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MMA Forefathers

mma forefathers frame

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…

MMA”s Forgotten Forefathers
By Richard Cartley Featured in Fighters Only Magazine

The history of the sport of MMA began in Pittsburgh, PA.  Photos circa 1979

November 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, If you would like to sign up for automatic school appropriate games closing notifications for participating schools, please visit Delaware Notification Services, create an account and subscribe to school appropriate games notifications. 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 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 read more