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.
It happened like this…
39 days of filming
12 meals at Denny’s
1000 frames per second
52 terabytes of footage
About two years ago, I got a photo in a text from my brother, Robert Zullo, then a reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. It was a flyer featuring a hand-drawn, muscle-bound man advertising a “Battle of the Tough Guys” event near Pittsburgh in 1980.
“So these Pittsburgh steelworkers and biker dudes fought an anything goes tough guy contest in a Holiday Inn and claim to have invented Mixed Martial Arts,” he said in a phone call.
His gut instinct for a good story was something I never doubted when contemplating potential projects. This story had it all: a unique place and time, machismo, wild characters and, ultimately, tragedy.
As we began our research into the two karate promoters, Bill Viola and Frank Caliguri, and their pioneering fights, the possibilities coalesced into what seemed an obvious project: a documentary. Find these fighters, let them tell the story in their own words.
While on a set in New York City later, I took one of the fight posters to Producer Craig DiBiase. One look and DiBiase, who grew up outside of Pittsburgh, was immediately intrigued, staying up half the night starting the research process.
Realizing the visual potential of the story, I recruited New York-based director, Henry Roosevelt, to collaborate on director duties.
Much like the subjects of “Tough Guys,” we formed a team to do something revolutionary. To produce a documentary that was as fresh, entertaining and as pioneering as the mixed-martial arts events and fighters that we captured.
Shooting on a combination of RED Dragon, super-high frame rate Phantom photography, aerial drones, and Kodak Super 8 film, we sought to present cinematic visual storytelling elements to blend with the wealth of primary sources, including archival fight footage, local TV and print news, still images, among many others, that we uncovered.
It’s a story about a place and time where men were out of work and willing to risk injury, pain, and even death to put food on the table and prove their own self-worth. It’s a story about martial arts, about politics, about how much individual risk the law should allow and why men fight. It’s a story about Pittsburgh and a blue-collar way of life that has all but vanished in the Rust Belt.
But most importantly, it’s a story you’ve never heard.