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.