Published on April 15th, 2017 | by Bobby Mathews1
I’m standing in Dave Millican’s den, experiencing sensory overload. Everywhere I turn, there’s an unexpected treasure. We’re surrounded by championship title belts that span half a century in the wrestling business, and the sense of history and reverence for wrestling’s past is a nearly tangible thing. On one wall is the 1991 WCW world title. Not a copy. Not a replica. It’s the real thing, worn by Ron Simmons, Vader, Lex Luger, and retired by Ric Flair. On another wall? The first WCW TV title–again, the real deal–worn by wrestlers like Scott Steiner, Ricky “the Dragon” Steamboat, and Steve Austin, back when he was simply “Stunning.”
Millican is the premier title belt-maker in the world. Name a famous professional wrestler, and odds are that Millican–or his mentor, Reggie Parks–has made one of the titles you’ve seen that wrestler wear on TV. He’s graciously opened his home to me for an interview, and I fought Birmingham traffic and slow-moving 18-wheelers on I-65 for two hours to find his home here in rural Tennessee, a hard baseball throw from the Alabama state line.
It was worth it.
I pick up one of the old World Class tag team championships, its nickel plating still lustrous more than 30 years after the territory closed. The belt looks in good enough shape that it could be on TV next week. Of course, it’s small compared to the copies of the Big Gold belt and the Mid-South North American championship poised next to it. But it’s a piece of history. The dirty, sweltering Dallas Sportatorium springs to mind. Five thousand fans packed the place every week to get a glimpse of their heroes. I think of the Von Erich boys vs. the Freebirds and the white-hot feud that defined Texas wrestling in the 1980s. Gino Hernandez and Chris Adams spring to mind, part of a long line of dead wrestlers to hold those particular belts. I’m nervous handling the titles, and it shows.
“Don’t worry about that,” Millican says. “You’re not gonna hurt it if you drop it.”
Maybe. But I’m not sure I should chance it. I put the title belt back down gingerly.
The den is a large room with a sunken, stained concrete floor. The house around us is quiet, and I feel like I’m standing in a church. Maybe I am. The surroundings seem to command reverence. There’s a copy of Jerry Lawler’s Southern Junior Heavyweight title–the original was stolen one afternoon after a match–displayed behind glass. Lawler coming back for his bag and finding the belt missing is one of at least a dozen good stories Millican tells me, and I listen attentively. The high walls of his den are decorated with title belts, robes, crowns, and ring-worn boots. There’s so much to see that it’s almost overwhelming. Millican is just a few years older than me, not 50 years old yet. He has more hair than I do, but I’ve got a few more pounds. It evens out. We’ve got more in common than our age: we both grew up on Southern wrestling. He watched Jerry Lawler, Bill Dundee, Austin Idol, and Dutch Mantell. I was glued to the Armstrongs, the Fullers, Idol, and Jerry Stubbs.
Indeed, the Memphis-era straps are special to Millican. “I don’t collect much of my own work,” he tells me. “I collect Reggie’s work, or belts from the old Memphis territory.”
There’s a Reggie Parks-made Southern heavyweight title. He doesn’t have to tell me about everyone who wore that belt. While Lawler was, of course, the most notable name to hold the title, many others did as well. He also has one of the Southern tag team title belts, which were held by teams like the Fabulous Ones (Stan Lane and Steve Keirn, as well as the ‘new’ Fabs, Eddie Gilbert and Tommy Rich) and the Midnight Rockers (Shawn Michaels and Marty Jannetty in their pre-WWE days), and a host of other great tag teams. I also spy a copy of the International title on a shelf. First worn by Austin Idol, that title eventually had an ignominious end as the Texas title for the USWA in the early 1990s.
