Bill Goldberg does not pull punches. Or kicks. The 48-year-old, once the biggest name in all of pro wrestling, is now training to compete in the Glory kickboxing league. Goldberg has never been one to back down from a fight, including one with WWE CEO Vince McMahon.
“[Hulk] Hogan once said to me, ‘Hey brother, you’re going to have to play the game,’” said Goldberg. “‘If Vince calls you in the middle of the night to get on a plane, you’re going to have to do it.’ I said to him, ‘You obviously don’t know me.’”
Goldberg will be appearing at the Mets’ Citi Field this Sunday in a Legends of Wrestling event also featuring Bret “The Hitman” Hart and Ric Flair. Despite a successful college football career and a cup of coffee in the NFL, Goldberg is still best known for his time in the squared circle.
“When I went to WCW, I told Eric Bischoff that I wasn’t going to be some dipshit who was thrown around the ring for $500 bucks a week,” said Goldberg. “I told him, ‘I’m going to make a difference, I’m going to make an impact.’ And with a lot of people’s help – whether it’s the Steiner’s, or Kevin Nash, who at times was very helpful, Curt Hennig or Rick Rude – the rest is history.”
The former two-time wrestling champion now calls San Diego home, but he grew up the youngest of four children in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He was significantly younger than his siblings – his two brothers are, respectively, eighteen and sixteen years his senior, while his sister is fourteen years older.
“I was what you’d call a mistake,” he matter-of-factly stated. Goldberg explained his siblings helped raise him, as his parents – a classical violinist for a mother and a Harvard-educated doctor for a father – struggled through a difficult time in their marriage.
“My brothers were like dads, and my sister kind of raised me,” he explained. “I was the product of a tumultuous divorce during my influential years. My mom wanted to leave for Florida when I was in the ninth grade, but my father wasn’t going to leave Oklahoma. I wasn’t going to leave my father, no matter what the case.”
By the time he could walk the streets of Tulsa, Goldberg had already fallen in love with the game of football.
“I was in a baby football helmet when I was a few days old,” he said. “My birthday cakes were always footballs. All I ever wanted since I was tiny was to play in the NFL. That was my dream, my only goal.
“I grew up traveling to all of my brothers’ collegiate football games and I immediately liked the physicality of it. My dad had a short fuse, which he passed onto me, and it applied itself well to football.”
The 6’3” behemoth, whose head remains shaved, is criticized as often as he is misunderstood. Goldberg still refers to himself as a football player, but that self-assessment has never been intended to insult his wrestling fans.
“I’m a football player, but I didn’t really do anything in the NFL,” he said. “Wrestling gave me the opportunity to fulfill the dream that football didn’t provide me. But just because I didn’t live, breath, and die professional wrestling as a kid doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the business or what it provides for the fans. I have the utmost respect for it.”
Goldberg demonstrated a taste – or, more appropriately, a sip – of his free spirit when he was recruited by the University of Georgia.
“Georgia’s defense was known for smashing people, so that’s where I wanted to go and that’s what I wanted to do,” he said. But Goldberg got smashed in a different manner on his official visit to the school.
“During my recruiting visit, I was famous for dancing on top of the bar with my shirt off and a bottle of Wild Turkey in my hand, and then downing it,” said Goldberg. “I was so drunk that I missed breakfast the next morning.”
Goldberg finally found his way to a meeting with his future coaches, where his mother also happened to be sitting.
“So much for first impressions,” he said with a laugh. “I walked through the door, and my mom looked at me and the coaches, and said, ‘It looks like Billy drank half of Georgia last night.’ I didn’t really start off on the best foot.
“I was worldly at the time because my brothers were grown and very successful, and they provided me with opportunities I couldn’t have been provided elsewhere. Whether it was going to Super Bowls, or flying in the Goodyear blimp, or flying gliders since my brother owned an airplane company. So I wasn’t just this kid from Tulsa, I was pretty well-traveled.”
Goldberg finished just three credits shy of earning his psychology degree after a stellar run on the gridiron with the Georgia, as he was twice named an All-SEC defensive lineman. The Los Angeles Rams selected him in the eleventh round of the 1989 NFL Draft.
Goldberg failed to make the Rams’ roster in ’89 or ’90, so instead suited up for the Sacramento Surge of the now-defunct World League of Football. The Atlanta Falcons signed him in ‘92, and he played 14 games over the course of the next three seasons. Despite fulfilling his dream, playing in the NFL was a constant struggle for Goldberg.
