‘The Battle Of The Tough Guys:’ Tracing modern-day MMA back to its roots in Pittsburgh
BY PATRICK DAMP
AUGUST 28, 2022 / 1:19 PM / CBS PITTSBURGH
PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – “The octagon” “Ultimate Fighting” and “MMA” are all now very much part of the sports lexicon.
It wasn’t always that way and modern-day mixed martial arts can trace its roots partially back to right here in Pittsburgh.
Let’s go back to the New Kensington Holiday Inn ballroom on March 20, 1980 – that’s when the first MMA tournament on record took place.
“We didn’t know it was a story, but we knew we had lightning in a bottle,” said Bill Viola Sr., a co-found of the Battle of the Tough Guys. “We had just a whole bunch of crazy people. No one had ever seen this before.”
At the time, Viola and his partner Frank Caliguri were promoting karate events the old-fashioned way: pounding the pavement, putting up fliers, getting the word out in bars, and bending the ears of anyone who would listen.
“Everybody knew someone who could beat someone up on your poster,” Viola laughed. “Well, Frank and me were discussing, ‘I’m getting tired of hearing it, I can beat this guy up, he can beat this guy up’ we thought – we got all these crazy people in these bars think they’re so tough, why don’t we get a contest together where they can fight on the ground, they grapple, they can box, they can use karate, and we’ll have rules and regulations to control it.”
However, as good as the idea was, like so many things, branding is key.
They didn’t have a name!
That is…until they did.
“We thought since Pittsburgh is such a tough steel city, ‘tough guy’ would just kind of fit in,” Viola recalled.
From there, The Battle of the Tough Guys was born.
“Bill and Frank were very thoughtful and clear about what they were building towards,” said Anne Madarasz, director of the Western PA Sports Museum. “This was not a fly-by-night operation, they had a written set of rules and regulations, and they knew what you needed to have in place to look out for the best future of the sport and the best future of the people that are participating in it.”
Just as Anne said, it might not have been a fly-by-night operation, but it was a one-night sensation.
“The enthusiasm, the crowd, all the people, all the excitement they loved it,” said Viola. “We were selling out events.”
The popularity was obvious, and the excitement was palpable, but like so many new and exciting ventures, there were imitators.
This led to a splintering as many more similar events began to pop up but nothing compared to what Bill and Frank brought to the table.
“We did Johnstown very successfully, no one [got] hurt,” Viola recalled. “Then boxing came in, they were called “Tough Man” they had no weight classes, they put a 175-pounder against a 200-some-pounder, we had weight classes, rules, they were boxing, we were combined martial arts, we had nothing to do with them.”
The 23-year-old Ronald Miller, an unemployed construction worker was killed after taking part in two fights that led to head injuries sustained in the fights.
Miller’s death led to action from the Pennsylvania State Legislature.
The sport was banned in the commonwealth.
“Sure, we were very, very letdown, we were depressed, it was like we invented the TV and we’re never allowed to turn it on,” Viola said.
However, what took place in the 1980s laid the groundwork for what is now the modern UFC. For that, many trace it back to Frank Viola Sr. and Frank Caliguri.
“We were way ahead of where the UFC was in 1993 back in 1980.”
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) under the watchful eye of my father (Bill Viola Sr.), 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.
Sōke Cocktail 🍹
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.
“That’s one small step for karate; one giant leap for martial arts.”
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.”
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 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.
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. Viola Jr. has since created the CommonSensei self-help book series. Here are some of his famous quotes.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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).
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.
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).
Google the “history of mixed martial arts.” Sometimes, the name of action star Bruce Lee pops up. Other times, it might be Art Davie, who created the Ultimate Fighting Championship in 1993.
But for practical purposes, a couple of guys from the Pittsburgh area got there first.
At 9 p.m. Friday, Showtime will premiere “Tough Guys,” a documentary feature that revisits the “City of Champions” era — one that spawned a series of streetfighter-type competitions.
In spirit, if not legally, it was the grassroots beginnings of MMA.
“For me, growing up in the ’80s in Pittsburgh, I had no idea any of this existed,” said Craig DiBiase, a Peters Township High School grad and producer of the film. His New York-based MinusL production company financed “Tough Guys,” and one of its directors, Henry Roosevelt, co-directed with William Zullo.
“Tough Guys” is a sideburn-wearing stroll through the evolution of bikers, bouncers and steelworkers brawling for cash, honor and the sheer thrill of beating each other up.
At the beginning of the film, karate promoters Bill Viola, who grew up in Brownsville, and Frank Caliguri, of Arnold, talk about the night they laid the groundwork for their tough guy competitions.
“Some great ideas start in laboratories. Some start in classrooms. But ours started at America’s diner: Denny’s,” Mr. Viola said.
They’d seen all sorts of bar fights and, as martial arts experts, were familiar with various forms of self-defense. What might happen if you put boxing, wrestling and martial arts together? Even better, what would happen if the participants were amateurs, fighting mainly for pride and street cred?
