Book Review: Godfathers of MMA

Introduction

Prior to reading Godfathers of MMA by Dr. Fred Adams and Bill Viola Jr., I’d recite the history of mixed martial arts, as currently understood, with three letters: UFC. My storytelling of the UFC would align with the accounts emblazoned into our memories over the past twenty-seven years. Godfathers of MMA traveled readers back a decade and a half further, situating everyone in the shoes of Bill Viola Sr. and Frank Caliguri, the dynamic duo who formed CV Productions, as they invited every aspect of martial arts into one ring. Their goal in combing fighting styles: letting the cream of the combative crop rise to the top. The incredibly eerie parallels between CV Productions and the UFC submitted my curiosities to turn the pages with a more steely vigor. 

CV deserves to be included in MMA’s encyclopedia. A major part of MMA’s story had been so far removed for so long that it’s hard for people to accept that it ever really happened. (p. 336)

What’s It About?

The focus of this book is the development of commercial mainstream MMA as an organized and structured “sport” in the United States of America, not an individual mixed-fight, competition, tournament, challenge or underground contest that may pre-date CV Productions Inc. (p. 26)

Writing Style

A dissertation’s worth of research bound in a beautifully written bundle. The premise waving fans to UFC 1 in 1993 was rooted in the ideals of CV Productions in 1979. Like the Roman Empire, readers witness the rise and fall of a sport—that fans clamor for nowadays—and it was a concept that people flocked to back then, too.

Godfathers of MMA is really a memoir chronicling the dramatic rollercoaster ride that was CV (Caliguri and Viola) Productions. This account, now legendary, is dedicated to preserving the historical lineage of modern MMA as a sport from its humble beginnings in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, through its tumultuous rise across the United States. (p. 8)

Long before prizefighters were locked in cages, the authors transform a dense history of Western Pennsylvania into a digestible package, catered directly to my MMA fancy.

Many factors contributed to the start of mixed martial arts in Western Pennsylvania. The mills, the mines, and the coke works attracted immigrant labor from any number of countries, the classic melting pot which became a crucible for the sinewy toughness among these men. That melting pot threw together people of all cultures, and with them all facets of life unique to those cultures, including combat. (p. 27)

Godfathers of MMA dragged me into a world that I never even knew existed. Unlike the paranormals of science fiction, featuring twists on reality, the combined fighting displayed in each chapter sprouted a deeper understanding of mixed martial arts’ roots.

Sitting Cage Side Before Cages

Of all the things CV Productions crafted comparable to the UFC, so much of the promotion birthed out of Western Pennsylvania possessed an infrastructure mirroring that of modern-day MMA. From the conjuring of interest, creation of rules, focus on fighter safety, equipment, judging, and on and on, until you are reminded of the time period, the connections between CV Productions and the UFC jostle you to the point you question whether you’re suffering from a traumatic brain injury.

The Build-Up

Effective, though comical in our current climate to imagine, Culigari and Viola Sr. spread the word for an upcoming fight card as a child seeks assistance for their lost dog: posters stapled to telephone poles. Just before CV Productions launched the MMA of yesteryear, they shared conversations they’d have with locals when hanging posters to promote their kickboxing events:

Every time we hung up a kickboxing poster, some smart ass would remark, ‘I know so-and-so who could kick the shit out of that karate guy.’ But no one ever challenged us personally. (p. 77)

The sense of interest in who would emerge from a heap of weaponized humans was woven throughout the book. There were questions, and people wanted answers. Interestingly enough, the UFC, at least initially, didn’t allow women to showcase their skills on their stage; however, CV Productions never flinched at the possibility:

“We advertised that we’d accept women’s applications, but only two women applied,” says Caliguri, “not nearly enough, so we scrapped the idea for the time being, but we saw potential from the start.” (p. 85)

The Competition

When the bell finally signaled action, I stood out of my reading chair while consuming lines of hard fought fortitude. The authors’ revisitation of the play-by-play commentary documented the atmosphere surrounding each event, and detail laden post-fight analyses mimicked many of MMA’s present-day talking heads. Following the kind of back-and-forth battle that’d be categorized as Fight of the Night, Frank Tigano reveled in the moment like someone just draped in a twelve-pound gold belt:

His response, “I didn’t do it for the money, I did it for the trophy.” It was a real Rocky moment, one arm around his trophy, the other his family. (p. 174)

The efforts of CV Productions was an absolute thrill ride. As you’ll discover when you read Godfathers of MMA for yourself, the door was slammed shut before their new sport could even grow legs. A sigh of finality met me when CV Productions was rightfully honored:

On June 23, 2011, an exhibit showcasing CV Productions and the origin of the sport of mixed martial arts in America officially opened, Making History, the newsletter for the Senator John Heinz History Center (home of the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum), said, “Professional baseball, football, and hockey can all trace their history to Western Pennsylvania. But most local sports fans will be surprised to learn that our region is also the birthplace of mixed martial arts (MMA). (p. 347-348)

Rating

Currently, my urges for ultimate competition with minimal rules are only soothed in magnificent multitudes of violent athleticism: MMA. For some of the greatest matchups on Earth broadcasted on pay-per-view, fans may be charged upwards of $65; according to amazon.com, you can upload a copy of Godfathers of MMA to your Kindle for $11.99. Since the authors shined a spotlight on a fight history that would have otherwise remained dark, rolled out the red carpet for me to sit ringside at every one of CV Productions’ events, forging a bond with a new band of fighters from the past—such as Frank Tigano, Chuck Turskey, Kono Morosky, Rich Cahill, and many others—I couldn’t possibly give Godfathers of MMA anything less that five out of five stars.

Conclusion

In my hours of recreation spent examining the fight game, my vision of The Fight Capital of the World, Las Vegas, Nevada, blurred with The Origin of Combined Fighting, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Left to my own devices, I never would have known that I needed my eyes checked.

Viola says, “Of course it was disappointing—everyone believed that UFC 1 was a beginning of a completely new sport. It was one hell of a milestone, just not ‘The Beginning.’ It launched MMA on an international scale—something we just couldn’t do. We got lost in the shuffle, only select people knew the real story. (p. 283)

Seeing where MMA resides today, I can’t stop myself from wondering where it would be with another fifteen years under its belt. 

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