About the author: Bill Viola Jr. is Amazon best-selling author and creator of the award-winning Sensei Says® life skills curriculum. He experienced the "Golden Era" of MMA firsthand as his father, Bill Sr., is credited as the co-creator of the sport of mixed martial arts in 1979. His book Godfathers of MMA inspired the critically acclaimed SHOWTIME film Tough Guys where he acted as a producer alongside an Academy Award accredited team. The Viola family owns and operates Allegheny Shotokan Karate in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania now celebrating their 50-year anniversary (1969-2019). He is currently the President of Kumite Classic Entertainment Corp.
Olympic Aspirations Hit Home in North Huntingdon 🥇🥋
Karate made its Olympic debut last week in Tokyo, Japan the birthplace of the sport, but for one local dojo it’s been a long time coming. Students filled the parking lot of Allegheny Shotokan “Viola Karate” in North Huntingdon to watch the games live on a 20 ft. screen like a drive-in movie theater. While Judo and Tae Kwon Do have been part of the Olympic program for years, this the first time in history for karate. The event was special for Bill Viola Jr. and his father Bill Viola Sr. who have been dreaming of an Olympic berth since the 1980s. Viola Sr. helped spearhead the grassroots Olympic movement in Pennsylvania decades before. Viola Jr. said, “It’s taken over 40 years for Karate to make its way to the Games, and we’ve been cheering every step of the way.”
The Viola’s have been instrumental in the sports development and were part of a big push to get karate included in the Pan-American Games in 1999. Doug Selchan, a member of Team USA, began his training with Sensei Viola and was able to win a Gold Medal at karate’s PAN-AM debut in Winnipeg, Canada. Sensei George E. Anderson was responsible for getting the Olympic Karate movement started in the United States, and he enlisted Sensei Viola to oversee Pennsylvania and help coordinate national events for USA Karate. The USA Karate Federation (USAKF) was the National Governing Body for Karate from 1985-1995 in the United States and member of the US Olympic Committee. In 1986 Viola was appointed Regional Administrator for the USA Karate Federation and promoted the Allegheny Mountain Championships, a qualifier for the USA National Championships. In 1992 Viola hosted the USA Karate Junior Olympics at the University of Pittsburgh Field House. Viola’s tournament experience lead him to be named to the USA Karate Organizing Committee, responsible for coordination of the USA Karate National Championships. Today that group has transformed into the USA-National Karate Federation (USANKF) under the banner of the World Karate Federation (WKF) which oversees Olympic karate. On March 9, 2019 Viola Sr. was inducted into the USA Karate Hall of Fame as a “Pioneer of USA Karate” specifically for his contributions to the Olympic karate movement.
Viola Jr. was a multiple time USA Karate National Champion and Team USA Member. He has since passed the torch to his students, namely his daughter Gabby. At just 10-years-old, she is highly accomplished already winning Gold at the WKC National Championships and earning a spot on WKC Team USA. She has been recognized as a 5x State Champion and currently ranked #2 in North America by North American Karate Association (NASKA). This month Black Belt Magazine published her as “Top 5 Female” competitors in the country. At the 2021 US Open in Florida she was awarded Competitor of the Year” by Point Fighter Live. The honor, dubbed as a “Power Award” was voted on by coaches, competitors, and promoters from across North America. After a nationwide poll, Viola not only won her category (edging out a talented competitor from El Paso, Texas) but was the highest vote getter of the show. However, her biggest inspiration is training with the best athletes in the world, including the first Olympic champion in karate history. Six-time defending European Champion Sandra Sánchez of Spain became the first-ever Gold Medalist in the sport on August 5th 2021. Gabby has had the rare opportunity train with Sandra, and that experience has left a lasting impact. She even named her special edition Olympic Barbie “Sandra,” touting it as she claimed Olympic glory.
As for the United States, they won their first-ever and “only” karate medal of the games when Ariel Torres secured bronze for Team USA in kata. Torres, from Hialeah Florida, works with 20-year-old Viola Karate student Cameron Klos. Torres is like a big brother to Cameron, mentoring him in the ways of International Competition. Klos a student at Saint Vincent University, is a 2020 North American Sport Karate (NASKA) World Champion, WKC Team USA Member, and Kumite Classic Champion. He travels to train with Ariel and studies remotely via Zoom weekly with him for private lessons. Ariel is preparing Cameron for a bid to make the USA Karate National Team. The same team Ariel represents and competed for in the Olympics.
Sensei Bill Viola Sr. says, “I’ve trained thousands of students, many who have had Olympic aspirations and skill. It was satisfying to see the Olympics on television, knowing my students have personal connections to these champions. I know all the hard work has finally paid off.” Viola Karate has been serving Western Pennsylvania since 1969 and is a member of the USA-NKF under the auspices of the United States Olympic Committee. Their sister program is the award-winning Norwin Ninjas.
Father and son will be honored together for their contributions to karate in a virtual awards ceremony Saturday.
Bill Viola Sr. and Bill Viola Jr. are inductees into the 2020 American Martial Arts Alliance’s Who’s Who Legends Hall of Honors with martial arts legend Chuck Norris.
They also are featured in the 2020 edition of the Chuck Norris Who’s Who in the Martial Arts Masters & Pioneers biography book that celebrates the history and tradition of many of the arts’ top names.
“It’s a huge accomplishment for an individual, but having us both recognized as pioneers is something special,” Viola Sr. said. “Karate is our way of life.”
Viola Sr., one of the most recognizable names in the karate industry, was honored by Allegheny County on Sept. 23 with “Sensei Viola Day” to mark the 50-year anniversary of him founding Allegheny Shotokan Karate in North Huntingdon.
Recognized as a founding father of modern mixed martial arts, the USA Karate Hall of Fame member’s life is the subject of the books “Godfathers of MMA” and “Tough Guys,” which inspired the Showtime “Tough Guys” film in 2017.
The Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum at the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh opened an exhibit in 2011 on the roots of mixed martial arts that included memorabilia from Viola Sr., fellow area promoter Frank Caliguri, a Lower Burrell resident, and others in the sport.
Caliguri was recognized by the AMAA Foundation in June as a Hall of Honor award recipient and also is included in the Who’s Who book.
Sensei Bill Viola Jr. wears many hats in the martial arts world: author, instructor, international competition champion and fitness promoter.
A producer on the “Tough Guys” film, Viola Jr. is set to release a book series, “Common Sensei,” in 2021 that shares his perspective on how one can do various things to have a rich and meaningful life experience.
A USA Karate national champion, he was recognized by Arnold Schwarzenegger as a world champion in 1998.
“This is the first time we’ve been honored and featured together in the same book as father-son pioneers,” said Viola Jr., the founder of the Norwin Ninjas martial arts program and the annual Kumite Classic and Pittsburgh Fitness Expo, the region’s largest multisport event.
