In wrestling, a Goldberg variation So what's a nice Jewish guy doing as champ of a sport that has often relied on ethnic cliches to sell itself?

Catching up with: Bill Goldberg

October 11, 1998|By Kevin Eck | Kevin Eck,Contributing Writer

The undefeated World Championship Wrestling heavyweight champion, a tattooed mass of muscle with a shaved head and a goatee, is making his way to the ring. Emerging from a downpour of sparklers and smoke bombs that engulf his massive frame, the champ is literally blowing smoke through his nostrils as a sold-out arena of spectators chants his name.

The elaborate entrance lasts nearly as long as most of his matches. It rarely takes more than two minutes for him to destroy his opponent, leading fans to pose a question that has become his catch phrase:

"Who's next?"

A more intriguing question may be, "What's a nice Jewish boy doing in a business like this?"

Yes, the hottest star in professional wrestling these days is not named Hulk, Macho Man or Giant, but Bill Goldberg.

"When you hear of somebody named Goldberg, you think of a guy sitting behind a desk investing your money," says Goldberg, 31. "I guess I blow all the stereotypes right out of the water."

A former National Football League player with the Atlanta Falcons, Goldberg has skyrocketed to wrestling stardom in unprecedented fashion, reaching the top in a little more than a year. There is no other main-event wrestler in WCW or the rival World Wrestling Federation with such little experience.

Goldberg, undefeated after almost 150 bouts, cemented his status as a grappling great in July when he "defeated" pop-culture icon "Hollywood" Hulk Hogan for the WCW title before nearly 40,000 fans at the Georgia Dome and a national television audience. It was the most-watched pro wrestling match in the history of cable television.

Goldberg's overwhelming popularity with wrestling fans of all ages, races and denominations is reminiscent of the adoration Hogan received in the mid- to late-1980s.

The Goldberg phenomenon has even filtered into professional baseball and football. Home run king Mark McGwire took batting practice with Goldberg before a game last month. To celebrate big plays, some members of the Baltimore Ravens defense emulate Goldberg's mannerisms - the uppercuts he throws as he enters the ring, or the way he jumps and spreads his legs before he delivers his signature "jack-hammer" maneuver.

So far, anyway, the fact that the seemingly indestructible WCW champion is Jewish has not been an issue, despite wrestling's reputation for playing on racial and ethnic stereotypes. Goldberg, in fact, is not the only Jewish wrestler in WCW, just the only one using his real name.

"We were never going to exploit the fact he's Jewish or try to hide that he's Jewish," says WCW executive vice president Eric Bischoff. "In WCW, we never bring up the religious or racial backgrounds of anybody that works for us and we're not going to start with Bill."

Using his real name - something a small percentage of wrestlers do - is one of several things that make Goldberg an anomaly in wrestling.

Most big-name wrestlers wear outlandish costumes and spend a great deal of their TV time delivering over-the-top interviews. Goldberg wears plain black trunks and black boots and almost never speaks on television - a somewhat surprising fact considering he was known for being a great quote while playing college football at the University of Georgia.

Aside from his flashy ring entrance and the fact that he is undefeated, Goldberg doesn't have much of a gimmick, which is a gimmick in itself.

"The audience is really tired of gimmicks, and we wanted to bring more reality into what we do," Bischoff says. "I wanted people to be real, because I felt people could relate to them better. I mean, there's nobody that plays in the NFL named Undertaker or Sting," he says, referring to two other wrestling stars.

Helping bring some realism to wrestling suits Goldberg just fine.

"It makes it a ... lot easier because I don't have to go out there and act like somebody I'm not," says Goldberg, who adds that his silence on television is part of his mystique. "That's just another facet of me when you see me out there. That was me on the football field.

"If I was out here wearing a dress, painting my face up like a clown ... I'd rather dig a ditch. I'm fortunate enough to be able to make a decent living and enjoy myself and keep my pride. To me, that's more important than anything else."

Goldberg, whose father is a retired gynecologist and whose mother is a former violinist for the Tulsa, Okla., symphony, also takes pride in the positive feedback he has received from the Jewish community.

"I was on the front page of The Forward," a Jewish newspaper out of New York, says Goldberg. "All around the country, I've had some great feedback.

"I don't want [being Jewish] to be an issue. I don't want to separate myself from anyone else, but, hey, I'm honored to be a role model for Jewish kids. When I was growing up, I didn't have one, except for my older brothers."

Goldberg says he is "not the most religious person in the world," but he made a point of not appearing on the live "WCW Monday Nitro" television program during Rosh Hashana.

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