Why is Goldberg going to fight Brock Lesnar 12 years after the guy last stepped into the ring, WWE or otherwise? It’s easy enough to come up with out-of-universe reasons. Whatever its in-ring merits, Goldberg-Lesnar II figures to be a big money match. It helps promote the video game. And hey, pairing Lesnar off with a returning legend effectively keeps him away from the full-timers, none of whom have been built up enough to plausibly compete with him and none of whom could lose to him without risking their credibility. (I’d be willing to hear an argument for Chris Jericho, actually, but then he’s a returning legend who just happens to be a full-timer.) Those are understandable reasons, sure, but they’re not compelling. Those aren’t reasons a fan, casual or hardcore, should tune into Survivor Series next month to see a match that isn’t likely to blow anyone away with its aesthetics or technical polish. If the match isn’t going to get over on in-ring action, it needs to connect with one humdinger of a story. Tonight, Bill Goldberg returned to Monday Night Raw and gave us not one but two such stories.

As I’ve mentioned previously, I don’t have the long-term viewership to judge this, but the fan consensus appears to be that Goldberg cut a promo that was at least an order of magnitude better than anything he ever cut before. It wasn’t even what he said—though “Brock Lesnar, you’re last!” is one hell of a catchphrase for this final run—that mattered, but how he said it, and how he carried himself more generally. Goldberg has never been shy about the fact that he saw wrestling as a money-making enterprise, not his life’s passion. The Goldberg who returns tonight may still not give a shit about wrestling as an artform, but he absolutely cares about wrestling as an experience. He’s visibly nervous as he does his iconic backstage march to the ring. He damn near sweats through that leather jacket, and that towel out of nowhere can only do so much. He wears his emotions on his sleeve, admitting his time promoting the video game got him to miss being a superhero in the eyes of kids. He acknowledges his wife and son—even as he just straight-up snubs Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, who is hilariously into everything unfolding—and spends a solid five minutes after the match seeking out children at ringside to greet them and make a connection.

All of which is to say that Goldberg-Lesnar II matters because it absolutely matters to Goldberg, and by extension it mattered to the fans in Denver. The original match was such a notorious garbage fire in part because the WrestleMania XX audience knew both men were leaving the company after that match, and their open revolt against the match got to two performers who were already checked out. Who knows if Goldberg has the physical tools to back up his newfound enthusiasm with a good match—I mean, you still probably shouldn’t bet on it—but pro wrestling has always been just as much about larger-than-life stories and characters, about the connection between the wrestlers and the audience. When a match has enough of those things, it doesn’t have to be a technical masterpiece, or even anything close to it.

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What’s intriguing about this is that as much as it’s Bill Goldberg the person—who isn’t necessarily the actual Bill Goldberg, but a reasonable enough facsimile—who connects with the audience tonight, the germ of a worthwhile story lies in what his promo promises. By his reckoning, the Goldberg of WCW was a superhero, more specifically a superhero in the eyes of the kids, and he wants to be that ass-kicking superhero one last time. If you’re looking for the reason that Goldberg could give Lesnar a halfway competitive match where Dean Ambrose and Randy Orton couldn’t, it’s in that statement. Goldberg is a credible threat to Lesnar not because he’s better or even because he’s stronger than other wrestlers, but because, well, his very presence taps right into the core magic of pro wrestling. Obviously, you’re more than free to think that’s stupid. But if WWE really is going to position Goldberg, even in the subtext, as a kind of avatar for all that’s larger-than-life and gloriously unrealistic about pro wrestling, it makes a hell of a lot of sense to have him go up against a real-life champion fighter like Lesnar. It’s childlike innocence and hope versus the crushing realities of adulthood. There’s legitimate heel heat to be had in Lesnar beating Goldberg in a match drawn in those terms, as opposed to just serving some abstract notion that Lesnar’s defeat ought to be saved for someone who can best use the rub and whatever the hell else.

