The impact of the “Zuffa Myth”
By Bill Viola Jr.
Americans have always been smitten with folklore; be it Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed, or Davey Crockett, we just can’t help ourselves. The national pastime is no different, full of guilty pleasures that seem harmless, but still distort reality. You’d be hard pressed to find a baseball fan who hasn’t heard the tall tale of Abner Doubleday; you know that ole’ Civil War hero who “invented” baseball in a cow pasture. After all, the Hall of Fame was established in his hometown, Cooperstown, New York right? While the HOF does reside in upstate New York, even they don’t credit Doubleday as the father of baseball anymore. Still, if you mention the iconic name at any ballpark across the country you’ll likely get that same reaction from older fans, a byproduct of special interests that played a good game of wagging the dog a century ago.
In the early 1900s baseball’s origin was murky and controversy struck a chord with certain patriotic bigwigs as rumors surfaced that that our “national game” might have English roots. While cricket and rounders may have been popular across the pond, sporting goods mogul Albert Spalding felt it advantageous to make sure baseball was an “American” sport invented by an “American.” Spalding organized a “fishing expedition” to solidify baseball’s roots once and for all—well, sort of. Cue the dog and pony show; an exercise headed by The Mills Commission (essentially Spalding’s drinking buddies). These crack investigators erroneously proclaimed Doubleday the brainchild of baseball after the flimsy testimony of one man who claimed to witness Doubleday’s notes. The findings, lackluster to say the least, satisfied Spalding’s appetite, so he deemed no further investigation was necessary. For a good part of the 19th century the media bought the hype and sold it to a naïve public who still believe the story today. It wasn’t until 1953 when Congress declared Alexander Cartwright as the inventor of baseball some 60 years after his death that set the record straight, but to be honest casual fans didn’t blink… Doubleday was their man. Major League Baseball was committed to Cooperstown, and so were the masses. Though thoroughly debunked, the hoax lives on today in modern lore.
Whether you want to believe the Doubleday facade was fabricated to boost morale, or created with ulterior motives, it was an agenda. To this day good albeit gullible people believe that Doubleday invented baseball. MMA is no less a casualty of the times; the victim of propaganda. Of course Dana White didn’t invent MMA and doesn’t claim to, but how will the history books (blogs) remember his contributions 100 years from now? When Zuffa took the reins in 2001 they sold gullible sports journalists the idea of Dana “White Knight,” MMA’s great savior. Negative press haunted the UFC from its inception, so new ownership simply didn’t want painted by the same bad brush. Who could blame them really? Like Spalding, The Fritetta brothers had a vested interest to protect their investment, secure a legacy and promote a mainstream “sport.” Zuffa’s strategy was simple: Strike first, strike hard, show no mercy. Cookie cutter press kits quickly circulated across the country that subtly seemed to rewrite MMA’s timeline.
Strike First: They say it takes only one-tenth of a second for people judge someone and make a first impression. White’s “I built this thing” image was immediately imprinted on the minds of millions of impressionable MMA fans. Zuffa gave the illusion of Dana rolling up his sleeves to hash out “new” rules with Athletic Commissions in an effort to make the UFC more palatable. By definition, its “rules” that transform an unorganized activity into a sport, so if you take credit for those rules, ipso facto you are loosely saying you created the sport without coming out and saying it. It was a brilliant albeit misleading marketing campaign that became self-sustaining once enough reputable publications ran with the story.
