Modern MMA created in Pittsburgh, PA – Tough Guys
‘The Battle Of The Tough Guys:’ Tracing modern-day MMA back to its roots in Pittsburgh
BY PATRICK DAMP
AUGUST 28, 2022 / 1:19 PM / CBS PITTSBURGH
PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – “The octagon” “Ultimate Fighting” and “MMA” are all now very much part of the sports lexicon.
It wasn’t always that way and modern-day mixed martial arts can trace its roots partially back to right here in Pittsburgh.
Let’s go back to the New Kensington Holiday Inn ballroom on March 20, 1980 – that’s when the first MMA tournament on record took place.
“We didn’t know it was a story, but we knew we had lightning in a bottle,” said Bill Viola Sr., a co-found of the Battle of the Tough Guys. “We had just a whole bunch of crazy people. No one had ever seen this before.”
At the time, Viola and his partner Frank Caliguri were promoting karate events the old-fashioned way: pounding the pavement, putting up fliers, getting the word out in bars, and bending the ears of anyone who would listen.
“Everybody knew someone who could beat someone up on your poster,” Viola laughed. “Well, Frank and me were discussing, ‘I’m getting tired of hearing it, I can beat this guy up, he can beat this guy up’ we thought – we got all these crazy people in these bars think they’re so tough, why don’t we get a contest together where they can fight on the ground, they grapple, they can box, they can use karate, and we’ll have rules and regulations to control it.”
However, as good as the idea was, like so many things, branding is key.
They didn’t have a name!
That is…until they did.
“We thought since Pittsburgh is such a tough steel city, ‘tough guy’ would just kind of fit in,” Viola recalled.
From there, The Battle of the Tough Guys was born.
“Bill and Frank were very thoughtful and clear about what they were building towards,” said Anne Madarasz, director of the Western PA Sports Museum. “This was not a fly-by-night operation, they had a written set of rules and regulations, and they knew what you needed to have in place to look out for the best future of the sport and the best future of the people that are participating in it.”
Just as Anne said, it might not have been a fly-by-night operation, but it was a one-night sensation.
“The enthusiasm, the crowd, all the people, all the excitement they loved it,” said Viola. “We were selling out events.”
The popularity was obvious, and the excitement was palpable, but like so many new and exciting ventures, there were imitators.
This led to a splintering as many more similar events began to pop up but nothing compared to what Bill and Frank brought to the table.
“We did Johnstown very successfully, no one [got] hurt,” Viola recalled. “Then boxing came in, they were called “Tough Man” they had no weight classes, they put a 175-pounder against a 200-some-pounder, we had weight classes, rules, they were boxing, we were combined martial arts, we had nothing to do with them.”
The 23-year-old Ronald Miller, an unemployed construction worker was killed after taking part in two fights that led to head injuries sustained in the fights.
Miller’s death led to action from the Pennsylvania State Legislature.
The sport was banned in the commonwealth.
“Sure, we were very, very letdown, we were depressed, it was like we invented the TV and we’re never allowed to turn it on,” Viola said.
However, what took place in the 1980s laid the groundwork for what is now the modern UFC. For that, many trace it back to Frank Viola Sr. and Frank Caliguri.
“We were way ahead of where the UFC was in 1993 back in 1980.”