Ring Master

updated 12/14/1998 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/14/1998 01:00AM

Gold-BERRG! Gold-BERRG! Gold-BERRG!" chants the rowdy sellout crowd at Rochester, N.Y.'s Blue Cross Arena, as, just out of sight behind black curtains, Bill Goldberg, the charismatic 6'4", 285-lb. undefeated professional wrestling champion, fastens his championship belt and prepares to make his entrance. Amanda Koehler, 20, cranes to catch a glimpse. "He's hot," she says. "He goes out there and tears you apart."

Since Goldberg, 31, joined World Championship Wrestling just 15 months ago, the gleaming-domed grappler has pummeled opponents in more than 160 choreographed but grueling matches. Along the way, he pinned pop icon Hulk Hogan, stripping the fabled Hulkster of the WCW championship. The star attraction of the TNT network's Monday Nitro, whose 7.2 million viewers make it among the nation's most-watched TV programs, Goldberg also appeared recently on Love Boat: The Next Wave and Live! with Regis & Kathie Lee. Merchandise bearing his name is WCW's top seller, pulling in an estimated $3 million this year alone. With a Goldberg video game and action figure on the way, he expects to earn more than $1 million for himself next year. "Right now, he's driving this company," says Eric Bischoff, president of WCW.

Goldberg's appeal derives from his no-nonsense intensity. "I'm no-frills," he says. Maskless, wigless and capeless, he wears simple black bikini briefs in the ring, and instead of adopting a melodramatic moniker—he briefly considered "The Warlord" and "Mossad," after the Israeli spy agency—Goldberg did something unheard-of: He kept his own name. He illustrates his motto—"Force equals mass times acceleration"—with his signature move, the jackhammer, in which he swings his opponent overhead and drives him into the mat headfirst. It's fake combat, but genuine theater. "I go out there and do things that everyone in this world would like to do to somebody," says Goldberg, in a soft voice that contrasts dramatically with his ring character's bellow. (In the real world he also finds time to visit with seriously ill kids and make public service messages protesting cruelty to animals.)

Goldberg's soaring popularity underscores pro wrestling's successful effort to broaden its audience. In addition to Goldberg, the first Jewish champion wrestler in memory, minority wrestlers including Eddy Guerrero, who is Hispanic, and Booker T, an African-American, have been scripted into the roles of good-guy winners. "It's just a good thing that it's happened," says Goldberg, who says he hasn't encountered—nor would he tolerate—any anti-Semitism in the nation's arenas.

Goldberg developed his killer instincts early. The youngest of four children born to Jed Goldberg, a Tulsa obstetrician, and his then-wife, Ethel, a former concert violinist, he never wanted to do anything but play football like his two idolized brothers. (His brother Steve had a brief career with the National Football League's Raiders and Vikings.) In 1985, Bill won an athletic scholarship to the University of Georgia, where he was twice named an all-conference defensive lineman. No star academically, he learned one thing as a psych major, he says: "How to turn a negative into a positive."

The lesson has come in handy. Drafted in 1989 by the Los Angeles Rams, he was cut in training camp that year and the next. In 1991 the Atlanta Falcons signed him. But in his third year, during a 1994 preseason game, he tore the abdominal muscles off his pelvis, a painful and bizarre career-ending injury. "I was a piece of junk," says Goldberg.

Over the next couple of years, several wrestlers in the Atlanta gyms where Goldberg worked out urged him to take up their game. "Some guys just got it," says Diamond Dallas Page. "James Dean had it. Marilyn Monroe had it. Goldberg obviously has it." One night, wrestlers Lex Luger and Sting took him to a wrestling show. "I thought, 'This is kind of cool,' " says Goldberg.

Not long afterward, Goldberg, who lives in Dawsonville, Ga., called his parents (now divorced) to tell them he'd chosen a new career. "I had mixed feelings," concedes Dr. Goldberg, 74, but eventually he gave his blessing. "Go for it. Just be good," he remembers telling his son. Goldberg's mother, now 70 and a professional orchid judge, maintains that she was equally understanding. ("Bill," she recalls telling him, "it's an honest living.") Goldberg's recollection is slightly different. "My parents," he says, "thought I was crazy."

Bruce Frankel
Amy Laughinghouse in Atlanta and Michelle York in Rochester

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