Western Pennsylvania history | 8 fall 2011

western pennsylvania history | 8 f all 2011

Up Front

Tough Guys
It started with barroom boasting and has grown
into a sport followed by millions on cable TV
and in arenas nationwide. Frank Caliguri of
Arnold, Pa.—a black belt in karate and owner
of the Academy of Martial Arts—was motivated
by the ribbing he got while promoting
karate, and so he decided to stage a “Battle of
the Tough Guys” competition with fellow black
belt Bill Viola. As Caliguri described it in 1980,
“I’ve staged martial arts shows and tournaments
for years, and every time I’ve gone into a local
bar or diner to tack up a poster for a tournament,
the local guys would hoot and holler that they
could take on anybody and didn’t need karate.
Now they’ll have their chance.”
Caliguri and Viola carefully planned the
event, and promoted it through their company,
C.V. Productions. They developed detailed
rules and regulations to guide their “Tough
Guy Contest,” described as, “The martial arts
way of fighting as it’s done in the Orient.” All
contestants were required to wear protective
equipment including head gear, mouth guards,
padded gloves, and boots, the same equipment
used in the sanctioned karate and kick boxing
tournaments the pair had promoted. They
booked the ballroom of the New Kensington
Holiday Inn for March 20 through 22, and
raised $6,000 in prize money. Then they began
advertising for amateur fighters.
By Anne Madarasz,
Director of the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum
western pennsylvania
Sports Museum
and martial arts fighting that is today
considered mixed martial arts. Caliguri and
Viola staged their multi-day event, intending
it to serve as the first of a series of regional
bouts leading up to a national championship.
They held their finals, the “Battle of the
Brawlers,” in Pittsburgh at the Stanley Theater
in mid-April and crowned a champion, Frank
Tigano. Interest soared and the events in
New Kensington and downtown both drew
standing room-only crowds.
But the sport ended almost as quickly
as it had begun. Pressure from the boxing
commission and wrestling federation (though
they had no jurisdiction over the sport),
combined with a death in a similarly titled
but unrelated “Tough Man” boxing event in
Johnstown, led to the banning of all tough
Mike Murray and Dave Jones answered
the call. Murray, a car salesman from Arnold,
took the ring against Jones, a laborer from
Irwin, in the first match of the lightweight
division on Thursday evening, March 20.
Murray struggled, battling against the bigger
Jones, who pinned him for a 10-count in the
first round, then knocked him down twice
in the second and third before the match
was stopped. Battered and bruised after his
technical knockout, Murray remained
unfazed, declaring afterwards, “He got in
some punches, but I’d do it again. I’m bad!
I’m tough!”
That three-round bout has been identified
as the first of its kind in the nation. Though
billed as a “Battle of the Tough Guys,” the
event featured the mix of boxing, wrestling,
Frank Caliguri (left) and Bill Viola, 1980. The
three-round bout fought by Jones and Murray
has been identified as the first of its kind in the
nation. Though billed as a “Battle of the Tough
Guys,” the event featured the mix of boxing,
wrestling, and martial arts fighting that is today
considered mixed martial arts. Caliguri and
Viola’s vision for the sport is now a reality.
HHC Museum Collection, gift of Bill Viola.western pennsylvania history
f all 2011
Poster, program, and ringside ticket
for the first Tough Man contest, 1980.
HHC Museum Collection, gift of Bill
guy and brawlers contests. In 1983, the state
legislature outlawed the sport in Pennsylvania
and Caliguri and Viola found themselves
unable to proceed with their events. It was
almost two decades before the sport returned
as mixed martial arts, now one of the nation’s
most popular and fastest growing sports.
The story of that first Tough Guy event
held in a New Kensington ballroom lives on
in the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum.
Mike Murray, Bill Viola, and Frank Caliguri
worked with curators to assemble objects
such as uniforms and protective gear, and
archival materials such as programs, posters,
photographs, and tickets—a collection that
traces the roots of mixed martial arts in the
United States back to the Pittsburgh region.
Dave Jones (left) and Mike Murray compete in the
“Battle of the Tough Guys,” March 20, 1980. Jones,
a laborer from Irwin, and Murray, a car salesman
from Arnold, Pa. competed in the first bout of the
lightweight division. The bigger fighter, Jones, a
kickboxing student of Bill Viola’s, battered Murray
and the fight ended in the third round.
HHC Museum Collection, gift of Mike Murray.

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