NitroMania: Goldberg vs. Hogan
What a day. What. A. Day. I am currently running on an empty stomach and about three hours of sleep, but here I am again girls and boys, bringing you...something. I'd like to think it's good, but I'm not going to be arrogant and just automatically assume it's beloved by all. What am I even saying right now? Anyhow, what am I doing here if I'm so tired. Simply put, today is July 6th, which is an important day in wrestling history. Seventeen years ago today, WCW held what might've been the biggest and greatest Monday Night wrestling show of all time. Built around a rising superstar's quest for glory, the show ultimately put WCW back on the map for a short time, even as most people wondered if they had made the correct decision. What am I talking about? None other than the Monday Nitro episode where Goldberg took on Hollywood Hulk Hogan for the WCW World Heavyweight Championship. Let's take a look.
NitroMania: Goldberg vs. Hogan
Chapter One: The Rise of Goldberg
There were many, many reasons WCW had watched it's momentum cool in contrast to the red hot WWE in 1998. One of those, and in my opinion the biggest factor, was Starrcade 1997. You all know the story by now; the biggest match in WCW history at the biggest event WCW had to offer wound up being less like Blade Runner and more like Jewel in the Nile. The Fingerpoke of Doom may be more noteworthy, but WCW's botch of the Starrcade 97 main event was just as harmful long term to the Turner led organization. And the biggest reason why was because it left WCW with no top face. Sting, who looked like he was about to reach Steve Austin levels of popularity if he had beaten Hogan cleanly, instead was cooled off at a Speed Racer esq rate. With his momentum now almost gone and the rest of the WCW having been run over by the nWo in the years prior, WCW appeared to have no big time babyface to step up and take the mantle of "The Guy." That was a big enough problem by itself; combining it with the fact that the nWo was flatter than three week old Orange Crush, things were really dim.
Enter Bill Goldberg. A former NFL player who watched his shot at football stardom end due to injury, Goldberg joined WCW in early 1997, and quickly saw himself rise from the WCW Powerplant all the way to the main roster. That may sound like a Brock Lesnar situation, but it wasn't; Goldberg in reality had as much training as David Flair, a victim of WCW's unwillingness to rush things as opposed to letting them grow. That said, Goldberg made up for his in ring shortcomings thanks to two very important aspects; his look and his persona. In a business where look is almost, if not more, important than your ability in the squared circle, Goldberg passed with flying colors. He looked like a cross between Steve Austin, a Greek god and a dude who could literally make Dalton from Road House cry. Furthermore, his charisma and presence was unmistakable; every time Goldberg stepped into the ring, he owned it, demanded the attention of everyone in the audience, something only a select few wrestlers have been able to do. It was those two skills/attributes that both propelled Goldberg to WCW's main roster and began to turn him into a house hold name.
And boy, what a house hold name Bill Goldberg became. By the time WCW reached the end of June, it was pretty clear Goldberg was the diamond in the rough that the company was looking for. Thanks to his look, his presence and one of the greatest booking strategies of all time, the 31 year old quickly rose through the ranks, armed with a 100+ win undefeated streak and more squash matches than Ryback had over a decade later. Think the Ultimate Warrior booking on steroids; the short matches not only helped hide Goldberg's in ring deficiencies, but they made him look like Godzilla, an unbeatable force who stood a cut above the rest of the roster. After the debacle that was Starrcade, WCW couldn't have rebounded any stronger with Goldberg's booking. The question now wasn't if he would one day be WCW World Heavyweight Champion, but when. And it was then, right after that last Nitro in June, that the WCW brain trust came up with an idea.
Chapter Two: Brilliant, or Premature?
Whether it was destiny or chance, WCW's first Nitro of July was being held in the Georgia Dome, home of the Atlanta Falcons (Goldberg's former NFL team) and smack dab in the middle of where Goldberg was living at the time. For those of you who aren't familiar with the arena, the Georgia Dome is HUGE! I'm talking Wrestlemania level huge, which is part of the reason WWE ended up having Mania at the Dome for their 27th edition of the mega show. Wanting to put a record number of people in the arena for a Monday Nitro crowd and hoping to turn the ratings tide back into their favor, WCW began to brainstorm potential ideas that could put the show over the top. In the end, it would be their champion at the time, Hollywood Hulk Hogan, who would come up with the winning idea; Goldberg (then the WCW U.S. Champion) vs. Hogan for the WCW Title on the Georgia Dome Nitro.
This is where the fun stuff begins, and I don't mean the whole rumor that Hogan only agreed to put over Goldberg so he could then end the undefeated streak a few months later at Starrcade (a rumor which I believe to be 1000% accurate). Ever since this famous Nitro occurred, and probably even before so, people have been asking this question; why on earth did WCW choose to have this match on an episode of Nitro with only a week's worth of build? I don't think it takes a rocket scientist to see that Goldberg vs. Hogan back in 1998 wasn't just money, it was Floyd Mayweather money. Goldberg was by far one of the three hottest wrestlers in any promotion, and Hogan, even though his heel act was wearing ridiculously thin, was still a household name with drawing power. Thus, it's a far question to ask why WCW chose to go with the match on free TV instead of building it for a few weeks, then putting it as the marquee match on a PPV (which probably would've drawn even bigger than the Sting-Hogan match from Starrcade 97 did). A colossal mistake? Surprisingly, I don't think so. Certainly, WCW left money on the table by not doing Hogan-Goldberg on PPV, but barring a new show being added out of the blue, WCW's next PPV (after Bash at the Beach, which was too soon to do the match as well) was going to be Road Wild, which wouldn't have drawn much money any way (due to Eric Bischoff's odd fascination with not charging people to attend that event). Furthermore, hindsight shows that the Nitro was a massive success anyway, likely drawing the largest crowd for a Monday night wrestling show ever while helping WCW regain control in the ratings. Ideally, it wasn't perfect, but I don't believe it was a mistake that doomed WCW any more than any other poor decision did. Certainly no more than the end result of this whole idea Hogan came up with.
