Duane Gill (aka “Gillberg”) and James Ellsworth have a special connection.
Gillberg was hit with two epiphanies while watching Bill Goldberg win the Universal championship at last night’s Fast Lane. The first was that, despite his age, Goldberg remains a force to be reckoned with in professional wrestling.
“I am amazed,” said Gillberg. “I really think it is incredible that Goldberg is going to headline WrestleMania at 50.”
The second realization, of course, is that Gillberg is ready for his own WrestleMania moment.
“I’d love to wrestle James Ellsworth at WrestleMania,” said Gillberg. “My prediction for that match would be pain for Ellsworth.”
The man behind the sparklers and fire extinguishers is Duane Gill, the 58-year-old father of two who returned to Raw two weeks ago and revived his Gillberg character. Gillberg and Ellsworth are both Maryland natives, and they have known one another for more than twenty years.
“I know James very well,” explained Gillberg. “His mother and I went to junior high and high school together.”
Unbeknownst to either at the time, Gillberg and Ellsworth shared a moment together in an elementary school in Maryland that would define both of their blue-collar, hard-working careers.
“Back when I was up in WWE doing jobs, I would work Monday night and then come on home and back to work,” said Gillberg. “I was also working as a carpenter for the Board of Education in Maryland, and I was actually working at James’ elementary school on a Tuesday, changing a lightbulb, which was actually just a few hours after I’d been on Raw. James came up to me and said, ‘Hi, Mr. Duane!’ and I said, ‘Hi Jimmy.’
“I could tell James wanted to ask me a question. He said, ‘Mr. Duane, aren’t you a famous wrestler?’ I replied, ‘Kind of.’ And then, very honestly, he asked me one more—‘If you’re such a famous wrestler, then why are you changing lightbulbs?’
“I got off the ladder and knelt down, put my hand on his shoulder, looked him in the eye and said, ‘Well son, one day you’ll understand.’ James called me up not too long go and said, ‘Now I understand.’”
Gill began wrestled in 1989, and received his first break as a jobber—otherwise known as an enhancement talent that loses to the stars—for the World Wrestling Federation in 1991. He wrestled intermittently—yet lost consistently—to the likes of Curt Hennig, Scott Hall, Tatanka, and Sean Waltman, among others, before finishing up with the company in 1994. He returned four years later as Mick Foley’s mystery opponent at the 1998 Survivor Series, then finally found lightning in a bottle when he debuted the Gillberg character, which was a parody of WCW’s Bill Goldberg, in November of ’98.
“Gillberg was supposed to be a one-time deal,” he explained. “I had no clue it would catch on and last for close to twenty years. It caught on, and they keep bringing me back to WWE.”
After failing to capture the attention of the masses in pro wrestling, Gill was genuinely surprised that the Gillberg character served as his ticket to stardom.
“It was something I was already doing on the independents,” offered Gillberg. “I was talking to Paul Bearer and Kane one night about it at a WWE show, and I was joking and telling them how I’d make fun of the boys on the independents. I did the ‘Underfaker,’ ‘Stone Old Steve Austin,’ and I did ‘Gillberg.’ We laughed about it, and then Paul Bearer said in that high-pitched voice, ‘Oh Duane Gill, you might have something there, boy.’”
Word from that fateful conversation quickly spread throughout the WWE locker room.
“For the rest of the night, whenever I walked by the boys, I’d hear, ‘Gillberg! Gillberg!’” he reminisced. “The next day, I went into catering before TV, and as I was getting my food, all the boys went, ‘Gillberg! Gillberg!’ They’d set it up as a rib, so I turned around and screamed like Goldberg, and everybody laughed. I thought that was the end of it. Two days later, I got a call from the WWE office saying, ‘Get the outfit—you are now Gillberg.’”
Portraying the Gillberg character has always been easy for Gill, considering he was already well aware of Bill Goldberg.
“I was a fan before I was a wrestler, so I already knew everything about him,” said Gillberg. “WWE sent me a tape with five or six of his matches and told me to learn all of his mannerisms. I watched the tape, but I already knew what to do.”
