Last August, I was at the Mid-Atlantic Legends Fanfest in Charlotte and was asked by someone if I wanted to see the original NWA "Big Gold" championship belt. I scoffed at the idea because like a lot of people, I assumed it was lost to the mists of time, sitting in either Hulk Hogan's basement or stolen by someone during the chaos of the end of WCW. No, I was told it was in the hands of a private collector and they would happy to let me see it, as they were a PWInsider subscriber, as long as I didn't ask who they were.
I said, "OK, I'll bite" and was I was asked my hotel room number and told the belt would arrive at a certain time. A sucker for a good mystery, I grabbed my longtime friend and travel partner Craigrona (who loves championship belts and has a nice collection of replicas) and we waited. This had to be a joke, but what the hell, we'll bite.
At exactly the minute we were told (this was genius), the door knocked and in walked someone else with a briefcase. The case was opened and there, in all it's glory, was "Big Gold."
Sure enough, as if I had captured a leprechaun, I had pure gold in my hands. Here, indeed, no doubt about it, was the belt that Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat had feuded over in what, to me and others, was the epitome of pro wrestling at the time and the belt that had gone from the 1980s to the end of WCW. It was, at the time, and still even today, the most beautifully crafted championship belt in the history of pro wrestling. I had seen it on TV and house shows an endless amount of times, but in my hands, in person, I can attest that it was far and away, the most incredible thing ever made for pro wrestling.
The "crown jewel" and artwork of wrestlers grappling popped off of it. The gold (on a silver plate) truly, legitimately sparkled like the ultimate piece of hip hop bling. That 20 minutes of getting to examine and hold the belt that Bobby Heenan once referred to as "ice cream" compared to the "horse manure" of the WWF title was a truly cool, personal blessing in a lifetime of cool blessings my love of professional wrestling and a slew of good luck has afforded me.
When it left and returned from whence it came (we joked about following it's handler, which led to all sorts of discussions about Secret Service Jack Victory having it handcuffed to his wrist), one thing was certain - like Terri Hatcher's breasts in a famous "Seinfeld" episode, it was real and it was spectacular - and far more gorgeous in real life, where you could really admire the craftsmanship that went into building it.
But, I never thought deeper and wondered - who really built this thing, the most perfect piece of art in pro wrestling?
I should have, but I was too distracted by what the belt is and didn't think about how it became what it has become, not just to me, but everyone from you on up to Ric Flair.
Thankfully, Dick Bourne, master of the Mid-Atlantic Gateway website, did think and go deeper than anyone else, leading us to "Big Gold", a new book on the championship belt that conjured dreams upon dreams for wrestlers and fans alike.
"Big Gold" authored by Bourne (with belt-maker Dave Millican, who previously tag teamed with Bourne on "Ten Pounds of Gold", about the "domed" NWA championship first held by Harley Race and Jack Brisco) explores deeply into the history, legacy and restoration of the belt. It is a nearly flawless and perfect profile of a most unique and worthy subject.
"Big Gold" is a meticulously researched book in that it not only looks at the history of the physical belt under it's many permutations but also the history of why it was created, how it was physically crafted, where it was introduced, what it cost to produce, and much more. Bourne's research actually uncovered all of the original artwork, receipts and history of the genesis of the actual belt and how it was forged by Crumine Jewelers in Nevada.
The book, for the first time, identifies everyone involved in the process behind the belt, the special pieces that had to be constructed to create "Big Gold's" unique artistic elements, the hand-crafting that went into the title and all it's pieces and how Nelson Royal's son was the person who put everything into motion. Unlike a fine movie or a TV series, professional wrestling rarely has any credits of those who put their heart and soul into a project behind the scenes. This book allows everyone to learn the names of David Royal, Victor Ortiz and everyone else who were the hands and the brains behind the belt.
The book also delves into why Jim Crockett chose to have the belt made in an interview with Ric Flair, who admits that Crockett realized that at some point, the NWA was going to fade away, leaving him as last man standing against Vince McMahon, answering the riddle as to why the NWA name was never on the belt - although the book also reveals, for the first time, the artwork that was originally created and how the initials were going to indeed be there.
Indeed "Big Gold" covers the origins and the journey of the belt, which survived title defenses, dents, lawsuits and once the NWO era began, a whole lot of spray painting. Then, it disappeared. There were rumors that Hulk Hogan had it. Rumors that WCW wrestler had swapped it with a replica. Rumors that it was lost at the end of WCW.
"Big Gold" doesn't claim to know all the answers of what happened to it (author Dick Bourne, in a conversation with me, reflected that he wanted the book to be factual, so he chose not to cover theories and suspicions) but it does tell an amazing story in the reconstruction and cleaning of the belt once it landed back into circulation. The belt as it currently exists is the sum of all it's parts - all the original parts, as it was originally presented in 1986 by Ric Flair at the NWA Battle of the Belts. "Big Gold", almost like an archeological dig story, breaks down why the different elements were removed (the original nameplate for the belt, the leather strap, etc), where they ended up and how, and then how they were tracked down and reassembled. Even the story of how the belt was brought back up to snuff after decades of being on the road and the abuse that came with it is a story unto itself.
In many ways, the book is a travelogue of wrestling history as seen through the greatest passenger pro wrestling has ever known - the physical belt that represented that you were the best pro wrestling had to offer. It's a tribute to what was and what should be, in terms of pro wrestling legitimacy and it's an amazing eclectic tale that could only happen in an industry like this.
In many ways, Dick Bourne is the Indiana Jones of title belt archaeology, only in this film, he got to find and keep the Lost Ark of the Covenant - and we all get to reap the benefits.
"Big Gold" is a fine companion piece to any book you love on pro wrestling history or even your viewing of some of the matches competed for it that now stream on the WWE Network. It's one of the most original takes on a pro wrestling book ever and like a lot of classic matches, is something you'll probably go through over and over, picking up something new each time.
"Big Gold" features an introduction by Bob Caudle and a foreword by James J. Dillon. Short of sitting down with Jim Crockett himself (which Bourne did attempt), I can't think of a way the book could have been improved upon.
Like the belt it's named after, "Big Gold" will shine for a long, long time. It's that good and Bourne should be praised for his hard work.
Unlike a lot in pro wrestling, "Big Gold" lives up to its hype and reputation, and so does this book.
Mike Johnson was, just as mysteriously, sent an advance copy of "Big Gold." The book is available for pre-orders now at www.thebiggoldbelt.com/.