From The Garden to an attic: How the original WWE Title was lost for 50 years — and found

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May 17, 2013

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.

Detailed photos of the original WWE Title | Witness the long history of WWE Title changes

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.

Learn more about Buddy Rogers, the first WWE Champion

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.

Discover the history of the WWE Championship

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