I’ve been watching professional wrestling for as long as I can remember. My parents have told me stories about a time before I could talk but I was already watching pro wrestling on cable TV in the 1980’s. One such story involved me grabbing a dog leash out of the kitchen and using the loop at the end as a microphone. I would blurt out some incoherent babble into the loop and then hold it to my dad’s face in an attempt to emulate an interviewer asking questions to a wrestler. Later I would have matches with stuffed animals on my parents bed, leaping from the top of the chest of drawers onto the mattress in my own recreation of the Macho Man’s dramatic flying elbow smash. As the 90’s would roll on my friends and I went from having legitimate wrestling matches in the house to forming our own wrestling federation with predetermined results. To say that wrestling has played a large part in my development would be a huge understatement.
One of the aspects of pro wrestling that I’ve always been interested in were the title belts themselves. When a champion would walk down the aisle I was always glued to my TV set inspecting every facet of the belt that I could take in. This was an era before DVR so pausing the screen and soaking it up was an impossibility. If you wanted to absorb as much of the engraving detail as possible you had to stay glued to your TV set and get up close to the screen. My friends and I would watch intently enough that we would discuss the wear and tear that we each would notice the belts taking from week to week. I remember a time in 1999 when the WCW World Heavyweight Championship seemed to be missing some fasteners and the plate would separate from the leather of the belt by an abnormally large margin creating a very noticeable gap. I guess we were really geeks to notice this kind of stuff.
Having watched so much wrestling I’ve seen a number of designs come and go through the years. Over time several belts have remained in my consciousness and become my personal favorites. Those favorites will now be presented in this post as my Top Ten Pro Wrestling Championship Belts. These belts are supposed to be presented based on their aesthetic qualities alone. I will try to withhold any bias I may have based on preference of promotion or era. Without further ado I present the list!
#10: AWA World Heavyweight Championship (1974 – 1986)
Notable Champions: Nick Bockwinkel, Verne Gagne, Jerry Lawler, Rick Martel, Stan Hansen.
This belt was simple but elegant. The engraving declaring the holder as the champion is easy to see as a spectator. The physical size of the belt was also rather large making the title holder seem like a big deal. I was never a real AWA fan as the promotion was beginning to fade as I was getting old enough to start forming memories. I vaguely remember watching a few AWA broadcasts on ESPN and I had a few of their Remco action figures but that’s the extent of my childhood memories of the promotion. This particular belt was phased out by the time I would have been watching but I still recognize it as an attractive championship.
#9: WWF World Heavyweight Championship (1984 – 1985)
Notable Champions: Hulk Hogan
This belt was only worn for a brief period and is mostly overlooked today. When Hulk Hogan defeated the Iron Sheik in 1984 he held up the big green strapped belt after the match and celebrated with it in the locker room afterwards. There was nothing wrong with that belt per-say, it was just a sign of the times. It looked like it was fabricated in a trophy shop somewhere in Allentown Pennsylvania where the WWF recorded their monthly TV tapings. When Vince McMahon decided to take his promotion national, he quickly realized that he needed a title belt worthy of being considered as the top belt in professional wrestling. This was the design that began that journey. One thing I find interesting about this title is that the WWF block logo is not present anywhere. Instead the letters WWF in plain text are emblazoned on the top of the belt above the eagle’s head. It’s a nice, respectable looking championship belt and it ushered in the beginning of the war for the territories.
#8: WCW United States Heavyweight Championship (1995 – 2001)
Notable Champions: Sting, Ric Flair, Jeff Jarrett, Curt Hennig, Diamond Dallas Page, Raven, Bill Goldberg, Bret Hart, Lex Luger, Scott Hall, Roddy Piper, Chris Benoit.
