Tough Guys: The Birth Of An American Sport by Bill Viola Jr & Dr Fred Adams

December 16, 2019

This history of the original MMA promotion is unfortunately a classic case of ignoring the policy of “show, don’t tell.”

It’s the tale of CV Promotions which, in 1979 and 1980, ran several combat events in Pennsylvania under the Tough Guys banner. They appear to have been the first formalized shows that combined multiple martial arts into a single sport. While the events are described as the forerunner to UFC, their setup — complete with weight divisions, extensive list of banned moves, and a 10-point must scoring system — is a lot closer to UFC as we know it today than the free-for-alls of the mid-1990s.

(From a pro wrestling perspective, this isn’t purely a book with crossover appeal: there are also a few direct references such as on athletic commission regulation or Bruno Sammartino being included among debates over the true toughest guy around.)

The gist of the book is covering the promotion’s struggle with athletic regulators before an eventual ban, and highlighting the lack of attention paid to it when people give an account of MMA’s history that starts with UFC. Unfortunately the balance of the content is very much for the benefit of the writer rather than the reader.

The actual descriptions of the planning of the promotion and the events themselves are engaging but too short. It then feels like almost the final third of the book is solely dedicated to reiterating the point about the media ignoring the company and painting UFC as the originators of mixed martial arts.

While it’s perfectly understandable that the writers — one of whom is the son of a Tough Guys promoter — want to right this historical wrong, but it soon becomes a tedious read. There’s also not enough use of the original source material to which the writers had access, in particular only a segment of the original rules being included and being almost illegible on the Kindle edition.

(Note: This is a re-release of a book originally titled Godfathers of MMA with the new title being to match a Showtime documentary on Tough Guys.)

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