Monday night on Raw, Ric Flair returned in a fairly odd segment. Renee Young interviewed him about nothing in particular, Roman Reigns came out to shake his hand, and when Flair left, John Cena joined him, gave him the "Big Gold" World Heavyweight Championship belt and told him to keep it.
That was the segment, and there was no sign of the belt for the rest of the show.
The conventional wisdom is that ever since WWE finally reunified the two world titles in December at TLC, merchandising is the main reason why it kept using both physical belts instead of switching to just using the WWE Championship belt introduced last year.
Having the "Big Gold Belt" (as it's known colloquially among fans) on TV every week makes it easier to sell toy belts to kids, expensive replica belts to collectors and so on. Taking the belt off TV doesn't mean that they magically stop selling, but they'll have much less exposure.
If you don't value the exposure for merchandising purposes that much, then it really does make sense for a number of reasons. From a sheer convenience standpoint, the champion would no longer have to take both belts in his carry-on luggage.
It's also logical from a mainstream promotional standpoint; the newer belt was designed to have the WWE logo displayed prominently so the company branding is clear as day in media appearances. With two belts (one of which has a barely visible logo), it didn't jump out at you nearly as much.
While a number of different physical belts have been used, the design goes back to 1986. Flair was the NWA World Heavyweight champion and had recently shifted from touring all of the NWA member territorial promotions to primarily being the face of Jim Crockett Promotions, the owners of the wrestling time slots on Superstation WTBS (now just TBS) out of Atlanta. The decade-old iconic NWA belt with the globe at the top was retired and replaced by "Big Gold," which was purchased from a Western-style belt buckle designer.
With Flair dominating the title in the late '80s, the physical belt became synonymous with him, though it was also held by Ron Garvin, Ricky Steamboat and Sting early on. When Flair regained the title from Sting in early 1991, the promotion itself had been under new ownership for a few years and recently adopted WCW as the company's on-screen name. In addition, while it wasn't acknowledged on WCW programming, the belt was representing both the NWA title and a new WCW World Heavyweight Championship.
That summer, Flair left WCW after a contractual dispute. As NWA champion, he had paid the NWA, which was largely an on-paper organization at this point, a $25,000 deposit years earlier. The idea was that the champion would always be trusted to do business with so much money in the line.
However, executive vice president of WCW Jim Herd was also serving as NWA president and refused to return Flair's deposit, so Flair held onto the belt. While Flair was stripped of WCW's title, he was still the NWA's champion for a few weeks.
You may have figured out the next part. When Flair jumped to WWE, it was with the belt in hand. He couldn't be billed as WCW or NWA champion, just the "Real World Heavyweight Champion," and he used the belt for several weeks on TV until a precedent-setting court case established that the belt is intellectual property of the promotion.
The following year, in 1992, WCW brought it back as the physical embodiment of the NWA title and later the WCW International title (don't ask) before a unification match made it the WCW title belt again.
Obviously, WWE got the belt when it bought WCW, but it was phased out when the old Undisputed Championship came to be represented by a new belt instead of the existing WWE and WCW belts. It was brought back when those titles were split in 2002 after Raw general manager Eric Bischoff disputed Brock Lesnar's claim as Undisputed champion and used it to represent Raw's new World Heavyweight Championship, eventually adding a small WWE logo. The title has alternately been described as WCW's or a new entity depending on what's convenient.
Ornate and ridiculously well-made, the belt has been a fan favorite for years. If this is the end after 28 years, then I'm kind of sad, but I get why the company's doing it.