WWE Survivor Series: The Legacy of Goldberg vs. Lesnar

Sunday's PPV features the rematch between Bill Goldberg and Brock Lesnar, but we might be revisiting a car wreck with another car wreck.

This Sunday night, WWE Survivor Series brings us the Mega Match. Fantasty Warfare Just Got Real. Bill Goldberg will face Brock Lesnar. It’s a rematch to a memorable WrestleMania dream match.

Now, in wrestling, trying to redo a classic usually ends badly. Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior had a great match at WrestleMania VI, carried by good storytelling and charisma, but when they had their WCW rematch eight years later, it was notoriously awful. Shawn Michaels and Razor Ramon changed the game with their WrestleMania X ladder match, but a year and a half later, their attempt at redoing it was sloppy. Rock and Hogan’s first meeting was legendary due to their excellent use of improvisation, but the eventual rematch was forgettable. Rock vs. Cena was a pretty good time, but it felt horribly cheapened by the lamer and infinitely more predictable sequel.

What sets this apart from those is that the first Goldberg vs. Lesnar was outright terrible. One of the most infamously bad high-profile battles in wrestling history. And they’re doing it again, only one guy is almost 50 and hasn’t had a match in 12 years. The other guy has been basically going through the motions for the past year.

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It will be a must-watch match this week, don’t get me wrong. Just not in the way they intend. It’s going to be a flimsy attempt to redo what should have been a great showdown. And don’t get me wrong, while Goldberg vs. Lesnar was a laughable mess, it still ended up being incredibly important to WWE history and came with a fascinating real-life backstory.

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Plus, thematically, this year’s battle might represent the same thing as 2004’s. It’s the end of an era for WWE’s lazy business practices.

Let’s go back to the beginning. Bill Goldberg appeared in WCW in 1997 during a time when they were wildly successful but slowly rotting from the inside. While ego and hubris started to cause cracks in the company, Bill Goldberg may have been their last truly great idea. As Sting, DDP, and the New World Order all did their thing, Goldberg was off to the side, annihilating the competition. Through short matches, he came off as unbeatable and took out any midcarder in his way.

As months passed, he won his way into United States Championship contendership. He beat Raven for the belt and continued to dominate until they pulled the trigger and had him defeat Hollywood Hogan for the WCW Heavyweight Championship. The problem was they did it in a really shortsighted way. Rather than try to turn it into PPV revenue, they instead threw it on free TV, which didn’t have much lasting value.

Regardless, Goldberg was one of the most popular wrestlers in wrestling’s most popular era. He was “The Man.” He looked like what Vince McMahon wished Steve Austin looked like and had a presence others would kill for. In terms of in-ring talent, he was what he was. The way he got pushed so fast with little in-ring struggle didn’t do him any favors on that end, but he had a handful of great matches against guys like DDP and Scott Steiner.

The bad decisions piled on and WCW eventually crumbled. Goldberg’s final appearance was in January of 2001, where he lost a tag team match where losing meant he’d be fired. It was an excuse to keep him off TV long enough to get shoulder surgery, but WCW was sold away to Vince McMahon just a few months later and that was that.

Goldberg wasn’t involved with the big WWF vs. WCW storyline and that was just one of the many problems with it. The lack of star power, the insistence that WWF be completely dominant at every turn, the overemphasis of the McMahon family, and other bad writing sunk what should have been the biggest angle in wrestling history. But it did bring forward a stretch of years when WWF/WWE could just wing it and coast on star power. Not only did they have the champions of the WWF Attitude Era, but they had practically every big name from WCW who wasn’t Sting show up in intervals.

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During this Attitude denouement, WWE introduced Brock Lesnar. Much like Goldberg, he was an athlete who wasn’t too keen on wrestling from the get go, but recognized it as a fitting and viable way to make good money. After some time in developmental, Brock came up to the main roster and debuted on the Raw after WrestleMania X8, appearing uninvited during a random hardcore match. With Paul Heyman barking orders, Lesnar destroyed a handful of midcarders like they were nothing.