Would anyone come to watch? Resoundingly yes: more than 3,500 fans crammed the 2,000-seat ballroom at the New Kensington Holiday Inn.
Mr. Viola and Mr. Caliguri put up posters recruiting “tough men” to compete in a three-day event beginning March 20, 1980. With $6,000 in prize money available, the response was great. Three secretaries were hired to handle the flood of entries.
“In the late ’70s and early ’80s, ‘Rocky’ was the biggest movie out,” Mr. Viola said. “Everyone was listening to the song [‘Gonna Fly Now’], drinking eggs in the morning
“He was fictitious, but we were going to have the real ‘Rocky.’ ”
These were fighters like Dave Jones, a kickboxer and road laborer; Mike Murray, a car salesman, and Danny “Mad Dog” Moyak, a construction worker with a wild Charles Manson beard.
“A lot of them were from the New Kensington area, real streetfighters,” Mr. Caliguri said. “When we put the word out, they came.”
“Tough Guys” competitions had a loose set of rules (no eye-gouging, biting or “kicking anyone in the jewels”). Knocking out your opponent helped get you to the next round.
Competitors wore boxing-style headgear as well as padded footwear and gloves for safety. That didn’t entirely prevent injuries: one, Frank Tigano, a steelworker from Braddock, broke his jaw but still competed the following month.
There would be other, bigger events, such as the regional finals at the old Stanley Theatre in Downtown Pittsburgh, now the Benedum Center. But according to the film, death in the ring involving a rival promoter’s event would lead to Pennsylvania legistlators banning the sport.
Based on a story idea by Robert Zullo, a former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer, “Tough Guys” was shot in Pittsburgh and the surrounding area, as well as parts of New York and New Jersey.
Many of the fighters were not only tough, they were survivors who seemed happy to tell their stories on camera. In addition to archieved footage of the fights and promotions (remember Liz Miles and Dave Durian on “Evening Magazine”?), there are re-creations of certain scenes that brighten the look of “Tough Guys.”
“We played a little with the narrative,” Mr. DiBiase said. “We made it fast-paced; there’s never a lull.”
Besides Mr. DiBiase, at least another key player in making the documentary has Pittsburgh ties. Brad Grimm, director of photography, is a Monroeville native working in New York City.
Robert Zullo, father of the writer and director, even played Monroeville’s legendary boxing promoter Al Monzo in one re-creation scene.
Executive producers include Morgan Spurlock (the Oscar nominated “Supersize Me”) and Ross Kauffman (who won an Oscar for “Born Into Brothels”).
“Tough Guys” had its cinematic debut in June, when it played to a sold-out crowd at the American Film Institute’s Docs festival. A free, public showing is set for 9 p.m. Friday at the Palace Theatre in Greensburg.
In an early scene, Mr. Jones, the kickboxer, is duking it out with Mr. Murray, the car salesman. Reeling, Mr. Jones tucks into the corner, but it seems he’s just playing possum. As his opponent moves in for the kill, Mr. Jones gives him a vicious kick to the chest and wins the match.
MMA Family Tree Pittsburgh native Bill Viola Sr. credited with creating Mixed Martial Arts in America
Yoi and double yoi. You heard that right… Two Parmanti eatin’ terrible towel waving “Yinzers” from Western Pennsylvania are credited with creating a new sport [MMA] over 14 years before the UFC. These weren’t your average yinzers though, they set sights on a “billion dollar” prize and would have won if it wasn’t for Commonwealth outlawing the sport with the passage of the Tough Guy Law in 1983. Who knew?? Fascinating story of what if, but #Pittsburgh is documented as the birthplace of MMA. BURGH PROUD! Read the book or Watch the Showtime Documentary
How a Pittsburgh karate pioneer Bill Viola Sr. fits in the mixed martial arts family tree from Pankration to UFC. Learn more about the History of MMA
Allegheny “Viola” Shotokan Karate, established in 1969, is a Martial Arts School based in Western Pennsylvania. The club was founded by Sensei William Viola. The name “Allegheny” represented the school’s first location in Allegheny County (East Allegheny High School). “Shotokan,” is the base style of Japanese Karate taught. Over the past 40 years the school has held classes in the suburbs of Pittsburgh including Turtle Creek, North Versailles, Paintertown, White Oak, Irwin, North Irwin and currently residing in North Huntingdon, Pennsylvania.
The school is based on the traditional principles of the Shotokan Karate. Later the school became affiliated with the United States Karate Association and USA Karate Federation.
In 1969 Bill Viola began instructing Keith Bertoluzzi, his first student at East Allegheny High School. Bertoluzzi was the Master of Ceremonies at the Holiday House, Monroeville, PA. Bertoluzzi used his musical influence to invite several celebrities to attend karate classes including;
During the 1970s and 1980s the club was a dominant force at martial arts competitions, successful in both karate and kick boxing championships. The school is credited with sponsoring numerous championships including the Laurel State Karate Championships founded in the 1970s.
