Goldberg finally returns to Raw 12 years after walking away

Goldberg tells Lesnar that he's next... and last (0:59)

Goldberg returns to the WWE to respond to the challenge from Brock Lesnar. He accepts, saying that not only is Lesnar next, but that Lesnar is the last person he'll ever wrestle. (0:59)

It has become a rite of passage of sorts for pro wrestling fans, particularly those hoping to recapture the spirit of what first hooked them, to yearn for a throwback of nostalgia into the current product.

And when it comes to the idea of fantasy booking a big-name celebrity return to WWE, the name Goldberg has continued to hover right near the top of many viewers' lists for much of the 12 years since he walked away in 2004.

Goldberg, 49, made his triumphant return Monday night, closing Raw with a 10-minute promo that answered Brock Lesnar's challenge to a match -- presumably for the Survivor Series pay-per-view on Nov. 20 -- with a resounding "yes" as the Denver crowd cheered his return.

"Brock Lesnar, not only does that mean that you're next," Goldberg said, "but most importantly it means Brock Lesnar, you're last."

When it comes to checking off all of the boxes with his performance, Goldberg was strong (as was WWE's steady build toward his performance in the final segment, interspersing his career highlights throughout). The former WCW champion, who ran off a fictional unbeaten streak of 173-0 upon his 1997 debut, reprised his famous ring entrance, from a long walk down a backstage hallway -- complete with current WWE superstars cheering him on -- to his emergence on the stage amid a storm of sparks and fireworks.

Goldberg was just as strong on the microphone, protecting his tough image with equally tough talk while also putting over the real reason for his return: his wife and young son, who were seated ringside, had never seen him perform as a pro wrestler. His softer side was hammered home with a series of hugs and high fives to children in the front row, further establishing his role as a babyface in his upcoming feud.

The distinction was an important one because of Goldberg's age and time away from the ring, which stands out as the greatest challenge WWE will face leading up to Survivor Series as it attempts to credibly build a believable case for his chances against Lesnar.

Outside of the groan that came from Raw commentater Michael Cole announcing him as "the greatest champion in WCW history," Goldberg's return drew positive reviews on social media and from the large pop he received inside the Pepsi Center on Monday. He acknowledged as much by interrupting the crowd's chants of "Goldberg!" and "holy s---!" to say, "It has been a long time, and you didn't forget."

Lesnar was absent on Monday (his return was announced for next week in Minneapolis) and his advocate Paul Heyman provided a brief interview via satellite from WWE headquarters, just one week after initially challenging Goldberg on Lesnar's behalf. This episode was all about Goldberg, who referred to Heyman as a "fat little stooge" and called out Lesnar for not having "the balls to do it himself."

The return offers Goldberg a chance to exit the company on a much brighter note than his WrestleMania XX victory over Lesnar, which was met with boos 12 years ago by a crowd knowing full well both superstars were set to leave the company.

While Goldberg, who regularly trains in mixed martial arts, appeared to be in great shape, his true definition was strategically hid behind a heavy jacket -- which caused him to sweat uncontrollably. The true reveal of the rivalry will come the first time the two combatants lay hands on each other in the coming weeks, which can only help Raw's attempt to regain must-see status after slipping behind in-house competitor SmackDown Live in the eyes of many fans.

Goldberg's return didn't suspend time to the point where viewers felt transported back to 1998 all over again. But it didn't disappoint at any turn or badly expose the reality of a middle-aged man's return, which was important in terms of setting the stage.

As things stand right now, Raw has our attention in a major way. But it's how the WWE's creative team builds the feud over the next four weeks that will have just as big a hand in deciding the success of Goldberg's return as how he actually looks in his eventual return to the ring.

Hits and misses

  • For as much as WWE attempted to build suspense as to whether Goldberg would accept Lesnar's challenge, commercials that ran Monday in local markets promoting his future appearances (including the Oct. 31 episode of Raw in Hartford, Connecticut) didn't help matters.

  • While Goldberg's return captured Raw's headlines Monday, the most valuable performance within a single segment came from Rusev, who showcased his comedic chops to near perfection. Despite a questionable facial hair choice (full beard with no mustache or goatee), Rusev was red-hot for the second straight week on the microphone as he showed pictures of his family members to the crowd before insulting and attacking Roman Reigns. Rusev's comeback to Reigns of, "Hey, hey ... you can disrespect my family all you want but you can't disrespect me," was the perfect summation of his character's genius.

  • Seth Rollins' attempt at making "Sparkle Crotch" a thing while insulting Chris Jericho was a noble one before it badly fell flat. But his diving neckbreaker off the middle rope against Jericho later on in their match was definitely worth a second look.

  • Speaking of Rollins, who faced off against Jericho for the second straight week, it's becoming hard to avoid the feeling that his current feud with Universal champion Kevin Owens remains stuck in neutral. Unless next week's triple-threat match including Jericho adds a significant wrinkle to the buildup ahead of Hell in the Cell, this has been very much an underwhelming feud between top superstars.

  • Can we just pretend that that painfully awkward backstage segment (complete with a cringe-inducing high-five) between Stephanie McMahon and Mick Foley never happened?

  • Big E referring to Cesaro as Sheamus' "court-appointed tag-team partner" was high comedy and an apt description. Don't look now, but The New Day appear to be completely back from a series of comedic missteps late in the summer. The shark has not been jumped.

  • Cruiserweight Tony Nese isn't merely a bright spot in the WWE's newest division, he's arguably becoming its most must-watch in-ring performer. His 450 splash onto Rich Swann in their six-man tag-team match was no joke.

  • An even darker heel turn from Bo Dallas on Monday was the best thing to happen to his character in years. Dallas not only put away Neville in a singles match with a series of stiff strikes (after surviving a breathtaking moonsault onto the floor), he turned on former Social Outcasts teammate Curtis Axel after the match and handed out a vicious beating. It has become much easier to "Bo-lieve" in a guy like Dallas who has gotten himself back into this good of shape. It's time for Bo to drop the rhyming, political signs and self-help gimmick in order to embrace his full potential on the dark side.

  • Admittedly, three hours is a long time to watch wrestling in one setting. But did I hear correctly that the stipulation of an otherwise meaningless six-man tag team match between The Golden Truth and Mark Henry against The Shining Stars and Titus O'Neill was that R Truth would have to buy up all of Primo and Epico's fake watches if he lost? Look, I'm a stickler for attention to detail as much as anyone, but how about we first give O'Neill's feud with former teammate Darren Young an actual ending before we start fighting over time shares and shady sidewalk sales.

  • A pair of pre-taped sit-down interviews featuring Sasha Banks and Charlotte not only showcased a strong use of WWE Hall of Famer Lita, they brought to light just how far apart the two superstars are in their ability to cut a strong promo, as Charlotte won this portion of their rivalry by a landslide.

Move of the night

Just when you thought it was becoming a bore to watch Braun Strowman absolutely steamroll a group of helpless jobbers, his destruction of the Mile High Trio reminded how fun it can be. The ease in which Strowman tossed one of its members outside of the ring like a sack of potatoes, crashing into his partners below, was particularly memorable.

Line of the night

"We get it, Roman, you have a family and that is good for you. I know you have 700 Samoans sitting around a campfire, dipping a turkey leg in mayonnaise and following every move that you do." -- Rusev during a rant against Roman Reigns.