Strike Hard: The new UFC unleashed an aggressive “out with the old in with the new” media blitz. Reporters printed, and reprinted and reprinted the same UFC hoopla over and over again without hesitation or regard for investigation. They’d have you believe MMA was the Wild Wild West until Dana strode into town with fistfuls of law and order denouncing spectacle and praising sport. Zuffa launched the famous “They ran from regulation while we ran towards it” publicity tour that buried any headway made by Bob Meyerwitz, SEG Entertainment, and the New Jersey Athletic Commission, who in fact had laid all the groundwork. Beat reporters more adept at chasing pucks and balls gobbled Zuffa’s history lesson and regurgitated the message for casual readers to digest. The “Zuffa Zombies” were fed Dana’s “White” lies and the general public swallowed them whole. Ladies and gentlemen, if it says so right here in the newspaper that Dana White created the rules for MMA, it has to be true, right? Dana was crowned the Czar of MMA. While his contemporaries Bud Selig and Roger Goodell regulate sport, Dana is the sport.
Show No Mercy: Just like that, Art Davies and Rorion Gracie’s UFC was now the proverbal English cricket and SEG Entertainment relegated to rounders, both distant cousins that didn’t resemble modern mixed martial arts—at all. More important, your local tribune or gazette told you so. Truth is Dana and company simply adopted an infrastructure that was already established by the previous administration (but that certainly didn’t make for good copy). To their defense, they probably didn’t see much harm with adding a little pizazz to the press releases, after all the odds were against MMA breaking through the ceiling, but it did.
While savvy MMA journalists like the folks at whaledog.com and ESPN’s Jake Rossen exposed the “Zuffa Myth” time and time again, their efforts in some way were too little too late. Dana’s “first” impression was and is forever embedded. If we’ve learned anything from baseball’s narrative, Abner Doubleday became the media darling, and so the “Zuffa Myth” is poised to be the version fans tell their grandchildren. As time marched on, seemingly innocent embellishments a decade ago intensified to create “Dana Doubleday,” the be-all and end-all of MMA. This version of Dana White is media endorsed exaggeration that has permanently blurred historic lines. White was able to parlay a longshot into a multi-billion dollar industry, launching MMA into the stratosphere. That of itself makes him a winner. He deserves a lot of credit, just not all the credit. As pre-Zuffa contributions continue to fade away into obscurity, so do the pioneers who fought in the trenches to establish a sport, much less the trailblazers who paved the way before the UFC. Innovators like Bill Viola and Frank Caliguri (the first to test drive the sport) aren’t even in the conversation, but do deserve a voice. Is MMA following the dark path of “Doublethink” mentality?
“The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them….To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies — all this is indispensably necessary.” –George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four
Conspiracy? Ignorance? Maybe a little of both? No matter what you believe, it’s not too late to give the sport due diligence. The UFC should embrace history as it won’t tarnish the future. The struggles CV [Caliguri and Viola] Productions faced (worthy of a movie) only validate the obstacles that UFC were able to overcome. Bill Viola and Frank Caliguri have come to terms with UFC’s success, they aren’t a threat. You won’t find them criticizing or challenging the UFC, if anything they respect Zuffa. No retaliation or embarrassing gimmicks are in the works a la Art Davie’s XARM. A hybrid of Kickboxing arm wrestling–really? No, MMA was CV’s ticket and they admit the UFC punched it well. Zuffa doesn’t owe them “anything” but they should be thankful for “everything.”
Everyone from Art Davie to Dana White and all in between can thank the Pennsylvania state legislature for banning MMA in 1983, because without them the UFC as we know it would have never existed. But Dana White isn’t losing any sleep over MMA’s forgotten forefathers; he was able to cash in on a diamond in the rough. He didn’t steal the gem; he just polished it and did a damned good job. Just don’t forget that treasure passed through many hands: CV Productions (1979) to WOW Promotions (1993) to SEG Entertainment (1995) to Zuffa (2001-present). If MMA wants to be considered the crown jewel, then the UFC should treat MMA’s history as a priceless commodity; handle it with the same reverence as boxing, baseball, football and all the other great American institutions have. Major League Baseball has made mistakes, gaffes, and errors along the way, but they amend their books. Will the UFC do the same? They certainly aren’t obligated to, MMA is a free market, but they are the 800 pound gorilla and the world is watching. The UFC can’t be expected to honor competitors or rivals, but CV Productions pre-dates them. That in and of its self gives them a pass, the opportunity to do the right thing and say yeah, those guys really were pioneers. While Royce Gracie will always be remembered as the Babe Ruth of MMA, a group of spirited men “existed” and played a role before those stars were born. They also deserve a permanent place in the annals of history.
