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From The Garden to an attic: How the original WWE Title was lost for 50 years — and found
Find out how WWE reacquired the WWE Title that Bruno Sammartino won on May 17, 1963, 50 years after it vanished from sight.
Fifty years ago on May 17, 1963, Bruno Sammartino defeated Buddy Rogers in Madison Square Garden to begin his historic 2,803-day reign as WWE Champion. That night, Bruno won a title with a brick-colored leather strap and a golden faceplate of the contiguous 48 United States, but he did not hold this version of the championship for long. Soon, an authentic WWE Title was commissioned and the original prize disappeared.
And then someone found it. In August 2012, the widow of former pro grappler Johnny Barend discovered the original WWE Title in her attic and sports-entertainment historians began scrambling to get their white gloves on it. Luckily, Ben Brown — WWE’s equivalent to Indiana Jones, or at least one of the guys from “American Pickers” — was able to acquire it, but it wasn’t easy.
In recognition of the 50th anniversary of WWE’s first title change, WWEClassics.com spoke with the archivist to find out how this pivotal piece of wrestling history was lost — and found.
WWECLASSICS.COM: How did you first find out that the original WWE Title had been discovered?
BEN BROWN: A story popped up on the Internet that the title had been found in the attic of Johnny Barend’s widow. Honestly, it was the first time I ever even thought about that original title.
WWECLASSICS.COM: Any idea how Bruno Sammartino’s first WWE Championship ended up in Barend’s attic?
BROWN: You didn’t see Bruno with it for very long. I guess the decision was made by [Vincent J. McMahon] to make a new title. I would assume that Vince gave this title back to Buddy Rogers as the physical title belonged to him. You’ll see in the middle of the title is a little circle with a loose piece of plastic — that is where you would put in the photograph of the titleholder. When the title was found, it had a photo of Johnny Barend in it. Bruno confirmed that Buddy and Barend were, in fact, good friends.
WWECLASSICS.COM: Why was a title belonging to Rogers originally recognized as the WWE Title?
BROWN: The story is that Lou Thesz had won the National Wrestling Alliance Title. Vince didn’t think that Thesz would draw money in the northeast territory, so he split off from the NWA and promoted his own champion in Buddy Rogers, who he thought would be a better headliner for that area.
WWECLASSICS.COM: So it was something that had to be done quickly. There wasn’t exactly time to produce an official WWE Championship.
BROWN: As you notice, the title is shaped like the continental United States of America, which seems odd for a World Championship. Buddy Rogers actually defended it as a United States Championship before he brought it with him to become the first-ever WWE Champion. The only indicator that it’s the World Championship is that there’s a little plate on the bottom — possibly screwed on over something — that says World’s Champion.
WWECLASSICS.COM: How did you initially go about acquiring the title?
BROWN: The fact that it was coming together at the 50th anniversary of the WWE Title’s inception and Bruno Sammartino’s induction into the WWE Hall of Fame, it was just too important to pass up. I forwarded the story to Triple H and he said, “Go and get it.” That turned out to be a little more complicated than it initially seemed.
WWECLASSICS.COM: It had already changed hands by the time that article was published, right?
BROWN: The title was in the ownership of Dave Millican, who designs a lot of our championships. I got in touch with him and he let out a sigh, knowing that it was inevitable that someone from WWE would call him. It was made clear fairly quickly that it wasn’t going to be exchanged monetarily.
WWECLASSICS.COM: How did you get him to give it up?
BROWN: We had to give him one-of-a-kind WWE memorabilia.
WWECLASSICS.COM: This was all happening literally days before WrestleMania. Were you nervous you weren’t going to pull it off?
BROWN: We were cutting it very close, because we wanted to have it at both WrestleMania Axxess and at the WWE Hall of Fame to show Bruno. So I took the memorabilia items from Washington, D.C., took a couple of different planes into Memphis [Tenn.], traded the memorabilia for the title with Dave Millican in the airport and got back on the same plane, which led me to New Jersey to set up for Axxess.
WWECLASSICS.COM: Being able to actually hand the title to Bruno must have been a thrill.
BROWN: It was a great moment. Bruno said, “Make no mistake about it — this is definitely the real thing.” I think one of the most interesting things that came out of the conversation was Bruno saying when he won the title 50 years ago he looked at it and said, “How old is this title?” Just to know that it had that history before becoming the first WWE Title was fascinating.
WWECLASSICS.COM: It looks good for something that’s been around since Eisenhower was in office.
BROWN: It has actually held up really well. The construction is nice, the jewels are pretty much all still in there. There’s a certain type of rust on the back that indicates that it is well more than 50 years old. It’s a beautiful thing and it’s a great piece of history to show the WWE Universe.