Category Archives: 1990s

Sensei Viola Day

September 23rd 2019 was named “Sensei Viola Day” in Pittsburgh 🥋.

County Executive Rich Fitzgerald enacted the day in honor of the dojo’s 50-year anniversary. Congrats.

Sensei Viola Day in Pittsburgh Trib

Pittsburgh Post Gazette Article

Pittsburgh Tribune Review Article

Pittsburgh Karate Sensei Viola Day Trib

Read more about Sensei Viola Day.

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

Sensei Viola Day
Sensei Viola Day

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.”

Kick start

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.”

Getting tough

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

50 Year Anniversary – Pittsburgh Karate Legacy

pittsburgh karate

jack bodellSummer of 69’

“That’s one small step for karate; one giant leap for martial arts.”

pittsburgh karate school
East Allegheny Karate Class Circa 1970

1969 was a glorious time to be alive; a new home cost a paltry $15,000, 90% of kids walked to school, and Woodstock was in vogue.  America was on top of the world as Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, Mario Puzo released The Godfather, and a little known dojo named “Allegheny Shotokan” set up shop in the gritty suburbs of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Yes, it was the golden era of Karate, and those who donned a crisp white “gi” and tattered black belt had a special swagger about themselves.  The martial arts were provocative and mysterious, and if you wanted to learn its vast secrets, Bill Viola was your man. Unbeknownst to him, the Viola name and Pittsburgh karate would become synonymous.

“Sensei” Viola was a no-nonsense disciplinarian who lived the mantra, “The more you sweat in here, the less you bleed out there,” an ode to his simple yet effective philosophy of intensity and self-protection.  This sense of unwavering willpower has manifested itself through the tens of thousands who have trained under his hand.  Over the past half-century, his powerful brand of punches and kicks has camouflaged life’s most important lessons: respect, discipline, and focus.  The Viola’s preach, “Character is a commodity that can’t be bought, only built.” You aren’t rich until you have something money can’t buy, and for Viola his passion is priceless.  The confidence he has instilled in his students can be found on and off the mat, from the classroom to the boardroom, or from raising a family to protecting a loved one.  Viola smiles, “It’s that indomitable spirit that builds champions in life. Our dojo is a family.”

Read more in Black Belt Magazine

Allegheny Shotokan Karate (1969-2019) is celebrating its 50-year anniversary as the gold standard for martial arts in Western PA.  The family-owned and operated dojo is blessed with 3 generations of Violas who carry on the legacy.  All five of Viola’s children have earned black belts and his eldest, Sensei Bill Viola Jr., now heads the school. Viola Jr.’s daughter Gabby and son Will [William Viola IV] are fixtures at the martial arts studio.  Sr.’s other children Joce and Jacque are Doctors of Pharmacy in North Huntingdon, Addie, a teacher in Bethel Park and Ali, a Lawyer downtown. He’s proud that their karate foundation has helped them pave the way for fulfilling careers.

viola karate
Viola Family: Addie, Jacque, Ali, Bill Sr., Bill Jr., Joce

Viola Sr., now 71, still teaches his black belt class every Monday evening, a reminder to everyone that karate is a lifelong journey.  In fact Ray Adams, 76, joined the club in 1971 and is still actively training today. He is the longest tenured student and says, “I just earned my Master rank and have no plans of slowing down, my next test will be in my 80s.” One of Adam’s favorite training partners and the dojo’s first black belt was Jack Bodell.  Known as the “President’s Bodyguard” as a member of the United States Secret Service in charge of protecting President Jimmy Carter, Jack explains, “Sensei gave me the skills to succeed in life.” Jack Bodell, Ray Adams, Ray Walters, Dave Zezza and Viola Jr. round out the “Master” ranks at Allegheny Shotokan.  Viola Sr., 9th Degree Black Belt, remains the patriarch.

