By Matthew Hacke | Photographs by Michael Fornataro
Pittsburgh is a sports enthusiast’s paradise. A city of die hard Steelers, Penguins, and Pirates fans, you can always expect the stadium, arena, ballpark — and yes, the bars! — to be packed on game day. With a city rich in sports history, many may not know that Western Pa. is the birthplace of another big sport: mixed martial arts (MMA).
Bill Viola Sr. and Frank Caliguri, two area tournament promoters and trainers of karate and kickboxing, came up with the idea of MMA fighting during a monthly meeting in the late ‘70s. The two men were tired of hearing bar banter between guys trying to rile each other up and establish their “toughness” due to their style of fighting, be it wrestling, karate, or boxing. So they came up with MMA, a full-contact combat sport that utilizes and combines different fighting styles, directly related to the styles formed in ancient China thousands of years ago. While the sport wasn’t officially called MMA until later on — in its early years it was recognized as the “Battle of the Tough Guys” or “Tough Guys Contest” — the timing of the sport’s conception was ideal, as the popularity and allure of fighting was highlighted at the time by icons such as Bruce Lee and Muhammad Ali, as well as fictional figures like Rocky Balboa.
The date was soon set for the first MMA competition, the “Tough Guy Contest,” on March 20, 1980, at the Holiday Inn in New Kensington. The first two fighters to the ring were Mike Murray of New Kensington and Dave Jones of Jeannette, trainees of both Caliguri and Viola Sr., respectively.
“At the time of that first fight, I was 29 years old, 5’11,” and 152 pounds,” recalls Murray, who was evenly matched with 25-year-old Jones, coming in at 5’9” and 155 pounds. “We didn’t know each other prior to the fight, but because we were students of Bill and Frank, and they were the promoters of the competition, we were the first to the ring,” adds Jones.
Men from all over the region came to battle it out and see who truly was the “toughest” guy in this first-of-its-kind, three-day, single-elimination event. “The only rules at the time were no scratching, biting, shots to the eyes, and kicks to the groin,” Murray says. “That was it.”
Both Murray and Jones had the will power and temperament to fight from a young age, and have similar tales of being bullied early on in school. “I was always bullied because I didn’t have nice clothes and was small, skinny, and underfed,” says Murray. “My family moved around a lot, so I was the new, little skinny kid a lot of times. Therefore, I was an easy target and always picked on as well,” says Jones. The two men persevered through their life challenges and channeled their fighting spirit into a sport, which eventually led them to the gyms of Caliguri and Viola Sr.
Ready and prepared to duke it out at the first MMA fight in history, Murray and Jones stepped into the ring. The ballroom of the Holiday Inn in New Kensington was filled to capacity. Thousands of people were taunting, screaming, and cheering. The adrenaline of the two opponents was at an all-time high — and both men were about to put on a show.
Ding went the bell as the first round began. “When we first came into the ring, we just ran at each other and started throwing punches and kicking,” says Jones. “Dave soon got me in an arm bar, and I couldn’t get out of it,” continues Murray. “You get a 10-second count to get back up. I knew I wasn’t going anywhere and I couldn’t get up, so I just took the 10-second count and lost the first round.”
After the first two-minute round was up, both men went back to their posts to prepare for the next round. “When I got back, my cornerman smacked me right in the mouth and said, ‘Don’t you ever put your head down again — Dave’s a kickboxer,’” recalls Murray. “Then he opened some smelling salts, which got into my eyes and stung.” Murray didn’t have time to regain his vision before the next bell signaled for the second round to begin. “We immediately started the next round, and I threw a punch. It was planned and connected, but I could hardly see Dave when I threw it,” Murray says jokingly. Jones went down in the corner, and Murray took it as his chance to keep him down. “I continued to go after Dave at that point because I knew I was going to tire,” continues Murray. Even though Jones was knocked down, he was prepared for one last blow. “I was down and I saw Mike coming at me wide open, so I just threw a front snap kick and caught him in the chest as he was coming towards me,” Jones says. As soon as he threw that kick, both Jones and Murray knew the fight was over, even though Mike tried to persevere to make it to the third round. “I could see the fight go right out of Mike after that kick,” says Jones. “Dave’s kick left a lasting burning sensation, and it took my breath away. It felt like someone stabbed me and I couldn’t find my lungs,” says Murray.