He rose up the ranks like no other. While Goldberg destroyed lesser opponents in the background for months, Lesnar ran through the gauntlet of major challenges and reached the top in record time. Similar to Goldberg, he crushed Hulk Hogan in dominant fashion on free TV. While no drama came from that Hogan match, the same behavior hit the company hard when they tried having Lesnar go over Steve Austin on a random Raw as part of the build for King of the Ring. Austin was so disagreeable to this waste of a money match that he walked out on the company and didn’t return for months.

Lesnar won the King of the Ring tournament, beat Hogan to a pulp, dominated the Rock to win the WWE Undisputed Championship at SummerSlam, fought through Undertaker and Big Show, won the Royal Rumble, and won the WWE Championship in the main event of WrestleMania XIX. To say McMahon and friends were high on him would be an understatement. Lesnar was a basket and they were giving him all the eggs.

Around this time, WWE finally got around to hiring Bill Goldberg. He debuted the day after WrestleMania to Spear the Rock and set up a dream match at Backlash. Goldberg won and Rock snuck off into retirement, appearing for one more WrestleMania match before evading WWE for nearly a decade.

How WWE treated Goldberg is something that’s up for debate. Ignoring the ill-advised comedy skit with Goldust and a wig he did early on, Goldberg had a pretty great year with the company that some would say wasn’t good enough. At SummerSlam, he blazed through nearly everyone in an Elimination Chamber, only to get cheated at the last minute by Triple H and a sledgehammer. Then he won the World Heavyweight Championship at Unforgiven a month later. Was that extra step truly necessary or would it have been too much to give him so much dominance at the cost of the rest of the roster?

Regardless, WWE was definitely smart about one thing: they kept Goldberg and Lesnar on different shows. Goldberg was in the title picture for Raw while Lesnar was in the title picture on SmackDown. Even the video game WWE SmackDown: Here Comes the Pain made it obvious that the two were on the same level, but they kept their distance on TV.

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That is, until Survivor Series 2003. Goldberg was there to defend the World Heavyweight Championship against Triple H while Lesnar, WWE Champion at the time, was merely the captain of a losing team in a Survivor Series tag match. Goldberg tried to be respectful when introducing himself to the fellow top champ, but Lesnar responded with attitude.

Skip forward two months. Goldberg had lost his championship to Triple H, but won the #30 spot at the Royal Rumble. At the show, he came across Lesnar, still WWE Champion. Lesnar mocked Goldberg and Goldberg ended up making him look like a fool by playing up Lesnar’s fear of Hardcore Holly. Later that night, as Goldberg dominated the Rumble match, Lesnar appeared, delivered the F5, and laughed as Kurt Angle dumped Goldberg from the ring.

Goldberg got his revenge a month later at the SmackDown PPV No Way Out. He bought a ticket to get a close look at Brock Lesnar vs. Eddie Guerrero and then got involved, Spearing Lesnar and helping Eddie win the title.

No longer bound by any title matches, the two were very obviously going to clash at WrestleMania XX. It made all the sense in the world. The two were extremely similar in many ways and they were both huge stars, heading into the year’s biggest show. Not only that, but the writing was on the wall when it came to Goldberg’s future. Goldberg’s contract was for a year and it didn’t look like he was going to re-sign. WrestleMania was going to be his last hurrah. What better way to go out than to be used to really solidify Lesnar’s godly status?

It was needed, too. The dream match well had dried up. Just about every possible realistic pairing had been done. The top names were mostly off the table at this point. Barring bringing in Sting or miraculously healing Steve Austin’s neck, the most you could do was…I don’t know…convince Goldberg to stick around and do a program with Undertaker? No, WWE had to focus on the roster at hand and build towards the future.

For them, Brock Lesnar was the future. There were others, like John Cena, Randy Orton, and Batista, but they needed some more time in the oven. Meanwhile, beloved veterans Chris Benoit and Eddie Guerrero got to spend a cup of coffee at the top of the ladder due to the transitional phase.

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Steve Austin was brought in as the special referee for added flavor. It helped in two major ways. One, it was the closest we’d ever get to seeing Austin vs. Goldberg, the big WWF vs. WCW battle we were cheated out of. Even in the build, Goldberg accidentally Speared Austin, which added tension to the WrestleMania match. Two, Goldberg had a limited amount of days in his contract and only showed up a couple times in the lead-up. That meant that Austin and Lesnar had to carry things via their animosity towards each other.

