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A Winning Look at the Forgotten Championship Belts of Golf and Other Surprising Sports

Championship belts are typically most synonymous with wrestling, boxing and mixed-martial arts, but the in the 19th century, they were so ubiquitous that they were even handed out for winning speed-walking competitions

For nearly 20 years, I’ve blamed Rasheed Wallace for the proliferation of championship belts throughout sports and other situations that had nothing whatsoever to do with boxing, wrestling or mixed martial arts. 

Of course, it was all fun and games at first. My beloved Detroit Pistons won their third NBA World Championship in 2004, and Wallace gifted the entire roster with WWE World Heavyweight Championship belts, which they all donned for the presentation of the team’s championship rings.

This superfluous and ostentatious display of gold by the Pistons immediately landed on the radar of the top brass of the WWE, which promptly broadcasted portions of the Pistons ring presentation for its viewers on the very next edition of Monday Night RAW. Throughout the 2004-2005 NBA season, Pistons fans proudly displayed replica versions of the WWE title belt in the stands, prompting fans of rival teams to do the same. 

Now, nearly two decades removed from that evening at the Palace of Auburn Hills in November 2004, championship belts are ubiquitous in all sports — whether legitimate or fantasy — and awarded to the winners of everything from hot dog eating competitions to quarterly corporate sales contests.

Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Champion Joey Chestnut, with the famous mustard-yellow belt

So was this actually all the fault of the most mercurial NBA power forward of his era? Not at all. In fact, there was no legitimate blame to be placed anywhere. Any ill will I might have felt stemmed from my own misunderstanding of just how prevalent the presence of championship belts had been in non-combat sports during the era in which title belts originally rose to prominence.

The Golden Age of Championship Belts

The first belt with a major championship distinction attached to it seems to have been constructed in England in 1841. In March of that year, a boxing promoter published a lengthy explanation in The Era newspaper of London as to why a belt made rational sense as an elite boxing prize. 

“By purity of reasoning, we contend that a ‘Belt’ which has girded the loins of the best men of his day, from Broughton, Slack, Big Ben and others, to the present moment, would have carried with it metal more attractive to the Champion of England than any, however costly, which could now be fabricated: could we doubt it, it would be to impugn the heart’s being in the right place — where it must be to throw up the hat to ‘merrie England’!” the promoter stated.

Basically, he was arguing that a belt that had adorned the waists of all the championship fighters of England, being passed down one to another after having been won in combat, would accumulate an intrinsic value that surpassed the literal worth of the metal it took to create it. The belt representing the Heavyweight Championship of England was subsequently awarded to fighter Ben Caunt two months later when he defeated Nick Ward

The concept of a championship belt as a perpetual, wearable trophy quickly caught the attention of representatives from other nations participating in organized boxing, and England’s writers appear to have experienced a mixture of pleasure and annoyance that Americans in particular had borrowed it. “We are pleased to find that Caunt’s display of a transferable Champion’s Belt to the Yankees has awakened in them the desire of imitation,” stated an unnamed writer in The Era in September 1842. “It is a source of pride to us that a similar trophy to that suggested and got up by ourselves in the mother country will henceforth reward the ‘bravest of the brave’ on the other side of the Atlantic. 

From there, championship belts made a logical leap to another combat sport — wrestling. As an early example, the annual Cornwall and Devonshire wrestling tournament of June 1848 awarded championship belts to the first place winners on both sides of the 15 stone (210 pounds) weight boundary.

Championship Belts Are Off to The Races

It was at this point that the progression of championship belts in England took several surprising twists and turns. In December 1851, The Era reported on the creation of a championship belt to be conferred upon the winner of the 10-mile pedestrianism race — or the racewalking champion — in the London Borough of Islington. Pedestrianism was so popular in England at the time that crowds of up to 20,000 would pack stadiums to watch trained athletes engage in heel-to-toe walking for prize money.

The rules of the Islington race were as follows: “If [the winner] successfully maintains his title of champion against all comers for one 12-month period, [the championship belt] will become his own property; but should he be defeated within that time then the Champion’s belt is to be handed over to his more fortunate opponent.”

This is a key point, inasmuch as the championship belts were also justifiably referred to as “challenge belts.” It was common then for participants in different sports to submit individual challenges to other established athletes in the press in order to arrange duels with them at predetermined times and dates to battle for supremacy. Case in point: In the reporting by The Era of an 1850 head-to-head race won by F. Beckwith, Champion of the Surrey Swimming School, against W. Robinson, Champion of Oxford, it was explained that Beckwith had accumulated the following prizes during his in-water competitions that year: “A vase of wax flowers valued at £10, the Champion’s Belt of the Surrey Swimming School, the Gold Medal of the Holborn Baths and the £10 of the above match.”

Championship Belts Hit the Links

By the end of the 1850s, championship belts had even migrated over to golf. In October 1860, the Glasgow Herald reported that the members of the Prestwick Golf Club decided to bestow a “challenge belt” upon the winner of a tournament to be contested among the top three golfers of every golf club in Scotland and England. “The belt is a very handsome one, being made of red morocco, mounted with plates of silver, containing representations of players, clubs, etc.,” the paper reported. 

That exquisite belt was captured by Willie Park Sr., and the golf tournament he won was soon renamed the Open Championship, or the British Open. Ten years later, the belt was retired per its governing rules when Young Tom Morris won the Open Championship for the third consecutive time. As such, a new trophy needed to be commissioned for the British Open, with the legendary Claret Jug — awarded to the winner of the British Open to this very day — making its debut in 1872.

We Are the Champions

So again, not only was Rasheed Wallace not committing a faux pas by introducing championship belts to basketball, and subsequently reintroducing them to every other form of competition under the sun, he was responsible for a great reclamation act by reconnecting several classic sports with one of their earliest and most traditional forms of awards. 

With that bit of historical context, I can now easily excuse Wallace for the fact that championship belts are now a ubiquitous feature at sporting events, man caves and corporate offices around the country. However, leaving Robert Horry wide open on the wing during Game Five of the 2005 NBA Finals? That’s going to be a little bit harder to forgive — especially because it helped cost the Pistons their championship belt.