“Those guys in the NFL are a different breed,” he explained. “They are the best athletes in the world. I was a middle-of-the-road size guy. I had to eat 15,000 calories just to be 280 pounds. I had to be in the weight room twice a day to be 280. I had to be tougher than dog shit just to be out there. I wasn’t fast, I wasn’t super strong. There wasn’t one thing that made me an unstoppable force.
“I went above and beyond to push myself, so I was injured time after time after time. Finally I had to retire after I ripped my abdomen off my pelvis. It’s just like a hernia. I was able to fulfill my dream, but obviously we all want to be the best at what we do, and I fell way short of that.”
Goldberg’s obsession with football served as a benefit while he played, but caused severe depression once he retired.
“It was the first time in my life when I had no clue what I was going to do,” he said. “There was nothing that interested me, and I went into depression. The painkillers that were given to me to try to alleviate my nerve damage from football totally exacerbated my mental situation. I was taking methadone and oxycontin to block all the nerves because doctors couldn’t find what was wrong with my injury. It was the worst time in my life.”
Unbeknownst to him at the time, wrestling – that fake, hokey stuff he once vowed he’d never do – helped save Goldberg’s life.
“Sting was the guy who changed my mind,” said Goldberg. “He and Lex Luger used to own a gym called Main Event Fitness in Atlanta. When I was with the Falcons, I used to work out there. I would have never imagined in a trillion years that I would have followed this path, but what made the decision realistic for me was the way Sting carried himself.
“When I met Sting, and observed him leading his family, business, and social life, it was completely different than what I’d ever seen in the past. I thought, ‘You know what? I can do this.’ So I bought thousands of dollars of old tapes trying to perfect moves that nobody had ever done before. I saw something that I liked, then I’d change it and make it my own.”
While Goldberg was in the early stages of adding some flair to the suplex and transforming it into the jackhammer, he also combined wrestling moves with his mixed martial arts arsenal.
“Once I made the decision to do it, I was going to bring something totally different to wrestling that no one had ever seen before,” he said. “I don’t want to sound cocky, but if I was going to do it, I was going to be the best at it. I thought my best would stack up pretty well against my competition.”
Despite the muscles and seemingly unhuman strength, if you cut Goldberg, he will bleed. He feels the WWE has purposely tried to dismiss his impact in wrestling.
“That’s the way I feel,” said Goldberg. “I’m surely not going to be somebody who pounds his chest and professes I was somebody who couldn’t be replaced, but I think I made a difference. For that character, nobody could do it better. So to not get the credit for the impact that I helped make is frustrating.”
Goldberg’s tenure in WCW reached its zenith on July 6, 1998. Goldberg defeated Hulk Hogan in a sold-out Georgia Dome on Monday Nitro to capture the world heavyweight title.
“Hogan was all business,” said Goldberg. “He lives that life. He doesn’t let emotions get into the decision to win or lose.”
Yet, to Goldberg, the only time the WWE mentions that historic night is to either highlight how WCW rushed the match – it was announced only four days in advance – or simply mock Goldberg’s in-ring ability.
“I must have done something right,” he countered. “Nitro was beating Monday Night Football by a full point in the Nielsen [ratings]. Even with that late of an announcement, we still put 45,000 in the Georgia Dome to watch some guy named Goldberg wrestle the icon that is Hulk Hogan. It’s very frustrating, but it’s not defining.
“The way they portray me is short of what I believe it should be. They emphasize my downfall, but here’s the reality. They’ll say I can’t wrestle and I can’t go over five minutes in a match, but I’ve always been of the adage that less is more. You always want to have people clamoring for more. When [The Big Show] Paul Wight and I went around the country and did house shows, they would consist of him coming out to his music, smoking a cigarette in the ring, picking up the referee to chokeslam him, and then my music hit. I’d run in from the back, spear him, jackhammer him, and the match was over and every single person in the arena was on their feet. Why would I want to be a chain wrestler when I could do that? Why would you want to make me like everyone else?”
Goldberg eventually spent a year with WWE, and engaged in on-screen feuds with The Rock, Chris Jericho, Triple H, and Brock Lesnar. Behind the curtain, his main opponent was Vince McMahon.
“It wasn’t a very good working environment,” he said. “That’s why I only spent a year there. We had a difference in philosophy. I’m not one of the guys who can say, ‘[WWE] didn’t do what they said they were going to do.’ It’s just that they never were going to do what should have been done.
“I wasn’t one of their homegrown guys. I could have been, because I went there before I went to WCW. I called Jim Ross – who was a reporter who’d covered me in football – and asked him to set up a meeting with Vince because I was thinking of going into wrestling. So I met with them first, but I didn’t like what I saw or heard, so I went to WCW.”