It didn’t matter that Goldberg was leaving. Sure, it made things less predictable, but it was smart booking in what was likely to be a fantastic match. A main event match, probably!

Then…things got really interesting. Around a week or two before the big event, Brock Lesnar decided he was tired of wrestling. He wanted out of WWE. Between his addictions and the constant travel, he needed to get away. He intended to try out for the Minnesota Vikings and see how that would go. Burying his face into his hands, Vince McMahon granted him his leave, but as long as he did the Goldberg match.

Still, the match itself had potential, right? Lesnar was a great worker and Goldberg was capable of strong matches. A dream match is a dream match, yeah?

It came time for WrestleMania XX and instead of being the main event, Goldberg vs. Lesnar was buried into the halfway point of the show. Austin was cheered. Lesnar, as intended, was booed. Then Goldberg got some initial cheers, but once that died down, the boos came pouring in. It was a WrestleMania crowd in Madison Square Garden. They were in the know. Most of those ticketholders knew that come Monday, neither of those guys was going to be punching in for a shift.

Some say the match happened to be bad due to their inability to gel. Perhaps the agents were to blame. Others would claim that Goldberg and Lesnar sandbagged their performance out of retaliation. Either way, this thirteen-minute match felt like thirty. Chants came in and out like waves.

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The two wrestlers did nothing to help. They stalled. They no-sold attacks. They did rest holds despite a lack of previous action. It felt like there was a total of twenty seconds where stuff actually happened. It was a colossal dud, saved by a crowd’s rebellion.

The atrocious snoozefest finally came to an end with Goldberg hitting the Spear and Jackhammer. He pinned Lesnar to relative silence. Disgruntled, he briefly left the ring. Lesnar got up with a look of legitimate frustration on his face, flipped off the crowd, and then flipped off Austin. Austin delivered a Stunner, celebrated with Goldberg for a moment, then delivered a Stunner to him.

In the end, it wasn’t so predictable after all. Goldberg’s leaving was more professional and courteous, so he got to get the pin. It’s only fair.

Still, nobody looked good coming out of this and it caused some ripples. WWE was quick to have Randy Orton defeat Chris Benoit for the World Heavyweight Championship for the sake of having him be the youngest champion ever, wiping Lesnar from the record books. Between Lesnar bailing and a similar falling out with Bobby Lashley a few years later, WWE became entirely too gun shy and would become obsessed with start-stop pushes that made it near impossible for most wrestlers to get over.

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In the aftermath, Goldberg stayed away from wrestling almost completely, but did a handful of movies. Lesnar failed in his attempt to be a football player, but became a monster in the UFC octagon due to being a goddamn golem made of muscle and anger. Coincidentally, the two became good friends after the WrestleMania fiasco and talked regularly, though according to Goldberg, they never discussed wrestling.

In the years that followed, WWE’s treatment of Goldberg vs. Lesnar was curious. When they released the show on DVD, they edited out much of the negative crowd reaction, other than the chants directly referenced by Jerry Lawler (“A sold out chant from a sold out crowd!”). On the WWE Network, it’s the original audio. Eventually, they started showing highlights of it when hyping upcoming WrestleMania events because Lord knows they can’t wistfully reflect that show’s ACTUAL main event.

The game WWE 2K14 featured both wrestlers as playable as well as 2K Showcase where you’d go through thirty years of WrestleMania. Each WrestleMania was represented by a certain match that you had to recreate and rather than go with, say, John Cena vs. Big Show or Undertaker vs. Kane, they went with Goldberg vs. Lesnar. The mode definitely had its fun with the situation as Goldberg would receive, “YOU SOLD OUT!” chants during his entrance and post-match you got to control referee Steve Austin while being awarded infinite stored Stunners.

Brock Lesnar came back to WWE in 2012, a big shot with outside notoriety. This time he got to have his way, getting millions of dollars for a smattering of dates and matches. After a couple years where he had some iffy booking in feuds against John Cena and Triple H, he truly became a next-level threat after defeating the Undertaker at WrestleMania XXX. It was a bad match due to an early concussion on Undertaker, but WWE rode the wave of that surprise win and made Lesnar the god tier warrior the main event desperately needed.