Murray, badly hurt, went on to try and fight in the third and final round. “I went into the third round and I was down a total of four times, but kept getting back up,” says Murray. “It was my cornerman who eventually stopped the fight, though, because he knew I was in pain as I kept falling.”
Jones went on to fight in more rounds in the “Tough Guy Contest,” and even though he eventually lost, he kept fighting in tournaments until his late twenties — he is 62 years old today. Meanwhile, Murray continued fighting in tournaments up until the age of 53 — he is now 66. In fact, Murray fought in the 35 and older men’s advanced division between the ages of 46 and 53, during which time he won five Pennsylvania state titles in karate. He was also ranked nationally four times in the division, one of which he was ranked national champion runner-up in 2001. Both men, who are friends to this day, are still heavily involved in the sport, and were even inducted into the MMA Hall of Fame in 2010.
In 2011, Murray caught a commercial on TV for the Heinz History Center, which immediately sparked an idea: showcasing MMA and its integral roots in Western Pa. sports history. “Mike contacted me at the museum and told me the story,” says Anne Madarasz, curatorial division director, chief historian, and director of the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum at the Heinz History Center. Murray continues, “I told Anne and arranged for her, Frank, Bill, and I to meet. We all brought in bags and boxes of memorabilia and articles. It was a long process of getting things approved and documented, but eventually, we got the green light for the display, which features personal items from mine, Dave, Bill, and Frank’s archives.”
The display was soon followed by a bestselling book “Godfathers of MMA: The Birth of An American Sport,” by Bill Viola Jr. and Dr. Fred Adams, which focused on the sport and its founders, Caliguri and Viola Sr. The display and book were also the impetus for the Showtime documentary released this past September, “Tough Guys,” a revelation by former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Robert Zullo.
“This documentary is the result of my chance visit to the Heinz History Center in 2012, which was the first time I saw the exhibit on CV Productions, Mike Murray, and Dave Jones,” says Zullo. “The fact that the city laid claim to the beginnings of mixed martial arts seemed like an astonishing claim. So, I sent some photos to my brother, Will, who works in film and TV in New York, and we kicked around the idea for a few years, initially thinking it would make a good story to adapt for a screenplay,” continues Zullo. “I did some preliminary research, discovered that Bill and Frank were still around, that Bill’s son, Bill Jr., had written a book on their series of fights and the controversy they triggered, and that many of the fighters were still around.”
Zullo, now a journalist in Richmond, Va., realized that the best way to tell this story was by making a documentary. “Will found a co-director, Henry Roosevelt, and most importantly, a producer, Craig DiBiase, who happens to be from the South Hills of Pittsburgh,” Zullo says. Work on the documentary started in late summer 2015 and the final product came to fruition with its release this past fall. “It’s amazing to see something go from an idea in your head to a finished product airing on Showtime in less than two years, and I think it’s a testament to the strength of the story and the immense popularity of mixed-martial arts as well as the degree to which it has saturated our culture,”
For the first two fighters in MMA history, the growing reception and interest in the sport has been surreal. “I never imagined the sport would become what it is today,” says Jones. “And now with the book and movie, they’re both just such great stories about Pittsburgh.” Murray adds, “The sport and its founding here is a testament to the city. We’ve been through so much in this town. We have thick skin, and we’re tough.”
For more information on the Showtime documentary, “Tough Guys,” visit sho.com.
For more information on the book, “Godfathers of of MMA: The Birth of an American Sport,” by Bill Viola Jr. and Dr. Fred Adams, visit godfathersofmma.com.
For more information on the display, visit heinzhistorycenter.org.