Do we even need to explain why that headline is true? Sometimes less is better, especially in WWE, where certain wrestlers’ WrestleMania entrances are often longer than the average midcard match. Last night Goldberg and Brock Lesnar walked out to a crowd that seemed oddly antagonistic towards both (where I was sitting the boos were louder than the cheers for both men) and speared almost all expectations by having the most exciting match on the entire show. It’s a reminder that pacing, structure and storytelling are the most crucial aspects of a wrestling match, and that not every great match needs to be a long epic.
Lesnar and Goldberg each have their limitations, and this match was brilliantly laid out in a way that covered their weaknesses while highlighting their strengths. Goldberg rarely ever worked long matches even in his prime, so this was expected to be quick, but at almost five minutes this was just long enough to satisfy more than the lightning fast blips of his last two pay-per-view matches. Those five minutes were built entirely around four major moves—Goldberg’s spear and jackhammer, and Lesnar’s German suplex and F5. It was nothing but signature moves and finishers, and those moves have been so protected that the audience bought all of them as a potential finish. Lesnar rarely works a traditional back-and-forth match anymore, specializing in extended squashes of main event talent, and Goldberg hasn’t wrestled a true match in over a decade, so ditching a typical match structure was expected. Getting five exciting minutes out of only four moves (and one big spot) wasn’t.
The match starts the way it should: with Lesnar getting the immediate advantage. Since their Survivor Series match was a shocking, one-sided squash of Lesnar, and since it was fairly predictable that Lesnar would win the WrestleMania rematch, starting off with Lesnar’s German suplexes makes fans wonder if this would simply flip that Survivor Series match on its head and have the Beast score a quick win. When Goldberg no-sells that third German and spears Lesnar for the first time, the pop is electric—anybody in the stadium who might’ve been down on two part-timers fighting for WWE’s main title probably shed all their reservations after that spear. At this point this match is clearly going to be a match, and not just a squash.
Goldberg follows with a second spear, at which point Lesnar rolls out of the ring. Here WWE effectively uses some of its patented smoke-and-mirrors to make this match feel even more like a brutal bout between two monsters: Goldberg spears Lesnar on the floor, driving both through the barricade that protects the timekeeper and ring announcer. It’s a big spot that isn’t telegraphed and doesn’t require any unnecessary set-up, flowing naturally from the action and the environment around a wrestling ring.
From there the two run through a series of reversals of their iconic moves. Goldberg goes to pick Lesnar up for a jackhammer, but Lesnar instead hoists Goldberg overhead for an F5. Both times the fans buy that the match could be about to end. Instead Goldberg slips off Lesnar’s shoulders and lands another spear, and then hits his finisher, the jackhammer. In what could be the first time in Goldberg’s relatively brief wrestling career, somebody actually kicks out of the jackhammer, as Lesnar gets his shoulder up at two. Goldberg goes for one more spear, but Lesnar does an amazing leapfrog over Goldberg’s flying body, avoiding the spear as Goldberg rams his head into the turnbuckle. Lesnar then takes control, suplexing Goldberg several more times before finishing him off with an F5 to win the Unviersal title, and presumably end Goldberg’s career.
Everything about Lesnar feels different from anything else in WWE, from his angles to his matches to his overall presence. That was heightened even more during this Goldberg feud, as Goldberg himself returned to WWE with an aura and a persona that felt nothing like anybody else on the roster. Goldberg has felt genuine since his first time back in a WWE ring, and since an overall lack of authenticity is one of the biggest problems with WWE, that (combined with smart booking) made Goldberg feel like a much bigger star than he did during his first WWE run. That stardom and that sincerity dovetailed nicely with Lesnar’s own larger-than-life aura, turning what could’ve been a trainwreck into the best WWE program in recent memory.
That program isn’t what made last night’s match great, though. Awesome stories often end with disappointing matches. Last night’s match would’ve worked just as well even if it was a one-off with minimal build. It was two legitimate monsters working a strong, hard-hitting match, with every move and action either building to the finish or playing off the fans’ expectations. Over a WrestleMania weekend full of fantastic indie matches with talented wrestlers working long, unbelievably athletic matches, Goldberg vs. Brock Lesnar reminded us that it’s not just what you do in a match, or how much of it you do, but why you’re doing it, and what you’re trying to impart to the audience by doing it. On a WrestleMania show that didn’t have any great traditional matches, this compact, thoroughly planned out war between two overpowering characters was easily the standout.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s wrestling, comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.