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Showtime’s ‘Tough Guys’ documentary explores MMA’s early roots in 1980s Pittsburgh

Showtime has a treat for MMA fans that debuts Friday on the premium-cable channel.

“Tough Guys” is a 90-minute documentary that airs at 9 p.m. ET/PT on the primary Showtime channel.

The film takes a look at MMA’s origins and development, specifically in Pittsburgh in the 1980s. Before the boxing-centric “Toughman” contests tested the limits of loosely regulated combat and creeped into the mainstream, “Tough Guys” events in Steel City gave us a glimpse of what would become the MMA we know today.

The documentary is executive produced by critically acclaimed filmmaker Morgan Spurlock (“Super Size Me”) and Academy Award winner Ross Kauffman (“Born Into Brothels”). And it contains a surprisingly large amount of footage from those events.

A few MMAjunkie writers watched a screener of the film and highly recommend it.

Here’s the description from, which currently has a 9.3/10 rating for “Tough Guys”:

“Ten years before the debut of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, two karate promoters and their fighters, a rough group of barroom brawlers, bikers, teachers and steel workers, pioneered the first mixed-martial arts league in the nation.”

Check out a preview above, or go to

Coincidentally, the film debuts on the eve of UFC Fight Night 116, which airs Saturday on FS1 from Pittsburgh’s PPG Paints Arena.


10 years before the debut of the

Ultimate Fighting Championship.

In 1979, Bill Viola and Frank Caliguri dreamed up a contest pitting barroom bigmouths against wrestlers, martial artists, boxers, bouncers and brawlers, billed as 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.

“Tough Guys” chronicles the inception of Caliguri and Viola’s first bouts and the colorful, crazy cast of fighters who made them a hit as well as the politicians who brought it all crashing down. 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, breeding desperate men looking for a chance to prove their worth and make some money in the ring.


It happened like this…

  • 39 days of filming

  • 42 interviews

  • 12 meals at Denny’s

  • 18 locations

  • 1000 frames per second

  • 52 terabytes of footage

  • 1 film


    About two years ago, I got a photo in a text from my brother, Robert Zullo, then a reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. It was a flyer featuring a hand-drawn, muscle-bound man advertising a “Battle of the Tough Guys” event near Pittsburgh in 1980.

    “So these Pittsburgh steelworkers and biker dudes fought an anything goes tough guy contest in a Holiday Inn and claim to have invented Mixed Martial Arts,” he said in a phone call.

    His gut instinct for a good story was something I never doubted when contemplating potential projects. This story had it all: a unique place and time, machismo, wild characters and, ultimately, tragedy.

    As we began our research into the two karate promoters, Bill Viola and Frank Caliguri, and their pioneering fights, the possibilities coalesced into what seemed an obvious project: a documentary. Find these fighters, let them tell the story in their own words.

    While on a set in New York City later, I took one of the fight posters to Producer Craig DiBiase. One look and DiBiase, who grew up outside of Pittsburgh, was immediately intrigued, staying up half the night starting the research process.

    Realizing the visual potential of the story, I recruited New York-based director, Henry Roosevelt, to collaborate on director duties.

    Much like the subjects of “Tough Guys,” we formed a team to do something revolutionary. To produce a documentary that was as fresh, entertaining and as pioneering as the mixed-martial arts events and fighters that we captured.

    Shooting on a combination of RED Dragon, super-high frame rate Phantom photography, aerial drones, and Kodak Super 8 film, we sought to present cinematic visual storytelling elements to blend with the wealth of primary sources, including archival fight footage, local TV and print news, still images, among many others, that we uncovered.

    It’s a story about a place and time where men were out of work and willing to risk injury, pain, and even death to put food on the table and prove their own self-worth. It’s a story about martial arts, about politics, about how much individual risk the law should allow and why men fight. It’s a story about Pittsburgh and a blue-collar way of life that has all but vanished in the Rust Belt.

    But most importantly, it’s a story you’ve never heard.