment this video played, Goldberg’s WWE debut occurred.
Goldberg had finally arrived in WWE, and his first program would be against The Rock. Johnson, now portraying a conceited Hollywood star character, had just come off a WrestleMania victory over Steve Austin in what would turn out to be Stone Cold’s last match. As he stood in the ring on the March 31st RAW taping, enjoying “Rock Appreciation Night,” he declared there was no one left for him to beat. Cue the marching rhythm of Goldberg’s theme, the familiar fireworks, and the man himself striding towards the ring. Collecting a microphone to rapturous cheers, Goldberg declared The Rock was next and speared “The Great One” to a massive pop from the audience. It is essential to express how historic this moment was. One of WCW’s top stars, for a short period at least, declaring his intent and looking every part the monster that dominated Nitro, was standing across the ring from one of the WWE’s top stars. For any fan from the late ’90s, this was a dream scenario, something that at one stage looked to be impossible. Goldberg had arrived, and the possibilities for the upcoming months seemed to look fantastic.
However, as quickly as WWE made Goldberg look like a monster on this debut in WWE, the hype started to unravel. A legitimate backstage fight between Chris Jericho and Goldberg did him no favors in the popularity department backstage. The fact that reports hinted at Jericho getting the better of the larger Goldberg also potentially hurt his hard-man gimmick with some fans. The next edition of Raw saw Goldberg backstage with Goldust wearing the bizarre Dustin Runnels character‘s wig, a far cry from the destroyer gimmick that made Goldberg a star in WCW. Surely this would be fixed once he stepped into the ring, though, right?
Sadly, that would not be the case. Very early on in Goldberg’s in-ring career for the WWE, he defeated Christian by disqualification. No smashing his opponent with power moves, no quick squash of his much smaller adversary, no spear/Jackhammer combo. Instead, he was selling a low-blow to a mixed crowd reaction. Within a few short weeks of his much-anticipated debut, Goldberg was not coming across as anything special. Moreso, he already seemed like just another member of the WWE roster.
Misfires After WWE Debut
For all of WCW’s shortcomings, the creation and booking of Bill Goldberg were not one of them. Not speaking for weeks gave him an almost mysterious aura. Destroying opponents time and time again in quick fashion built Goldberg as a true monster. Eventually, the Nitro fans were crying out for more and more Goldberg, while the WCW bookers held the course with their greatest in-house creation. He was certainly not trying on wigs to garner small pops from the crowd.
Things on-screen got worse for Bill in the coming weeks. As WWE tried to push his feud with The Rock through lukewarm reactions, The Rock held a “Rock Concert” on the April 21st, 2003 edition of RAW. Now. If you have never seen this incarnation of Dwayne Johnson’s character, it is worth seeking out.
Watch: Hollywood Rock receives a massive pop from the crowd on April 21st, 2003’s episode of RAW in Atlanta, Georgia.
The Rock was marvelous in all of these segments, oozing charisma and comedy as he puts down the local sports teams and taunts Goldberg. This occasion ended with Goldberg coming to get some revenge on the Rock for numerous comments and led to what was going to be a small car chase. In a potentially great moment, The Rock fled from Goldberg, rushing to his vehicle and departing as fast as possible. Goldberg was supposed to follow in his car, but at the critical moment, stalled the automobile and ended up looking quite silly trying to pursue his adversary on foot. It was yet another example of the intimidating Goldberg looking foolish and far from the muscle-bound warrior who slayed the evil Hulk Hogan in WCW a few years previously. Wrestling fans, in a similar way to the Invasion angle one year before, were not getting what was expected. With Steve Austin no longer active, The Rock portraying a very unlikeable persona, and Undertaker and Angle on Smackdown, the WWE Universe was crying out for a real badass hero to support on RAW. While at first impression they would be receiving this, what they were getting one short month later was a very watered-down version of the Goldberg character.
All of this led to Backlash 2003, and Goldberg’s big singles match against The Rock. Noticeable for the very mixed crowd reactions and poor in-ring standard, this match weakened Goldberg even further. As some boos greeted Goldberg’s offense, it appeared the bloom was already off the rose. Eventually, Bill defeated The Rock with his Jackhammer finisher. Even at the reasonably short 13-minute mark, this match seemed to drag. With Goldberg’s best work coming in shorter matches, the slow, plodding pace here made this pay-per-view main event feel twice that length. McMahon, and the WWE, needed to give their investment a massive shot in the arm.