Championship belts, in a historical sense, were often used and re-used. Take for instance the Big Gold belt worn by Ric Flair, Dusty Rhodes, and Ron Garvin as NWA or WCW champions until Flair left the company and signed with WWE. When WCW Vice President Jim Herd refused to return the $25,000 deposit (plus interest) that Flair had put down, the Nature Boy took the title to New York with him. Soon after appearing with the Big Gold, Flair and WCW worked out a return of the belt. Flair instead used a spare WWE tag belt for some appearances, and the producers digitized it so that it appeared Flair still had the NWA world title. Eventually, Flair wore one of the rarest belts seen, the Vegas Gold, which Parks made for WWE. It was still digitized on television, and when Flair won the 1991 Royal Rumble to claim the WWE championship, the Vegas Gold was quietly retired.The Big Gold Belt is probably the most iconic championship wrestling belt, so much so that when WCW closed, the WWE continued to use updated versions of it on their TV shows, pay-per-views, and Network specials until its retirement. Athletes in other sports like football, baseball, and basketball began to show up with commemorative or replica versions of the Big Gold, as well.
The story of the belt has been well-documented, specifically in Big Gold: A Close Look at Pro Wrestling’s Most Celebrated Championship Belt, written by Dick Bourne and Millican: With Jim Crockett Jr., the promoter for the Carolinas-based World Championship Wrestling, as the president of the National Wrestling Alliance, he decided the Domed Globe–a championship belt worn by the likes of Jack Brisco, Terry Funk, Harley Race, Ric Flair, and others–needed updating. He also wanted the title to look unlike anything else out there at the time. Nelson Royal, a former NWA world junior heavyweight champion, capitalized on an existing relationship with silversmith Charles Crumrine and commissioned the work on behalf of the promotion. At first, the NWA logo was prominently displayed on the belt. However, once Crockett saw the belt, he ordered the logo to be removed.
Crockett was already the president of the NWA, but his WCW promotion was expanding, gobbling up competition like the Bill Watts-owned Universal Wrestling Federation and monopolizing the NWA world champion, which minimized formerly important NWA strongholds like Florida, Missouri, and Texas. With no organizational logo on the belt, references to the National Wrestling Alliance began to disappear from WCW programming. It was a quiet harbinger of change during the 1980s wrestling wars.
Out in his workshop behind the house, Millican shows me a Big Gold in progress. While the leather is dyed and the plates are attached, the belt isn’t close to being done. It’s dual-plated in nickel and gold. He’s in the midst of cleaning up the complicated whorls and ridges of metal in the floral pattern, making sure that each individual line looks as it should. It’s a painstaking process to craft a real belt, and private customers/collectors can wait months or years for the finished product. These belts aren’t made on an assembly line. They’re not stamped by a machine. When Millican talks about hand-crafting titles, he’s not kidding.
His workshop is cluttered. There are title belts–and pieces of various titles–everywhere. It’s a little bit of organized chaos. There are finished belts, like the ones for the TV show Lip Sync Battle, ones nearly finished, and then some where the leather is just waiting to be cut. High up on one wall, a row of nickel-plated MMA belts hang, including a Pride Fighting Championships middleweight title. Everywhere I look, my jaw drops. If I’m not careful, I’ll catch flies.
At some point, we end up forgetting that this is supposed to be an interview. We talk wrestling and wrestlers, what it was like growing up as a fan of pro graps during the heyday of the late 1970s through the late 80s. It’s sort of embarrassing. I’m supposed to be the professional journalist here, but I’m shamelessly marking out over nearly everything I see. OK, maybe not the framed KISS art in the den, but almost everything else.
And he’s the authority on title belts. When ‘Nature Boy’ Buddy Rogers’ original WWWF title belt resurfaced a few years ago, Millican authenticated it through a photo of the belt, later meeting the widow of wrestler Johnny Barend, who had the belt in his possession when he passed away. Millican purchased the belt from Annie Barend, although it now resides in WWE headquarters. He also authenticated the original Big Gold during a sale from a WCW wrestler in possession of the title when WWE bought the company, to a private collector.
In the end, we sit down for about twenty minutes on the record. It’s not long enough for an interview, but it’s what I ended up with.
Even as we talk and the recorder on my phone picks up the entire conversation, my eyes flit around the room. An original NWA world tag team title, its blue leather so dark from age and use that it’s easily mistaken for black, sits on a chair from the legendary Memphis Coliseum. There’s also an NWA world title–the fabled ‘Domed Globe’–used in the early days of TNA. I feel like Aladdin, plunged into the cave where Ali Baba hid his treasures.
