MMA’S FORGOTTEN FOREFATHERS  Cartey, Richard (November 2012). “Tough guy Contest: The Real Beginnings of MMA in America”. Fighters Only. 3: 72

Mixed martial arts in the United States was not conceived by the Gracie family and Art Davie in 1993, it actually began life 14 years earlier in a Pennsylvanian diner. FO reveals the untold story of…

godfathers of mma

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FEATURE Battle of the Super Fighters By Richard Cartey

“Then one night,
we were just there
like we always
were having a little
bite to eat, and
we both almost
simultaneously came
up with this idea:
what happens if
we get all these
guys together and
do an event?”
74 Battle of the Super
s www.fighter
Contest.’ Though it seemed perfect, within
months, they would get their first hint of why
the moniker wasn’t as shrewd as they’d hoped.
Unaware, the pair created flyers and
posters to spread the word. Seeking fighters
for, as the promotional material promised, an
“anything goes” event “as they fought in the
Orient,” but to find “the real-life Rocky” was
easier than they anticipated. Bill marvels: “It
was unbelievable. We would get 150, maybe
200 (calls), for a tournament or kickboxing
show. First week we got 1,500 phone calls.
We didn’t know what to do. We were totally
engulfed. We had to actually hire a real
secretary. We knew from that point this was
going to be huge.”
They immediately scheduled a three-night
event, March 20th, 21st and 22nd 1980, at the
Holiday Inn in New Kensington, Pennsylvania.
However, by now, Bill and Frank (who had
formed CV Productions – the ‘C’ for Caliguri,
the ‘V’ for Viola – to stage the shows) received
word of a gritty amateur boxing event in
Michigan already using the title ‘Tough Man.’
Not wanting to be associated with a pure
boxing contest, a simple name change to
‘Tough Guy’ ready for the second round of
posters was in order.
As Bill recalls, those booked for the first
shows in New Kensington were a local ragtag
crew of wrestlers, boxers, karate fighters,
martial artists and, just as the UFC would
attract well over a decade later, brawlers.
Having selected simply via first come first
served, Bill and Frank had gathered a
tournament bracket of 32 lightweights (175lb
and under) and a separate grand prix of 32
heavyweights (176lb and over), all to compete
over three two-minute rounds with the finals
FOREFATHERS Mixed martial arts in the United States was not conceived by the Gracie
family and
Art Davie in 1993, it actually began life 14 years earlier
in a
Pennsylvanian diner. FO reveals the untold story of…
words / RI
ovember 1979. The world’s
favorite Stars Wars film is yet to
illuminate a single silver screen,
Jimmy Carter was walking
the halls of the White House
and a gallon of gas cost less than a dollar
down the road from the Denny’s restaurant
in Monroeville, Pennsylvania, where two
kickboxing promoters, Bill Viola Sr and Frank
Caliguri, would meet once a week.
Bill, a 33-year-old karate school owner and
school science teacher, and Frank, the 32-
year-old proprietor of the only karate gym in
Pennsylvania with a boxing ring, were talking
business. However, unlike every previous
week’s Denny’s conversation, this one would
lead to holding the United States’ first ever
mixed martial arts league. And this was nearly
15 years before the 1993 debut of what would
become the world’s largest MMA organization:
the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
Bill and Frank would converse about their
efforts promoting their co-promoted karate and
kickboxing events. As publicizing primarily
entailed hanging posters in gyms and bars,
they’d frequently encounter clientele keen
to point out a martial artist they knew could
pummel any kickboxer on their show. “It would
keep coming up,” Bill Viola recalls to Fighters
Only. “Then one night, we were just there like
we always were, having a little bite to eat, and
we both almost simultaneously came up with
this idea: what happens if we get all these
guys together and do an event?”
As men fascinated by the question of who
would win between jeet kune do creator
Bruce Lee, boxer Muhammad Ali and
wrestler Bruno Sammartino, they needed
no more encouragement. Only days later,
Bill began hashing out a rule-set, picking the
brains of the judokas, boxers and other martial
artists who visited his shotokan karate gym’s
unique open door Wednesday night, where the
practitioners could share techniques. He also
visited with his school’s wrestling coach on his
free periods to hit the mats.
What resulted was a remarkably thorough
11-page rulebook that outlined regulations
(fights to end by knockout, submission, referee
stoppage or decision), safety gear (head
guards, karate gloves, foot and leg protection)
and even judging criteria for a 10-point must
system. There would also be two physicians,
one ringside and one in the dressing room.
In 1979, mixed martial arts was already light
years ahead of itself.
Soon Viola and Caliguri were brainstorming
names. ‘Ultimate Fighting Championship’ wasn’t
in their top 10, Bill admits with a laugh. “We
may have had a little blunder there,” he jokes.
Seeking a title that would echo the tough
ethos of their Steel City Pittsburgh locale, Bill
and Frank would first settle on ‘Tough Man FEATURE Battle of the Super Fighters