WWE Amps Up Approach with Goldberg
This proverbial shot began on the May 12th, 2003 edition of Monday Night Raw, with a cage match against recent rival Christian. On this occasion, Goldberg looked more like the powerhouse of his WCW peak, with Christian bumping all over the place for the Atlanta native. Being one of Goldberg’s better in-ring matches of this time, this contest is well worth revisiting. Goldberg ultimately pinned a bloody Christian after a very impressive Jackhammer, to a mostly positive crowd reaction. However, it is earlier in this show that sticks in mind.
As our hero stepped out of his car backstage, another automobile sped towards him. Bill narrowly avoided disaster and the oncoming vehicular assault, but the mystery assailant had garnered Goldberg’s attention. Whereas we all knew what was next, the issue for Goldberg was that he did not know who was next. Enter “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and some very comical interrogations, leading to Lance Storm getting unveiled as the culprit.
Goldberg squashed Storm in a way almost reminiscent of his WCW run. In a quite entertaining few minutes, Bill smashed Lance with powerslams, suplexes, and another impressive Jackhammer. Once conquered, Storm revealed it was, in fact, Chris Jericho who had put him up to the task of running Goldberg over. This led to Bad Blood 2003, where Goldberg defeated Jericho in a passable contest, yet somehow not as gripping as his recent RAW outings with Storm and Christian.
Goldberg and His First Run for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship in 2003
With a little momentum now building behind Goldberg, and crowd reactions being more favorable than not, it was time for the elephant in the room to be addressed. On the July 21st edition of RAW, with the Evolution group in the ring, Goldberg informed World Champion Triple H that he was “next.” The former WCW champion was, at last, going to challenge for one of the top titles in WWE, and the fans in attendance seemed to love the idea.
However, as it seemingly keeps reoccurring in this story, WWE again tried to shoot itself in the foot with the Bill Goldberg project. When asked about Goldberg’s run in a company investor conference call, Linda McMahon described the well-paid star as “disappointing.” Goldberg was reportedly (and understandably) upset by these comments.
More negativity followed as Triple H and Goldberg worked some house show matches, to quite poor reviews. The limited momentum Goldberg had gathered seemed to be waning again. With the main event of SummerSlam fast approaching, Goldberg was in need of a big moment, and beating Triple H in convincing fashion could have been that. Another setback needed complete avoidance, but fate had other ideas.
As the program between the two progressed, Triple H picked up an injury. With no real faith in Goldberg from an in-ring standpoint, and Triple H struggling even to walk, the match at SummerSlam got changed to an Elimination Chamber match. In hindsight, on the night, this worked. The stipulation helped hide Triple H’s injury issues very well. When Goldberg entered the chamber, he smashed through various opponents with trademark power moves and looked impressive (despite stumbling on his entrance). The finish itself even protected Bill, as he took his first pinfall loss in WWE, but Triple H had to use a sledgehammer to get the job done.
The following month, with the added stipulation of his career being on the line, Goldberg finally claimed WWE gold. Beating Triple H with a Jackhammer at Unforgiven, this crowning moment seemed a touch anti-climatic. A moment in wrestling history that should be looked back on with fondness felt somewhat drab. Perhaps this was again due to the plodding pace of the contest, as the title match reached 14 minutes. A marathon by Goldberg standards, this title win did not play to his limited yet impressive strengths. Being World Champion was not new territory for Goldberg, but his previous victory in 1998 got met with wild approval. Here, some five years later, the character and audience response were much more subdued.
On the following RAW, in another old school attempt to promote Goldberg as the new main star, Triple H offered a $100,000 bounty for anyone who could take the new champion out. This would lead to various mid-card talents such as Stevie Richards and La Resistance attempting to collect the money, but being destroyed by Goldberg.
Triple H had his rematch set for the Survivor Series of that year. In another slow-paced contest, Bill retained again. However, more importantly, on that show, Goldberg and Brock Lesnar appeared on screen together for the first time, sowing the seeds for a future contest, which is memorable for all the wrong reasons. More about that shortly.