Other things happened on tonight’s Raw as we build toward Hell In A Cell. In the interest of time, I’ll only focus on a couple before heading into the strays. First up, WWE responded to my comments—yes, mine specifically, I’m very important—by going ahead and giving us the triple threat next week featuring Kevin Owens, Chris Jericho, and Seth Rollins, complete with still more discord being sown between Owens and Jericho. If played right, this one-two punch of matches could work even better than running the triple threat inside Hell in a Cell, as it allows Jericho and Owens’ story to reach a climax while also giving space for Owens and Rollins to bring their own feud to an end. (Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself, but it does feel like a Hell in a Cell match should serve as a blow-off, all things being equal.) This also gives WWE a few more possible ways to navigate the tricky question of how to have Owens and Jericho turn on each other with both remaining heels. Then again, fans are ready to full-on cheer Jericho—I mean, they already are, albeit now inflected with the occasional “Sparkle Crotch!” chant—and having Owens destroy Jericho once and for all remains maybe the best way to get him fully over as a heel. There are lots of good options here, and Rollins’ manipulations fit nicely into a face version of the Architect.

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We’ve also got a nicely building story over in the tag team division, as WWE has come up with an obvious delaying tactic in the story of Sheamus and Cesaro’s march to the tag titles. After all, I can’t imagine a bigger waste of everyone’s time than for those two to not win anything after destroying each other for seven matches, but we’ve still somehow got to get to mid-December before the New Day can break Demolition’s record for longest reign. And, well, sometimes the obvious stories are the best, because the story being told is that Sheamus and Cesaro don’t have the slightest chance of winning when they can’t even pretend to be a team. There are other smaller stories to be seized on—it struck me tonight that Sheamus, whatever his dastardly traits, is damn hard to keep down, which contrasts well with Cesaro’s tendency to let the tough moments get the better of him—but there’s a clear, multi-month redemption story to be told of Sheamus and Cesaro getting their asses handed to them at Hell In A Cell, slowly learning how to work together, and ultimately emerging victorious. Again, not the only way to go from here, but tonight’s Raw just generally feels like one bursting with possibilities. It’s damn remarkable that a Raw headlined by Bill Goldberg got me excited about the future, but that’s 2016 for you.

Stray observations

  • Results: Stupid idiot Seth Rollins defeated Chris Jericho; Golden Truth and Mark Henry defeated the Shining Stars and Titus O’Neil; Big E defeated Sheamus; Bo Dallas defeated Neville; Dana Brooke defeated Bayley; Braun Strowman defeated the Mile High Trio; Big Cass defeated Karl Anderson; Brian Kendrick, Drew Gulak, and Tony Nese defeated T.J. Perkins, Rich Swann, and Cedric Alexander
  • Sami Zayn answered Braun Strowman’s call for better competition. There’s no one on the Raw roster better equipped to get a great match out of Strowman than Zayn, and there really isn’t a more perfect David and Goliath pairing for WWE to go with here. This feels like a program that’s going to make at least one person a big deal on the other end of it. I’m not sure there’s a way to make both look good coming out of this, but whatever, color me intrigued.
  • Same goes for the matchup of former NXT champions in Bo Dallas and Neville. I still don’t necessarily quite get the contours of this storyline, and it’s possible the whole thing is really about Bo and Curtis Axel with Neville as just a one-off opponent, but it sure feels like there’s a fun little lower-midcard story to be told here. I’m still ready to Bo-lieve, is what I’m saying.
  • On the other hand… man, are Anderson and Gallows always just going to look like total punks, or what? I get that Karl Anderson is going to be at a significant disadvantage against Big Cass, but commentary wasn’t kidding when they noted how easy Cass made the victory look. I’m the first to point out caveats about stories that are just getting started, but I’m not sure the Club can really weather any more defeats like this if they’re going to be useful as anything going forward.
  • I liked the detail of Brian Kendrick tagging himself in as Tony Nese leveled Rich Swann, with Nese looking past any frustration to help ensure that T.J. Perkins couldn’t make the save. Kendrick and Nese are both conniving bastards, but they’re not dumb, and I’d be intrigued to see them do an encore of their Cruiserweight Classic match one of these days, this time with the title on the line.

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