Why and when did you decide to write Godfathers of MMA?
The real story of who invented the sport of MMA in America was in jeopardy of being lost forever. My father a nd his business partner created a regulated MMA in 1979, and I needed to set the record straight. They deserved credit and I was shocked that all of the history books available were clueless. It began as a passion piece to provide information and morphed into the most the most comprehensive book on early MMA history. My cousin Dr. Fred Adams and I took on the task of documenting a forgotten time and place for the sport. We bring you back to the Golden Era of MMA.
What is the book about?
You get an inside look into the minds and events of the men who “mixed” the martial arts a decade before the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship.” They created a new sport in the form of the Tough Guys.
How did things with the movie get started?
Shortly after the exclusive preview run of Godfathers of MMA, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Robert Zullo stumbled upon the Tough Guys exhibit featured at the Heinz History center. The display recognizes Pittsburgh as the Birthplace of MMA. The display is located right next to Franco Harris’s immaculate reception and catches a lot of attention. Zullo explains, “I couldn’t believe I’d never heard about this story. I was enamored with the time, place and machismo of the whole thing. I just had a gut instinct to meet these guys.” Zullo reached out to his brother Will and childhood friend Craig DiBiase a producer [MinusL] and Director Henry Roosevelt from New York City. Zullo also got his Academy Award winning cousin, Ross Kaufmann, on board. Two years later after 52TB of filming, the Tough Guys Doc was born.
When did the movie start in production?
Production began in the summer of 2015. One of the feature locations was Allegheny Shotokan Karate in North Huntingdon. My favorite location was Ritters Diner which we retrofitted to look like a 1979 Dennys. I played my father in a famous scence where we hashed out the name ‘Tough.’
Was it all filmed in Pittsburgh?
We had 18 locations from Florida to New York but the bulk of the footage and interviews were from Western Pennsylvania (North Huntingdon, New Kensington and Pittsburgh).
How did the name Tough Guys come about?
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Pittsburgh was the epitome of a blue collar ‘tough’ city. This sport would be an open call for the ‘toughest’ guys on the planet to fight, so Tough Guys was fitting for the era.
Who starred in it?
The documentary stars the men who lived it. We were fortunate to film the original fighters and pioneers. One of the stars was Dave Jones. He trained at my father’s dojo and actually worked for North Huntingdon Township as part of a ‘road gang’ and laborer. Dave fought in the first fight and won by TKO. He was fearless–I looked up to him as a kid.
Can you tell me about the production process…your role, how production went, any details you can add about the highlights of the movie? I
had the unique experience to wear many hats on the project: the production end, consulting end, and even played a 1979 version of my father in the famous ‘Denny’s Restaurant’ scene. Since my book was the master outline, I had to on point.
When did the movie premiere?
Initial praise attracted a star studded lineup of executive producers including Academy Award® Nominated Morgan Spurlock (Supersize Me) and Oscar winning writer Ross Kaufmann (Born in Brothels). The world premiere of “Tough Guys” took place at the American Film Institute (AFI) Docs on June 15th 2017 at the famous Landmark Theatre in Washington, DC. It was screened the day after the mega Mayweather / McGregor announcement. The film sold out.
And when did it air on Showtime? September 15th
Will it be shown again in the future? It aired all of September and October. Then it will be distributed internationally.
Do you have plans to write anymore books or be involved in any other movies?
After the Showtime debut, my commemorative edition of the book retitled ‘Tough Guys’. It just hit #1 on the Amazon Best Sellers list for sports today. It’s received critical acclaim and we’ve been getting offers for a screenplay to turn the journey into a major motion picture. That is my ultimate goal. With the right team, I know this could an Oscar worthy drama.
How passionate are you about MMA?
I am most passionate about teaching and sharing my knowledge. It’s a family legacy. All my siblings are black belts and now I am mentoring my daughter (Gabby) and will have my son William Viola IV who was just born in September on the mat soon.
What, exactly, is MMA?
MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) is a sport that combines all disciplines of combats sports (boxing, karate, wrestling, judo etc.) fighting into regulated competition. My father is credited for writing the first legitimate rule book in 1979. The UFC, the sports largest franchise, was sold for 4 billion dollars in 2016. If Pennsylvania didn’t outlaw the sport in 1983, my father and Frank would be at the helm of that empire.
Mixed martial arts pioneer gets TKO in Tough Guys 1980 opener
Dave Jones kicked off the sport of mixed martial arts, literally, when he slammed his foot into the chest of his opponent and was awarded a technical knockout in the opening bout of the first Tough Guys competition March 19, 1980, at the New Kensington Holiday Inn.
Jones, 61, of North Huntingdon, who was a laborer for the township at the time, successfully matched his karate moves against the boxing skills of car salesman Mike Murray in the event’s lightweight division.
Years before the Ultimate Fighting Championship became a prominent purveyor of mixed martial arts (MMA), Jones’ victory earned him a place in history as a pioneer of the sport. He’s since been recognized with membership in the Pittsburgh MMA Hall of Fame, a sports display at the Heinz History Center and a segment in “Tough Guys,” a documentary about the groundbreaking local 1980 fights that will be seen Friday, with a free screening at 7 p.m. at the Palace Theater in Greensburg and a 9 p.m. airing on the Showtime cable channel.
“I never knew it was going to turn out like this. It was an honor for me,” Jones said of the recognition he’s gained through MMA. The film, which he saw at an earlier premiere in Washington, D.C., has stirred many memories — ones he can now share more fully with his two sons and four grandchildren.
At 150 pounds, Jones believes he probably was the lightest competitor at the New Kensington event, organized by local karate instructors Bill Viola Sr. and Frank Caliguiri.
“It was pretty much anything goes,” Jones said of the face-off involving martial arts followers like himself along with wrestlers, boxers, bar bouncers and other assorted brawlers.
“There were no rules except you weren’t allowed to hit in the groin and you couldn’t scratch their eyes out, choke or kill them.”
Jones built up his strength for the competition with help from the township crew. “I ran behind the township truck with a 20-pound sledgehammer on my back and weights around my ankles,” he said. “There were no gyms around here in those days.”
Jones was encouraged by the thought that he could keep out of harm’s way in his three rounds with the boxer.
“If they can’t reach you, they can’t hit you, and I knew my legs were longer than his arms,” Jones said. “It was a good fight. He was getting ready to throw a haymaker, and I just stepped up and kicked him in the chest, and it picked him up off the ring.”
Though there was no love lost between them at the time, Jones said he and Murray now jointly sell a T-shirt that commemorates their historic match.
Jones won two additional bouts, earning a spot in a championship event at Pittsburgh’s Stanley Theater. Though he was eliminated there in a pairing with a wrestler and missed out on the $5,000 grand prize, he believes the series of fights earned a new respect for the martial arts.
There was a driving force behind the Tough Guys events. “We wanted to find out what was the best sport out there. I still love the martial arts, and I think it’s the best fighting art,” he said.
Jones took part in additional MMA competitions in other cities, including Philadelphia. When the sport temporarily was banned, he continued to excel in karate, earning a black belt and taking several state titles.
He now works as a food service supervisor at the Shack snack bar at St. Vincent College and hasn’t participated in karate competitions for more than two decades. But he still works out at a local gym and keeps in touch with Viola’s Irwin karate dojo — where he first trained in the martial arts.
“Karate is my life,” he said. “Age catches up with you, but the knowledge never leaves.”
Yoi and double yoi. You heard that right… Two Parmanti eatin’ terrible towel waving “Yinzers” from Western Pennsylvania are credited with creating a new sport [MMA] over 14 years before the UFC. These weren’t your average yinzers though, they set sights on a “billion dollar” prize and would have won if it wasn’t for Commonwealth outlawing the sport with the passage of the Tough Guy Law in 1983. Who knew?? Fascinating story of what if, but #Pittsburgh is documented as the birthplace of MMA. BURGH PROUD! Read the book or Watch the Showtime Documentary
Courtney of Pittsburgh Tribune Review:
Tough Guys traces MMA’s roots right back to Western Pennsylvania
This is the real story.