“We both have our individual accomplishments. I have always been inspired to follow in my dad’s footsteps and do some of the great things he has done. This just came to pass where we were able to be honored collectively, and that’s what makes this so special.”
The coronavirus pandemic changed the Who’s Who ceremony and conference to an online virtual presentation. It will be the official public release of the book.
The conference will feature online seminars and martial arts demonstrations in addition to honoring Norris and the Violas.
“The pandemic has changed the structure of everything in life,” Viola Jr. said.
“So instead of being able to travel down to Texas for the physical presentation, we’re going to do a virtual book launch and roundtable-type discussions with pioneers and other people in the industry. That’s the best solution we can come up with given the current state of affairs.”
The event also will be an opportunity to raise money for The Kickstart Kids, Norris’ in-school character development program that uses karate to teach life lessons and values to students in middle school and high school.
Norris started the program in 1990 with the help of then-President George H.W. Bush.
“It is such a great nonprofit that is helping a lot of kids throughout the country,” Viola Jr. said.
The virtual conference is an all-day event, and the Hall of Honors ceremony will be at 6 p.m. All of the day’s festivities can be viewed at whoswhointhemartialarts.com.
“It still will be a great chance to get the book out to the public and have fans and martial artists alike be able to tune in and be a part of the celebration,” Viola Jr. said.
Michael Love is a Tribune-Review staff writer.
For more information on the Chuck Norris Hall of Honors visit Kumite Classic
Disclaimer: I struggled, going back and forth, about publishing this piece because its taboo to question authority in the martial arts industry. While I am not targeting anyone in particular, I’m confident most readers will immediately relate with the trend. In the words of Honest Abe, “Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.” — so be careful the shade you throw.
You put your right punch in, you put your left kick out, you put your right block in, and shake it all about…
Ah, the classic participation dance where being a Sensei just isn’t enough. This is a lighthearted look at the thousands of Great Glorious Grand Masters, Supreme Grand Masters, Eternal Masters, Ultimate Masters, Sultans, Luminaries, Grand Poohbahs, and Sōke who seem to rival the omnipotent. The self-proclaimed Mega Master can be found in every state, city, and neighborhood across America, just let your fingers do the walking (or nowadays google ‘em). The results will make you go hmmm: “Master “XYZ” from Podunk, Iowa is the undisputed undefeated world champion” (even though they’ve never fought outside their zip code). A similar story repeats in the next county, and the next and the next — it’s mind boggling. To mythbusters, the martial arts industry has become a circus chock-full of showman touting clown credentials like PhDs of martial science, and while Doctor is reserved for academia, the truth is there is no regulation of martial arts, so we rely on the honor system. *Google provided 7,230,000 results for “PhD martial arts,” offering a plethora of scams and diploma mills to choose from:
I’ve been studying Shotokankarate-do my entire life (40 years this past April) under the watchful eye of my father, who’s dedicated a lifetime of service long before me, so I feel confident sharing my observations. I’m forever a student of the “martial way” and by no means an expert in Japanese nomenclature, but I studied 3 years of Japanese language in high school and 2 additional years in college, so I’m well-versed. Sadly, I’ve seen far too many egos inflated simply by perusing a Japanese/English dictionary and thesaurus. The psychological warfare of “one upping” the instructor next door is a game I call the Sōke Pokey. First, instructors spin the wheel of fortune in search of an exotic sounding prefix. Popular honorifics include Kyoshi and Hanshi, but sometimes those are just too plain Jane. How about Kancho, Kaicho, Shidoshi, Shoshum or Meijin? Those sound a little more obscure and mystical. You get the idea. Next, said bogus promotion is christened under the banner of a cyber roundtable who legitimize the rank (for 3 installments of $199.99). I know that may seem a bit snarky, but it’s just too easy with all the nonsense online. You can almost hear the “as seen on TV” voice say, “But wait there’s more! You get an embroidered dragon patch and certificate with assorted random hanko at no extra charge.” It’s obnoxiously oversized, so it’s perfect for a profile pic. For a little extra coin, they will throw in a hall of fame honor where Bruce Lee is a member. Authenticity guaranteed—notarized on parchment paper from an ancient Buddhist temple. These head honcho with 13th degree barber shop belts in muckety muck are the essence of capitalism and the contradiction of budo. It’s ok to chuckle, we all know the type. FYI: hancho (班長) is Japanese term now part of American Jargon meaning, “squad leader.”
Not all egomaniacs are selling snake oil, some are actually very good at fighting, but once injected, narcissistic bujutsu can be deadly. Think Cobra Kai, “fear does not exist in this dojo.”The antivenom is budo, but some posers hide under its guise. Beware of the charlatan preaching humility; there is a profound philosophical difference between a martial artist and a martial wayist. It may be cliché, but actions do speak louder than words, unless you’re an unsuspecting white belt who doesn’t know any better. Newbies often get swept up in the cult. I’m not saying you can’t be proud of your dojo’s accomplishments, you should be, just don’t fabricate them. My father taught me that, “Character is a commodity you can’t buy, you can only build it—authentic budo is priceless.”
There are far too many self-promoted gurus who exaggerate to the nth degree. What may have started as a “white” belt sized stretch can quickly escalate to “black” belt levels of hyperreality. Most often the offenders share the same M.O.: out of shape, brash and boastful. You might overhear tales of a shaolin monk that blessed them with holy water or how their system is far too lethal for competition. Their ensemble includes a tattered Crayola inspired obi that Liberace would be proud of, and a uniform bedazzled with patches and chevrons signifying eminence, but nobody has actually seen them do anything—ever. Are these kuchi bushi (mouth warriors) lost in delusions of grandeur? Each case is different, but many have lineage that is hazy at best. There are always exceptions to the rule, but if it walks and talks like a duck, well…
Some are harmless, while others harmful. I do believe there are innocent casualties of this vicious cycle, byproducts of second or third generations of blasphemy. Alas, Funakoshi Sensei must be rolling over in his grave. The father of modern karate never really bothered with rank himself; instead progression was dignified through a journey of self-perfection. I’m not saying modern kyu/dan ranking is wrong (we use it), I am emphasizing it shouldn’t be the bane or your existence. Hierarchy is necessary for the success of commercial karate schools and is beneficial when kept in perspective. There are certainly qualified Grand Masters and 10th degree black belts who deserve this rank, but they are far and few between. Not every McDojo headmaster is qualified.
All Japanese arts, be it ikebana (flower arrangements) or tea ceremonies, are highly structured and regimented so it’s no surprise karate followed this pattern. However, belts, uniforms, and degrees are a modern phenomenon that didn’t exist in feudal Japan. Its history really began with the Dai Nippon Butoku Kai 大日本武徳会 (Greater Japan Martial Virtue Society) established in 1895 in Kyoto (under the authority of the Japanese Government).
