Author Archives: Bill Viola

About Bill Viola

Bill Viola is a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania based promoter, producer and author.

Tough Guys Documentary

Tough Guys Doc

‘Tough Guys’ documentary profiles local creators of MMA Viola, Caliguri

 | SaturdayJuly 8, 2017, 10:09 p.m.

If nice guys finish last, then tough guys almost always come out on top.

Renowned local martial arts instructors Frank Caliguri and Bill Viola already believed that, and after more than 35 years, their work came to fruition with the June premiere of the feature-length documentary “Tough Guys” at the 2017 AFI Docs Film Festival last month in Washington, D.C.

The film details the early days of mixed martial arts, which Caliguri and Viola created in the late 1970s. Then known as “Tough Guy Championships,” the first competition took place in March 1980 in New Kensington.

“It was really amazing when you think of two small-town guys and on a national level,” said Viola, of North Huntingdon. “This documentary is going everywhere. We reached for that star 35 years ago, and all of the sudden it’s coming back to us.”

The buzz surrounding the film made tickets for the one-time showing tough to get. Of the 118 documentary films that premiered during the five-day festival, held June 14-18, “Tough Guys” holds the distinction of being the first film to sell out while also being recognized as one of the festival’s 10 “Spotlight Films.”

“It was kind of awing to be a part of this,” said Caliguri, of Lower Burrell. “It was awesome, and I couldn’t believe how they put this together.”

It was late 1978 when Viola and Caliguri met at the Monroeville Denny’s restaurant and asked the age-old question: Who would win a fight between Muhammad Ali, Bruce Lee and Bruno Sammartino? It was a question that gave birth to a sport with roots firmly planted in Western Pennsylvania and became widely popular in the 21st century with the help of organizations like the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

“We called it ‘combined fighting.’ Mixed martial arts is a term they’ve used over the past few years,” Viola said. “(Frank and I) knew that it had to be a combination of all the (fighting) disciplines for there to be a winner.”

But while Caliguri and Viola set out to answer the age-old question, the state of Pennsylvania stepped in and shut down “Tough Guy” contests in large part because the state had no governing jurisdiction over “combined fighting” events like it had over boxing and professional wrestling. Caliguri and Viola sanctioned the contests under CV Productions. The state legislature became the first in the country to pass a ban on all mixed martial arts fighting and specifically named CV Productions in its ruling.

Not until 2007 did mixed martial arts competitions become legal in the state.

“We were selling out our shows and boxing wasn’t doing anything, and we didn’t fall under the jurisdiction of the state athletic commission, so they weren’t getting their 5 percent (of the earnings),” Caliguri said. “At that time, they were nickel-and-diming us to death with legal stuff.”

And just like that, Caliguri and Viola were advised to quit promoting “Tough Guy” contests in early 1981, leaving the age-old question to go on unanswered.

“They legalized it 15 years after me and Frank started it,” Viola said. “It’s like inventing the TV, and we can’t turn it on for 15 years.”

Year’s later, Viola’s son, Bill Jr., figured it was time to set the record straight as to the origin of the sport of MMA before revisionist’s history took over and completely wiped out Caliguri and his father’s accomplishments. He co-authored with Fred Adams the book “Godfathers of MMA: The Birth of an American Sport,” which became the basis for the documentary.

“My motivation was Frank and my dad had this billion-dollar idea back in the late ’70s and had a shot at doing it, but things weren’t in their favor at the time,” Bill Jr. said. “I knew in the back of my head that this was nothing new. I felt it my duty to tell this story before it was lost forever.

“The integrity of the sport was in jeopardy.”

Before the documentary was made, “Tough Guys” still was seeking legitimacy and credibility in a sport where the fan base rose dramatically since its mainstream and commercial debut in the mid-1990s.

Then came CV Productions’ public relations representative Mike Murray, who after seeing a commercial for the Heinz History Center Sports Museum, set out to make the claim that MMA was rooted in Western Pa.

Murray and Dave Jones hold the distinction of fighting in the first “Tough Guys” match when CV Productions held the event in front of an over-capacity crowd at the New Kensington Holiday Inn in 1980. Jones got the better of Murray that night as Murray’s corner man threw in the towel with 8 seconds remaining in the match.

The Heinz History Center Sports Museum’s exhibit, “Pioneers of MMA,” opened in 2010.

“I thought we were the first MMA league, and I called the curator and finally after a few months (the curator) said get some documentation together, bring it down and we’ll go over it,” Murray said. “Finally after almost eight or nine months she called me one day and said they were going to do it and called me a few months later and said they were going to open the exhibit.”

The Heinz History Center exhibit caught the eye of W.B. Zullo, who co-directed “Tough Guys” with Henry Roosevelt. Renowned directors Ross Kaufmann — Zullo’s cousin, who won an Academy Award in 2004 for best director in the feature-length documentary category for his film “Born into Brothels” — and Morgan Spurlock — whose film “Super Size Me” was bested for the Oscar by “Born into Brothels” — came to the film as executive producers.

“It was an amazing story and a story that nobody really knows,” Spurlock said.

“Good things take time. These guys are such underdogs, and it’s what a real ‘Rocky’ drama is all about.”

Everybody is tight-lipped about the future of “Tough Guys,” but people will get a chance to view the documentary in the near future as the film’s directors are in talks with studios.

The plan is to hold a Pittsburgh premiere once a deal is reached. Caliguri said theBenedum Center would be ideal for the “Tough Guys” premiere, as it is the former Stanley Theater, where the first Tough Guy finals matches were held April 18, 1980.

“The people were cheering the whole way through because it was a such crazy movie,” Caliguri said. “They all stood up, cheered and clapped when it was over.”

