Mixed Martial Arts: The Origin of an American Sport
CV Productions Inc. was the first grass roots movement to develop mixed martial arts into a modern sport. The company established a mainstream mixed martial arts fighting concept in 1979 and hosted more than 10 competitions throughout Pennsylvania under the banner of “Battle of the Brawlers,” Battle of the Tough Guys,” and finally “Super Fighters” beginning in 1980. Pressure from the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission prompted a legislative hearing leading to the passage of SENATE BILL No. 632 Session of 1983, effectively banning these MMA-style events in Pennsylvania. The Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum of the Heinz History Center of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institute unveiled an exhibit on 23 June 2011 to document the first mixed martial arts league in the United States.
CV Productions, Inc.
CV Productions, Inc., is a Pittsburgh, PA based mixed martial arts company, founded in 1979. It is considered the first MMA based company in the United States and responsible for creating the blueprint for modern mixed martial arts competition. The company promoted the first mainstream league of mixed martial arts style competitions beginning in 1980 with the intention of creating a new sport. Regulated Mixed martial arts competitions were first introduced in the United States by CV Productions, Inc. The first competition named Tough Guy Contest was held on March 20, 1980, in New Kensington, PA. Later that year the company renamed the brand to “Super Fighters.”
CV is an abbreviation for its co-founders’ last names, Pittsburgh martial arts pioneers William Viola of Irwin, Pennsylvania and Frank Caliguri of Arnold, Pennsylvania. These experienced promoters set out to address the hypothetical question: “Who would win between Muhammad Ali (boxer), Bruce Lee (martial artist) or Bruno Sammartino (wrestler)?” Viola and Caliguri spent much of 1979 developing the foundation for a series of mixed martial arts style competitions. They concentrated on an untapped market by providing a true platform to settle the dispute of which style of fighting was superior. The events were advertised as “Anything Goes,” and “legalized striking, throwing, grappling, punching, kicking, ground fighting, submissions and more.” Fighters from all disciplines were eager to compete and earn bragging rights. “Every town or neighborhood has a legendary fighter or Tough Guy, we set out to prove these claims,” says Bill Viola. The first Tough Guy championship would take place March 20, 1980 in New Kensington, PA. The company organized a league of events and promoted more than 10 competitions across Pennsylvania under the banner of “Battle of the Brawlers,” “Battle of the Tough Guys,” “Tough Guy Contests” and “Battle of the Superfighters” throughout 1980. Notable locations included the Stanley Theater in Pittsburgh, Johnstown War Memorial, and the Philadelphia Civic Center.
CV Productions, Inc. is the first documented company to promote mixed martial arts as a sport to the American public in 1980. Popular promotions such as UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) were not held until 1993. CV Productions, Inc. developed a fight format to appeal to mainstream audiences, and partnered with concert promotion specialists DiCesare-Engler Productions of Pittsburgh. After major successes in the Pennsylvania region, the company laid the ground work to expand. They were negotiating a national sponsorship deal for a $100,000 prize finale set for Las Vegas in 1981. (To put the magnitude of the prize money into perspective, the average salary for an NFL pro in 1980 was $78,657) The championships garnered so much fanfare so quickly that they were slated for a nationwide tour that would have taken them to nearly every major US city.
CV Productions, Inc. had the foresight to promote mixed martial arts as a mainstream professional sport, understanding that the concept had unlimited potential for growth. Viola and Caliguri devoted meticulous attention to fight details, rules, regulations, and competitor safety in order to gain widespread acceptance. Viola wrote an eleven-page rule book in 1979 that parallels modern mma rules of today. Tough Guy competitions legalized mixed fighting techniques but also implemented safety precautions that forbid certain attacks such as eye gouging and groin strikes. The fight league was decades ahead of its successors by instituting weight classes, open figured safety equipment, headgear, ring side doctors, back stage physicians, professional referees and fighter contracts. In 1980 CV Productions, Inc. retained Attorney James Irwin to begin negotiating national television rights.