Its purpose was noble; solidify and standardize all disciplines, and it worked for a time. At the turn of the 20th century the Butoku-kai tested the water by issuing titles of Hanshi and Kyoshi to several kendo experts. (Prior, menkyo or secret scrolls were common). These licenses are not, I repeat, not spoken titles (only used in written format). In layman terms, my brother in-law Tim is a Master Plumber, but I don’t greet him as, “Master Tim,” although he might get a kick out of that. The only place I see it is on his resume. In Japan, using “Master” in the first person is a breach of etiquette. Yes, you have earned that rank, but it’s impolite and ignorant to broadcast it. Sensei is the polite accepted title when speaking of lawyers, teachers, doctors or martial arts masters. Sadly, for insecure karate-ka, that isn’t very sexy. Speaking of etiquette, don’t forget the physical act of rei (bowing) is literally pushing down ego (the core value of budo).
The initial disciplines of the Butoku-ka were Jujutsu, Judo and Kendo. Kano Jigoro (the founder of Judo) had already adapted the kyu/dan system (1883) however it was not a new invention as some like to romanticize, it was modified from the ancient Japanese board game Go. Later a black sash would accompany the dan rank followed by the judogi and iconic kuro-obi (black belt) circa 1907. Why did Kano choose white/black? Other Japanese athletic departments such as swimming used a black ribbon to designate advanced competitors. There is no conclusive evidence, but I also believe the influence of Taoism (yin and yang) is a plausible reason for black belt and white dogi contrast. The urban legend of a white obi soiled through blood and sweat as means to reach black color is nonsense. Japanese culture has a propensity for cleanliness.
When Itosu Anko, passed away, Funakoshi picked up his mentors torch and followed Kano’s lead. On April 12, 1924, he awarded the first karate dan rankings to seven of his students, acquiescent to Butoku-kai standards. At the time, Funakoshi himself held no rank, although he eventually accepted the title of Kyoshi in 1943 and he never promoted anyone above 5th dan (including himself). Direct disciples such as Oshima Tsutomu (awarded 5thdan by Funakoshi in 1957) set Godan as the ceiling, never to be surpassed. Others such as Nakayama Masatoshi rose to 9thdan (10th posthumously). Both karate-ka were pioneers with different ideology in terms of relative ranking, so splinters among the core were inevitable (many of Funakoshi’s students established their own organizations, styles, and associations). *Colored belts would not become in vogue until Kawaishi Mikonosuke (Judo) popularized the concept throughout Europe in 1930s as a visual reward system to correspond with Kyu ranks.
Funakoshi and Kano were educators and understood the political clout and power the butokai wielded. If they wanted their respective arts to flourish, they had to play nice in the sandbox and follow government “suggestions.” By the 1930’s karate gained recognition after meeting certain criteria, conformities that had been in motion for years due to Japanese nationalism: Karate had to be written as “empty hand” (Japanese), karate had to adopt a standard dogi and kyu/dan rank system, and karate had to development a sport aspect (competition).
From the beginning, there were mixed emotions on rank. One of Funakoshi’s contemporaries, Chojun Miyagi (Goju-Ryu founder) said, “I believe once dan ranks in karate are awarded, it will inevitably lead to trouble. The ranking system will lead to discrimination within karate and karate-ka will be judged by their rank and not their character. It will create ‘inferior’ and ‘superior’ strata within the karate community and will lead to discrimination between people.” Wow, prophetic. Incidentally, the character “Mr. Miyagi” of Karate Kid fame was inspired by the aforementioned Master. Robert Mark Kamen, co-creator of the movie, was a Goju-ryu student which explains the philosophy behind this famous exchange:
Daniel LaRusso: Hey, what kind of belt do you have?
Mr. Miyagi: Canvas. J.C. Penny. Three ninety-eight. You like. [laughs]
Daniel LaRusso: No, I meant…
Mr. Miyagi: In Okinawa, belt mean no need rope to hold up pants. [laughs; then, seriously] Daniel-san, karate here. [taps his head] Karate here. [taps his heart] Karate never here. [points to his belt] Understand?
Daniel LaRusso: I think so.
The real deal, Grand Master Demura Fumio (Shito-ryu), was Pat Morita’s stuntman for the film.
At the end of war, General MacArthur dissolved all military related organizations in Japan, including Dai Nippon Butoku–kai. In one fell swoop, the flood gates opened, and during the early 1950’s, associations formed left and right by the dojos in each style, each with authority to rank. Big brother could no longer oversee or regulate the industry, and a “title” wave soon to hit the US shores. It was a sea of chaos that Robert Trias and Nakayama Masatoshi tried to regulate. The USKA (United States Karate Association) and JKA (Japan Karate Association) kept things in check, but with no true governing body, it was still the Wild West. Have you ever see the movie Catch Me If You Can with Leo DiCaprio? Con men of his image were common in the martial arts field as it was a lucrative business opportunity. Decades and thousands of associations later, there is still no honor among thieves.
Directions: Shake pride, greed, and ignorance over ice cold ego and stir. Just add students. Sōke (宗家), not to be confused with Sake (although it helps to have a sip or two when encountering grandstanders) is commonly referred to as head of a family or house in Japan. In America, the title is controversial and raises red flags. The pseudo Sōke starter kit typically includes a resume full of multi-10th degree black belts, 15+ hall of fame inductions, and a VHS series of secret waza to supplement the new style they have created. Mind you, I know certain individuals who deserve this moniker, but then again you don’t hear them bragging or selling memberships, so this isn’t their concern. Or is it? The damage done by counterfeit karate-ka is crippling the arts with fiction.
Sōke is synonymous with the term iemoto (family foundation) of a traditional Japanese art. In Japan, this title is rarely used and only applicable to very old martial arts (koryu). The fact remains karate is NOT an old discipline, so why do we have soooo many Sōke in America? Rock beats scissors of course. It’s just another rung on the vanity ladder to prove who’s top dog. They’ve punched their ticket into the Supreme Eternal Grand Master Poohbah club; one part boasting, two parts marketing—all status. With 300+ million Americans to target, it’s not hard to find naïve students who will follow a master in BS.
Without going into a dissertation, Sōke originally had no connection with martial arts at all. Sōke was a quasi-political title often held by the head of the family while the successor (Sōke) was responsible for the “secret transmissions” of the clan. Basically Sōke is heir from generation to generation. Over time, Sōke also included the rights to familial items such as art, plays, and poetry etc. Like the Rockefellers or Carnegie’s, the Japanese upper class aristocrats held court like a corporation. If you’re not familiar, tune into the HBO series Succession, some American Sōke would fit right in. All kidding aside, an exuberant number of martial artists claim to have “inherited” these highly guarded ancient teachings despite not being of Japanese descent or a direct family member. That’s right, all the secrets have been willed to Sōke Joe Sixpack of Ohio. Seems a bit absurd, right?
