Since ancient times, men have been debating and fighting over who is the toughest guy around. In 1979, that age-old question was posed by two Pittsburgh-area men, Frank Caliguri and Bill Viola. Both men were accomplished martial artists and began pondering: Who would win in a match between Muhammad Ali, Bruce Lee, or Bruno Sammartino?
That hypothetical question was the spark that launched CV Productions, Inc., (“C” for Caliguri and “V” for Viola) the first mixed martial arts company in the United States. CV Productions conceived the first mixed martial arts competitions and provided the blueprint for later MMA competitions like today’s wildly popular Ultimate Fighting Championships.
In 1980, CV Productions introduced MMA, a new sport and started a regulated league that pitted contenders from various combative disciplines such as boxers, kick boxers, martial artists, wrestlers, grapplers, and just your average street fighters against each other.
CV Productions first bout took place on March 20, 1980, in New Kensington, Pennsylvania, and was billed as the “Battle of the Tough Guys.” It was the first commercial MMA event of its kind ever held. The first match of the multi-day event pitted car salesman Mike Murray against laborer Dave Jones in the lightweight division. Jones defeated Murray by technical knockout in the third round.
That year the newly organized league under CV Productions staged and promoted 10 competitions across Pennsylvania. Some were billed as the “Battle of the Brawlers” or ‘Tough Guy Contests,” until they finally settled on the name “Super Fighters.” The events were held at the Stanley Theater in Pittsburgh, the Johnstown War Memorial, and the Philadelphia Civic Center.
The matches were billed as “Anything Goes” and permitted striking, throwing, grappling, punching, kicking, ground fighting, and submissions. Fighters could win by knockout, submission, or a judge’s decision. Viola wrote the first set of rules for MMA matches, including specifying weight classes, requiring open-fingered gloves, and stipulating the necessity of having doctors ringside. Many of his rules are still in effect in today’s MMA rulebook. In 1981, CV Productions promoted a prize fight in Las Vegas with a $100,000 purse, an impressive amount for that time.
CV Productions and the sport of MMA continued to grow in popularity until an unfortunate accident happened. On November 6, 1980, Ronald Miller, 23, from Johnstown, died after entering a Toughman boxing competition. This event was not promoted by CV Productions; nevertheless, the Pennsylvania Legislature seized upon this tragedy to investigate all fighting events in the state and subsequently outlawed mixed martial events in Pennsylvania. Caliguri and Viola were forced to mothball CV Productions.
Although MMA events were banned in Pennsylvania, the sport’s popularity continued to grow, and in 1993, Ultimate Fighting Championships took up the helm of promoting the sport that 13 years earlier, CV Productions had developed. It was not until 2009 that MMA was reinstated in Pennsylvania.
In 2010, Pittsburgh founded the MMA Hall of Fame and inducted the fighters from CV Productions inaugural match. On June 23, 2011, the Heinz History Center of Pittsburgh unveiled an exhibit documenting the first MMA league in the United States and acknowledging Frank Caliguri and Bill Viola as the innovators of one of the nation’s and world’s fastest rising sports.
Upon the opening of the Heinz exhibit. Viola said in an interview, “That was our project, our child… We were the Barnum & Bailey promoters of this event. We went completely outside of the envelope when no one believed it could happen.”
Today, UFC events on Fox Sports garner around 2.5 million viewers and Pay Per View events are drawing around 1 million paying customers. The sport is creating superstars who are becoming household names like Chuck Liddell, Ronda Rousey, and Conor McGregor.
While Frank Caliguri and Bill Viola were never able to determine who would triumph in a match between Muhammad Ali, Bruce Lee, or Bruno Sammartino, they have paved the way for tough guys and girls from around the world to test their mettle in competition through mixed martial arts.