“See, guys like us aren’t in this for the long run. Us big motherf—— aren’t going to be around that long … at least I’m not.”
I would like to say that Greg Gillies was talking about the wrestling business when we had that conversation. But he wasn’t, he was talking about life and the lifestyle we were living as professional wrestlers in the 1980s.
And it was that exact conversation that ran through my head as Michelle Starr called from Vancouver to break the news to me this week that one of my very best friends in the wrestling business had passed away at 44. I could hear nothing else; the words kept playing over and over.
Finally I hung up. I hung up and I smiled. Why? Because I knew that if the situation had been reversed that is what he would have done. His terms. That is how he lived and that is how he died.
I met Greg in 1986. I wanted to go work for the Harts but Stu told me to wait another week and “Playboy” Doug McCall told me that he had my heat settled with Vancouver promoter Al Tomko. I had left Al the previous year after not being happy with the territory. McCall told me that I could live at Stan Miller’s place. Stan used to let three or four of the guys live with him during the season. He told me about his big, musclehead roommate who was really cool.
Greg didn’t say much when we first met. A polite hello then basically stayed in his room. I thought this was a little odd but, hey, this was the wrestling business.
It only took a couple of matches, some workouts, and a couple of good bar nights to break the ice with him. He wasn’t one who made quick judgments. He would observe for a while and then decide whether he really liked a person. But once he decided he liked you, you were a friend for life.
Greg’s story is an interesting one. He told me that he and his brother were both big fans of wrestling. They had gone to Calgary to train with the Harts. He said that Ron Ritchie had done a lot of ring work with him. Apparently he got his break by luck. They had the option of choosing him or his brother and for whatever reason they chose him. Somehow from there he landed with Tomko and he was off to the races.
A lot of the boys say that the easiest part of the business is the 20 minutes you spend in the ring at night. And the Vancouver territory was a true testament to that. Tomko had a way of having an almost insane exterior. Yet some could look hard enough at Al and see a slight glimmer of a big heart. And Greg was one of those.
His Tomko impersonations were hilarious. One time Al gave us his van to take on a road trip. Of course before we left, Al had said something dumb to get Greg mad. We took the van to the ferry dock and as we sat there, Greg looked at me and said that he felt like driving it into the water. And the great part about him was that there was always the possibility that he just might.
Inside the ring Greg was great to work with. You could trust him. He could powerslam you and not drop you on your head. He was solid but not stiff. You knew you were in a match and you knew you were going to work.
Greg had a lot of respect for the business that many could have learned from. When I was a heel working for Emile Dupre and he was a babyface, he wanted me to meet his wife who was flying out from Saskatchewan. Because he didn’t want us to been seen together we drove separately about an hour outside of Truro, Nova Scotia to some little bar in a little town just to have a beer.
But that was the kind of guy Greg was. In many ways he was a thinker. He had skills outside the wrestling business. Many people didn’t know that he was an x-ray welder and made a lot of money at that trade. As life moved on he would go back and do the welding job to put some money in the bank and make sure that his kids did not want for anything.
Greg was also a businessman. Before getting into the wrestling business, he owned a couple of gyms in Saskatchewan. As a matter of fact, his clubs were such a threat that a big, international chain actually took a run at his health clubs. I learned this when he and I almost went into the gym business together a couple of times. I felt like such a fool when I thought I would describe the gym business to him. Little did I know.
The one thing that stands out in my mind about Greg was his drive and desire. That carried through with everything he did. I drank with him many a night on the road and then would crawl out of bed with him coming back from the gym in the morning. I have no idea how he did it. And of course that night he would have a great match and be ready to go again.
Back in my days in the business, a lot of guys got into territories by their friends. I was lucky to have a great run in Mexico just when TV was taking off and Tony Pena and Juan Herrera were both booking at Arena Mexico in Mexico City. I had a lot of guys contact me about getting them in. Everybody wanted to come down. I saw hand-written letters from WWF superstars at the time as the business was on fire south of the border. I only passed two names on. One was John Tenta and the other was Greg Gillies.
Actually with Greg I went the extra step. I had him meet me down in Mexico and personally walked him into the office. I introduced him to Adolfo Bonales who was the English agent and elder statesman. In yet another classic moment with Greg, I told him to take off his shirt for Adolfo so he could see Greg’s awesome physique. “You like to go to the gym?” Adolfo asked. Greg being as polite as he was just said yes. I started screaming at Adolfo basically cutting a promo saying he had the biggest body in Mexico and they had to book him immediately. Adolfo just said, “Okay, amigo, I’ll call you at your hotel.” Greg didn’t want to wait and got booked with the rival promoter Senor Minus.
Greg and I kept in touch over the years. I told him I would call any promoter who I had worked for in the past and put a word in for him. Mike Lozanski, another friend of ours, did the same. Greg liked Mike and would call me to ask advice as to whether he should follow Mike to a territory. I always told him yeah and he would call when he would get back and tell me how it always seemed to start out great but somehow crashed and burned. We would laugh and I would remind him that was the lure of the business.
In later years I would get phone calls from Starr in Vancouver. He would sometimes ask if I had talked to Greg as he was booked on shows but didn’t arrive at the arenas. I would laugh and then call the illustrious Mr. Gillies. As soon as I would ask him what happened he would start laughing and that would get me laughing with no words spoken between us. He didn’t have to explain, I just knew. He had a life outside of wrestling and sometimes that was more important and he didn’t think that any of the wrestling people would understand.
During the time I spent with Greg we went a hundred miles per hour. It was the ’80s and we were making a living as professional wrestlers. We were bullet proof. Nobody could out drink us, out drug us, or out wrestle us. At least that is what we thought. So when he made statements as to a predicted lifespan, we accepted it then. Looking back on that call, it is not as easy to accept it now.
I’ll see you down the road, Greg.