In 1979 Viola and Caliguri pitched the idea of “anything goes fighting,” in local bars and gyms looking for the toughest fighters to enter a Toughman competition scheduled for March of 1980. Unknown to them, Michigan promoter Art Dore was hosting boxing events under the name “Toughman.” CV Productions, Inc. immediately changed their initial promotion to the “Tough Guy” contest to distinguish themselves. Tough Guy events were mma-style fights that utilized open figured gloves and permitted ground fighting, and all styles of martial arts. Toughman contests were purely boxing and used 16-ounce gloves. The companies had no affiliation with each other.
Banning Mixed Martial Arts
In November of 1980 CV Productions, Inc. was ordered by The Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission to cancel their upcoming show in Greensburg, PA. CV was given an ultimatum; if they proceeded, the Pennsylvania State Police would intervene and shut the event down. CV Productions, Inc. ignored the warning citing that the Athletic Commission had no proven jurisdiction over Tough Guy competitions. Under the Pennsylvania Athletic Code Act of August 31, 1955 (P.L.531, No.131), the state oversaw boxing and professional wrestling, but mixed martial arts was a new sport. On November 6th 1980 the Greensburg show went on, only to open the door for further scrutiny by the government. In a bizarre turn of events, Ronald Miller, 23 died after entering a Toughman boxing competition in Johnstown, PA. This event had no association whatsoever with CV Productions, Inc. Unfortunately the Pennsylvania Legislature used this incident as an excuse to investigate all fighting events in the state and ultimately outlawed mixed martial arts. Pressure from the State Athletic Commission prompted a congressional hearing ultimately leading to the passage of SENATE BILL No. 632 Session of 1983, effectively banning all mma-style events in Pennsylvania, specifically naming CV Production’s Battle of the Brawlers and Tough Guy contests. After careful legal consideration Viola and Caliguri were advised to stop promoting events in 1981. Effective February 27, 2009, Pennsylvania legalized mixed martial arts. This marked the end of a thirty year struggle between mixed martial arts and the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission.
Jacquet Bazmore, Former World Heavyweight Kickboxing Champion, trained at Viola and Caliguri’s martial arts schools. Noted as one of the most prolific kickboxers of his era, he also was a sparring partner for boxing legend Muhammad Ali.
Jack Bodell, former martial arts student of Bill Viola at Allegheny Shotokan Karate, was at the time of the competition an agent of the United States Secret Service charged with protecting President Jimmy Carter.
Pittsburgh MMA Hall of Fame
Pittsburgh MMA instituted the MMA Hall of Fame in 2010 and inducted fighters from the original Tough Guy Competition held March 20, 1980. The ceremony took place at the Kumite Classic Martial Arts Expo held in Monroeville, Pennsylvania on May 30, 2010. In conjunction with the ceremony, CV Productions, Inc. promoted “Caged Kumite,” a pro-am mixed martial arts show. The event commemorated the thirty-year anniversary of mixed martial arts in Pittsburgh. Bill Viola collaborated with his Son, Bill Viola III, himself and internationally ranked martial artist, on the event.
Heinz History Museum
The Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum of the Heinz History Center of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institute unveiled an exhibit on June 23, 2011 to document the first mixed martial arts league in the United States. The exhibit features memorabilia from the mixed martial arts based competitions including rare posters, fight gear, press materials, and photos that depict the event. The exhibit began as a display in the front of the museum, and will ultimately find its home as a permanent addition to the boxing and wrestling sections of the Sports Museum. The Senator John Heinz History Center is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institute and the largest history museum in Pennsylvania.
“The Sports Museum has brought to light the central role that Pittsburgh has played in the sports of boxing and wrestling, focusing on such greats as Bruno Sammartino and Kurt Angle,” said Anne Madarasz, co-director of the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum. “This exhibit adds a new chapter as we trace the roots of mixed martial arts in the United States back to the Pittsburgh region.”
The Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum is a museum within a museum, The Heinz History Center, comprehensively presenting the region’s remarkable sports story through hundreds of artifacts and interactive experiences for visitors of all ages. The History Center and Sports Museum are located at 1212 Smallman Street in the city’s Strip District. More information is available at http://www.heinzhistorycenter.org.
A Penn State University professor is currently developing a book chronicling the Tough Guy craze and history of Mixed Martial Arts in Pennsylvania.
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