In 1980, members of the dojo entered mixed martial arts style fights know as Tough Guy competitions. Shihan Viola is recognized as co-creator of the sport of mixed martial arts. read more
the school organized the USA Karate Allegheny Mountain Championships, a qualifier for the USAKF National Championships. In 1992 the school was instrumental in bringing the USA Karate Junior Olympics to the University of Pittsburgh Field House. Shihan Viola hosted the event with George Anderson (President USA Karate). The USAKF was the national governing body for Karate in the United States (1985-1995), and member of the US Olympic Committee.
USA Karate Team Members Jack Bodell, Rich Sowash, Doug Selchan and Dustin Baldis began their training at the school. Bodell was the first black belt promoted by Shihan Viola and would go on to be a member of the United States Secret Service protecting President Jimmy Carter. He also served as a referee for CV Productions during the Tough Guy Contest (The first mixed martial arts company in America). Bodell would open additional schools in the 1980s including West Newton, PA (School of Orthodox Shotokan Karate). He instructed Selchan and Baldis before relocating south to Memphis, Tenn. Selchan took over as head instructor for the dojo. Doug went on the win a Gold Medal the 1999 Pan-American Games in the +80kg Kumite for the United States. While in Tennessee, Bodell trained USA Karate Team Member Clay Morton.
Sensei Bill Viola Jr. was recognized as the only black belt triple-gold medalist at USA Karate’s Jr. Olympics earning top honors in Kumite, Kata, and Kobudo. As a Junior his was a multiple time national champion and All-American Athlete. Master George Anderson asked Viola Jr. personally to be a member of USA Karate Team. He entered the Adult division in 1995 and earned at least one Gold Medal 1995-1999 each year making him a 5x USAKF National Champion before retiring. In 1998 he was the only Adult Male to win triple gold (Kata, Kumite, -65kg Kumite). Sensei Bill split his time competing in both Olympic-style USA Karate and Open Style NASKA/NBL events throughout his career.
2003 The USA Karate Federation named William Viola as Man of the Year, and inducted him into the USA Karate Hall of Fame largely in part of his body of work at Allegheny Shotokan.
Allegheny Shotokan Karate is the only karate school in Pennsylvania Karate Rating Association history to win all seven grand championships at the Pittsburgh Karate Championships in 1996. Viola’s son, Bill Viola won 8-consecutive black belt overall state titles (1992-1999) and was inducted into the PKRA Hall of Fame. In 1998 the school was honored by Arnold Schwarzenegger as the #1 Martial Arts Demo team in the United States of America.
Allegheny Shotokan has produced hundreds of regional, national, and international champions including titles from; Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), United States of America Karate Federation (USAKF), United States of American National Karate Federation (USANKF), National Black Belt League (NBL), Sport Karate International (SKI) North American Sport Karate Association (NASKA), and Police Athletic League (PAL) Pennsylvania Karate Rating Association (PKRA).
Allegheny Shotokan is the home of Team Kumite, an all-star travel team. The dojo is the most successful sport karate school in the Pittsburgh region producing the only NBL World Champions in the past decade including; 3x World Champion Terrance Tubio, 3x World Champion Alison Viola, most recently 2010 World Champion Dominic Leader.
In 2010 Allegheny Shotokan launched Norwin Ninjas, a specialized course designed to build self-confidence, instill respect, and teach discipline to children ages 4-7 years olds.
William Viola has had the opportunity to teach all five of his children Shotokan Karate; Bill Viola, Addie Viola, Jacque Viola, Alison Viola, and Joce Viola have all earned black belts and have served as instructors at the.
Keith Bertoluzzi, The first karate student in Allegheny Shotokan Karate history. -1969 Co-worker of Sensei Viola at East Allegheny School District.
Jack Bodell, Former agent of the United States Secret Service charged with protecting President Jimmy Carter.
Art Timko, Department of Tobacco and Alcohol
Ray Walters, Senior Ranking Allegheny Shotokan Black Belt Instructor
Ray Adams, Longest running active student -since 1970.
Dave Jones, Recorded a TKO of Mike Murray in round 2 March 1980 in the first mixed martial arts competition in United States.
Rich Sowash, represented the United States at the 198 Pan American Junior Championships in San Jose, Costa Rica winning a bronze medal in WUKO Kata.
Bill Viola USA Karate National Champion, Sport Karate International Champion, Founder of Kumite Classic Entertainment.
Addie Viola USA Karate National Champion.
Rocky Whatule Professional comedian and actor, Host of Hollywood Rockin’ Wrap-up
Terrance Tubio 3x NBL World Champion
Billy Leader Team Kumite Captain, NBL World Games
Ali Viola 3x NBL World Champion Continuous Sparring: 2006 weight World Champion, 2008 Middleweight World Champion, 2009 Middleweight World Champion Buffalo, New York. 2010-present Division 1 Goal Keeper for Youngstown State University.