With WWE's seventh annual Night of Champions pay-per-view event coming this Sunday, championship belts are all over the promotion of the show. The graphics packages are covered in shots of the belts, and since every champion is on the show, we'll be seeing them carrying the unique works of art that are the belts for each match.
The man responsible for not just most of WWE's current belts but also many major wrestling, boxing, and MMA titles is Dave Millican (@DaveMillican on Twitter) of Drummonds, Tenn., whom I spoke with last week. A fan since 1982, he realized not long after he started watching wrestling that he wanted his own belts. WWE (then the WWF) was still a few years away expanding nationally, so there weren't even any toy options.
Naturally, he decided to make his own belts. That's not really unusual for kids to do, but as Dave explains, he went much further than most would. "My first belt was cardboard, then I went on to use everything from serving trays to thin trophy metal. My uncle worked at a shop where we could get sheets of steel and he helped me graduate from thin trophy metal to steel plates for my belts."
By the early '90s, he was making belts for a few local independent promotions. In 1994, he made the next step after contacting the leading wrestling belt maker of record, retired wrestler Reggie Parks.
Sometimes confused by fans and wrestlers alike with bodybuilder Reg Park (in addition to their similar names, Reggie had a bodybuilder physique when that was rare in wrestling), Reggie started making belts in the late 1960s. By the mid-80s, he was making most of the belts fans remember fondly from the era. While there were a few leftover designs made by fellow retired wrestler Nikita Mulkovich, most of the major belts were Reggie's, including all of the iconic "Hulkamania" era belts starting in 1984.
"I contacted him to order a belt. In those days there was no website to order from, so when you wanted to order a belt, you called Reggie. During our phone conversations, I mentioned to him that I made belts, but nothing like the quality he produced. He surprised me by asking to see some pictures of my work. After seeing some of my work, he offered to help get me started with him using the processes that he used to make belts."
Dave still doesn't know if Reggie was just being nice when he first asked for the photos. Within a few years, they became business partners, and by the end of the decade, Dave's full-time job was making belts.
In addition to serving independent promotions and the collectors' market that exploded with the Internet, Dave started to take on bigger jobs over the next few years. He made New Japan Pro Wrestling's third (the one Brock Lesnar held) and fourth IWGP Heavyweight Championship belts, various TNA belts, WEC and UFC belts for Zuffa, the current Ring of Honor and Bellator belts and many more. It wasn't until 2008 until WWE came calling.
A decade earlier in 1998, WWE started using a different belt maker and replaced the long-running Reggie Parks designs for the WWF Championship and the Intercontinental Championship belts with their own trademarked designs. The other belt maker was having trouble handling WWE's workload and so the company went to Dave for repairs. Happy with the timeliness and high quality of his work, he was soon handling most (the U.S. title is still made and repaired by another belt maker in Pennsylvania who made the original a decade ago) belts and repairs.
Coincidentally, WWE had just transitioned to producing and airing its shows in high definition. The belts that each champion carried on the road would no longer be used on TV, instead being replaced by sets of "HD belts" that were used only on TV and kept in the most pristine condition. Dave noted that "HD belts still take their share of abuse, and when a new one is made (or one is refurbished), the previous one usually drops down to being what is used on the road."
When I asked him what aspect of the process comes up with wrestling fans most often when he talks to them, Dave felt it was just how much work WWE and Bellator have him doing at a given moment. They know how much work goes into creating the belts, they just don't realize how often the belts need to be refurbished, especially in the HD era.
For example, the current WWE Championship belt, introduced earlier this year, is the most complex of the current belts to craft and repair. While it's reinforced, the "cut-out" design of the main plate still makes it more prone to breaking than typical belts would be. "Without the involvement of my art designer Rico Mann, this belt wouldn't have come together the way it did. WWE gave us concept art to work with, but Rico created the art we needed to make it a reality. The first version was heavier than it needed to be for ring use, so Orange County Choppers was brought in because they can work in aluminum. They are able to mill the main plate out of aluminum to make it light enough to work, then we finish the belt out from there."
Speaking of that belt, while the fan reaction has been mixed, it's grown on Dave, and it's his favorite of the belts he's worked on for WWE. Some fans criticize just how big the WWE logo is, but that's the point: Anywhere that belt goes for media appearances, or if a celebrity is gifted a belt and shows it off, WWE's logo is right there. "I love that the belt can be personalized with each Superstar logo without changing the overall look. It's a much more custom touch than a regular name plate."
Among classic belts? His favorite older WWE belt is Reggie's "winged eagle" design used for the WWF Championship from 1988 to 1998. Worn by Randy Savage, Ric Flair, Hulk Hogan, Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels and others, he sees it as the iconic belt of the era. "Reggie sees it as his 'signature belt' and I have always been a big fan of it, too. That belt is a part of many historical moments in WWE history. Look at how long it has been retired, but then think about how often you still see it. That says a lot about its place in history."
Don't ask him what his favorite non-WWE belts are, though: He never picks the same one, though WWE.com got him to narrow it down to a list of 10 a few months ago.
If you want to order a belt from Dave, be ready to wait: While he used to give an estimate of how long it would take, his WWE and Bellator commitments have gotten to the point where collectors may be best off buying one of his belts on the second-hand market. Be prepared to pay a lot more that way: They usually go for three or four times Dave's asking price.
One of the most unique and desirable old-school belts was the mid-'80s incarnation of Mid-South Wrestling's North American Championship belt. Adding to its mystique is that whenever you see a photo or video of one of the champions, they're always carrying the belt, as it was seemingly too heavy to wear.
Dave had made a great, high-quality copy for a collector, but as you might expect, it was more complicated and time consuming than other belts, so procuring one would take longer than even a normal order would. The collector eventually put it up for sale, and he quickly found a buyer who made him an offer he couldn't refuse.
The buyer was Dave Millican. "I very rarely buy a belt back that I made. My version is the only one available with the authentic art and measurements, so I made an exception."