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Brian Cage is the latest in a long line of wrestlers to hold unsanctioned, custom championships. Let's look at the history.
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Pro Wrestling

Keepin’ It Kayfabe: Is there prestige in custom championships?

Brian Cage is the latest in a long line of wrestlers to hold unsanctioned, custom championships. Let’s look at the history.

The same night Keith Lee defeated Adam Cole to unify the NXT and North American Championships at Great American Bash, Taz had his own championship announcement for Brian Cage at AEW Fyter Fest, placating his client after the delay of his AEW Championship match against the current champion, Jon Moxley.

Taz brought back his old FTW Championship.

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There’s a lot of symbolism in this gift, and not just from the fact that Taz is allowing this next generation wrestler to hold his legacy. The FTW Championship (fun fact: it’s a lot more clever when read out in full as the “F*ck The World Championship”) was originally created when then-ECW Champion Shane Douglas refused to defend his title against Taz. On May 14, 1998, fed up with the champ ducking him, Taz brought out his new “renegade” prize, an old ECW championship that was painted orange and covered in Taz stickers.

What the belt lacked in craftsmanship, it made up for in pure badassery, as it fit well around the waist of the orange and black Tazmaniac and was a great way to make himself look tough as nails. Even when he lost the belt to Sabu, it was because he pulled an unconscious Sabu over himself, confident that he would win the ECW Championship from Douglas soon enough — which he did.

ECW Living Dangerously 1999
Taz defeated Sabu at ECW Living Dangerously in 1999 to unify the ECW and FTW Championships, deactivating the belt for the next 21 years.

The belt was born with Taz and died with Taz, as it was unified with the ECW Championship in a title-for-title bout against Sabu at Living Dangerously ’99, deactivated forever. Or, at least, until Taz thought it would be cool to give it to Brian Cage some 21 years later

There lies the history of Cage’s new championship, a belt that he has since defended against Brian Pillman Jr. and wore to the ring before his losing effort in a championship match to Jon Moxley. (Who, I will stress, did not tap to Moxley, and there’s no proof that he would have tapped. No, Taz isn’t making me say this.)

Is the title belt cool? Yes. Is the belt an awesome symbol for Taz and now Cage? Absolutely.

Is the title prestigious? I wouldn’t say so.

It’s unfair to compare a championship with a year’s total lifespan to a championship that’s been around since the 1960s, but let’s look at the WWE Championship for a moment. That championship’s prestige comes from its lineage (Hogan, Bret, Flair) and from its feuds (Austin/Rock, Punk/Cena, Nakamura/Mahal). While Sabu and Taz are inarguable legends, and Brian Cage is a huge prospect in his own right, the belt is designed to be a stepping stone for whoever holds it.

But the question doesn’t just end at whether or not Cage’s FTW Championship is prestigious. We have to ask the big brain questions, wrestling fans.

Are any custom championships prestigious?

Ted DiBiase with the Million Dollar Championship
Ted DiBiase (right) posing with the Million Dollar Championship as belt maker Terry Betteridge hands it over to him in 1989.

Let’s look at the most high-profile instance of this: Ted DiBiase’s Million Dollar Championship. Now, much like Taz, DiBiase was frustrated that he couldn’t get the company’s world championship.

The difference is that, unlike Taz and his inability to get a title shot, DiBiase earned and then lost his big WWF Championship match at WrestleMania IV when he lost in the main event to Randy Savage. Having previously tried to buy the belt from an already controversial champion in Andre the Giant, DiBiase was stumped, and rather than devote any more time to getting the McMahon family gold, he was going to create his own DiBiase gold.

Though the Million Dollar Championship is looked back upon fondly as a fun prop for the Million Dollar Man to carry around, do not mistake nostalgia for prestige. The Million Dollar Championship is the 1989 version of a participation trophy.

DiBiase awarded himself that championship on a March 4, 1989 episode of Superstars of Wrestling, naming the prize not after himself, but rather after the 7-figures’ worth of diamonds woven into the belt itself. The Million Dollar Championship was less “defended” as much as it was stolen a bunch, both by Jake Roberts in the early ’90s and by Goldust in the early 2010s, and the champions list is a who’s who of “Who?”

That’s harsh; actually, all four champions are memorable, but to varying degrees.

Champion #1 is obviously Millionaire Ted, but the next champion was a considerable step down (even if the story itself was quite thrilling) when Virgil beat him for it at SummerSlam ’91. DiBiase won it back in November, then vacated the belt the following February until the belt was once again awarded to someone, this time to some Joe Shmoe named “The Ringmaster” in 1995.

Oh, wait. I’m checking my notes. Yeah: That’s “Stone Cold” Steve Austin.

Okay, that’s a pretty awesome wrestler, but his actual reign as champion wasn’t much to speak of, nor was that of the next and final champion, Ted DiBiase Jr., who spent his entire reign feuding with Goldust and Aksana throughout 2010.

I love the Million Dollar Championship. It’s the top belt in my WWE 2K saves, often traded between Xavier Woods, Otis Dozovic, and Apollo Crews. But it’s not very prestigious in the grand scheme of things.

Zack Ryder with the Internet Championship
Zack Ryder posing with the Internet Championship on his YouTube show, “Z! True Long Island Story.”

The next belt in my notes is the Internet Championship, and that’s a wash already. Zack Ryder created the belt himself because, before the recently disgraced David Starr aped it, Ryder was Really Good At Twitter.