Others, who can’t verify credentials, find the ShodaiSōke route as the path of least resistance. Adding the Shodai (first generation) to the title is a quicker way to reach Sōke stardom. It’s madness; someone makes up a system, rearranges some kanji and poof, a new style is born. A bit pretentious don’t you think? Worse yet, 20-somethings are getting in on the action. Why not, nobody can stop them from the make believe, it’s as if we are stuck watching Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. Sōke Pokey practitioners swiftly move round and round, in and out of hypocrisy where respect is demanded, worship appreciated and blind loyalty required. The music is loud—so loud they become tone deaf. It echoes, “You put your ego in, you pull your credibility out, you put your arrogance in and you shake it all about.” As the volume reaches dangerous decibel levels, it’s too much for some to bear; others double down.
Pseudo Sōke are eager to defend themselves. The go-to for damage control is cross-training. It’s not uncommon to dabble in multiple styles (an admirable path) earning several 1st and 2nd degree black belts in various arts. Problems arise when those ranks seem to rise exponentially by some illogical compound formula. Regardless, a collective effort is still master of none. Mixing a few disciplines together is just that, mixed martial arts, not a revolutionary ryu. Unless you’ve had some divine intervention, all “contemporary” hybrid systems fall under the MMA umbrella today. Through my own interpretation and innovation, I teach a unique brand of Shotokan. I’ve incorporated elements of kyokushin, capoeira, tegumi, kickboxing, BJJ, and kicking techniques from various Korean arts. It works for me, but at the end of the day my root is Shotokan and my title is Sensei. It is not a newfangled style, just a creative curriculum inspired by Shuhari (Obey, digress, and separate). Shuhari is commonly known as three stages of mastery . First we learn from tradition, then we break from tradition so we can transcend.
I love Jesse Enkamp’s cooking analogy, so I’ll share:
At first, you follow the recipe exactly (Shu).
But when you’ve memorized the recipe, you don’t use it anymore (Ha).
Eventually, you start freestyling, substituting ingredients according to your own taste, creativity and feeling (Ri).
Voila, you are a Master Chef; but you didn’t invent cooking. This is why we have a Sōke epidemic. Philosophically speaking we are encouraged to evolve, but many misinterpret and don’t grasp that combing or modifying traditional techniques isn’t the exception, it’s the norm. We are not in feudal Japan, and Sōke does not mean founder. Unfortunately, it’s grossly and loosely used as propaganda, and Westerners continue to exploit the semantics. If you want to be remembered as a “creator” we already have an appropriate English term, “founder.” I suppose using the esoteric Japanese title gives the users an ordained feeling, but it’s unwarranted in most circumstances.
Honestly, being a Sōke in America today is kind of like being rich in Monopoly: Do not pass go, do not collect $200—go directly to jail. Seriously, I am NOT saying all Sōke are fake, the term exists for a reason (some have legitimate lineage). What I am saying is that very few men or women belong in the same conversation as Funakoshi or Kano. If you fancy yourself in the same breath, then we can agree to disagree. For the small percentage of genuine Sōke or Grand Masters, thank you for your contributions. Legends of the game like Kanazawa Sōke (Shotokan) or Grand Master Ochiai Hidehiko (Washin-ryu) are examples and rightful members of the fraternity. While imposters continue to ride their coattails, it is flattery we can all do without.
As American karate slides down the slippery slope of sokeship, please ingest the rhetoric with grain of salt. Make no mistake, this is not an isolated “karate” problem, it’s widespread: tae kwon do, tang soo do, kung fu, etc. In the end, I’m reminded of a Pastor who fooled his flock. Television evangelist Jimmy Swaggart didn’t do Christianity any favors with his antics, and many Masters tarnish martial arts in the same vein. There will always be those who desire to be a “personality” rather than a “servant.” Even if remorseful, the collateral damage is done, however those hypocrites don’t represent the majority! Despite the heretics, my religious faith hasn’t wavered and neither has my conviction to be a Sensei. Martial-vanity is an easy rabbit hole to fall into, but it’s an alternate state of mind (conscious or subconscious).
Confucius said, “Humility is the solid foundation of all virtues.” As a budoka, I want to influence, not impose; earn, not demand; and lead, not command my students. I will continue to count my blessings and not the amount of stripes on my belt. Rank does not define me, the integrity of my dojo does. Although I’ve technically earned a master title, being a Sensei is all I ever wanted. An average teacher tells, a good teacher explains, a superior teacher demonstrates, but a Sensei inspires.
If my point of view made you question some of your steps, maybe it’s time to change the choreography of your dance. It’s not too late to turn yourself around—budo, that’s what it’s all about.
PS, it’s pronounced “so-kay” not “so-key” if you insist on moving forward. It’s not surprising because the most mispronounced word in Japanese history is Karate. We are all guilty of calling it “kuh-rah-dee” but it’s pronounced “kah-rah-tay.” It’s mispronunciation is pretty much accepted as colloquial slang at this point. #sokepokey
About the author:Bill Viola Jr. is Amazon best-selling author and creator of the award-winning Sensei Says® life skills curriculum. He experienced the “Golden Era” of MMA firsthand as his father, Bill Sr., is credited as the co-creator of the sport of mixed martial arts in 1979. His book Godfathers of MMA inspired the critically acclaimed SHOWTIME film Tough Guys where he acted as a producer alongside an Academy Award accredited team. The Viola family owns and operates Allegheny Shotokan Karate in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania now celebrating their 50-year anniversary (1969-2019). He is currently the President of Kumite Classic Entertainment Corp.
” ‘Cause it makes me that much stronger Makes me work a little bit harder It makes me that much wiser So thanks for making me a fighter Made me learn a little bit faster Made my skin a little bit thicker Makes me that much smarter So thanks for making me a fighter “
Gabby listens to this song 🎵, and it speaks to her 💗 reminding her to always keep her hands up! She still has good and bad days, but when the disease attacks, I remind her that she’s a fighter It seems scary, but deep down she has the fortitude of a hundred kids. She proved it to me and all the bystanders that day in Detroit…
Let me share. Life isn’t fair, the sooner you accept that the better. In 2018, completely out of the blue, my daughter Gabby was diagnosed with bowel disease, an incurable inflammatory form of colitis😥. Without too much detail you’d never know she is sick on the outside, but on the inside, it is killing her: severe bleeding, dehydration, abdominal pain, cramping, fatigue, inflammation of joints, skin and eyes, and a swelling colon just off the top of my head. She was only seven years old; no family history of the illness! Why oh why?! Long story short, we continue to do what we have to do: Specialists, naturopathic and holistic experts, trials, infusions, diets, meds, steroids, tests, and therapy — the works. All you can do is pray 🙏🏻 for remission.