Oh, and over on a shelf is one of the AWA world tag team titles. The real thing. Dick the Bruiser and Crusher held those very belts. So did Verne Gagne and Mad Dog Vachon, Jesse Ventura and Adrian Adonis. That belt would be steeped in history even if the Road Warriors hadn’t retired those particular straps in 1984. This one’s been autographed by Road Warrior Animal. It hits me again: When I pick up one of these titles, I’m holding professional wrestling history in the palm of my hand.
Belts that symbolize professional wrestling titles have been around since the 1800s, at least. And while Millican and Parks are now the recognized masters of the craft, Alex Mulko–better known as Nikita Mulkavitch–was making beautifully detailed cast-plated belts made of heavy bronze in the 1960s and 1970s, most notably for the WWWF. Mulko provided Pedro Morales with a version of the WWWF title that lasted through Superstar Graham’s reign, and into Bob Backlund’s run on top. He also created United States titles for The Sheik’s Detroit territory and Jim Crockett Promotions, as well. These cast belts were heavy, featuring 3-D elements like soaring eagles and entangled grapplers jockeying for position. Mulkavitch’s belts were durable and had a reputation for exceptional quality. He might have made more, but moved his craftsmanship into another direction, spending his time creating violins.
And then there was George Levy, whose trophy business grew enormously and still exists in Tampa, Florida. At one time or another, Levy supplied title belts for multiple promotions, including Georgia, Florida, Jim Crockett Promotions and Southeastern/Continental. He was also influential in the Tampa sports world, helping bring the Hall of Fame Bowl (now known as the Outback Bowl) to Florida and helping to secure the city’s bid for Super Bowl XXV. In addition to creating wrestling title belts, Levy’s company designed the 1996 college football national title trophy. Levy died in September of 2016, at 83 years old.
But neither the Mulkavitch nor Levy belts have the same cachet as a belt made by Reggie Parks. The Canadian grappler was a headliner in Amarillo, but often worked in the middle of the card or in tag teams in other territories. He was a mechanic, a veteran wrestler who could help teach younger wrestlers the ropes of the business, in more ways than one. In either a tag team with a younger partner or used as a foe to get a youngster ready for the big time, Parks was a well-respected grappler.
But crafting title belts made him a legend.
Millican owns the first belts Parks ever made, the AWA Midwest tag team titles. They still shine like they’re new, and the leather is supple and soft. They could be put on TV at a moment’s notice, and they’d look spectacular. The titles were made in 1967 for the Nebraska territory affiliated with Verne Gagne’s AWA. My God. These belts are 50 years old. Millican tells me a great story: Harley Race and Larry Hennig were AWA world champions at the time, coming into Nebraska to face Midwest tag champs Parks and Doug Gilbert (also known as Doug Lindzy, not Eddie Gilbert’s brother). The AWA world tag titles at the time were essentially wooden plaques fastened to leather straps. Race and Hennig got a look at the Parks-made titles and told him they weren’t going to wear the world titles to the ring if Parks and Gilbert wore their belts.
It’s sort of funny that Parks only made the Midwest tag belts because he didn’t want to carry around the trophy that represented the title. Belts were easier to carry. Suddenly, a career was born.
Soon, Parks was making titles for AWA owner Verne Gagne. From there, business took off, and Parks was creating belts for territories all over the country for the next couple of decades. One of his high-profile assignments came when Greg Valentine destroyed the Intercontinental title won by Tito Santana in the early 1980s. The WWE called on Parks to craft the new belt. The design was an obvious upgrade from the trophy-style belts the WWE had used for the IC belt in the past. Superstars like Ricky Steamboat, Randy Savage, Curt Hennig, Honkytonk Man, Shawn Michaels, Bret Hart, and Razor Ramon made the design iconic. Despite being replaced during the Attitude Era with the ‘Intercontinental Oval,’ the timeless design–this time crafted by Millican–was brought back to WWE viewers by Cody Rhodes.