Viola Karate (as it’s more commonly known today) accolades include induction into the prestigious USA Karate Hall of Fame, who named “Sensei V” the Man of Year (2003).  In 2011, Viola was honored with a permanent exhibit installed at the Western PA Sports Museum and Senator John Heinz History Center recognizing him as the co-creator of the sport of Mixed Martial Arts (the display is located next to the Franco Harris “Immaculate Reception”).

Godfathers of MMA / Tough Guys Museum Exhibit

Jr. and Sr. are both official Sport Karate History Generals and recipients of the Sport Karate Museum’s “Lifetime Achievement” award.  The duo was awarded the Champion Associations Willie Stargell M.V.P. Award (2011) for community service, a tribute that includes Michael Jordan and Muhamad Ali as alum. In 2017 the Viola’s were published in the book, Who’s Who in the Martial Arts – Legends of American Karate edition.  Viola Sr.’s life was the subject of the Amazon #1 selling book Godfathers of MMA which in turn inspired the SHOWTIME documentary film Tough Guys (2017) produced by an Academy award winning team. Viola Jr., who authored the book, was also a producer on the film, making a cameo playing his father.

Viola Jr. has been a member of Screen Actors Guild since 2000 after a stint in Hollywood which included stunts, commercials and work on the Britney Spears “Stronger” video. He founded his entertainment company [Kumite Classic] after Injuries sustained in a car crash that ended his competitive career (1999). The company produces the Pittsburgh Fitness Expo (regions largest multi-sport convention) and has a publishing division which has included Kumite Magazine and Tough Guys.  Viola Jr. is currently adapting his book into a screenplay and is in negotiations for a major motion picture. He was featured in Pittsburgh Magazine “40 under 40” list in 2016.

The dojo is internationally renowned as the most successful sport karate school in Pittsburgh region, garnering the only dual Pan American Gold Medalists in both traditional karate (WKF) and kickboxing (WAKO), as well as countless national, international and world titles.

In 1998 Arnold Schwarzenegger recognized them as the #1 school in America and Hines Ward selected Viola’s students as Positive Athletes to represent marital arts (2012-2013).

As karate approaches its first Olympic berth at the 2020 Tokyo Games, Viola was instrumental in the movement as he hosted the USA Karate Jr. Olympics at the University of Pittsburgh’s Fitzgerald Field House in 1992 under the auspices of the United States Olympic Committee. Incidentally, Viola Jr. was a triple Gold Medalist, the only athlete to earn that status. In March 2019, USA Karate honored Viola with the “Pioneer of USA Karate” award for his dedication to the Olympic karate movement. The Viola dojo has always had its finger on the pulse of anything and everything martial arts, and continues as the heartbeat of Pittsburgh karate today.

usa karate pittsburgh olympics
USA Karate Jr. Olympics

Over the past fifty years, the school has welcomed and transformed everyone from children struggling with autism to Olympic level competitors.  “It doesn’t matter if they are a professional athlete or a teenager who is coping with bullies,” Viola Jr. says,   “Each and every student is on their own personal journey of self-enlightenment and courage. Our goal is to help them reach their potential and go beyond.”  This formula of empowerment inspired Viola Jr. to package the family secrets into an Award-winning curriculum—Sensei Says. This life skills education course is the cornerstone of Allegheny Shotokan’s sister programs Norwin Ninjas (4-7 year olds) and Nursery Ninjas (2-3 year olds).

Brownsville:

Viola got his first taste of combat sports in 1955 studying boxing from family friend, the legendary Marion “Slugger” Klingensmith (later to become the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commissioner, Brownsville Mayor and Police Chief, Fayette County Commissioner, and Congressman). He discovered martial arts in the early 1960s as a teenager in high school.  Viola recalls, “My friend Medick Capirano picked up karate at WVU in the ROTC program.  I thought I was pretty tough, but he threw me all over the room when we’d work out on the weekends.  I was addicted.”  He continued training throughout college at California State under The All American Karate Federation, a split-off from the Japanese Karate Association, and then gaining rank under icons Grand Master Robert Trias, the father of American Karate, and Grand Master George Anderson the founder of the Father of Olympic Karate.

