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godfathers of mmaBook Review: “Godfathers of MMA”

By Matthew Guerry | Photograph from CV Productions

Fans of mixed martial arts (MMA) might think the sport is only as old as the Ultimate Fighting Championship; but in their book “Godfathers of MMA,” Bill Viola Jr. and Dr. Fred Adams trace the roots of MMA back to Pittsburgh. Whether you’re a fan of history, sports, or both, we think you’ll find “Godfathers” to be a fascinating read.

Adams and Viola Jr. researched court documents and conducted interviews to prepare for the book, which tells the story of CV Productions: a Pittsburgh-based company founded by Viola Jr.’s father and his business partner, Frank Caliguri. Prior to launching CV Productions, the two worked together to promote kickboxing events — an experience that wound up inspiring them to create a new kind of combat sport.

“There was no easy ways to promote, so they did it by going out and putting posters up in bars and gyms,” Viola Jr. says. “What they found was, every time they went into a bar and gym, there was always someone in there who would say something to the effect of ‘I know someone who could kick that guy’s ass.’ So Frank and my dad got to thinking: ‘Why don’t we put together an event that can actually prove this?’”

At CV Productions, Viola and Caliguri created a new sport with the invention of the “Tough Guy” competitions in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, events that pitted boxers, wrestlers, martial artists, and grapplers against each other in an “anything goes” competition. However, controversy erupted when a fighter was killed in a Johnstown ring during a similarly titled boxing-only event, the “Tough Man Contest.”

In the fallout, Pennsylvania passed a bill, known as the “Tough Guy Law,” that effectively outlawed MMA events of any kind in 1983. Viola Jr. says that the tale behind the end of the Tough Guy competitions is one dotted with fascinating characters and “back alley politics.”

“It’s really like a David and Goliath-type story,” Viola Jr. says. “They were going to go head-to-head with the state and head-to-head with boxing. And if you know anything about boxing, it’s been a staple of American culture since the turn of the century.”

MMA has gained national popularity since the end of the Tough Guy competitions, despite MMA remaining illegal in Pennsylvania until 2009. It was around that time that Viola Jr. says he was inspired to tell his father’s story.

“Once the law was lifted and [MMA] was going to become legal in Pa., I felt it was my duty to bring the story to light and let people know the real history,” he says. “Pittsburgh is the birthplace of MMA — not anywhere else. As Pittsburghers, we have pride in our Steelers, Pirates, and Penguins, and this area should have pride that mixed martial arts started here.”