Goldberg Throws a Fit Backstage Leading to a Real-Life Suspension from WWE
As 2003 drew to a close, the limited main event scene on Monday Night Raw became ever more apparent. With the December pay-per-view Armageddon approaching, Goldberg needed a challenger. Of course, Triple H was to be involved, as was the norm of the time. However, Kevin Nash was also cited to be a part of the match in an interesting twist. Seeing Goldberg defend against Triple H again did little to inspire the paying public. With Nash involved, however, this match could be something semi-fresh. A much-needed change to the title run of Goldberg, who as champion was very limited for genuine contenders.
Once again, in this short run of Bill Goldberg, plans had to change. Kevin Nash picked up an injury and was replaced in the match by Kane. While this injury led to a slight alteration to the mundane Goldberg/Triple H series, Kane was nowhere near as fresh an option as Kevin Nash. At Armageddon, Goldberg lost his World Title as Triple H pinned him following a chokeslam by “The Big Red Machine.” This again seemed an odd decision, as Goldberg did not need to take the fall to get the championship back on Triple H. No one would have batted an eye if Hunter pinned Kane, winning the title, and thus protecting Goldberg. It seemed again that the WWE had lost interest in Bill, less than a year since his debut.
Maybe this was not lost on Goldberg, as Bruce Prichard tells on his podcast. Prichard explains that after the match, Goldberg was seen in the locker room throwing items, yelling, and swearing. As he, Triple H, and Kane entered the locker room, Triple H confronted Goldberg, asking if there was a problem. According to Prichard, Bill’s demeanor changed, and he thanked Triple H for the match and left. The following night on RAW, Goldberg attacked various people backstage and was “suspended” by Eric Bischoff on-screen. Off-screen, this was to mask the real-life suspension the previous evening’s actions had got him.
Goldberg returned to RAW on January 12th, 2004, squashing Matt Hardy and declaring his entry into the Royal Rumble match later that month. At the Rumble show itself, we saw Brock Lesnar and Goldberg share the screen again in a backstage segment. By this point, it great apparent that the plan was for Lesnar and Goldberg to cross paths more physically down the road at WrestleMania XX.
In the Rumble match, Lesnar interfered and gave Goldberg an F5, leading to his elimination. Bill, in turn, showed up at the SmackDown No Way Out show in February, interfering in the historic Eddie Guerrero title win that night, and costing Lesnar his championship.
With WrestleMania XX fast approaching, news that Goldberg would not be staying with the WWE longer than his 1-year contract circulated. In another instance of outside factors affecting Goldberg’s initial run, it became known that Lesnar was also through with the WWE after the Madison Square Garden supershow. These two bits of backstage news left a bad taste in the mouth of many fans and, in what could have been an iconic contest, both wrestlers were loudly booed.
In his last WWE match for over a decade, Goldberg pinned Brock Lesnar with the Jackhammer to a chorus of “Goldberg Sucks” chants. After the match, special guest referee Steve Austin gave both competitors a stunner, to enormous cheers. With that, Bill Goldberg was through with WWE, for now.
Did you know? Brock Lesnar’s in-ring career was almost cut short one year before at WrestleMania XIX? You can read more about that shocking moment here.
The Aftermath of Bill Goldberg’s First Year in the WWE
A short while after completing his first run with the WWE at WrestleMania XX, Bill was a guest on a radio show where he bad-mouthed the company. Citing a desire to only wrestle in Japan and calling the WWE a ridiculous soap opera, Goldberg seemed to burn any bridges he had left with Vince McMahon’s promotion.
It can be somewhat tricky to summarise this one year run Goldberg had with WWE, starting in 2003. Debuting to much excitement and fanfare, the gloss of Goldberg’s arrival to the WWE soon wore off. Was this due to the WWE not booking Goldberg as the monster killer that worked so well in WCW? His late 2016 run with the company was more comparable to his WCW days and was far more successful, so this could be a viable possibility. Was the lack of real main event talent, Triple H aside, that much of a hindrance during his title reign? Was it hard to rely on Goldberg after the behind-the-scenes conflicts? Or was it merely that Goldberg was not that invested in the wrestling business at this point?
Perhaps any, some, or all of these reasons contribute to this original run being so disappointing.
Bill Goldberg went into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2018 and is still used sporadically as a drawing attraction by Vince McMahon. As of this writing, he is WWE Champion for the third time after scoring an upset victory over The Fiend at WWE Super ShowDown in Saudi Arabia. However, one cannot help but wonder what could have been in 2003, if his first year was handled differently by all involved.
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