She’s Got Guts! Intestinal Fortitude
In the meantime, she wanted to continue karate. It was her sanctuary, and her doctor gave it the. In July 2019, she attended the World Karate Commission Team Trials in Detroit, Michigan. Top placement earned a spot on “Team USA” to compete at the World Championships. Gabby and her teammates bled for this opportunity. She was one of the youngest competitors to enter and still only a brown belt, in a division dominated by seasoned black belts. The selection process is based on multiple rounds of competition. Day 1, she stumbled. The look of disappointment on her face broke my heart into a million pieces, but I couldn’t show it. Her little lip quivering, trying to hold back tears, I consoled her the only way I knew how. I said, “It’s time to unleash tora .” “Win or lose, show everyone your tiger spirit.”🐯
We had something special up our sleeve, a symbol of her destiny. That weekend, I brought a 55+ year old brown belt with me. It was tattered and way too long, but it was magical. It was the same belt my father wore, that I wore, that my sister Addie wore, and now Gabby. She knew the history behind the belt, and I told her she just needed to add her own sweat to it. In that moment, she showed “tora no me,” the “eye of the tiger.” It was a complete 360. She took the mat with a passion and fervor I’ve never seen. She absolutely nailed her kata, flipped the script, and catapulted to GOLD🥇. In that moment, not a single individual victory or title I’ve experienced could compete with the pride I felt.
Understanding inflammatory type diseases🔥: Inflammation is the body’s response to fighting off harmful things. It could be an injury, infection, or something toxic. In Gabby’s case, she is always on
Her body is confused. This is called IBD or (Inflammatory bowel disease) 🔥 not to be confused with the very common IBS (Irritable bowel syndrome) which is not an inflammatory condition/disease. IBD is an umbrella covering both Crohn’s Disease and Ulcerative Colitis. Both Crohn’s and colitis are characterized by chronic inflammation of the GI (gastrointestinal) tract. IBD is a “ninja” of sorts, because the symptoms often stealth like to the outside world. Patients often look totally normal to friends and family, but behind the scenes they are struggling with abdominal pain, fatigue, rectal bleeding, bloody stools, and persistent uncontrollable trips to the bathroom. Its cause is unknown, but Doctors do know it’s the result of a defective immune system. Essentially Gabby’s immune system is attacking itself causing the inflammation
While there is no cure, we search for ways to help her live a comfortable life, and hold on to hope that a cure will be discovered in her lifetime.
For those that are close to my family, you already know how this situation dramatically changed our lives. For twenty years I promoted the Kumite Classic (one of the largest and most prestigious independent tournaments in North America). The expo was a 24/7 – 365 type operation. Despite the kumite being apart of my identity, it does NOT define me. As they say, “family first” and I have retired from the Kumite Classic until Gabby is in remission. Someday, I hope to pass the torch 🕯️ to her, and she can reignite 🔥! I enjoy coaching my team, teaching, and traveling when she is %. It’s a new chapter in a long book!
Today, Gabby is receiving biologic infusions at UPMC Children’s hospital in Pittsburgh, PA. Her Doctors are kind, compassionate, and very knowledgeable. The infusions are typically 3-4 hour procedures (she has to miss school for each treatment). It is taxing on her body and mind.
IBD Advocate & Lobbyist
However, insurance doesn’t make it easy on these patients. The amount of red tape and outrageous medical bills is both frustrating and sad . According to The National Center of Biotechnology (NCBI), the yearly cost of her current medicine is $25,000 to $45,000 annually, depending on the frequency needed . Big Pharm 💊 💉 should be ashamed. The polices and regulations need to change! As a result we choose to “fight” and get involved. Gabby has been asked to join a national effort to raise awareness for the disease. Beginning this May, she will be lobbying on behalf of patients (like herself) who suffer lack of access to certain treatment. She will be sharing her story as an advocate of IBD research, trying to convince Washington to support her cause. She hopes to be part of the solution and be a small part of one day finding a cure for IBD. She will be attending the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation’s “Day on the Hill” to meet with different Senators an Congressmen to plead with them to do more! Her trip will be mulitple meetings with legislators about policies impacting the IBD community. The event includes forums hosted by the National Council of College Leaders for parents and pediatric patients, informative advocacy training briefings, and a reception on Capitol Hill .
As a family, we have made the decision use this terrible diagnosis as a powerful teaching moment. We look for anyway to change a negative into a positive . So we tackle this disease, the way we train at the dojo. with relentless determination! She promises to fight everyday, and I know she will inspire and empower other’s to do the same. This disease will not stop her from reaching her dreams, goals, and aspirations. There are be setbacks, but without them there are no comebacks.
Over the years, we have had to make multiple emergency stops to local hospitals, urgent cares, and medical facilities. Recently she was hospitalized at the 2019 US Open ISKA World Championships and admitted into Arnold Palmer Children’s Hospital after nearly passing out. She was in a flare and her body was attacked. Unfortunately, she was unable to perform to her standards the next couple months, and fell short of winning WKC Worlds. She could either spiral into self-doubt and depression, or double down on her training. I’m proud to announce she back to her winning ways taking 1st place at NASKA’s 6-A COMPETE Internationals. The place really doesn’t matter, its continuing to “suit up,” time and time again, when other’s say “hang it up.” This journey will always have ups and downs but we fail forward . No matter how difficult the challenge, we continue to inch forward . We call is Kaizen (改善) continual self-improvement! 1% every day… Its our “Violosophy.”
The People’s Champ
Often times people associate martial arts as a rough-and-tumble sport dominated by male competitors, but Gabby Viola is shattering the stereotype. 9-year-old Gabby was recently honored by the national karate media and their peers with nationwide “People’s Choice Awards.”Point Fighter Live is one the most popular media outlets in North America for the sport and recognized the top athletes.
Gabby Viola was nominated as “Competitor of the Year” by Point Fighter Live. The honor, dubbed as a “Power Award” was voted on by coaches, competitors, and promoters from across North America. After a nationwide poll, Viola not only won her category (edging out a talented competitor from El Paso, Texas) but was the highest vote total of the show. The physical award will be presented this April in Warwick, Rhode Island at the Ocean State Grand Nationals.
Gabby is a third generation Viola to win national honors. She’s following in her Dad Bill Jr. and Grandfather Bill Sr.’s footsteps. She began her training as a toddler and has been a national champion since she debuted at the 2013 Kumite Classic. She’s a member of Team USA, and defending Gold Medalist from the WKC Nationals Championships. Gabby is an inspiration to other girls battling bowel disease. At 7-years-old, she was diagnosed with chronic inflammation and ulcerative colitis. While there is no cure for the condition, she is fighting for remission every day and proving that nothing can stop her karate dreams. She is currently treated with infusions at UPMC Children’s hospital and will travel to the Washington, DC this May to meet with the Senate and Congress about funding new research to find a cure.