It’s never been a question of White’s acumen; he and the Fertitta brothers are the reason MMA is cash cow. Like Thomas Edison’s claim to fame, they didn’t invent the light bulb; they just knew how to sell it—Capitalism at its finest. But 100 years from now, will fans remember the history of “MMA” or just Dana Doubleday’s UFC? It may be of little consequence now, but the Alexander Cartwrights of mixed martial arts should be given respect and recognition before it’s too late. Meet the true Godfathers of MMA.
Who’s Your Daddy?
Alexander Cartwright, James Naismith and Walter Camp all share a similar rite of passage, each has been honored as the “father” of their respective sports: Baseball, Basketball and Football. For all intents and purposes history credits them with invention, although each sport evolved incrementally from some inspiration or another. While there may be scholarly debate about who, what, when, where and how each sport actually was conceived, history proves that the masterminds behind the original “rules and regulations” determine the birth of a sport, and with it the recognition of its original author, aka “the father.”
The journey towards mainstream status for every sport has endured long and winding roads, but each trailblazer took that same very defining first step—RULES. It’s the creation of rules that distinguishes a game from simply goofing off and sport from spectacle. While rules have certainly changed over the past century, the essence of each major sport is steeped in tradition. Basketball, football, and baseball can trace their roots back to a pioneer who drafted a blueprint in an effort to standardize competition. Embodied by awards that bear their namesake, the legacy of Cartwright, Naismith, and Camp are intact, but who is the father of MMA? Who penned the holy grail of MMA rules?
The default response isn’t an individual at all but rather, “The UFC of course.” The nonchalant reaction bundles Rorion Gracie, Art Davie, Campbell McLaren, Bob Meyrowitz, Dana White and a host of others into a single entity so you don’t have to pinpoint exactly when the NHB became MMA. Some would argue that pioneers like Jeff Blatnik, Larry Hazzard, John McCarthy, and Howard Petchler, who all had a hand in influencing modern MMA rules, should be in the conversation. Each deserves a placard in the Hall of Fame, but unfortunately those rules were not the originals. CV Productions owns the rights whether folks know it or not.
When my father [Bill Viola Sr.] first put pen to paper in 1979 he had a vivid dream. As successful as mixed martial arts has become, to him, MMA is as brilliant today as it was supposed to be decades ago. It’s come a long way since the Holiday Inn in New Kensington, but one thing remains the same; my father, Frank and the original “Tough Guys” and Super Fighters will always and forever be the undisputed Godfathers of an American sport.
The UFC’s Maiden Voyage
“It takes a thousand men to invent a telegraph, or a steam engine, or a phonograph, or a photograph, or a telephone or any other important thing—and the last man gets the credit and we forget the others. He added his little mite— that is all he did. These object lessons should teach us that ninety-nine parts of all things that proceed from the intellect are plagiarisms, pure and simple; and the lesson ought to make us modest. But nothing can do that.” ―Mark Twain
Most mixed martial arts fans simply aren’t concerned with revisionist history, but we still have a duty to preserve the integrity of sport. Note “sport” is a very specific label not to be confused with methodology, training, or brutal contests that would include an analysis of Pankration, Vale Tudo, and any number of distant relatives that inspired modern MMA competition in the United States (long before we knew it as mixed martial arts). The “invention” of mixing martial arts dates back to the rise of humanity, but the “creation” of an American sport has direct lineage. The field of pioneers runs deep including everyone from Bruce Lee to “Judo” Gene LeBell setting the tone with exhibitions and challenges, but their contributions, although groundbreaking, do not constitute an “open” regulated sport. Like stick-and-ball games, baseball didn’t become a sport until the emergence of a diamond, 3 strikes and 4 bases and MMA is no different. While the UFC popularized the idea of MMA, the “sport” was created a decade earlier (MMA’s best kept secret). CV Productions provided the blueprint for a multi-billion dollar business in 1979; the first league of its kind with no pay-per-view or the internet to spread their message. The Super Fighters revolution was repressed, now passed off as mere urban legend, but it’s time to look past the fairy tale version you’ve been brainwashed to believe—UFC’s Maiden Voyage.
