Two years earlier, when Fox had presented that belt to Kilrain in anticipation of a bout that never took place, Sullivan's hometown fans were so outraged that they raised $8,000 and gave their fighter a belt of his own. Known as the Sullivan-Boston belt, it was made from 80 ounces of 12-karat gold. The massive centerplate read: PRESENTED TO THE CHAMPION OF CHAMPIONS, JOHN L. SULLIVAN, BY THE PEOPLE OF THE UNITED STATES, spelled out in 397 diamonds.
It was Sullivan's to keep forever, but his fiercest adversary, alcohol, forced him to leave it in pawnshops countless times. "John L. hocked the belt seven times in New York alone." said William Muldoon, a famous wrestler who once redeemed it for Sullivan.
When Sullivan died in 1918, the whereabouts of his belt were a mystery. Finally, in 1926, Nat Fleischer, then editor of The Ring, read in a newspaper that the belt was in the hands of a junk dealer in Baltimore. All the gems were gone, but the gold shell was still intact. Fleischer wrote in his 1951 book, John L. Sullivan, that despite his best efforts to buy the belt, the junkman sold it to the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia. According to Fleischer, the Sullivan-Boston belt, a priceless piece of boxing history, was melted down after its owner had been paid its value in gold—$812.
When James J. Corbett knocked out Sullivan in 1892, he gladly accepted "the dog collar" that Sullivan had spurned. Corbett took the belt with him on a vaudeville tour in 1893. While in Indianapolis, he left it on display in a shop window. During the night the belt was stolen and was never recovered.
For the next three decades champions usually received belts only if their fans could raise the money to provide them with one. That changed in 1926 when The Ring began presenting its own championship belts. For decades the magazine had been considered the authority in rating fighters—it continues to rate them today, of course—and its belts were regarded as the authentic tributes. Jack Dempsey was awarded the first of the Ring belts in recognition of his great career.
The magazine's belts were made of silver plates mounted on red, white and blue satin. "They weren't worth very much," says Stanley Weston, who wrote for The Ring during the Fleischer era, left in the '50s and returned to the magazine in the late '80s as its publisher. "They usually cost about $250."
Fleischer believed champions should receive belts. But Valentino says he understands that during Fleischer's reign there were occasions when the magazine didn't present fighters with belts immediately after their bouts. Henry Armstrong, who held three world titles in three different weight divisions simultaneously during the 1930s, was one fighter who may have had to wait for his belts.
Weston says he recalls that Armstrong was indeed presented with his belts, but in any case, Valentino was asked by The Ring in the early '70s to make three new ones for the long-retired fighter. And it was then that Valentino came into the decidedly murky picture.
"A friend of mine brought me up to see Nat Loubet [then managing editor of The Ring]," Valentino recalls. "He had heard the old man who was making their belts was retiring, so Loubet asked to see me."
Valentino was an obvious choice. While running his jewelry-making business, he was managing fighters—albeit unsuccessfully—on the side. Loubet showed Valentino the Ring belts, and the jeweler set about making the three for Armstrong. Valentino's work pleased Loubet and landed him the account. From then on things snowballed. In the mid-70s Bob Lee, vice president of the WBA, gave Valentino his organization's belt business, and when Lee jumped to the IBF in the mid-'80s. he again called upon Valentino. Along the way various state commissions weighed in with their requests.