A 51-year old sits in his office with a box of pro-wrestling action figures nestled on a chair across the room. Unlike most collectors of such items, the dolls aren’t simply for enjoyment; they’re a memoriam to friends and colleagues.
As the man works at his desk, signed photographs and personal notes from the juggernauts of wrestling surround him. Larger than life characters who dominated televisions on weekdays and overtook arenas on the weekends.
Far removed from the million dollar productions of the World Wrestling Federation (WWF), the man formerly known as “Gillberg” sits in a modest office preparing for a night of work. But this time, he’s beside the ring, not in it.
In the late 1990’s, Duane Gill, or “Gillberg,” was the jester of the WWF. His antics in and out of the ring brought him fame, recognition and adoring fans from around the country. Now, after almost 10 years removed from the elite levels of pro-wrestling, Gill is sharing his wisdom and experience with future wrestling hopefuls.
Opened in July, Gill created Gillberg’s Pro Wrestling Academy, located off of Wieker Road in Severn. There, he trains aspiring wrestlers, referees and valets in all the tricks of the business. “We teach them everything they need to know,” he said.
However, while Gill still holds the record for the longest holding of the Light Heavyweight Championship Belt in the WWF, his journey was more than unorthodox.
Instead of being hailed as a champion of testosterone in the ring, “Gillberg” was mostly known for his humorous antics, crowd-pleasing personality and the sheer absurdity of his character.
Gill was famous for portraying someone, who to this day despises him.
Road to Glory
After getting a late start in the business at the age of 27, Gill connected with his good friend, Barry Hardy, a pro-wrestler at the time, and began training.
“I was 6’1, but only about 175 pounds. I was cut up, but I wasn’t huge,” said Gill. After a year of training, Gill landed his first gig, wrestling Hardy in New Jersey.
“I could take some bumps man. Wrestling is a show as well as an athletic ability, and I could sell the pain,” said Gill. “It’s an interactive deal. You have to get the crowd emotionally involved, it’s nothing without them.”
His big break came soon after when executives of the WWF asked him to be an “extra,” or, “someone who gets whooped up on,” as Gill put it.
At 6’1 and 240 pounds, he was a smaller guy, but Gill didn’t care. “I loved every bit of it.”
“Imagine watching Cal Ripken and then playing next to him the next day. I was up there with Hulk Hogan, Brett Hart, Macho Man, the biggest of the biggest names of the old school,” Gill said.
Featured as his real name, Duane Gill, he wrestled between the WWF and WCW (World Championship Wrestling) as an “extra,” taking a beating but getting paid. However, it came to an abrupt end when he tore his rotator cuff and was forced to leave the sport for two years.
“I always told myself, if I got a serious injury, I’d stop wrestling,” he said.
However, while working for the Anne Arundel County Board of Education, Gill got a phone call from a number he’ll always remember.
“It was the WWF, I told my friend. I knew that number anywhere,” he said. “I guess I loved it too much.”
WWF Owner Vince McMahon had requested Gill’s presence at an upcoming Pay-Per-View event and wanted the then 39-year old Gill to be the mystery opponent for “Mankind,” one of the sport’s biggest stars at the time.
“I was scared to death. I had never been on a Pay-Per-View. Vince [McMahon] gave me a 15-minute introduction and built the whole thing up. Everyone was wondering, ‘Who is it?’”
An arena of 20,000 people went silent when McMahon announced the name, “Duane Gill.” “You could have heard a pin drop,” said Gill. “The crowd busted out laughing, but it was only a 29-second fight.”
It wasn’t until a month later that Gill’s true quality as an entertainer came to light.
Gillberg Takes Over
In an effort to mock its competition, World Championship Wrestling, the WWF decided to have Gill portray a parody character called “Gillberg,” mocking the WCW’s superstar, “Goldberg.”
“They gave me about 10 of [Goldberg’s] matches and I learned all his mannerisms and moves. I was just like him, just smaller and funnier,” said Gill.
“The gimmick was supposed to be a one-time thing, but people loved it so much, we decided to make it last awhile,” he said. After his first match as “Gillberg,” Gill said he received the biggest honor of his professional career.
“I came through the curtain [after the match] and every wrestler, every agent, ever writer, Vince McMahon and his whole family, were standing there with tears rolling down their face, clapping. They were dying of laughter,” said Gill. “I’ll never forget that, I get choked up just talking about it.”
The 39-year old had already won the Light Heavyweight Championship Title, so to help him keep the title while portraying “Gillberg,” he upgraded to the Heavyweight division, enabling him to lose every match while never losing his Light Heavyweight Championship belt.
On several occasions, people suggested he wrestle the real “Goldberg," but Gill said McMahon never agreed to it. “The executives knew 'Goldberg' would’ve really hurt me,” Gill said.
“He hates my guts. He’s said it to my face,” said Gill.
In 2002, Gill’s contract with the WWF ended and he transitioned to other endeavors.
His career as a pro-wrestler wasn’t traditional, but the students of his academy acknowledge there’s a lot to learn from the funny man of the WWF.
Sharing His Wisdom
Gill teaches them much more than just moves and style. Most of wrestling has to do with engaging the crowd, he said.
“The mat didn’t pay anything to see the match,” he said. “You’ve got to make sure the fans get what they paid for.” Gill leads the academy with his friend and experienced Maryland Championship Wrestler (MCW), Earl “The Pearl” Hart.
“We train them from setting up a ring to actually being the top guy on the card. How to talk, how to walk, how to act,” said Gill. “We’re teaching them the business.”
Two full-sized wrestling rings sit in the warehouse, almost identical to the types of mats a viewer would see on television.
Academy member Chris Swan, an eight-year veteran to wrestling, has received two call-backs to be on the reality wrestling program, Tough Enough. Such an opportunity can catapult someone into a level where they can make a real living off of wrestling, said Swan. Currently, Swan wrestles in a tag-team tandem called “Fed Up,” on the MCW circuit.
Girls are involved in the action too, as several hope to become female wrestlers in an equally competitive market, said Gill.
While many aren’t ready to fully perform for an audience, sessions are open once a month for people to come see the students’ progress at the academy’s location off Wieker Road.
Gill has been to the top. He has walked into arenas with over 20,000 chanting his name, and he’s worked alongside the biggest names in pro-wrestling. Not bad for a guy who didn’t really break onto the scene until he was nearly 40.
In 2009, Gill was inducted into the Maryland Championship Wrestling Hall of Fame to commemorate his contributions to the sport.
“It’s better than any drug, any alcohol, anything you can do,” said Gill. “The adrenaline rush is so great that you can’t duplicate it, no matter what.”