76 Battle of the Super Fighters
each being three three-minute fights.
Come fight night, the crowd was abuzz,
fueled by the allure of the unknown and the
grandeur of the unseen. Local TV news had
even rolled in to eye the event. Unbeknownst
to them all, they were about to watch the first
organized occurrence of the 21st century’s
fastest growing sport.
“The first fight was unbelievable,” enthuses
Bill. “The excitement, I’m telling you; you’ve
never seen a crowd like this. New Kensington
Hall only held 2,400 people. We had 3,000
people in the first night, 3,000 the second night,
3,000 every night.”
Refereeing the action was then-current
world heavyweight kickboxing champion, and
Muhammad Ali sparring partner, Jacquet
Bazemore. Six-foot-four, 230lb, articulate and
knowledgeable: he was a ‘Big’ John McCarthy
13 years early. But also observing the action
was the Pennsylvania Athletic Commission,
which had already confirmed with CV
Productions it had no jurisdiction over this new
form of combat, but eyed it nonetheless.
As the evening’s bouts unfolded, Frank
and Bill rapidly concluded no single skill-set
guaranteed victory. “We did have the actual
tough brawler,” says Bill, “but the guys who
actually went on to win the events, they had a
combination of a little bit of boxing, a little bit of
ground fighting.”
By the end of that first trio of thrilling March
cards, the promotional team knew they “had
a tiger by the tail.” Bill recalls: “Some of these
fighters had such a great following, and they
were good fighters, that they wanted to fight
again. I said, ‘Oh, wow, this is great.’ Because I
thought maybe this would be a one-time shot, a
novelty. No. People started training, they started
Bill and Frank arranged for their top
eight lightweight and top eight heavyweight
combatants to square off at the near 3,500-
capacity Stanley Theater in Pittsburgh on April
18th 1980, while they planned another show at
the 6,000-seater Johnstown War Memorial
Center for May 2nd-3rd.
Sensing they could take their Tough Guy
Contest on the road, Frank quickly attained
written permission to do just that from
practically every US state with an athletic
commissions. Realizing the lofty possibilities,
they even established plans for a $100,000
grand prize final in either Las Vegas or Atlantic
Such was the excitement around their new
attraction, Frank and Bill began sponsorship
negotiations with a large beer company and
even entered into talks with NBC for broadcast
rights to the finals. What was first intended to
satisfy their curiosity was quickly becoming a
heavyweight operation.
Looking back, Bill, along with son Bill Viola Jr
(who was just a toddler at the time of his father
and Frank’s groundbreaking shows), recognizes
the Johnstown show shift from single-event
series to organized league. “Anybody can do a
one-time event,” says Bill Jr, who has worked
for the past two years to draw attention to his
father and Frank’s achievements, “but after
you’ve got two, three, four and you start up a
following, and have return fighters and build
that reputation, that right then and there, they
were on their way to being a UFC entity 30
years ahead of its time.”
With their fighters gaining followings and
already cross-training in other disciplines to
round out their skill-sets, Caliguri and Viola
sought to elevate their product. “They knew
from the get-go this could be a sport and needs
to be athlete vs athlete, not style vs style,” says
Bill Jr. Opportunities to shift from amateur
to pro fighters, trophies to title belts and
establish more weight classes were all being
assessed while CV Productions prepared for
their grandest event yet: going cross state to
Philadelphia’s Convention Hall.
After finishing off two more events that
summer Frank and Bill realized to begin the
leap into professionalism they so desired they
had to rebrand. Multiple names such as Tough
Guy Contest, Battle of the Brawlers and Battle
of the Tough Guys were out and the weightier
Battle of the Super Fights took their place.
Both men agreed it more appropriate for their
June visit to the then boxing capital of the US.
Says Bill Sr: “Here we are, a new event,
where they had just filmed Rocky 2, the
biggest blockbuster motion picture, and we
are in Philadelphia. We had to change the
name.” Just as they had around Pittsburgh, the
Philadelphia newspapers devoted pages upon
pages to the coming event. And while some
Pennsylvania dailies were skeptical of this new
“The excitement,
I’m telling you;
you’ve never
seen a crowd
like this. New
Kensington Hall
only held 2,400
people. We had
3,000 people
in the first
night, 3,000
the second
night, 3,000
every night”
draw, many sportswriters fully embraced it.
“A legitimate sport and not just a passing fad,”
declared one later that year. A press conference
to publicize the Philadelphia show drew 32
reporters, who were treated to hors d’oeuvres,
wine and cheese and a meet and greet with
some of the forthcoming show’s fighters. In line
with CV Productions events’ growing status, the
Philadelphia card drew its highest profile names
yet: former Philadelphia Eagles’ football player
Len Pettigrew, and Sylvester Stallone bodyguard,
Sam Allen.
The event was a success, and Frank and Bill
began lining up shows for Mississippi, West