Art Davie thought he had entered uncharted waters in 1993 when he created the Ultimate Fighting Championship, but another ship set sail years before him. Davie planted his flag in Denver, Colorado thinking he had discovered new land, but in reality MMA’s story began in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania more than a decade earlier. It’s not up for debate; there is overwhelming evidence that a UFC-esque promotion thrived before Rorion Gracie and Art Davie collaborated. CV Productions was a premonition of the Zuffa era, built as sport from the ground up, while UFC 1 was devised as a spectacle, slowly transforming to sport over time. The former isolated in Pennsylvania, the latter seen in every major market in America. One forgotten, the other larger than life.
While Davie, a true innovator, certainly pitched the idea of cage fighting and popularized it on television, his vision “There are no rules” was a far cry from anything that resembled sport. His version would eventually morph into a billion dollar behemoth, but it too had a precursor. Yes, he co-created the UFC (the most famous 3 letters in combat sports) but he wasn’t the first to “package” MMA. It may be hard to fathom that sport existed before the UFC, but it did. Art Davie and Rorion Gracie were the first to introduce modern MMA to the “world” (via pay-per-view) but remain the runner up in “America.”
Most media outlets tell us, “Mixed martial arts competitions were introduced in the United States with the first Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) in 1993.” This just isn’t true; a major milestone yes, but a major misnomer. They, the press, got it wrong in ‘93 and have been wearing blinders ever since. A more accurate description might have been, no-holds-barred competitions were introduced in the United States with the first UFC but the modern sport of mixed martial began under the banner of CV Productions. Too late, once the ripple effect set in (print, reprint, reprint) the UFC became the first of its kind. Positive or negative press, the public is prone to believe what news they hear first. Ask any politician who’s been on the wrong end of a juicy scandal; truth becomes relative depending which way the press leans. It’s equally hard to buck that trend if you are an inventor or explorer playing catch up.
The perception of the UFC and CV Productions is very much in line with Christopher Columbus and Leif Eriksson. While the Vikings didn’t have a clever rhyme, Columbus did, sailing the ocean blue in 1492. The Ultimate Fighting Championship’s ploy of course was shock and awe, broadcast live and in bloody color. UFC, like Columbus, won the media’s attention and was accepted into an exclusive club with “lifetime” membership—pop culture. The New World may have been discovered 500 years before Columbus was born, but once America makes up her mind she is stubborn.
History does seem to iron itself out, but first impressions still carry a lot of weight. What’s right is right and President Lyndon Johnson declared October 9th to be Leif Eriksson Day, just a few days earlier than Columbus Day observed on the 12th. However, unless you’re Norwegian, Columbus still takes the first place for being second. CV Productions is yet to get its official proclamation, but their day is coming.
Today, CV Production’s “anything goes” creation has evolved into one of the fastest growing sports in the world, albeit under the auspices of the Ultimate Fighting Championships. Nearly thirty years before the UFC garnered real mainstream acceptance, CV set up shop as the first mixed martial arts company in American history. Although enshrined at Heinz History Center in association with the Smithsonian Institution, you’ve likely never heard of them—until now. MMA is the sport of the 21st century: WOW Promotions popularized it, SEG Entertainment refined it, Zuffa LLC monetized it, but CV Productions created it. This is your exclusive ticket to travel back in time and relive the epic journey of the Godfathers of MMA.