Once the decision was made to have the match on the Georgia Dome Nitro, WCW moved quickly. On the July 2nd episode of WCW Thunder, WCW authority figure J.J. Dillon announced that Goldberg and Hogan would collide that Monday in the Georgia Dome. The response in the arena was that of universal praise, as was the response from fans in Georgia. Tickets quickly sold out despite short notice, and on Monday night, it was estimated that some 30,000 to 40,000 fans would be on hand to watch Goldberg and Hogan tangle up for the first time. They wouldn't be disappointed.
Chapter Three: One Good Night
There's a ton, and I mean a ton, of things you can say about the WCW Creative Team during the final few years of the company's run. There were bad decisions, boneheaded decisions and ideas so amazingly awful that looking back, you wonder if filmmaker/space alien Tommy Wisseau was involved. WCW Creative was not very good by any stretch of the imagination during the fall. But, for this night, July 6th, 1998, WCW nailed what they were supposed to do, starting with the moment that Hulk Hogan walked down to kick off Nitro. Always one to deliver a great, delusional heel promo (how ironic that real life Hogan is more Hollywood than Hulk?), the WCW Champion spent about ten minutes raving about his greatness and the legions of nWo fans before bashing the "one or two" Goldberg fans out there. It was around this time WCW played their trump card; Goldberg wasn't just going to get to face Hogan in the main event. Instead, Hogan would stack the odds against the hometown hero, forcing him to face a member of the nWo earlier in the night, with Goldberg getting a title shot if he won. That mystery opponent; Hogan's second in command, founding nWo member and a big name in his own right, Scott Hall.
To say that this was a genius move by WCW is the understatement of eternity. They didn't need another reason to get Goldberg more over, but by forcing him to wrestle twice in one night to win the WCW Title, it created a sense of urgency that would've otherwise been missing. Fans now had gone from assuming Goldberg would just walk over Hogan to wondering if their indestructible hero could actually pull off two straight victories against two top names in the business. Sure enough, that suspense (and some well timed flashbacks to Goldberg's streak throughout the broadcast) had the crowd hot by the time Goldberg and Hall fought well into Nitro. The match was pretty solid too, all things considered. Always underrated in the ring, Hall did some fine work making Goldberg look strong, while the undefeated monster wasn't so bad himself. Most importantly, Goldberg looked human against Hall, and even though he would win with an assist from DDP and Karl Malone (Hogan's rivals at the time), the intrigue of whether Goldberg could win the final match was at full throttle. He may have beaten Hall, but could he beat the "best wrestler" ever as well? WCW was firing on all cylinders at this point, and would continue to do so in the main event.
Now, let's be real here; Hogan vs. Goldberg is much more of a great spectacle than a great match. It's not terrible; Hogan will never be considered in the same league as the Flair's, Hart's, Punk's and Cena's, but he's always known what his strengths were and played to them accordingly here. Likewise, Goldberg was further along in his development as well, and was able to put in a good effort himself. It wasn't a whole hell of a lot, but the two men were able to do enough that the crowd and every single plot point leading into the match could do the rest. Best of all, WCW wisely did pull the trigger. As nWo member Curt Hennig made his way to the ring, Hogan would in fact hit Goldberg with his famous leg drop, leaving the challenger in a pretty deep hole. Once again though, Malone and DDP (white hot at the time himself) appeared and laid out Hennig, providing enough of a distraction for a flustered Hogan (whose leg drop didn't put Goldberg away). The next thing you know, Hogan turns away from DDP and Malone and walks right into the best spear in wrestling history. One loud crowd reaction and a Jackhammer later, Goldberg pinned Hogan's shoulders to the mat. One, two, three. The Georgia Dome exploded, the stoic Goldberg showed some emotion as he celebrated his historic win, and WCW's search for their next big star had arrived. As Bobby Heenan would call him throughout the rest of their WCW stay, Goldberg became "Da Man!".
In the hilariously biased, WWE produced Monday Night War DVD, Chris Jericho referred to the July 6th Nitro and Goldberg's title victory as "the peak of WCW". I think it's fair to say that was the case. That's not to say that WCW didn't have any moments that were bigger than this one; Hogan's heel turn, the arrival of the Outsiders and even some of the moments during Sting's 1997 run were bigger or at least on par with this one. Hell, I would even argue there are some moments AFTER this match that were better in the grand scheme of things. But if we're being real, it never got bigger than this for WCW. The July 6th Nitro was their Wrestlemania, a three hour roller coaster ride all built around the rise of an organically over megastar overcoming the odds and a wrestling legend to cement his name. It's an event that still is talked about today AND is still influencing wrestling today; don't tell me that Daniel Bryan's Wrestlemania 30 wasn't in some way influenced by the template WCW set with Goldberg-Hogan all those years ago (though in fairness, Bryan's story was more complex). Perhaps in the end it was all a ploy for Hogan to eventually ruin Bill Goldberg, and certainly this match may have made a bigger impact if it had been on PPV. But going by what we have, can we really complain about the end result? On a summer night seventeen years ago, WCW treated a Television broadcast like the biggest event on the planet, and make Bill Goldberg into something special with one of the best booked shows ever. What more can you ask for as a wrestling fan? It truly was, as Y2J said, the peak of WCW.
That'll do it guys. May drop a Lucha Underground preview tonight if I have the energy; otherwise it'll be tomorrow. Till next time, watch Goldberg vs. Hogan. Or face the words of Red Skull.