Gillberg has consistently poked fun at Goldberg’s expense, though purely as a storyline and he never mocked anything but the theatrics inside of pro wrestling. Nevertheless, the former WCW champion did not find anything funny about Gill’s attempt at humor.
“The first time I met Bill in 2003, he did not like me at all,” said Gillberg. “He didn’t find my form of imitation as flattery.”
Time heals old wounds, even for Gillberg and Goldberg.
“I met him again a few months ago at an autograph session in New York,” said Gillberg. “I’ve been making fun of the guy for fifteen years, so I might as well meet him again and have a photo op. Goldberg said, ‘Hell yeah, let’s do it,’ and picked me up over his head. He gave me a big hug and was super nice, and we had a conversation.”
Nearly twenty years after the Gillberg debut, Goldberg finally offered some praise for the character.
“Goldberg said to me, ‘Thank you for keeping me relevant for all these years,’ but I corrected him and said, ‘No, you kept me relevant!’
“I told him I was ready our match. Goldberg said, ‘Let’s do it.’ He’d make a million dollars, I’d make a hundred thousand, and I’ll be happier than anything.”
Gillberg returned to Raw during Chris Jericho’s “Festival of Friendship,” which inspired him with the idea to trend #GillbergWrestleMania.
“There is like a cult following for Gillberg,” he explained. “I was only on Raw for a little bit, and I was wiped out by Kevin Owens. It wasn’t like I had a match or anything, but my social media blew up on Facebook and Twitter. So, I’m taking it to the next step—let’s hashtag #GillbergWrestleMania. Maybe I’ll get a WrestleMania date. The fans have been so supportive. I’m really thankful for that, and I always say that if there were no fans, there would be no wrestling.
“I don’t know who was the driving force to get me back there on Raw, but I’m grateful I was. It was just a total blast being back on Raw. Everyone is still polite and respectful in the locker, and the camaraderie backstage is unbelievable. It’s a great place to work.”
Gillberg took the receiving end of a beating from WWE Universal champion Kevin Owens during his Raw appearance, and stated that he is open to more opportunities just like that.
“I still think people want to see me wrestle Goldberg,” said Gillberg. “Even though I’d get my ass handed to me, people still want to see that match. People have even asked me if I’d watch Goldberg’s back when he wrestles Brock Lesnar, so I could contain Paul Heyman, which would be awesome.”
Gillberg is even open to wrestling Brock Lesnar
“Oh man, I’m ready,” laughed Gillberg. “That man will probably tear me in half, but sure, I’ll do it.”
Even if the grassroots campaign to wrestle James Ellsworth at WrestleMania 33 doesn’t amount to anything, Gillberg is still accepting independent bookings and selling his own line of merchandise.
“I just did an autograph session in Queens and then speared a guy at a show in Bayville, N.J.,” said Gillberg. “People can contact me if they want to be book me, and it’s the same for my t-shirts. These aren’t WWE shirts, I made some shirts myself—they’ve got Gillberg across the front, and a big question mark on the back that says, ‘Who’s first?’ We don’t have a website yet, but people who want to buy a t-shirt can email my manager at email@example.com.”
Gillberg was asked for his prediction regarding the Brock Lesnar-Bill Goldberg match for the Universal championship at WrestleMania.
“The Universal title is only going to add fuel to the fire for Lesnar at WrestleMania,” offered Gillberg. “That’s my prediction, but you can never predict what they’re going to do. That’s why it is the greatest company in the world.”
Gillberg will be present for WrestleMania weekend, as he is appearing on both Friday, March 31 and Saturday, April 1 at WrestleCon.
“I’m one-hundred committed to the fans,” said Gillberg. “There is no wrestling without fans. That’s why I’ll never turn down an autograph—it only takes a second. I’ve waited so many times for my favorite wrestler to come out and they were gone. I’ll never turn down an autograph.”
Gillberg remains hopeful that he will receive a once-in-a-lifetime shot at WrestleMania, which would be even more meaningful if it were against Ellsworth.
“I want my WrestleMania moment,” said Gillberg. “People on social media have already put together pictures of Ellsworth and me in front of the WrestleMania banner, and it looks so real. That would be my childhood dream.”