Bourne strikes gold with book on U.S. title; Remembering Ken Burger

New book explores “Jim Crockett Promotions’ United States Championship.”

Dick Bourne has done it again.

Bourne, who runs the popular Mid-Atlantic Gateway site, has followed up his “Ten Pounds of Gold” and “Big Gold” books with an informative and entertaining volume on “Jim Crockett Promotions’ United States Heavyweight Championship.”

The book, which takes a comprehensive look at one of pro wrestling’s most revered titles, just might be Bourne’s best effort yet.

A lifelong follower of Mid-Atlantic wrestling, Bourne explores the five classic U.S. title belts that were worn by some of the profession’s greatest performers over a 13-year period.

Just the images — more than 100 photographs of both the champs and the belts — are worth the price of admission.

Examined are every title change, the stories behind the angles, and even every scratch and dent on the various championship belts and replicas.

“The book focuses on two main areas,” notes Bourne. “First, it looks at the five different physical belts that represented the Crockett championship from 1975 until 1988 (when the company was sold to Ted Turner.) Secondly, it chronicles the long title history of the championship, exploring every title change and tournament during those years, and all of the exciting angles and storylines.”

Bourne’s fascination with the territory — and the title — prompted him to write the book.

“The United States title was the main title for Crockett Promotions in the 1970s and 1980s, and was my favorite championship as a young fan of Mid-Atlantic wrestling. I also loved the belts. But what makes it relevant today is how it is the sole survivor from the territory days. This is the only championship from that great era to still be recognized today.”

While there were other regional U.S. championships under the NWA banner, the version recognized by the Charlotte-based Crockett Promotions was the biggest and most widely recognized of them all, and it served as the historical foundation for the U.S. championship recognized by WWE today.

“The WWE U.S. title traces its lineage all the way back to the beginning of Crockett’s U.S. title in 1975 — exactly 40 years ago this year,” says Bourne. “When you factor in that over 60 percent of the guys that held it are WWE Hall of Famers today, it makes the title — and its history — very relevant to fans today.

Credit for the formation of the Crockett U.S. title goes to George Scott, a longtime main-eventer-turned-booker who helped transform the Mid-Atlantic area from a tag-team territory to one built around singles competition.

With Scott bringing in some of the top talent in the country during the mid-’70s, he wanted a singles title that would be seen as the biggest prize in the territory and a nationally recognized one as well.

To that end, Scott brought in former NWA world champion Harley Race and billed him as the U.S. heavyweight champion, having defeated longtime Mid-Atlantic favorite Johnny Weaver in a phantom title change in Florida.

Johnny Valentine, at the time the territory’s most recognized national name and the Mid-Atlantic heavyweight champion, was tabbed as Race’s first challenger on July 3, 1975, at the Greensboro Coliseum. Valentine would defeat Race in a classic encounter, and the Crockett version of the U.S. heavyweight championship would begin its remarkable journey.

Twenty-one different men held the Crockett U.S. championship. Thirteen of them are current members of the WWE Hall of Fame.

The illustrious list of titleholders includes Terry Funk, Ric Flair, Ricky Steamboat, Mr. Wrestling (Tim Woods), Wahoo McDaniel, Roddy Piper, Paul Jones, Blackjack Mulligan, Magnum T.A.,Tully Blanchard and Lex Luger.

Flair would hold the record for longest combined reigns with five over 651 days, closely followed by Mulligan’s 541 days (four reigns) and Greg Valentine’s 541 days (three reigns).

Longest U.S. title reign would go to Nikita Koloff, who held the belt 329 days, from Aug. 16, 1986, to July 11, 1987.

Shortest? That dubious distinction would go to “No. 1” Paul Jones with a six-day run in 1976.

The belt continues to evoke memories, as Bourne discovered when he showed “Superfly” Jimmy Snuka a replica of the U.S. belt he won from Flair in 1979.

“Bruddah, this is old days!” Snuka said with a huge grin on his face. “Good times! Me and the Nature Boy!”

Bourne says Snuka likely hadn’t thought about the belt in 30 years, but the memories seemed to be flooding back.

“Mr. Gene Anderson, bruddah! Good times!” exclaimed Snuka, referring to his manaher at the time.

“I think he was surprised to see this because I’m guessing that most fans want to talk about his time in the WWF,” says Bourne. “But the sight of that distinctive-looking center plate on the belt from his Mid-Atlantic wrestling days definitely connected with him. He seemed almost nostalgic. He posed for a photo holding the belt, a genuinely happy smile on his face. ‘Very nice, bruddah,’ he said as he handed the belt back to me. ‘Very nice.’”

The book, says Bourne, was a learning experience.

“I thought I had a good memory on most of the title history, but it was amazing all the little details I had forgotten over the years. It was fun to piece that all together again.

“As a young fan, I didn’t realize that there were many other United States championships recognized in other territories. I wanted to put the Crockett U.S. title in context with the rest of those titles. It was very interesting researching those titles and looking at their histories for comparative purposes. I summarize the other titles in the book.

“I also didn’t realize how many times the Crockett title was defended outside the Mid-Atlantic territory, particularly in Georgia. During the 1970s both Ric Flair and Blackjack Mulligan were booked on a number of occasions out of other offices with the belt. Promoter Paul Boesch recognized the title in Houston on several occasions in 1984 and 1988.”

There isn’t much about Mid-Atlantic wrestling titles that Bourne, a longtime resident of Mount Airy, N.C., doesn’t know.

“Dick Bourne is the Indiana Jones of belt archaeology,” wrote Mike Johnson of PWInsider.

A mystery Bourne admits he didn’t solve: “What happened to the original belt (1975-1980 version)? Where is it today? Greg Valentine claims to have once had possession of it, which makes sense because he was the last person to hold it. But when I contacted him, he claimed to longer have it and couldn’t recall what happened to it. I still hope to find that original belt one day, it’s a holy grail for me.”

“Jim Crockett Promotions’ United Heavyweight Championship” ($29.95) can be ordered through MidAtlanticGateway.com. Free shipping is being offered with orders before Nov. 5.

Sporting notes compiled while remembering my friend Ken Burger, who left us far too soon, but not without a legacy that will live on in the many lives he touched.

A cross between Lewis Grizzard and Pat Conroy, Ken was a genuine Southern treasure in whose presence no one was ever a stranger.

One of my favorite memories of Ken was taking him to a wrestling show many years ago at the old County Hall (by that time known as the King Street Palace).

Admittedly Ken was among the uninitiated when it came to “sports entertainment,” but he was always game for a new adventure. His reaction on this particular night was on the money.

Taking a quick inventory of the rabid crowd, Ken turned his head ever so slightly, looked directly at me, and proclaimed: “Mooneyham ... these are your people!”

I still think he meant it as a compliment rather than a coronation, but he most definitely was right.

Last show we both attended was a Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons concert a year ago at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center.

Once more looking out over the crowd, Ken jokingly observed: “I’m pretty sure we’re the youngest people here tonight, Bubba.”

Right again. Guys like Ken Burger never grow old. They live on, forever young, in our memories.

Reach Mike Mooneyham at 843-937-5517, or follow him on Twitter at @ByMike Mooneyham and on Facebook at Facebook.com/MikeMooneyham.