Watch Mean Gene Okerlund presents Tito Santana with Reggie Parks-made Intercontinental title:
At this point, I’m faced with a dilemma. It’s obvious how much Millican respects Parks. They’re not only friends, but also business partners. The journalist in me wants to talk to Reggie. The fan in me does, too. But Reggie will be 83 years old this year. He’s had some health problems. I weigh the pros and cons. I’ve got Reggie’s phone number. Do I call? It would be the right move from a reporter’s position. But Reggie still works at creating belts. A phone conversation with me would pull him away from deadline work. In the end, I feel like it’s more respectful to not pick up the phone, and I choose not to call.
Almost everything I could ask him, I can already see for myself. Reggie’s legacy is there in the title belts he made. In the 1980s and 1990s, almost every major promotion had a Reggie Parks-made championship belt. The WWE, AWA, WCW, NWA, World Class, Continental, Pacific Northwest, Memphis, and Florida all used Reggie belts at one time or another. It’s a startlingly complete and complex view of how one man affected an industry and changed the way the public viewed title belts.
Throwing away history
So what does a promoter do with an old title belt, once the new one is ready to make its debut? For many years, the answer was to simply destroy or toss away the old belt. It was an easy excuse for a hot angle. A heel would win a title and voice displeasure over the way the belt looked, or how old it was, and how he deserved something more fitting to a wrestler of his stature. An angle that wrestlers relied on for years was taking a title and throwing it from a bridge into a body of water, as Steve Austin famously did with the Intercontinental belt on an episode of RAW.
OK, relax. Austin didn’t really throw the Intercontinental title into the river. Instead, he tossed a beat-up old tag team title in the water. But Austin wasn’t the first to do this angle. Ronnie Garvin did the same thing with the Knoxville, Tennessee, version of the Southeastern title in the 1970s, and Dick Slater did it with the Mid-South TV medallion in the 1980s, tossing it into the Arkansas River. Jerry Stubbs threw the Alabama title into Pensacola Bay, and Playboy Buddy Rose lofted the Pacific Northwest title into the Columbia River in Portland.
Watch Dick Slater throw the Mid-South TV Title medallion into the Arkansas River:
The big loser there was Stubbs. While Mid-South/UWF and PNW debuted beautiful new Parks-made belts that looked great on TV and in person, Continental went back to Levy, whose version of the Alabama title was not good, to say the least. Thankfully, it was retired a short time later.
Watch Superstar Graham destroy the Mulkavitch-made WWF title belt:
And after “The Genius,” Lanny Poffo defeated Hulk Hogan by countout, “Mr. Perfect” Curt Hennig learned from Graham’s mistake. He stole Hogan’s title and destroyed it with a hammer, telling Hogan, “This has never been a perfect belt, and Hulk Hogan, you’re not a perfect champion,” to set off a feud between the two. However, Hennig may have been wrong about Hogan’s championship belt. It might, indeed, be perfect.
The ‘Winged Eagle,’ as it’s called, is probably the most iconic wrestling championship belt behind the Big Gold, and it’s Parks’s signature design. A Parks- or Millican-made Winged Eagle commands a huge price in the secondary market for belt collectors, as the title has been associated with Randy Savage, Hogan, Bret Hart, Ric Flair, and Shawn Michaels. For many fans, it’s still the title one thinks of as the world championship, despite being retired at the beginning of the Attitude Era.
To quickly dispel a long-standing rumor: The Hennig-destroyed Winged Eagle is not the same title presented to Mick Foley as the WWE Hardcore championship. Of course, the WWE championship isn’t the only belt the organization has destroyed. As previously mentioned, during a hot feud between Greg Valentine and Tito Santana for the Intercontinental title, Valentine destroyed the IC title following Santana’s victory in a cage match. More recently, fans saw JBL get a little extreme in disposing of the spinner United States title.
Watch JBL blow up John Cena’s US spinner belt:
While some fans and collectors think of title belts like these as historical artifacts, the bottom line for many promoters and wrestlers is that title belts are disposable. In the territory days, if a promoter could draw houses off of an angle where a title belt was destroyed? It’d happen in a heartbeat. It was a means of sacrificing something worth a few hundred dollars to make thousands more. At the end of the day, the business is about drawing money.