Virginia and New York – until they received a
phone call. It seemed Battle of the Super Fighters’
Philadelphia debut had drawn unwanted attention.
“The third day home, we get a phone call from
the athletic commission,” recalls Bill Sr. “They
basically said, ‘You guys are crazy, the people
who fight are crazy, you do another show we’ll
arrest you and put you in jail.’”
The development placed their next show – in
November in Greensburg, PA – in jeopardy.
But while high-powered attorneys assured
Frank and Bill the commission had no FEATURE Battle of the Super Fighters
78 Battle of the Super Fighters
“Unbelievable how big government
stomped us, broke us down, cut us off
at the legs; unreal. It was just a slap in the
face I’ll never forget it”
new combat sport, which was still at least two
decades away from being branded, MMA).”
Instead of pursuing the Michigan promoter’s
amateur boxing event, the Pennsylvania
government sought a ban on any combination
of boxing, wrestling or martial arts, using
techniques such as, but not limited to, kicking,
punching and choking. Bill consulted their
attorney, who thought they could fight the ban
and win – if they didn’t they could appeal and
even go to the Supreme Court. But, with wives
and children to support, neither Frank nor Bill
had the money. “Once this got out, that the state
was going to shut us down, every sponsor ran,
took off, disappeared,” says Bill Sr. “Unbelievable
how big government stomped us, broke us
down, cut us off at the legs; unreal. It was just a
slap in the face I’ll never forget it.”
Although CV Productions’ home state of
Pennsylvania was now closed to them, surely
these other states who had confirmed they could
take their events to their cities were still open.
Weeks of phone calls later, it became apparent
the situation had changed. Bill Sr says: “That
damn Pennsylvania athletic commission was
a good ol’ boy system. They got on the damn
phone and they called all their a**hole buddies
and that’s exactly what happened. We called
six, seven, eight, we started going down the
list. We had in front of us written confirmation.
They all said the same thing, ‘Under further
investigation, pending.’” It was over.
Only now, over 30 years on, is Frank
Caliguri and Bill Viola’s story becoming known.
Having lightning in a bottle, then it being taken
away – they simply didn’t want to talk about it.
In 2010, one year after Pennsylvania lifted its
near 30-year-old ban on mixed martial arts
(1981-2010 in PA), Bill Jr encouraged them
to come forward. In 2011, the martial arts
pioneers’ work was permanently recognized
with an exhibit in the Western Pennsylvania
Sports Museum, in the Heinz History Center.
Now the owner of local Pittsburgh-area
martial arts promotion Kumite Classic, Bill
Viola Jr says he and his father give full credit
to UFC president Dana White and his entire
staff for what they have managed to achieve
with what is now known the world over as
mixed martial arts. They have been able to do
what Frank and Bill aimed to. But Bill Jr can’t
help but wonder where the sport might be had
Battle of the Super Fighters never been halted.
“Where is MMA going to be 10 or 15 years
from now? They could be at that point already
had my dad and Frank not been stopped.”
For Bill Sr, how does it feel to see a sport he
and Frank had created over 30 years ago, erupt
in popularity in the modern day? There are
mixed emotions he admits. The karate black belt,
now 64, who had taken a one-year sabbatical
from his science teacher job to make a go of
this early MMA venture likens it to “someone
inventing the television 30 years ago and the
government says you’re not allowed to turn it
on.” Still, he also applauds the accomplishments
of the UFC and White, who he and Frank met
with backstage at a recent UFC event.
There will probably always be a sense of
regret, but, in its own right, the present-day
success of MMA is validation of Viola Snr and
Caliguri’s hard work. He can feel good about
that. And Bill Snr adds: “My theory or foresight
that you had to be a mixed fighter to have
success out there, you had to train in different
disciplines; that came true. The vision that me
and Frank Caliguri saw out there actually
came true.”
legal right to follow through on its threat, it
did little to quell the fighters’ fears of arrest. A
cascade of favors had to be called in before the
commission would agree not to interfere in CV
Productions’ Greensburg event.
“That just hyped everybody up more,” says
Bill Sr. “The show went off in Greensburg as
it was planned and we thought we were on a
roll again.”
Except they weren’t. “This is where this
whole ‘Tough Man’ comes back to haunt
everyone,” states Bill Jr, of a March 1981
incident. “That gentleman that started
the Tough Man boxing did a show in
Pennsylvania under the name ‘Tough Man.’”
Reports from the time note 23-year-old entrant
Ron Miller, 185lb and five-foot-eight, died in
hospital one day after the event where he was
knocked out in his first match, then knocked
against the ropes in his second.
“Even though they had zero, zero, zero
connection to what we were doing, that athletic
commission used the public outcry as an
excuse to open up an investigation (into this
Bill Viola Jr and Sr with Royce Gracie

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