When asked about the recognition Gabby said, “I’m really happy. I hope this helps get me to Japan!” She’s on a mission to fund raise to watch her Idol Sandra Sanchez from Spain compete for a gold medal at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan. Gabby had the opportunity to train with Sanchez in Orlando, Florida this past July. When she’s not competing, she loves playing piano, dance, and teaching her 2-year-old brother karate.
Throughout the long season, Gabby traveled to Illinois, California, Georgia, Florida, Michigan, New York, West Virginia, Ohio, New Jersey and Canada to compete. The honors are based on an entire year’s body of work.
Gabby is a member of Allegheny Shotokan “Viola” Karate Dojo which recently celebrated its 50-Year Anniversary. The Dojo was honored with a proclamation from County Executive Rich Fitzgerald who recognized “Sensei Viola Day” on September 23rd 2019 for the Pittsburgh region. Sensei Bill Viola Sr. has 4 daughters, all of whom have earned their black belts. His Granddaughter Gabby and all the up and coming Senpai and Sensei (Lucy, Sammy, Taylor, Zoey, Haley, Abby, Riley) carry on the tradition of strong inspiring ladies from the dojo!
The team is gearing up for the 2020 WKC World Championships held in Madrid, Spain and fundraising to visit Tokyo, Japan and attend the 2020 Olympics . For more information visit www.alleghenyshotokan.com
# # #
Gabby began training at just 2-years-old and was the inspiration of the Nursery Ninjas program at Allegheny Shotokan Karate. She made her competition debut at the 2013 Kumite Classic and has since competed in over 100 tournaments across North America. In 2015 she won her first Grand Champion, and later that year was the youngest competitor at the World Games. She is a multiple time PKRA State Champion, USKA National Champion, WKC National Champion, and consistent champion on the NASKA World Tour. She is a 3rd generation Viola to carry on the family legacy. Gabby is committed to community service, and has been a top fundraiser to “Kick Parkinson’s Disease” a charity her father helped establish in memory of their Grandmother.
We would also like to extend this positive energy out to our Allegheny Shotokan dojo brothers who also suffer from GI complications: Sensei Conor Burns, Sensei Dave Zezza, and Senpai Mike Pietrzyk
Students are eligible to test every 4-months. You will be sent a link (via email) ahead of time to pay for the exam. You current membership dues must be up to date and your account in good standing to test. If you pay for your test and miss it, you can take it the following month at no extra charge.
Etiquette:Full gi, never any t-shirts: clean/ironed, Water is permitted (always raise hand), you must pre-pay before the test takes place, if you miss your scheduled test, you can schedule a private test if an examiner is available (with an additional fee based on private lesson rate) or test the following month at no extra charge with the group.
We use the Japanese Kyu/Dan ranking system. Kyu級 are “levels” for under belts (white-brown) and Dan段 are degrees of black belt.
Kyu ranks move downward ⇩ meaning the lower # is best, while Dan ranks move upward ⇧ while high # is best. Example 1-Kyu brown belt (5 tips) is ready for pre-black belt test. *remember a black belt is not an expert. Shodan means “beginning” degree. It is a major milestone like graduating high school, but then you must start college and move up the Dan ladder.
In our dojo kids <13 are “Jr. Black Belts.” They move to full Shodan status at age 14. An exam at our dojo is influenced by a number of factors that are not cut/dry including:
Minimum requirements (kihon/kata)
Technique (Martial Arts)
Character Development (Martial Way)
Intensity / Effort
Kumite (sparring) in-class evaluation *required at intermediate level to advance
*Minimum requirements: Learning higher kata is admirable, but not at the expense of your requirements. Knowing a more advanced kata does not make you eligible for the belt it coincides with, they are considered bonus. We have time requirements between levels, not just memorization. Kata is only “one” of the factors.
You must meet maintain your basics (foundation), and still focus on the “short list” of kihon and kata specific to your rank. That list often determines if a retest is needed. Previous martial arts experience,Private lessons, kataclass, and Saturdayclass can accelerate advancement as can high level proficiency in kumite (Shihan’s discretion).
The journey from White→Yellow→Orange→ Blue (novice ranks) can be very different for an adult/teenager compared to a Ninja. Rapid advancement, skipping stripes can occur; however it’s not the norm. While you may know all the “technical” material for a certain level, remember the process is a marathon not a sprint.
Every test level advanced is considered a ½ point (stripe) as normal progression. If you jump from white to yellow, that is a full 1-point (skipping the yellow stripe in the process). Jumping a full point is the maximum Shihan allows on any single test, no matter how much material you know. *exception, students who join with previous martial arts training.
*Also we don’t straddle stripes (if you have a yellow stripe, you won’t pass to an orange stripe) earning the “solid” belt is the goal. The development of our system takes adequate time for maturity and character development (time served). Never compare your progress with your line mate. Your journey is “individual” you versus yourself. Students with limitations or who may suffer from a disability either (physical or mental), chronic injuries or disease also play a part in the subjective outcome of a test. This is where heart, attitude and determination come into play. Courage/Determination (or as Sensei likes to call it “will over skill”) is a vital characteristic to consider. This can outshine the technical aspect of a test in some cases. Personal development is just that, personal.
Intro-Ninjas: We do not work on kata in the intro class. This is typical training in our novice class after you earn a stripe for basics. If you wish to attempt to earn a yellow belt as an “intro student” “optional” private lessons is the only way to do so. An intro Ninja can earn a yellow belt if they learn the entire Heian #1 (first kata). This kata isn’t taught during intro class and isn’t required for the white belt with yellow stripe, which most ninjas earn first.
Line up by
Rank: In our Ninja classes, the higher belts
line up in the front line in order by colors ascendingly. There is no specific assigned order within a
color for Ninjas. Once a student moves
into the Intermediate or adult class, they must line up individually by “rank”
based on the performance of their test.
Those in a group who score “highest”
are called out “last” when given
results (or the leader of that group).
This position in line can flip flop based on each test.
to consider: Students who enjoy
tournaments please factor that your belt or kata can determine your division:
Novice, Intermediate, and Advanced. I
always encourage students to move “up” to challenge themselves, but make sure
you are ready. Just because you can
perform kata #4, you must ask yourself is it at an intermediate or advanced
level? If you wish to perform kata #4, you must move from novice division to
intermediate or advanced at tournaments.
Sometimes staying the course is better than jumping ahead so you can
gain experience. This is a good conversation to have with Sensei.
Intermediate (Blue ⇆ green) and advanced (purple
⇆ brown) incorporate
2 tips on the obi. Example: If you are a
solid green belt and score a “full point,” you could in theory earn 2 tips at
once (however jumps at blue, green, purple become increasingly difficult). *exception:
students with previous experience, this is open to Shihan discretion. Brown
belts do not skip tips. Each tip is
critical in the learning process
*If a student shows dynamic skill
or maturity an expedited test can occur (less than the standard 4-month
period). These are rare and nominated by a high ranking black
belt. It is never polite to ask, this
will happen organically if necessary.