Lost title belts
WWE offers a great list of seven championships that no longer exist, but they don’t talk about title belts that have been lost, stolen, or simply forgotten through the years. One of the most famous stories, of course, is Stan Hansen vacating the AWA world title and destroying the “Inmate” belt.
AWA owner Verne Gagne wanted Hansen to lose the title to Nick Bockwinkel on June 29th, 1986, in Denver, Colorado. Hansen and Giant Baba (owner of All Japan Pro) had a commitment at that time in Japan with the AWA Title. Hansen refused to drop the title because of his loyalty to his commitment to Baba and left the building, so Gagne stripped the title from him and awarded it to Bockwinkel. When Hansen found out, he put the belt on the ground and drove his truck back and forth over it several times, and then sent the title belt back to Verne–with the tire tracks on it. Bockwinkel would show up later with a new version of the title, which was based on Verne Gagne’s original AWA title belt, but updated and improved by Parks.
And then there are the titles stolen from wrestlers’ vehicles. Bruno Sammartino had a WWWF title stolen from his vehicle while he was eating dinner one night following a successful title defense at Madison Square Garden. Pedro Morales claims he lost a title belt the same way–although not, it should be noted, at the same restaurant. Later on, Pedro’s version of the belt showed up in a Pennsylvania pawn shop, where it was purchased by a private collector. And Michael Hayes had one of the NWA tag titles stolen from him, which is why the Freebirds appeared for awhile with only one title belt between them during their 1989 run. Also, Jerry Lawler’s Southern junior heavyweight title was stolen following an afternoon show when Lawler walked away from his bag. He came back a few minutes later to find his bag still where he left it, but the belt was gone.
But there may be no bigger puzzle out there than the Hogan “mystery” belt. For about a week during the fall of 1986, Hogan appeared wearing a new championship belt to replace the ‘Hogan 86.’ It featured a vertical oblong center plate with a black-and-white photo of Hogan featured prominently. The sideplates nearly touched the center plate. But after three documented appearances, that belt disappeared. No one knows why. Hogan was famously picky about his title belts and how they fit him, so that may have been it. All we know for sure is that the belt was gone soon after its debut, and Hogan went back to using the ’86.
Millican has a copy of the mystery belt–not the real one, though I want him to kayfabe me. In fact, I’m nearly begging him to. Like Fox Mulder on the X-Files, I want to believe. But he tells me he knows for sure that it’s a copy, but it’s still a genuine Reggie Parks belt, nonetheless. He points out the age, the wear-and-tear on the belt, and a seam where Reggie doesn’t seal the leather at the edge of his title belts, a difference in the style of individual beltmakers. While they’re not as definitive to my untrained eye as fingerprints would be to an investigator, the workmanship is clear to Millican, who has been laboring with Reggie and collecting his title belts. Very few of these belts were made. And when Dave has asked Reggie about them, Parks has said he simply doesn’t remember making them–not the original nor the copy. He’s made so many belts for so many people that it’s a believable answer–although a disappointing one.
Title belts have always been props, but not until fairly recently have audiences come to grasp that fact. The championship belts are, at their core, a combination of zinc, electroplated metal (gold and/or nickel), and leather. But wrestlers took them seriously. So did fans. But now WWE has multiple copies of its titles: For house shows, for appearances, for shows broadcast on TV and the Network. And that’s not even counting the replicas fans can buy at merchandise stands or online. Titles were held up as a goal for a wrestler to reach–a reason to fight, a prize for which to contend. And so modern titles have lost some of their luster. The Ultimate Warrior once said that the WWE title was “just one more thing to carry” through the airport. But fans still remember when those title belts meant something–if not in the wrestlers’ eyes, at least in their own.
That’s what I’ve learned about the title belts as I visit with Dave. I handle the belts with care, but what I’m really being gentle with are the memories I carry of Saturday nights at the Houston County Farm Center with my father, or Monday nights spent on the couch with my family or friends. These title belts still shine in my mind’s eye, in a time and place I’ve allowed to mellow and become perfect only in memory. I’ve discovered that these title belts are, in fact, pieces of history. I just didn’t expect them to be mine.
Follow Bobby Mathews on Twitter: @bob_the_writer_
All title belts shown here are property of Dave Millican, unless otherwise noted.