William Whalen is a freelance writer.

Morgan Spurlock MMA Tough Guys
Morgan Spurlock & Company

Tough Guys Doc – AFI

Tough Guys movie mma

Tough Guys Doc

Shortly after the exclusive preview run of Godfathers of MMA, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Robert Zullo stumbled upon the Tough Guys exhibit featured at the Heinz History center. Zullo explains, “I couldn’t believe I’d never heard about this story. I was enamored with the time, place and machismo of the whole thing. I just had a gut instinct to meet these guys.”   Zullo reached out to his brother Will and childhood friend Craig DiBiase a producer [MinusL] and Director Henry Roosevelt from New York City. Two years later after 52TB of filming, the Tough Guys Doc was born. Initial praise attracted a star studded lineup of executive producers including Academy Award® Nominated Morgan Spurlock (Supersize Me) and Oscar winning writer Ross Kaufmann (Born in Brothels).   The world premiere of “Tough Guys” took place at the American Film Institute (AFI) Docs on June 15th 2017 at the famous Landmark Theatre in Washington, DC. It was screened the day after the mega Mayweather / McGregor announcement. The film sold out.   www.toughguysdoc.com

Washington Post

Variety

 

THE FILM

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.

THE FILM

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.

THE FACTS

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

Tough Guys

Tough Guys movie mma

Inspired by the book Godfathers of MMA:

The AFI DOCS Interview: TOUGH GUYS Directors Henry Roosevelt and W.B. Zullo

Tough Guys movie mma

Told through the colorful stories of scrappy brawlers and amateur promoters, TOUGH GUYS brings to life the birth of mixed martial arts competitions in 1980s Pittsburgh. The idea to legitimize street fighting by putting it in the ring brought big money, crowds, copycat competitions and ultimately scrutiny and tighter control.

AFI spoke with directors Henry Roosevelt and W.B. Zullo about the film, which makes its world premiere at AFI DOCS as part of the Spotlight Screenings section.

AFI: What led you to pursue documentary filmmaking? 

Focusing on a single story and telling it in a more fulsome, comprehensive and visual way.

AFI: What inspired you to tell this story?

The 1980s and growing up during the golden age of action films.  From Van Damme and Eastwood to Schwarzenegger and Stallone, the culture was saturated with cinema tough guys.  As we got older, we often wondered whether movies like BLOODSPORT, KARATE KID and OVER THE TOP were art imitating life or whether the tough guy tournaments we explore in our film took their cues from blue-collar brawlers created by Hollywood.

AFI: How did you find the subjects in your film?

On a visit to Pittsburgh, at the Heinz History Center’s Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum, we came across a small exhibit that made an intriguing claim: The roots of the modern sports colossus we know as mixed-martial arts were planted at a New Kensington Holiday Inn in 1980. 

The fliers for the fights, which pitted lumberjacks against bikers, steel workers and other rough-and-tumble trades, so perfectly encapsulated that action-star era that we found ourselves incredibly curious about the men who chose to step into the ring. Why did they do it? What were they trying to prove? What happened to the fledgling league they were trying to get off the ground? 

We were sure there was a great story in the hustle of the promoters and the backgrounds of the fighters, not to mention what happened in the ring.

AFI: What was a particular obstacle you faced while making the film?

Tracking these guys down and getting them to agree to be on camera. Bill Viola and Frank Caliguri have stayed in touch with some of the fighters in their circles over the years, but we wanted to tell as many aspects of the story as possible. That meant finding guys they hadn’t heard from in some cases since the early 1980s. That proved a chore, but the effort was well worth it in order to get interviews with, for example, Danny “Mad Dog” Moyak and his nemesis, Frank Tigano, who we convinced to fly in to Pittsburgh from Florida for an interview.

Also, when we first made contact with Bill and Frank, we assumed there was video of all the fights they promoted. Unfortunately, we discovered that much of the footage was destroyed in a flood, forcing us to recreate some of the fights that were central to our story arc.

AFI: What do you want audiences to walk away with after screening your film? 

We want to cast some light on a fascinating footnote from a unique time and place. Western Pennsylvania in the early 1980s was grappling with unemployment rates that were worse than during the Great Depression, as a result of the crippling decline in steel and related industries. People were desperate, and some of the fighters got in the ring for money, which in some cases was exploited by promoters. But others were trying to prove something to themselves and the world. We really think the story here is why these guys risked it, what they were trying to validate about themselves at a time when America was really changing for blue-collar workers. 

We also want people to enjoy this film and its real-life characters for their own sake, including their long-held grudges and still-unsettled scores.

AFI: Why is Washington, DC, a valuable location to screening your film?  

It’s a well-worn trope, especially after the election, but we also think it’s important because too often people in Washington forget about pockets of the country that have suffered from the economic challenges of the past 30 or 40 years.

AFI: Why are documentary films important today?

People love stories. But they really love true stories. Documentaries educate and they inspire, but if the subject matter is good and you don’t get in the way of the story too much, they can also entertain. 

 

ask-dad

Congratulations on Sensei Bill Viola Jr. making the Amazon best sellers list with his latest book, “Go Ask Your Dad.”  Bill was also recently selected as one of Pittsburgh Magazine’s Pittsburgh’s “40 under 40” people who influence the community.  Congrats!

“Being a SENSEI isn’t for everyone, but everyone needs a SENSEI.”

ask-dad

2017 Kumite Classic

2017 Kumite Classic

Mark Your Calendars! 2017 Kumite Classic May 26-27th Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  Pittsburgh’s largest martial arts and sport karate tournament.

2017 Kumite Classic

Photos by Joe Kleon.  Visit http://www.joekleon.com/ for more info.