Though he ultimately signed a contract, Goldberg’s second meeting with McMahon did not go any better than the original.
“The second meeting was almost by default,” he explained. “Vince had monopolized the business. If I was going to wrestle again, this was the logical progression. I didn’t see anything different from the feelings I derived from the first meeting. I just was never part of the plan.”
Goldberg’s run in the WWE started on a high note – spearing The Rock on Monday Night Raw – but ended in an unholy mess. His final match took place at WrestleMania XX against Brock Lesnar, and the crowd at Madison Square Garden – the mecca of all wrestling buildings – reigned down boos upon the two men who were leaving the WWE.
“There is a lot of regret,” said Goldberg. “But I would change nothing. If you look at the positives that come out of my time wrestling, they far outweigh the fact that people were booing when Brock and I were both leaving. Our hearts were not in it, so it could have been a hell of a lot better. But I had the opportunity to wrestle at WrestleMania XX in Madison Square Garden with Brock Lesnar, who’s a friend of mine, and that’s pretty cool. I’d have loved for it to end a different way, but it is what it is.”
After Goldberg defeated Lesnar, he did not stick around for the famed post-WrestleMania party. And there was no farewell embrace or goodbye from McMahon.
“There wasn’t a good anything,” said Goldberg. “I was out of there. It was like my claustrophobia was kicking in and I couldn’t breathe. I felt that way the entire time I was there.
“My world in football was based on competition. Their world is not a competition. I wasn’t the best at playing that game. I don’t like people being taken advantage of, and in this business it happens all the time. I’m just not going to be one of those guys.”
Opportunities have existed for Goldberg and WWE to reunite. Placing Goldberg in Sting’s corner at WrestleMania XXXI would have made more sense than the NWO defending him.
“I had a conversation with Paul [Levesque] recently and I said, ‘Listen, I’m willing to put everything aside. If you guys want to sit down and make some money and have some fun, then let’s do it. My son wants to see me wrestle, and I’m willing to put all the bad feelings aside. If you guys want to move forward and do this thing the right way, then let’s talk.’ And that’s the way it ended. There’s nothing there.
“Truthfully, I don’t even think they want me to come, period. I’m just not of them. The fact that I’m not far outweighs the financial gain, which they truly may not even believe is there. And I’m good with that. I’m absolutely fine with that.”
Goldberg is financially secure and remains in great shape, and has plenty lined up regardless if he and the WWE ever cross paths again.
“I don’t have a time limit and age is just a number for me,” he said. “If the Hall of Fame presents itself, then I’ll do it in a heartbeat. But it’s not something where I sit here and go, ‘Man, I wish the WWE would induct me in the Hall of Fame.’ I don’t think about what I would say in my speech or who would induct me. I don’t think about that, by no stretch of the imagination.”
Goldberg now has his sights set in a different direction. He is married, the proud father of a nine-year-old son, and is devoting his time to training for a potential series of matches with Glory. He recently returned from training in Amsterdam with Glory heavyweight champion Rico Verhoeven.
“It was a 36-hour whirlwind of kickboxing, which was an absolute dream come true,” he said. “I’ve always had a love for all the combat sports, especially mixed martial arts, because my character had a lot of influence from MMA.”
Though he does not have a match currently scheduled, Goldberg started training five days a week this past November, and also spars on the weekends.
“My transition to working with Glory has come out of my love for the sport,” he explained. “I like kickboxing better than mixed martial arts. It’s more traditional, more mental, and it’s more honorable in that it is a single martial art so you have more of an emotional connection to its history.
“As violent of a sport as it is, it’s a very beautiful sport at the same time. This is my way of actively cleansing myself. It’s like meditating. And the peace is not found in the constant pounding on another human being – though that’s an advantage to it – but I just like physical activity. I like to be pushed, I like challenging myself, and this is the way I do it.”
There are two constants throughout Goldberg’s time in football, wrestling and now kickboxing. The first is his unrelenting drive.
“Talent grows on trees, but you’re only as good as what’s inside your lapel,” he said. “I’m 48 years old, and I just got in from Amsterdam [last week], which is a 14-hour flight, and I went straight to my son’s doubleheader, came home, passed out, then was in the gym at 8 the next morning kickboxing. You’re only as good as tomorrow.”
The second is Goldberg's love of those who support him
“I have the utmost respect and appreciation for the fans. Wrestling gave me what football didn’t. Just because I didn’t grow up loving it, and just because I’ve had bad experiences as a wrestler, doesn’t detract from the fact that I owe it a lot.”