Origins of “Allegheny” Shotokan: (1969-2019) 50 Years serving Pittsburgh, PA

The name “Allegheny” represented the school’s first location in Allegheny County (East Allegheny High School) and traditional “Shotokan,” is the base style of Japanese Karate-do taught. Viola began teaching students in the summer of 1969.  His first student was former California State football player Denny Costello, and droves of EA students followed.  The first teacher to join the ranks was Keith Bertoluzzi. Bertoluzzi was the Master of Ceremonies at the Holiday House, Monroeville, PA. He used his musical influence to invite visiting celebrities to attend karate classes including members of the Beach Boys and other musical acts of the era. As Shihan Viola remembers, “Karate in the 60s and 70s was so popular; we [the Senseis] were the rock stars.” By 1971, East Allegheny had become what is known as a “progressive” school incorporating new curriculum.  The district offered Viola the opportunity to teach a regular elective karate course, the first in the nation in a public school.   Over the past 50 years the school has held classes in the suburbs of Pittsburgh including North Versailles, Turtle Creek, Paintertown, White Oak, Irwin, North Irwin and currently residing in North Huntingdon, Pennsylvania.

Shihan Viola and Denny Costello Spar (late 1960s)

Philanthropy/Community Service

The school is endorsed by Western PA Police Athletic League (PAL) where Viola Jr. served as a goodwill ambassador as a youth.  He has been involved in charitable work since his senior year at the University of Pittsburgh, when he established “Kumite International” collegiate scholarships.  The partnership program with Western PA Police Athletic League and Eckert Seamans Law Firm allocated $50,000 in scholarship funds for karate athletes.  The program made national news when Lynn Swann (The Chairman of President George W. Bush’s Council of Physical Fitness and Sports) presented the scholarships with Viola Jr. at the 2004 Pittsburgh Fitness Expo / Kumite Classic in Pittsburgh (the mecca for martial arts competition).

Bill Viola Jr and Lynn Swann Award College Scholarship

The dojo has raised tens of thousands of dollars for various causes such as Muscular Dystrophy and Parkinson ’s disease.  In 2017 Viola Jr. and former State Senator Sean Logan created “Kick Parkinson’s Disease”– a cause close to both men as Logan was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in his mid-forties and Viola Jr. spent years caring for his Grandmother who passed away from neurodegenerative complications.  The Viola Karate Dojo has since made it their mission to KICK Parkinson’s disease—literally.  Each year they assemble hundreds of students to kick one mile non-stop though the racetrack at Boyce Park in Monroeville in conjunction with the Logan’s PIND (Pittsburgh Institute for Neurodegenerative Diseases) 5K.  The students showcased their skill during record setting heat in 2018 and bumped their 2-year donation to $15,000 to aid PIND.  The In all, over the past three years, the event has raised over $1 million dollars through appropriations, grants and sponsors — 100% of the funds are earmarked for experimental testing and research in hopes of finding the cure in Pittsburgh.

kick parkinsons disease

In 2019 Viola Jr. and his Daughter Gabby will begin advocacy efforts at the Capital to lobby for improvements to our healthcare system as she battles inflammatory bowel disease (Crohns Disease).

#violakarate #alleghenyshotokan #senseisays #senseiviola #pittsburghkarate #pittsburghmartialarts #pittsburghmma #shotokan #karate #budo #pittsburghkaratelegacy

On September 23rd, 2019 Allegheny County Council proclaimed “Sensei Viola Day” for the Pittsburgh Region!  

Allegheny County recognizes ‘Sensei’ Viola for devotion to karate
Sensei Viola Day Sept. 23rd
Governments, students honor North Huntingdon karate instructor Bill Viola

pittsburgh karate history