*Perspective: Sensei Bill Jr. and Gabby never skipped any stripes or
belts. They have earned each level in in
succession. So always expect to just take one step at a time J
Pass/Fail/Retest: Nearly every test, a few students
don’t pass or need a retest. This is normal
and part of the learning curve. It is
also reminder that you need to “earn” each step and can be a wakeup call. We want each student to exceed their own “potential,”
so every student is evaluated differently.
Pass: Self-explanatory. Results typically given 1-week from the test at the end of class
Fail: Did not meet minimum requirements, must wait for an upcoming test. (Discussion with sensei to determine the amount of time needed to prepare)
Retest: In some cases the majority of the test is passed, but a single area needs improvement. An immediate retest can occur within 2 weeks, after consultation with the examiner. Sometimes a single private lesson on the trouble area can do the trick. There is no fee associated with this, and rank is promoted immediately after the retest session.
Immediate Release: 2/13/20 Contact: Call/Text Bill Viola Jr. 724-640-2111
Pittsburgh Karate Girls Honored by Peers with National “People’s Choice” Meet Gabby Viola and Lucy Lokay
Often times people associate martial arts as a rough-and-tumble sport dominated by male competitors, but two Pittsburgh area karate girls shattering the stereotypes. 9-year-old Gabby Viola and 14-year-old Lucy Lokay were recently honored by the national karate media and their peers with nationwide “People’s Choice Awards.” Sportmartialarts.com and Point Fighter Live are the equivalent to the Academy Awards and Grammys for sport karate. They are the two most popular media outlets in North America and recognize the top athletes at the beginning of each season with year-end recognition.
Gabby Viola was nominated as “Competitor
of the Year” by Point Fighter Live. The honor, dubbed as a “Power Award” was voted on by coaches,
competitors, and promoters from across North America. After a nationwide poll, Viola not only won
her category (edging out a talented competitor from El Paso, Texas) but was the
highest vote getter of the show. The physical award will be presented this
April in Warwick, Rhode Island at the Ocean State Grand Nationals.
Gabby is a third generation Viola to win national honors. She’s following in her Dad Bill Jr. and Grandfather Bill Sr.’s footsteps. She began her training as a toddler and has been a national champion since she debuted at the 2013 Kumite Classic. She’s a member of Team USA, and defending Gold Medalist from the WKC Nationals Championships. Gabby is an inspiration to other girls as she’s been battling bowel disease. At 7-years-old, she was diagnosed with chronic inflammation and ulcerative colitis. While there is no cure for the condition, but she is fighting for remission every day and proving that nothing can stop her karate dreams. She is currently treated with infusions at UPMC Children’s hospital and is scheduled to visit Washington, DC this May to lobby for new treatments for the disease with .
When asked about the recognition Gabby said, “I’m really happy. I hope this helps get me to Japan!” She’s on a mission to fund raise to watch her Idol Sandra Sanchez from Spain compete for a gold medal at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan. Gabby had the opportunity to train with Sanchez in Orlando, Florida this past July. When she’s not competing, she loves playing piano, dance, and teaching her 2-year-old brother karate.
Lucy Lokay was recognized by Sportsmartialarts.com in the “Overall
Youth Female” category. She received enough preliminary votes
nationally to beat out thousands of other competitors and earn a nomination in
the final four, and a trip to Chicago, Illinois for the awards ceremony. Lokay explains, “I was so honored. I mean these other girls are already starring
in TV shows and movies, and I’m just a small town girl. I’m just getting
started. It’s crazy.”
coach Bill Viola Jr. agrees, “Lucy was the youngest in the field nominated by
SMA. This puts her name on the radar for
the entire league. She has a bright
future.” Although Lucy took runner up,
just to share the stage with North America’s top female martial artists was
empowering. She is ranked #2 in the
World Rankings by the North American Sport Karate Association. Not since one of her mentors, Ali Viola, a
decade ago has any female from the tristate area ever been nominated for an SMA
dedicated to giving back as a representative of the Western PA Police Athletic
League, volunteering for their community initiative. She works alongside Pittsburgh Police and
community leaders to help those less fortunate learn martial arts and boxing
and helps organize “Stuff-a-Store” toy drives with her mother Amy.
the long season, Gabby and Lucy traveled to Illinois, California, Georgia, Florida,
Michigan, New York, West Virginia, Ohio, New Jersey and Canada to compete. The honors are based on an entire year’s body
and Lucy are members of Allegheny Shotokan “Viola” Karate Dojo which recently
celebrated its 50 Year Anniversary. The
Dojo was honored with a proclamation from County Executive Rich Fitzgerald who
recognized “Sensei Viola Day” on September
23rd 2019 for the Pittsburgh region.
Sensei Bill Viola Sr. has 4 daughters, all of whom have earned their
black belts. Now his Grand Daughter
Gabby and Lucy carry on the tradition of strong inspiring ladies from the dojo!
team is gearing up for the 2020 WKC World Championships held in Madrid, Spain
and fundraising to visit Tokyo, Japan and attend the 2020 Olympics.
The North American Sport Karate Association (NASKA) sanctions the most prestigious karate tournaments in the country and abroad. For the last thirty years, the league has tracked and ranked competitors throughout the tournament season to determine the World Tour Champions. The ratings are compiled annually, with the highest point total determining who earns the World Championship Belt and ring.
North Huntingdon residents Xander Eddy (10 years old), Luke Lokay (16 years old), and Cameron Klos (17 years old) became the first Western Pennsylvania martial artists to win a NASKA title since their Coach, Bill Viola Jr. and his sister Addie were ranked #1 in NASKA in the 1980s.
Sensei Bill Viola Jr. said, “I am so happy to pass the torch to these kids. They are an inspiration to this community and a testimony of hard work and dedication. They made all of Norwin and Pittsburgh proud.”
The 2019 World Championship awards were presented at the AKA Warrior Cup in Chicago, Illinois. It is the longest running tournament in America founded in 1964. The tourney hosted the NASKA Banquet on Thursday January 23rd 2020. NASKA President Larry Carnahan from Minneapolis, MN presided over the ceremony in which the three Western Pennsylvanian black belts earned #1 rankings and World Titles for their age categories.
NASKA World Tour Champions:
10-year-old Xander Eddy World Champion (10- Open Weight and 10- Black Belt)
16-year-old Luke Lokay World Champion (16-17 Light Weight Black
17-year-old, Cameron Klos World Champion (15-17 Open Weight
16-17 Heavy Weight black belt
The trio are members of Allegheny Shotokan “Viola” Karate Dojo which recently celebrated it’s 50 Year Anniversary proclaimed by County Executive Rich Fitzgerald as “Sensei Viola Day” on September 23rd 2019 for the Pittsburgh region.