When necessary, Lesnar could truly go in the ring, but the hype made him complacent. Having him suplex John Cena sixteen times in one match was shocking and awesome at the time, but then his matches would just be him suplexing people over and over again. More importantly, the point of having him being such a monster was for someone to get a real rub for beating him. WWE got cold feet with Roman Reigns and then rolled their eyes when Dean Ambrose had his chance.

Lesnar is still the terror of the WWE main event, but they’ve spent so long drawing out the possibility of a cut-and-dry defeat that there’s little worth to him. Hell, the rumors are that we’re getting Lesnar vs. Shane McMahon at this year’s WrestleMania and who’s been asking for that?

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As for Goldberg, he’d usually say the same thing over and over again in interviews: he probably had one match left and the only reason he’d do it was to let his son (who he had after he left the business) see him in action. For a few years, the main thing keeping him relevant was WWE’s Ryback, who felt like the Renegade to Goldberg’s Ultimate Warrior at times.

In one of the odder patterns of modern WWE, the olive branch came in the form of 2K Sports.

It’s crazy, really. 2K Sports has a tendency of picking a certain wrestling legend to be the pre-order cover boy for one of their games and that would lead to WWE making amends for past transgressions. It gave us the Ultimate Warrior in the WWE Hall of Fame, Sting making his WWE debut, and our upcoming Survivor Series rematch.

Back in May, they announced Goldberg as the pre-order bonus for WWE 2K17 via a commercial where some state troopers released him from a tomb via explosives. It was as cool as it was nonsensical, but what made it interesting was the final shot, where Goldberg glared outside the window. From the reflection, we could see a sign for Suplex City.

That was suddenly the game’s selling point. With no major additions to the gameplay and no 2K Showcase mode, the most they could do was, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool to see Goldberg vs. Lesnar not suck?”

The rumors built up over time and Goldberg got his big ESPN interview, which amounted to him saying that he’d have zero reason to wrestle Brock Lesnar ever again, but might as well. *shrug*

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Then it became like one of those chess-by-mail matches, only with promos. Paul Heyman would show up and cut a promo. Then Goldberg would show up a week later and cut a promo. Then Heyman would show up a week later and cut a promo. Then Golberg—you get it.

Despite having some good moments in there, it also had a bunch of missteps. They seriously tried to get Brock Lesnar booed in Minnesota and it didn’t work. Goldberg got in a scrap with Rusev and proceeded to fall on his ass while trying to look like a badass. Goldberg removed his shirt for a confrontation and, while looking damn good for a guy near 50, still looks like his younger self shrunk in the dryer. Not good when Lesnar’s still a beast.

We may get something passable this time. Goldberg’s got more rust than a sunken ship and he’s got some serious age on him, but they might pull it off. While that’s possible, all signs point to history repeating itself in different ways.

First, it’s in Toronto. They’re probably going to be just as vocal as those mid-00s New Yorkers, especially towards Goldberg. Get ready for the commentators to call them “Bizarro World” because of it.

Second, nobody stands to gain much here. Goldberg’s out the door regardless after this is over with and Lesnar’s off to pick a fight with a dorky authority figure. It’s not nearly as bad as their first bout, but it does put a damper on it.

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Third, it’s once again the end of an era of big money matches, so much in the way they’ve been doing it. Back in the post-Attitude Era, it was understandable to play with their big name wrestlers like action figures. They were still modern and they were full-timers. The fault came from not building up new stars and they corrected that mistake eventually.

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It’s worse now. Rather than correctly make new stars, they would just reach into the past, get an aging star, give them a ton of perks, money, dominance, and focus, and then try to squeeze money out of that. You know, the kind of thinking that got CM Punk fed up. We still have John Cena vs. Undertaker and, sure, even John Cena vs. Roman Reigns on the menu, but this “Mega Match” is something you side-eye and think, “This is a dream match, huh? This is the best they have?”

We’ll get in with the new sooner than later. Let’s just see how they handle getting out with the old this Sunday.

Gavin Jasper still thinks it’s crazy that Longest Yard features four WWE world champions. Follow Gavin on Twitter!