Though the road to WrestleMania doesn't officially kick off until the WWE's Royal Rumble pay-per-view on January 28, the first major news ahead of the festivities in New Orleans comes in the form of Bill Goldberg, who will be the first inductee into the WWE Hall of Fame's Class of 2018.
Goldberg, 51, began his professional wrestling career with WCW in 1996. After playing football for the University of Georgia and the Atlanta Falcons, Goldberg began training at WCW's Power Plant in 1996 and debuted on TV in late 1997. He came to be known for his short matches, his spear, a jackhammer and, eventually, the undefeated streak that would come to define his career. Goldberg was recognized as 173-0, during which he won both the WCW United States championship and WCW world championship before losing a controversial match to Kevin Nash.
"At the end of the day, any business, any venture that you embark upon, you want some type of acknowledgement," Goldberg told ESPN.com, shortly after finding out about his entry into the Hall of Fame. "You always try to make it to a top. There's no reason to do anything unless you want to be the best."
Goldberg eventually joined WWE two years after WCW went out of business, and though there were some highlights, like a run with the World Heavyweight Championship and rivalries with The Rock and Chris Jericho, the run only lasted one year. It ended at WrestleMania XX at Madison Square Garden in 2004, in a match most fans realized was the last in the company for both Goldberg and Brock Lesnar that was loudly booed and left a rotten taste in Goldberg's mouth.
He spent more than 12 years away from the company, and pro wrestling in general, largely trying to separate himself from that part of his life and career, and during that time he acted in a variety of TV shows and movies, including the remake of "The Longest Yard" with Adam Sandler. In late May 2016, however, Goldberg began to rebuild the bridge to the WWE when he was announced as a pre-order bonus for the WWE2K17 video game.
The promotion for the game and a callout from Brock Lesnar and Paul Heyman led to memorable matches at the 2016 Survivor Series, where he beat Lesnar, the 2017 Royal Rumble, the Fastlane pay-per-view when he defeated Kevin Owens to become Universal champion, and WrestleMania 33, where Lesnar and Goldberg wrapped up their rivalry in memorable fashion.
"In a fairly condensed period of time, my relationship with the WWE did a complete 180 degrees," said Goldberg. "My comeback had everything to do with a change of heart on both sides. For that, I am greatly appreciative, because that was a dark side in my psyche. When I heard 'wrestling' or 'WWE' I'd kind of want to put it off to the side and not think about it. It didn't evoke the most positive of memories, but it's funny how that's changed completely in the past couple of years."
Despite picking up a reputation for being overly serious during his time in WCW and his first WWE run, Goldberg was lighthearted when first discussing his Hall of Fame induction -- even joking that it didn't immediately feel like he deserved it. He later conceded that this honor was something he couldn't so easily dismiss.
"The mindset that I have is that I'm as self-deprecating as the next 10 people combined," said Goldberg. "It's nice to kind of sit back and stop the teardown of yourself, open up your arms and your heart and say, 'Hey man, maybe I do deserve something like this.' To get that type of accolade [from the WWE] is really, really cool, and I'm honored and privileged to again set an example for my son -- it makes me very happy."
Triple H agreed, and felt this was the time for Goldberg to make his way in.
"Goldberg's unique athleticism, persona and intensity captured the imagination of sports entertainment fans around the world throughout his illustrious career," said Paul Levesque, WWE executive vice president, talent, live events and creative. "We are honored to have Goldberg take his rightful place in the WWE Hall of Fame."
He'll be stepping out in front of the crowd to make his acceptance speech on Friday, April 6, at New Orleans' Smoothie King Center, as the presumptive headlining inductee. Two nights later, he and the rest of the WWE Hall of Fame Class of 2018 will walk out to be acknowledged by an even larger crowd at the Mercedes Benz Superdome during WrestleMania -- coincidentally the stadium in which he played his very first NFL game with the Falcons.
"It's hard to conceptualize what it's going to be like, just like it was hard to conceptualize what last year was going to be like after being away for 12 years," said Goldberg. "It's another opportunity for me to show how much I appreciate the support and the love I've gotten from the fans. At the end of the day, it's a validation that I've done something right."
Goldberg slipped back into self-deprecation when contemplating how his acceptance speech might go. Though his promos and time on the microphone were far sharper during his most recent WWE run, he acknowledged the biggest "problem" of returning to the WWE yet again.
"The only negative is that each time Vince brings me back, I have to do a longer promo," joked Goldberg, "Which was something I never did back in the day. But the last time I was in the ring, I was able to share my feelings, not as Goldberg the character, but as Bill Goldberg, the man."
The last two years have healed a lot of old wounds between the WWE and Goldberg, but it likely never would have happened if it wasn't for Goldberg's relationship with his son, Gage. He made it a point to mention his son in nearly all of his promos, going so far as to bring his son into the ring, and the most important thing in Goldberg's mind is enjoying his Hall of Fame induction with the people he cares about most.
"I don't do anything anymore without it being for my family," said Goldberg. "To see my wife and my son sitting in the front row, that's just the coolest thing you could ever do. I'm just trying to be the best dad I can be, and hopefully I can make them proud."
Though there are some bittersweet feelings about seemingly calling it a career, Goldberg found plenty of pursuits to throw himself into in his time away from the WWE. And even though he's acknowledged on multiple occasions that the training regimen he went through to return to the ring, Goldberg still wouldn't go so far as to rule out one more time around.
"It's going to be tough, I can tell you that," Goldberg said. "It's kind of like bookmarking the end of your career, although it ain't the end of nothing for me. I'm always living and breathing and looking for my next venture -- and who's to say it couldn't happen there again?"