Xander, Luke, and Cameron traveled to Illinois, California, Georgia, Florida, Michigan, New York, West Virginia, Ohio, New Jersey and Canada to compete during the season. The honor is based on an entire year’s body of work.
Immediate Release: 11/21/19 Contact: Call/Text Bill Viola Jr. 724-640-2111
Titles brought home to Western Pennsylvania
The World Karate and Kickboxing Council (WKC) hosted the World Championships November, 3rd -9th in Niagara Falls, New York. The world’s best from 22 countries converged to compete in WKC Tatami-style divisions. The competition was the largest WKC championships in history with thousands of athletes.
USA was comprised of athletes from across the country who won the National Team
trials in Detroit this past June. 13
members from Allegheny Shotokan “Viola” Karate Dojo earned positions to
represent the United States at the World Championships. Of that group, 5 students advanced to the
medal rounds and secured top honors.
These medals are the first ever for the Pittsburgh region.
Sensei Bill Viola Jr. said, “I am proud of the way these kids represented our community and the United States. Win or lose, they demonstrated respect and determination. We they play our National Anthem for Gold, it makes all the sacrifice worthwhile.”
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that I, County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, by virtue of the authority vested in me, do hereby proclaim September 23, 2019 as “Sensei Bill Viola Day” in Allegheny County. We congratulate Sensei Bill Viola and the Allegheny Shotokan Karate School on their 50th anniversary and wish them many more successful years to come.
IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the County of Allegheny to be affixed this 23rd day of September, 2019.
Hey Google, when is
Tribune Review Article:
Learning the discipline of karate requires humility, but operating a successful karate studio for 50 years requires self-confidence, self-promotion and even a certain amount of bravado.
William Viola Sr. doesn’t see a contradiction between the two.
What keeps his feet on the ground are the expressions of gratitude he regularly gets from students.
“I always thought that if I could change one person … that, to me, is so much more important than papers and glittery things,” he said. “When you change someone’s life positively, that is more important.”
Viola, 71, of North Huntingdon, has plenty of accolades on his walls but prefers to think of the tens of thousands of students who have passed through the doors of Allegheny Shotokan, now known as Viola Karate.
“I have some kids who started with me when they were 4-5 years old who are still here,” he said recently.
Viola will soon be able to add proclamations from Allegheny and Westmoreland counties to his list of accomplishments. Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald has designated Monday as “Sensei Bill Viola Day.”
The proclamation notes that Viola not only helped popularize karate in Western Pennsylvania but also became an advocate for the sport worldwide, leading to its acceptance as an Olympic sport in Tokyo in 2020. As co-creator of the sport of mixed martial arts, he is the subject of a book, a documentary and a museum exhibit.
On the 50th anniversary of Viola Karate, the founder said, “Nothing I did in the 1970s would work now, but the basic concepts of character and self-discipline are the same — those are the things you have to keep. Those are the building blocks.”
A native of Brownsville, Fayette County, Viola was introduced to karate in the early 1960s by “one of my friends throwing me around, knocking me down, kicking and punching me.” The friend, Medick Capirano, had learned martial arts as an ROTC student at West Virginia University.
“I said, ‘Geez, this is great.’ … That really piqued my interest,” he said.
While a student at what is now California University of Pennsylvania, Viola started giving private karate lessons to football player and friend Denny Costello. Upon graduating and accepting a teaching job at East Allegheny High School, he started an after-school karate program for adults and began teaching karate to students as an extracurricular activity.
“We were one of the first American public high schools to offer karate as an accredited course,” he said.
It didn’t hurt that at the time, in the late 1960s and early ’70s, karate was enjoying a “golden era” courtesy of TV shows such as “The Green Hornet” and “Kung Fu.”
The level of interest was high enough for Viola to open his first studio in 1969 in an old community center in Turtle Creek. He rented the space for $50 a month.
“The catch was: the furnace didn’t work, we had to put buckets out because the ceiling leaked, the floors had cracks in them. I thought it was great,” he said.
He later opened studios in White Oak, Irwin, Paintertown and West Newton, although he has spent the longest amount of time on U.S. Route 30 in North Huntingdon.
Viola said the secret to his success was combining his skills as a teacher — he taught science at East Allegheny for 30 years — with his love of martial arts. He still teaches a black belt class at Viola Karate every Monday night.
His first black belt student was Jack Bodell, who went on to become a Secret Service agent assigned to President Jimmy Carter’s security detail. Viola is a ninth-degree black belt.
Capitalizing on the “mystique” of the martial arts, Viola taught karate as a way of life and not just as a way to break boards, kick and punch. He retained students by learning their names and something about each one of them.
“That’s why I’ve kept so many students for so long,” he said.
His longest-tenured student is Ray Adams, 76, who joined the studio in 1971 and still actively trains today. “I just earned my master rank and have no plans of slowing down,” Adams said. “My next test will be in my 80s.”
In 1980, Viola and business partner Frank Caliguiri, sitting in a Denny’s in Monroeville, dreamed up the first “tough guy” contest in Western Pennsylvania. The idea was to recruit men who fancied themselves as good street fighters and put them in the ring with a referee.
The first “tough guy” contest was held March 20-22, 1980, at the New Kensington Holiday Inn, with a finals match at the Stanley Theater (now the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts) in downtown Pittsburgh.
Tough guy contests were banned in Pennsylvania in 1983. But times changed, and by 2009, the ban had been lifted. In 2011, Viola and Caliguiri were memorialized as co-creators of mixed martial arts, or MMA, in an exhibit at the Senator John Heinz History Center in the Strip District.
Viola gets a kick out of the fact that the MMA exhibit is adjacent to the one honoring Franco Harris’ “Immaculate Reception” for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
In 2017, Showtime debuted the documentary “Tough Guys,” which tells the story of the early tough guys contests and controversies. The documentary, which features extensive interviews with Viola and Caliguiri, was based on the 2014 book “Godfathers of MMA,” written by Viola’s son, Bill Viola Jr., and his cousin Fred Adams.
Viola Jr. has received the mantle from his father and now operates Viola Karate. In 2017, one of his students, 9-year-old Xander Eddy, won the gold medal in his age category at the Pan American Kickboxing Championships in Mexico.
In addition to being “Sensei Bill Viola Day,” Sept. 23 is the birthday of Viola’s grandson, William Viola IV, who, along with his sister, Gabby, is a fixture at the studio.
Viola also has four daughters, Joce and Jacque, who are pharmacists in North Huntingdon, Addie, a teacher in Bethel Park, and Ali, a lawyer in Pittsburgh.
Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Stephen at 724-850-1280