The only clue to the treasure buried in the basement of Phil Valentino's place in Weehawken, N.J., is a sepia print that hangs by the cellar door. John L. Sullivan, the last bare-knuckle heavyweight champion of the world, his brawny arms folded across his chest, a determined frown framed by his drooping handlebar mustache, glares defiantly at all who dare pass his way.
The three-story, white-stucco house doesn't belong to a fighter. But on display in Valentino's cramped, stuffy basement—barely bigger than a boxing ring—is an impressive cache of something every fighter covets: championship belts.
"Sure they're gaudy," says the senior Valentino, a smile lifting the edges of his gray mustache. "They have to be. People have to see them up in the cheap seats."
Valentino, who works with his 40-year-old son, Phil Jr., doesn't make all the belts, but his company, Phil Valentino Originals, does make the IBF, WBA, WBO, WBF, IBC (and just about any other three letters you can throw together) championship belts. He also makes The Ring magazine's Fighter of the Year belt, the North American Boxing Federation Championship belt, various state championship belts and an occasional wrestling belt. He even made the Potamkin Athlete of the Year belt, an award the automobile company used to present to athletes in a variety of sports and one that looks like a hubcap sitting on a leather strap.
"I've done some other things. Necklaces for Tiffany. Some trophies, statues and plaques," says the 64-year-old Valentino. "And this," he says, waving a bill of sale for $2,500, "a collar for Schottzie. You know. The dog." (When the Cincinnati Reds won the World Series in 1990, the company that made the team's championship rings asked Valentino to make a dog collar in the style of a ring for Schottzie, owner Marge Schott's Saint Bernard.)
But it is as a designer for pugs that Valentino has made his mark. Opening a black hard-shell carrying case, he takes out a belt he designed for the WBA. Like most others, it is made from thick, latigo leather carefully stitched and mounted with a 24-karat-gold-plated pewter centerpiece. There are two blank side plates that fighters usually have engraved with the results of their bouts. And those brilliant gems you can see even from the cheap seats? They're actually Austrian crystal. "The best crystal there is," Valentino insists.
If crystal seems a bit cheap for a champ, don't blame the old jewelry maker. The various boxing organizations get what they pay for, and they pay $650 per belt.
Such budgetary concerns are a far cry from the days of John L. Although the first championship "belt"—a regal construction of lionskin and sterling silver—was awarded to English bare-knuckler Tom Cribb by King George III in 1811, Sullivan's era was literally the golden age of belts.
And yet, even in his time, chaos reigned in boxing. The Boston Strong Boy, as Sullivan was called, competed for several championship titles. After Sullivan battered Jake Kilrain in the last American bare-knuckle title fight, which took place in Richburg, Miss., on July 8, 1889, Police Gazette publisher Richard K. Fox reportedly climbed through the ropes to present the champion with a $5,000 belt he had previously given to Kilrain. Sullivan, who loathed Fox, is said to have spat at it.
"Get that damned dog collar out of here," bellowed the Great John L. Hence, Fox's belt, which was made in 1884, was known ever after as "the dog collar."