Two guys from Western Pennsylvania — Bill Viola Sr. and Frank Caliguiri — created the sport of mixed martial arts, now a billion-dollar business, years before it became a household name.
That tale has been documented by Bill Viola Jr. in the book “Godfathers of MMA,” which he co-authored with his cousin Fred Adams. The local connection to this sport will receive even more exposure in the documentary “Tough Guys,” which airs at 9 p.m. Sept. 15 on Showtime. The network broadcast premiere of the film will be shown at a free event Sept. 15 at the Palace Theater in Greensburg. Seating is on a first-come, first-served basis
Viola Jr., 40, from North Huntingdon — who operates Viola Karate the same dojo his father founded in 1969 (then known as Allegheny Shotokan) — served as producer of “Tough Guys,” which features the origins of the MMA fighting phenomenon. The movie premiered June 15 at the AFI DOCS Film Festival in Washington, D.C.
The reason the younger Viola decided to write about his father and Caliguiri was because MMA was getting more popular and he didn’t want the true story to be lost.
Viola Sr., 69, a Brownsville native who lives in North Huntingdon, and Caliguiri, 68, from New Kensington, met through karate and have been friends a long time, Viola Jr. says. They are proud of what they started long ago.
“It’s surreal to have this journey played out on television,” says Viola Sr. “We created a new sport, and even if we don’t have the reins anymore, I’m proud of how popular MMA is today.”
Here’s how the story goes, Viola Jr. says.
His dad and business partner Caliguiri were successful in martial artists and promoted karate and kickboxing. They came up with the idea of a mixed martial arts event. They developed an even playing field where the guys could “settle the score,” so to speak, via a competition called Tough Guys. At one point, they held a finals match in the former Stanley Theater in Pittsburgh.
“It just took off,” Viola Jr. says. “It was something no one had seen before, and it was fresh and exciting — a sport that had never been done before. They gained so much attention but got an enemy in boxing, which was struggling.”
As this mixed martial arts was on the upswing, the State Athletic Commission, which oversaw boxing, stepped in and ended the competitions. After a man was killed in Johnstown — in an event not sponsored by Tough Guys, but with a similar name — it was outlawed, Viola Jr. says.
In 2009, the ban was lifted and MMA became legal.
“It was hard for my dad to swallow — he had the idea, but he wasn’t one to talk about it,” Viola Jr. says. “It is a sad thing it happened, so I took it upon myself to tell the story. I don’t want history to be lost. Pittsburgh could be losing an important part of its history.”
That legacy is being preserved in an exhibit at the Senator John Heinz History Center in the Strip District. The film came into being after producers from MinusL Productions in New York City saw the history center exhibit. They teamed up with an Academy Award-winning team, including Morgan Spurlock (“Super Size Me”), to produce the film and brokered a deal with Showtime to broadcast, Viola Jr. says.
“It is great to meet the people who are a part of this, and for them to see it come to fruition,” says Anne Madarasz, director of the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum and chief historian for the history center. “They kept so many pieces of memorabilia from tickets to uniforms to photographs to posters that it has made for an amazing exhibition. Their story has merit, and it’s credible, and it needs to be told. It’s a ‘wow’ kind of moment for people who see it, and with the film coming out, it will create more attention.”
She says now MMA is a big-time sports business, but when Viola Sr. and Caliguiri started they had hoped to promote the event and grow it, but then the state stepped in.
“There were things that happened that were out of their control,” Madarasz says. “There are a lot of different factors. The sport is huge on TV — which changes the landscape of a sport — taking it from a neighborhood and community sport to an across-the-world sport.”