The WCW United States Heavyweight Championship was not merely a stepping stone for the World Title. Many past World Champions would hold the US title in between world title reigns. It was in no way shape or form a second rate belt. Winning this title was certainly an honor and the look of the belt is representative of it’s prestige. I always thought the splash of color above the eagle made this belt particularly appealing. Unfortunately today’s belts really overdo it as far as color is concerned and the entire title ends up looking like one big distraction. I wish the designers today would look back at work like this as a template. It’s worth noting that even after WCW changed their logo, they left this belt alone. From 1999 until 2001 when the promotion shut down, I remember looking at the old WCW logo on this belt and thinking back to the days when WCW was good.
#7: WWF World Tag Team Championship (1985 – 2002)
Notable Champions: British Bulldogs, Hart Foundation, Demolition, Legion of Doom, Brain Busters, Colossal Connection, Nasty Boys, Money Inc, Steiner Brothers, Owen Hart & Yokozuna, Smoking Gunns, British Bulldog & Owen Hart, New Age Outlaws, Rock n’ Sock Connection, Dudley Boyz, Hardy Boyz, Edge & Christian.
Talk about a list of big name superstars. This design is representative of a time when tag team wrestling actually mattered. In the late 80’s, and then again in the late 90’s and early 00’s the WWF was absolutely stacked with talented tag teams that put on memorable matches. Today the WWE sticks two guys together, gives them a goofy name based on either their finishers or persona’s, and throws them out there week after week for a few months against the Uso’s until the crowd gets tired of the same match. Then they break them up and do the same to two other guys. This belt evokes the memories of a legitimate division of great tag teams all vying to become the world champions. Winning this belt meant that your tag team was the best of the best. The belt itself has a great design that rivals any singles title ever produced. The red text on “World” really pops out and differentiated it from the other titles in the WWF at the time. It’s an extremely attractive belt and has always been one of my favorites.
#6: WWF Undisputed Championship (2002)
Notable Champions: Triple H and Hulk Hogan
This belt had the shortest shelf life of any on this list. In fact, only two wrestlers held this title belt (and despite the nameplate on the image above, the Rock was not one of them). It debuted in March of 2002 and was retired in April of 2002. Now I can hear readers out there screaming at their screens “I know there were other guys who won that belt!” I’m being very specific in this case. I’m only referring to the WWF version of this belt. It was rechristened as the WWE Undisputed Championship on May 5, 2002 after the World Wrestling Federation lost their lawsuit to the World Wildlife Fund and were forced to change their name (something that angers me to this day). The belt was very prestigious looking when it said “World Wrestling Federation Champion”. That name just sounds like it stands for something. Maybe it’s all the times I heard Howard Finkel announce “the winner of the match; and NEWWWWWW WORLD WRESTLING FEDERATION CHAMPION”. In my opinion seeing this belt with the engraving “World Wrestling Entertainment Champion” completely strips it of any integrity. It’s worth noting that due to the timing of the court order and the name change Hulk Hogan would be the last World Wrestling Federation champion ever. I find that to be somewhat fitting.
The belt itself was unique in that the globe had black behind it rather than the blue of the previous globes. The plates all had a lot of depth to them as well. Each plate seemed to stand out a lot further from the leather than the belts prior and the engraving seemed to take advantage of this thickness going much deeper. It could be an optical illusion, but the results are striking. I also thought the shape was very interesting, and certainly a departure from the norm. Even the shape of the side plates are very unique. Up until this point most championships simply had roundish main plates with rectangular side plates. Everything about this belt was just classy.
Since most of the images you will find online show the WWE version of this title, I’m going to include a photo of Ric Flair holding the WWF version to prove it’s existence. This was taken from Monday Night Raw the night he presented the title to Triple H.
