| The Hebrew Hulk
Former wrestling demi-god Goldberg took Jewish pride to a whole new bone-crunching level. But will his budding film career turn out like The Rock’s – or Hulk Hogan’s?
By Judd Handler
After nearly two decades of relentlessly punishing his body between football and wrestling, Bill Goldberg – AKA “Goldberg” – hurts. Bad.
“My joints are in a lot of pain,” he moans.
“I’ll probably die when I’m 60.”
“Don’t say that,” says his wife, stuntwoman Wanda Ferraton.
“Bill’s been hurt more from wrestling than he did in football,” she adds.
“That’s right,” says Goldberg. “Like when I punched out a windshield trying to get to Scott Hall, who said something to me in the ring I didn’t like. The promoters wanted me to use a sledgehammer to break the glass; I used my hand instead. I had to get 200 stitches in my right arm.” And then there was the time he dislocated three bones in his hand and still beat three opponents in one night.
As Goldberg steps on a scale, Ferraton light-heartedly ridicules her man for being so concerned about his weight.
“You’re just like a girl,” she says.
How times have changed. If anyone had said that to Goldberg during his pro wrestling career in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, they probably would have been hit with the “Goldberg Spear.” Or perhaps the infamous “Jackhammer.” Either way, they’d pay… in pain.
But at 38, Goldberg has mellowed out. He’s mostly done with wrestling (give or take a few exhibitions here and in Japan). He and Ferraton were married last month. And he’s looking to transform his popularity as a pro wrestler into a less physically demanding career as a star on TV and the big screen.
This month he’ll be seen in MTV’s big-screen remake of the 1974 prison football comedy “The Longest Yard.” He also plays a bitter homicidal Santa Claus in an upcoming horror film called “Santa’s Slay.” (And who said Hollywood is bankrupt of good ideas?)
This avid car collector will also host a new show on the History Channel called “AutoManiac.” Premiering Wednesday, June 1, the show will focus on interesting cars through history, like gangster cars, hot rods and lowriders. Goldberg’s home east of Oceanside has a 14-car garage and he owns more than two dozen vintage cars.
After topping out at 290 pounds during his wrestling days, Goldberg is down to 265 pounds. With a neck thicker than an Amazonian anaconda, a tribal-themed tattoo on his left shoulder and trapezius muscles that look like Popeye’s biceps on spinach, Goldberg still cuts an imposing figure. But when he briefly lifts up his t-shirt to scratch his belly, you can see his abs aren’t as chiseled as they were during his glory days.
Driving back and forth to L.A., sitting for hours in trailers waiting for film takes and eating unhealthy food has taken its toll on Goldberg’s training regimen. Once his hectic schedule calms down, he says, he will be back to sparring and training at the gym he co-owns in Oceanside, Extreme Power.
After a short and injury-prone football career in the early ‘90s, Goldberg was hand-picked by Hulk Hogan – one of the most popular wrestlers ever – to be his successor. “It was mainly Hulk Hogan who wanted to pass the torch to me,” he says. “He had the confidence in me to carry it but he easily could have picked dozens of other wrestlers. I was lucky... I’ve always been lucky.”
Says fellow Jewish wrestler Barry Horowitz, who sometimes wrestled in a painfully tight set of blue shorts stamped with the Star of David, “Bill Goldberg’s success was a mixture of being in the right place at the right time… and a whole lot of luck.”
Goldberg became one of the biggest stars on the wrestling circuit, winning a World Championship Wrestling U.S. Heavyweight title in 1998 and ‘99 and the World Wrestling Entertainment World Heavyweight belt in 2003. (In 2001, the WCW was absorbed by WWE.)
Originally, Goldberg wanted to be called Mossad, after Israel’s badass intelligence agency. “I didn’t want to use Goldberg because it’s not an imposing name,” he says. But three months after debuting as Bill Gold, he decided to go by “Goldberg” for his first television appearance for World Championship Wrestling. “Ultimately,” he says, “I decided that I have nothing to hide.”