The documentary is the combination of a lot of the original fighters and guys who took a chance to enter the ring, Viola Jr. says. They came from all walks of life. There are re-enactment scenes by professional actors. The timing is perfect for this, says Viola Jr., because it’s coming off the recent fight between Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor in Las Vegas which created a lot of interest. There is an Ultimate Fighting Championship on Sept. 16 at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, where top middleweight contender Luke Rockhold faces David Branch.
“Contrary to popular belief, the sport of MMA didn’t begin with the UFC in 1993. It was born in Pittsburgh between 1979-83. They were the pioneers,” says Viola Jr., who also is producer of the Kumite Classic the mecca for martial arts in Pittsburgh since 1999.
JoAnne Klimovich Harrop is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-853-5062 or firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @Jharrop_Trib.
“Pittsburgh” recognized in the network broadcast premiere of the mixed martial arts inspired film “Tough Guys” debuting on Showtime September 15. The free event will offer open seating available on a first-come, first-serve basis celebrating local fighters, fans, and MMA pioneers.
The movie is based on the book Godfathers of MMA written by Pittsburgh native Bill Viola Jr. The book which he co-wrote with his cousin Dr. Fred Adams also documents Pittsburgh as the birthplace of MMA, which is now a billion-dollar business. Viola Jr. explains, “When most fight fans think MMA history, they immediately reminisce about the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) which made its debut in 1993. My dad and Frank created the sport over a decade before the UFC. This is the untold story.”
The movie is largely based in Western Pennsylvania and has strong ties to the city of Greensburg. In fact, the last “Tough Guy” event was held in Greensburg at “Hartys” on November 6-7th 1980.
Academy Award-nominated documentarian Morgan Spurlock (“SUPER SIZE ME”) teamed with Oscar-winning filmmaker Ross Kauffman (“BORN INTO BROTHELS”) to produce this film that chronicles the history of MMA beginning in Pittsburgh over a decade before the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) existed.
“Back then, my dad literally mixed up all the martial arts and invented the ‘Tough Guy’ competition, not to be confused with Toughman, which was purely boxing,” Viola Jr. said. “Last year the UFC sold for $4 billion dollars.”
The film was executive produced by Spurlock, Kauffman and Spurlock’s business partner, Jeremy Chilnick. It was directed by award-winning filmmakers Henry Roosevelt and W.B. Zullo and produced by award-winning commercial producer Craig DiBiase.
Although Godfathers of MMA has already been written and published, Viola Jr. plans to re-release the book as a commemorative edition to coincide with the network debut of the film and will include bonus material, a new chapter and rebranded as Tough Guys to match the film.
According to Viola Jr., in 1979, his father and Caliguri dreamed up a contest pitting barroom big mouths against wrestlers, martial artists, boxers, bouncers and brawlers, billed as a no -holds-barred new type of competitive fighting. “When the fights succeeded beyond their wildest expectations, they were swept up in a chain of events that ended in the first mixed martial arts ban in the nation when the Senate passed the ‘Tough Guy Law’ in 1983.”
“Tough Guys” recounts the inception of Caliguri and Viola Sr.’s first bouts and the colorful, crazy cast of fighters who made them a hit, as well as the politicians who prohibited it. The film brings to life a moment when the national martial arts craze was building to a crescendo as the economies of Pennsylvania steel towns were plummeting to levels of unemployment never seen before or since, breeding desperate men looking for a chance to prove their worth and earn some money in the ring.
“The film presents the untold stories of scrappy brawlers and martial arts promoters,” said Viola Jr., who served as an associate producer. “And, it covers a broad audience of Pittsburgh-area characters.”
What do an NFL star, a United States Secret Service Agent, Sylvester Stallone’s bodyguard, and Muhammad Ali’s sparring partner all have in common? They were all characters cast in America’s original “anything goes” reality fighting drama, an “open call” that led to the birth of a new sport—MMA.