#5: WWF Intercontinental Heavyweight Championship (1985 – 1998)
Notable Champions: Randy Savage, Ricky Steamboat, Honky Tonk Man, Ultimate Warrior, Rick Rude, Mr. Perfect, Bret Hart, Roddy Piper, British Bulldog, Shawn Michaels, Diesel, Razor Ramon, Jeff Jarrett, Goldust, The Rock, Triple H, Stone Cold Steve Austin
Another classic design this was held by many of the sport’s finest performers during one of the greatest periods of wrestling history. Some of the best matches the WWF ever had were fought over this belt. Randy Savage vs Ricky Steamboat at WrestleMania III, Bret Hart vs Mr. Perfect at SummerSlam ’91, Roddy Piper vs Bret Hart at WrestleMania VIII. I could go on but you get the gist. This belt was the focal point of several historic feuds. At the time there were only two singles belts in the promotion and as a result the holder of this title was often seen as the #2 guy in the territory. The large globe with blue inset takes center stage on this belt and makes it unique as the other two titles at the time had large eagles engraved on them. The center plate also has a unique shape with several squared off edges rather than going with the more traditional rounded center plate. The Greco-Roman style amateur wrestlers etched into the side plates were also a nice touch.
#4: IWGP Heavyweight Championship
Notable Champions: Brock Lesnar, Yuji Nagata, Scott Norton, Masahiro Chono, Tatsumi Fujinami, Great Muta, Vader, Hiroyoshi Tenzan
New Japan Pro Wrestling is renowned globally as one of the best pro wrestling promotions on the planet. Professional wrestling is treated very differently in Japan than it is in the United States. Results are covered in newspapers and on news broadcasts, publications and periodicals are up to the minute, and wrestlers are respected as the great athletes that they are. Perhaps part of the reason wrestling garners more respect in Japan is because of the presentation. Wrestling matches are presented as legitimate competitions and the in ring action is the focal point of the show rather than the storyline shenanigans. The unique style of Japanese pro wrestling is known as Puroresu and I urge any reader that is a fan of North American pro wrestling but hasn’t seen a Japanese match to check out NJPW on Youtube. Matches focus more on ring psychology and athleticism and most of the matches end in a clean victory.
The IWGP (International Wrestling Grand Prix) Heavyweight Championship is the top belt in NJPW. I’m not sure when this design debuted but it is the current title as of this writing. At a glance this belt exudes the spirit of NJPW. It looks very regal and dignified and gives the impression that the holder is a true champion of wrestling rather than a sports entertainer holding a prop like the belts being used in WWE today. I like the fact that the belt looks very unique while also being very traditional at the same time. The plates are not squares and yet they don’t look unnecessarily complex. The engraving is very detailed and the belt looks very ornate but without looking like it has a bunch of hip hop “bling” on it like the ludicrous WWE spinner belt. Overall the design is very balanced and goes a long way in making the title seem like it is a true accomplishment to earn.
#3: NWA/WCW World Heavyweight Championship (1986 – 2001)
Notable Champions: Ric Flair, Ricky Steamboat, Sting, Hulk Hogan, The Giant, Randy Savage, Lex Luger, Bill Goldberg, Kevin Nash, Bret Hart, DDP, Sid Vicious, Jeff Jarrett, Booker T, Scott Steiner
When I see this belt I instantly think of Ric Flair. He was the NWA Champion to debut this belt back in 1986 and he probably held it longer than any other competitor both in terms of days and in terms of reigns. This belt is a perfect manifestation of Ric Flair’s personality. Big, bombastic, jewel studded, and yet classical looking this is one of the finest championship belts ever produced. An interesting fact about this title is that it appeared in both of the biggest wrestling promotions in North America not once but in two separate and distinct eras. When Ric Flair left WCW in 1991 over a dispute about his character’s future he owned this physical belt. He had put down a deposit when he was NWA World Champion which was a requirement to prevent any double crosses. When WCW Executive Producer Jim Herd told him to get lost he refused to refund the deposit to Ric Flair. Since Flair owned the belt and also never lost the NWA Championship to another wrestler it was a big deal when he began appearing on WWF television in the autumn of 1991 with the title. The NWA board of governors continued to recognize Ric Flair as the legitimate NWA Champion and thus when he showed up on WWF Superstars there was truth to his claim that he was “the real world champion”.
