Mt. Pleasant author helps examine mixed martial arts
Their nicknames were earned, blow by blow, on local grounds.
From Danny “Mad Dog” Moiak to “Crazy Jack” Reynolds to Dave “Too Tough” Durhan, many members of what became the first mixed martial arts league in the United States were Western Pennsylvania proud.
Beginning in 1979, bare-knuckled bar brutes, state champion wrestlers, karate black belts and dumbbell-curling gym rats all flocked to take part in the “Tough Guy Championship” contests promoted by CV Productions Inc.
“You cannot invent the kinds of people and the kinds of events that are included in this story, but it's all true,” said Mt. Pleasant's Fred Adams, who has co-authored a manuscript with his second cousin, Irwin's Bill Viola Jr., titled “Mixed Martial Madness.”
“This book is what I call ‘personality intensive'; it deals with all types of personalities and circumstances,” he said.
For two years, the men behind it all — Frank Caliguri and Bill Viola Sr. — fought to cement the league's legitimacy in the eyes of the Pennsylvania Athletic Commission.
In the end, the commission managed to have the league outlawed in 1981.
Adams — a retired Penn State University professor — and Viola are currently shopping around the work to publishing houses.
It examines the league's torrid rise and sudden fall, and its influence on popular organizations of today like the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).
“This story is a real David versus Goliath story — the upstart league against the state commission that wanted it shut down,” Adams said.
Nearly 15 years before the 1993 debut of UFC, today the world's largest MMA organization, Bill Viola Sr. and Frank Caliguri devised a league, which, in its time, served as the forbearer of what today is an immensely popular spectator sport, Adams said.
At the time of the “Tough Guy” league's existence, Adams handled distribution of press releases detailing the outcomes of the matches, he said.
“I was there for almost all of their fights,” Adams said. “There are so many funny, quirky stories. Western Pennsylvania was a natural when it came to an event like this with the tough people who lived here.”
Caliguri and Viola Sr. started the league after spending much of the late 1970s creating a unique personal niche by pioneering martial arts tournaments and kickboxing shows in the tri-county area.
At the time, Caliguri also operated Caliguri's Academy of Martial Arts in Arnold. It was the only martial arts school in the Pittsburgh area with a boxing ring, Adams said.Meanwhile, Viola Sr. himself was a well-known karate instructor and competitor who also taught science at East Allegheny High School.
Lacking modern-day technological tools like Facebook and Twitter, the pair circulated posters and fliers promoting the competitions both by hand and by mail, Adams said.
An 11-page set of rules was created which anticipated many of those in place today in MMA competition, he said.
The first MMA event that Caliguri and Viola produced took place in New Kensington in March 1980. That event led to the Tough Guy Championships held at the Stanley Theater in Pittsburgh later that year.
From there, Viola and Caliguri had plans to hold events all over the country, culminating with a national championship prize fight to be held in Las Vegas in 1981.
Those bouts never took place because what would become MMA became banned in Pennsylvania in 1981 when a fighter died during a walk-on boxing match not affiliated with CV Productions.
“After that, the other states which had been previously favorable closed ranks behind Pennsylvania's athletic commission and refused to authorize permits for ‘Tough Guy' contests,” Adams said.
An exhibit showcasing the contributions of Viola and Caliguri exists today at the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum at the Sen. John Heinz Regional History Center in Pittsburgh's Strip District, in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C.
“We added it as a story in the sports museum just because it is one of those unexpected Pittsburgh stories that gives a sense of the range of influence in sports that Pittsburgh has above and beyond the big three sports of football, baseball and hockey,” said Anne Madarasz, the center's museum division director and director of its sports museum.
“When you think of martial arts, not something you associate with region, but here you have two people — Frank and Bill — who were not only martial arts trainers but who brought about a whole new sport.”
Viola Jr. said both he and Adams consider it an honor to tell the story of that sport, they said.
“My father and Frank are now getting the credit they deserve for being mixed martial arts pioneers,” said Viola Jr., himself a member of the National Black Belt League Hall of Fame and proprietor of Kumite Classic Entertainment, a Pittsburgh-based events production company.
“They were the masterminds behind a completely new sport that, in popular culture, the UFC seems to get the credit for. The book reveals the untold story and fills in the missing parts of MMA's history,” he said.
Frank Viola Sr. said he is impressed with the amount of fact-checking and interviews both his son and Adams, his first cousin, completed to ensure its accuracy and breadth.
“I'm just tickled to death that they've done such a great job on the history of mixed martial arts in Western Pennsylvania; they really, really did a lot of work on this,” Viola Sr. said.
Caliguri — who in the mid-1980s relocated his academy to Lower Burrell — agreed.
“I have to say they're doing a fantastic job on the book, with all the information going into it,” he said.
A.J. Panian is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-547-5722 or [email protected].