Long before the Octagon was in vogue or Royce Gracie made his pay-per-view debut; decades before the UFC became a household brand and while the likes of Dana White were still in elementary school; two martial artists, Bill Viola and Frank Caliguri, set out to prove once and for all who the world’s greatest fighter was by creating a radical new “sport” in 1979.
Godfathers of MMA reveals the clandestine plot to subvert the “first” mixed martial arts revolution in American history, one poised to challenge boxing as the king of combat sports. Confounded by a freak accident (death in the ring) and widespread corruption, a massive struggle ensued over money, power, and respect between boxing’s gentry and an upstart MMA company from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. CV (Caliguri and Viola) Productions ignited a bitter turf war with the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission that sparked a spectacular David and Goliath battle for leverage.
The legendary story, buried by rhetoric for years, casts a wide net reeling in everyone from politicians to mobsters, all with ulterior motives; all with eyes on a billion dollar blueprint. From boxing’s “Holy Territory,” the home of Rocky Balboa, to a bizarre connection with the Supreme Court that lead to the first legal precedent for MMA—ever, this is the ultimate inside look.
Godfathers of MMA is a testosterone-laced whirlwind tale of “what might have been” told by the trailblazers who fought for it. Relive the epic adventure of the “Tough Guys” later known as Super Fighters (the first mixed martial arts league in history).
Thirty years before the UFC gained a mainstream audience; the media embraced mixed martial arts: KDKA-TV dubbed CV’s new sport, “Organized, Legalized, Street fighting,” while the Philadelphia Journal proclaimed, “No holds barred as Superfighters take over.”
Take a journey back in time to the “Iron City” and meet the fighters, the foes, and the visionaries who created the modern sport of MMA.
About The Authors
Dr. Fred Adams is a western Pennsylvania native who has enjoyed lifelong love affair with literature and film. He holds a Ph.D. in American Literature from Duquesne University and recently retired from in the English Department of Penn State University. He has published over 50 short stories in amateur and professional magazines as well as hundreds of news features as a staff writer and sportswriter for the now Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
In the 1970s Fred published the fanzine Spoor and its companion The Spoor Anthology. In 2014 his novels, Hitwolf, and Six Gun Terrors were published by Airship 27, and his nonfiction book, Edith Wharton’s American Gothic: Gods, Ghosts, and Vampires was accepted for publication by Borgo Press. Three additional novels by Adams are currently pending publication.
Adams acted as the official press agent for CV Productions Inc., the first mixed martial arts company in America (1979-1983). He sat ringside covering the radical new sport for the media and is credited with coining the phrase, “The Real Thing in the Ring.”
Fred is also an accomplished singer/songwriter who has performed solo and with bands since the early 1960s and over the last few years has recorded two compilations of original material, The Doctor is In and Searching for a Vein.
Bill Viola Jr. is a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania based promoter and international martial arts champion who experienced the “Golden Era” of MMA firsthand as his father, Bill Sr., is credited as the co-creator of the sport.
Bill graduated Summa Cum Laude from the University of Pittsburgh in 1999 with a bachelor’s degree in Political Science and immediately moved to Hollywood, California to gain hands-on experience in the entertainment industry. Subsequently, he earned acceptance into the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and American Federation of Television and Radio (AFTRA) en route to establishing his own production company, Kumite Classic Entertainment in 1999.
He established Kumite Quarterly magazine in 2003, serving as publisher and overseeing distribution throughout North America until 2007. Viola is an accomplished freelance journalist, contracted by Sport Karate Magazine to cover the National Black Belt League World Games on location in Mexico, Canada, and across the United States.
Viola has also served as an independent consultant for number major motion pictures including the mixed martial arts movie Warrior (2011). He is also credited as an Associate Producer for the MMA inspired film TappedOut (2014) starring former UFC champions Lyoto Machida and Anderson “Spider” Silva.
Bill teaches martial arts at the same school his father established in 1969 (Allegheny Shotokan). He is part of a growing Pittsburgh karate legacy that that now includes his daughter, Gabriella Capri Viola.