Eventually the matter was settled in courts and this belt found it’s way back to WCW where it continued to be used until WCW was bought out by the World Wrestling Federation in 2001. The design was then used in WWE as the “World Heavyweight Championship” until the title was re-unified with the WWE Championship in 2013. The fact that this title has been used in some shape or form in four different decades is a testament to it’s excellent aesthetic appeal.
#2: WWF Championship (1998 – 2002)
Notable Champions: Steve Austin, Kane, Undertaker, The Rock, Triple H, Mankind, Kurt Angle, Chris Jericho
There were actually two variations of this belt. Vince McMahon had it commissioned before the “Attitude Era” was formally underway and presented a similar looking belt with the block logo and a blue strap to Stone Cold Steve Austin on Monday Night Raw the night after WrestleMania XIV. This is what that version of the title looked like:
Both versions are attractive looking belts but the one with the black strap and Attitude Era scratch logo was certainly more famous and fit the times better so that’s the version I’m including on this list. This title was larger than the “Winged Eagle” that preceded it but it incorporated elements of the old title while also introducing new engravings and the new scratch logo. It was the perfect belt to usher in a new era in programming. I love the large center medallion with the giant eagle and globe. The lions on the side plates were also a fresh choice as the majority of the belts leading up to this one used the Greco-Roman wrestlers in combat etched into them. This belt struck the perfect balance of edginess while also maintaining the tradition and history that this title had behind it.
#1: WWF World Heavyweight Championship (1988 – 1998)
Notable Champions: Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, Macho Man, Ultimate Warrior, Sergeant Slaughter, Undertaker, Ric Flair, Bret Hart, Yokozuna, Bob Backlund, Diesel, Shawn Michaels, Sycho Sid, Steve Austin
The Winged Eagle as it is known is the definitive wrestling title. This belt lives in the hearts and minds of wrestling fans around the world as THE championship in professional wrestling and the belt that millions dreamt of one day holding over their heads. Despite becoming the most famous championship belt in pro wrestling history, the debut of this title was understated. This belt first appeared on a prime time Friday night special on NBC dubbed The Main Event in the winter of 1988. One would think that the unveiling of a new belt would have some kind of pomp and pageantry about it but instead it wasn’t even acknowledged. Hulk Hogan had a backstage interview discussing his upcoming match with Andre the Giant while holding his old title which fans call the Hogan ’86. When Hulk came through the curtain however he had this new title around his waist.
Despite lacking any hype the debut of this title still ended up being very memorable as Hulk Hogan lost the championship to Andre the Giant in controversial fashion ending his four year title reign. After winning Andre promptly surrendered it to the Million Dollar Man Ted DiBiase. Although Ted’s reign was never recognized it is still neat to note that the night this belt debuted it was held by three of the biggest names in pro wrestling. I suppose that makes up for the lack of an official unveiling.
When Ric Flair won this belt at the 1992 Royal Rumble he stated in his post match interview that “this is the only title in the wrestling world that makes you number 1”. Of course this was a cheap shot at the NWA/WCW, who’s world championship he had held through most of the 80’s. But seeing Ric Flair with that belt really made the viewer believe it. This belt has an aura and prestige that is simply difficult to put into words. It’s as if the whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts. The WWF had a lot of great championship belts through the 80’s and into the 90’s but they just nailed it with this design and it’s never been surpassed by any promotion before or since.
Since this is an opinion piece I am sure there are several readers out there that vehemently disagree with my choices. For starters, the famous Hogan ’86 belt didn’t even make my list losing out to less popular inclusions like the AWA and IWGP straps. As stated in the beginning, this list was supposed to be ranked on the visual qualities of the belt alone and although it was certainly historical, I was never a fan of the Hogan ’86 belt. At least not enough of a fan to include it on this list. Besides, what’s a top ten list without a little controversy? So do you agree or disagree? What are your personal top ten picks?