So, with the YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and Zack Ryder logos pasted on the side, Ryder introduced the world to his Internet Championship on the July 28, 2011 episode of “Z! True Long Island Story.” However, my research did find an interesting article on WWE.com where Ryder details how he actually won the championship in a 64-man tournament that also featured the likes of Spiral, Sky, Justin Sane, and beloved broski The Big O. It’s quite the read if you’re interested in Zack Ryder lore. (And who isn’t?)

But, of course, as radical as this untelevised tournament must have been, the Internet Championship does not have the same prestige as, say, WWE’s Intercontinental Championship, another belt that was won in an untelevised tournament.

That’s because the only champion was Zack Ryder. To avoid dunking on someone that I used to love as a kid, I’ll stop right there. But you know what a lineage of Zack Ryder means, right?

Cody Rhodes, Young Bucks and Bill Apter
Wrestling journalism legend Bill Apter (far left) presenting Matt Jackson, Cody, and Nick Jackson with the “All In Championships” at the first ever Starrcast event in 2018.

The only other custom championships I could think of off the top of my head were the Superkick Party and All In Championships, belts worn by the Young Bucks (both) and Cody (only All In) at Wrestle Kingdom 11 and All In, respectively. The former were tossed into a trash can by Best Friends and were never seen again, while the latter weren’t even acknowledged after the show (and were actually pretty hard to find info on).

The Elite’s belts have mostly been props to make them look like the tag team version of J-Crown holders, but they didn’t really add or detract from the legacy of the wrestlers. A different spin on this concept is, instead of creating your own championship out of nothing, taking a previous championship and creating your own version of it.

I’m not talking about The Rock coming in and binning the spinner version of the WWE Championship in favor of the modern version (only his had the scratch logo), but rather about the idea of the spinner belt itself. I also don’t mean the spinning WWE Championship — that one stayed for a surprisingly long time, and I actually associate it more with The Miz and CM Punk than John Cena — but the United States Championship in 2004.

John Cena turned the US Title into a spinner much like the rims of a 2000s rapper’s car, and while it didn’t do anything to change what the belt meant, it made it more specific to Cena. Similarly, Edge and Miz achieved that effect when they messed with Cena’s later WWE Championship, with Edge turning the WWE logo into his R-in-a-Star logo and Miz jimmying it so that the W was always an M.

Stone Cold’s Smoking Skull belt, Daniel Bryan’s eco-friendly hemp belt, Jeff Hardy’s Immortal TNA Championship, Tetsuya Naito’s legitimately falling apart Intercontinental Championship (it doesn’t really count, but it was sure specific to his reign). All of these belts were memorable — for better or for worse (Hardy) — but the thing about their prestige is that it equals that of the belt on its own.

Daniel Bryan with his eco-friendly WWE Championship
“The Planet’s Champion” Daniel Bryan entering the titular chamber at the 2019 Elimination Chamber event.

Whether the WWE Championship is a winged eagle, smoking skull, spinner, or hemp belt, it still holds the legacy that Bruno Sammartino brought it. Even when Jinder Mahal has it, or when Rey Mysterio holds it for less than two hours (I’m still mad), the belt has a lot to fall back on, and it very well may be the greatest championship in wrestling history — though I admit I have a strong American and post-Monday Night Wars bias here.

It’s not just the company, though. The WWE 24/7 Championship isn’t very prestigious, and if I may be so bold, neither is the Universal Championship. A cheat in Kevin Owens, a part-timer and old-timer in Brock Lesnar and Goldberg, and two participants in the worst Hell In A Cell match in Seth Rollins and Bray Wyatt wouldn’t compel me to write it down in my notebook if I were an aspiring wrestler.

That championship has been cursed since Finn Balor injured himself winning it, and seeing as current Universal Champion Braun Strowman straight up died at Extreme Rules this past Sunday (unconfirmed, but my eyes saw it), the belt seems more like a magnet for bad times than anything to aspire for.

Which brings me back to custom championships, namely the FTW Championship. While none of the ones I can think of hold much prestige, there’s nothing stopping them from going on to do so. The FTW Championship was an unsanctioned belt that the wrestlers fought for on their own. Taz got both Sabu and Justin Credible to fight for it before he abandoned it and later absorbed it into the ECW Championship. If they were interested, who knows how long the belt could have been moved around the upper midcard before it got sniped by its creator?

While AEW is a big, up-and-coming brand, I still think there would be a little prestige in a belt that was simply won by Chris Jericho in a match against Hangman Page, defended against Cody and Darby Allin, and worn to Wrestle Kingdom before it was lost to Jon Moxley, who has since defended it against monsters in Jake Hager, Brodie Lee, and Brian Cage.

And I’m not going to let my love for AEW cloud my judgement — this title isn’t as over as the Universal Championship, as it’s only had two notable champions while Big Red/Big Blue has still had eight genuine stars — but the AEW Championship is certainly on its way.

What I’m saying is, if you’re a wrestler struggling to get a championship like Ted DiBiase was, sure, it’ll look petty when you create your own championship. But if you treat it like the biggest deal in the world and actively defend it against real challengers, the belt will become something, even if it’s made out of cardboard.

Brian Cage, if you’re reading this (and I assume you are), you don’t need to worry your pretty, meaty head about getting revenge on Moxley unless you really want to. You’ve already defended your championship against Pillman Jr., and that’s just the beginning. Darby Allin’s coming for you, and I’d be pretty confident in your shoes, so put the belt on the line and add another name to the list.

If done right, the FTW Championship could be exactly as worthy as the TNT Championship — and it already has the benefit of history. This could be the first time a custom championship is a really big deal, Mr. Cage. I recommend you get in on the ground floor.


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