“I’m a 6-foot-4, 290-pound Jewish kid having his name chanted by thousands of people and yeah, I think that’s funny,” says Goldberg. “But people were chanting my name not because I’m coming out in a suit and tie and doing your taxes, but because I wanted to rip my opponents’ arms out of their sockets.”
With his signature scowl and threatening catchphrase “Who’s next?,” Goldberg body-slammed stereotypes of Jewish men – for better or worse. “It’s been a blessing to be a role model for those Jewish kids who never had a Jewish sports hero to look up to,” he says, “especially those who were too young to remember [Sandy] Koufax or aren’t into baseball and don’t follow the career of Shawn Green.”
Goldberg was raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the son of a now-divorced gynecologist (father Jed) and concert violinist (mother Ethel). According to Bill, his grandfather was even taller, at 6-7. “[Goldberg] was the biggest kid even at his bar mitzvah,” recalls Rabbi Charles Sherman, who trained Goldberg for his bar mitzvah at Temple Israel in Tulsa.
As such, he was a natural for the football field. Coming out of high school in 1985, Goldberg was one of the most sought-after recruits in Oklahoma.
He had a spectacular college career at the University of Georgia, starting every game three out of his four years, and being named All-Southeastern Conference twice and a second team All-American in 1989. By the time he graduated from Georgia in ‘89 with a degree in psychology, he was seventh on Georgia’s all-time career tackles list with 348 and sixth on its career sacks list with 12.
But at 265 pounds, he was a bit small for a NFL-caliber nose tackle. He was drafted in the 11th round of the 1990 NFL draft by the then-Los Angeles Rams, but never played a game for them. He eventually found his way to the Atlanta Falcons, and ended up playing in 14 games spread over three seasons. In 1995, an abdominal injury forced him to end his football dreams for good.
After his pro football career ended, Goldberg became a personal trainer at an Atlanta gym. A few pro wrestlers worked out at the gym and persuaded him to give wrestling a try at the WCW’s training center in Atlanta, the Power Plant.
In a sport where success is defined more by fan interest than talent, Goldberg was a favorite from the start. Perhaps because of his ironically innocuous wrestling moniker, Goldberg became one of the wrestling world’s “good guys,” receiving cheers for beating the likes of The Rock and Hulk Hogan. Goldberg thinks his popularity was due to his ability to “maim someone in the ring, walk out triumphantly, grab some kids and raise their hands up in the air and smile at them and give ‘em joy.”
He wasn’t the only Jewish wrestler on the circuit at the time, only the most successful. His opponent for the 1998 WCW U.S. Heavyweight title match was Scott Levy, AKA “The Raven.” Other Jewish wrestlers at the time included Dean Malenko (“Dean Simon”) and Horowitz.
Goldberg says he never experienced any anti-Semitism as a wrestler. “When I wrestled in the Deep South in places like Alabama, I thought people would lynch me,” he says. “That was my predisposed impression.”
On the contrary, Goldberg recalls fans in the heart of the Bible Belt waving posters with Stars of David and chanting his name.
Although Goldberg now celebrates the high holidays and has recently rediscovered his Jewish identity, he says, “I’m so far from religious it’s not even funny, but I guarantee when my girlfriend and I get married, I’ll have a rabbi marry us and I’ll be breakin’ the glass right next to her.” (Which he did, last month.)
Goldberg continues, “I’m very proud of my tradition. It doesn’t mean I have to read the Torah every day, but hell, I wrestled in front of millions of people and called myself by my real name. That’s a testament to myself that I’m proud of.” Rabbi Sherman – who’s still giving sermons and blessing babies after 28 years at Tulsa’s Temple Israel – backs him up. “He once considered the possibility of changing his name,” says Sherman, “but I think it says a lot about his character that he kept it.”
Jewish pride aside, what does the future hold for Goldberg? Will he rock like The Rock, or misfire at the movies like his mentor Hulk Hogan? For what it’s worth, Goldberg knows how to play angry.
“Every time I stepped into that ring, I was never acting,” he says. “If you go out there and act too much it looks like acting. I was just being me. I was fired up and angry. I want guys to hit me in the ring. I thrive on it.”
Judd Handler is a freelance writer based in Encinitas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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