Not quite the 10 pounds of gold, but…. Belt-maker Dave Millican recreates Memphis wrestling’s CWA World title strap
After years of frustration in his attempts to convince the National Wrestling Alliance board to give his homegrown star Jerry Lawler a run with the NWA World title, Memphis wrestling promoter Jerry Jarrett created his own championship–the Continental Wrestling Association (CWA) heavyweight title. The idea was that AWA Southern champ Lawler would win the strap from former WWWF champion Superstar Graham and then issue challenges to AWA kingpin Nick Bockwinkle and perennial NWA titlist Harley Race for a series of unification matches. Jarrett, who had begun working with Verne Gagne the previous year, was thinking that perhaps the AWA owner would eventually agree to have Lawler and Bockwinkel “unify” the titles in Memphis, with each man holding the undisputed championship for a period of time.
Of course, Lawler broke his leg just as the unification series with Nick was getting off the ground, forcing Jarrett to go in a different direction with Billy Robinson, who was a classic wrestler in the mold of the men whom the young promoter admired growing up.
With Lawler on the shelf, Robinson drew some strong houses in Memphis defending the belt against the likes of Bockwinkel (after Verne decided to have one last run with the AWA crown), Bill Dundee (who Robinson traded the belt with), former NWA champion Lou Thesz, and Paul Ellering; still, he wasn’t the consistent draw that Lawler was. In fact, it was “Handsome” Jimmy Valiant who picked up the babyface slack with Lawler sidelined. Disappointed with his champion’s drawing power, Jarrett gambled, going with the charismatic if not reliable Austin Idol, who defeated Robinson for the belt on Oct. 6, 1990, when Billy was “forced to quit” after twisting his knee in a rare show at Chicks Stadium–an outdoor show on a chilly fall night that only drew 2,642 fans, despite $3 and $4 tickets and advertised “50-cent beers.”
Idol, who could have played the role of the flamboyant World champion well a la Ric Flair, lasted all of two weeks–just long enough to have publicity photos taken with the title–before forfeiting the championship of the world to rising star Bobby Eaton. I believe Idol left in a pay dispute–certainly not the last with Jarrett–the money he was making in Georgia was probably too good to pass up. (Unless, of course, it was a Fred Ward town.) While he was already one of the best young workers in the business, Eaton lacked credibility, so Jarrett went back with Robinson as champion on October 27 in front of just over 3,500 fans at the Mid-South Coliseum. Lawler returned from his layoff to again set the territory on fire as 1980 came to a close, drawing a SRO sellout crowd at the Coliseum on Dec. 29.
Jarrett wanted the belt off Robinson, but the champ this time refused to relinquish the belt, no-showing a scheduled bout with Dutch Mantell on March 16, 1981. Robinson took off with the title, continuing to defend it in Japan. The last result I saw involving the championship was a title loss to Dory Funk Jr. in Tokyo; however, I have no idea if this title switch actually took place. Robinson has since claimed his ex-wife took the belt following their divorce, which sounds like a WWE storyline. Jarrett was anxious to confront Robinson at the 2009 NWA Legends Fanfest about the belt’s whereabouts…but Billy no-showed that event as well. (In a recent interview, Robinson changed his story, saying his dog ate the belt.)
Despite holding the belt for only 14 days (though that’s nearly triple the amount of time that Tommy Rich held the NWA World title), Idol recently commissioned renowned belt-maker Dave Millican to recreate the 1980 championship belt for photo-ops at upcoming personal appearances. Though Millican wasn’t the biggest fan of the original design–which has Lawler’s artistic style all over it–he agreed, making some slight enhancements, such as accurately depicting the Japanese flag. (The real strap had the red-and-white color scheme inverted.)
Belt-mark critics in the past have slammed the original’s license-plate design and frugal production, but for longtime Memphis fans, the CWA World title is fantastic sentimental piece. I think former esteemed CWA president Nick Gulas would agree. Besides, if you think the original CWA title belt was bad, you should have seen the World championship trophy it replaced–I believe it was one of promoter Eddie Marlin’s old bowling awards.
Though Jarrett’s unification concept eventually came to fruition in 1988, with Lawler wining both the AWA and World Class belts, it would have been interesting to see how the scenario would have played out had Lawler not broken his leg in ’80. But then we might have missed out on the Lawler-Hart feud, which is the program that really defined the territory in the ’80s.
Maybe it was a lucky break after all.
For more on Millican’s incredible work, check out his site and colorful gallery of belts by clicking here.