‘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.”
Pittsburgh area Team Kumite headquartered at Allegheny Shotokan Karate Dojo earns World Titles.
SAINT VINCENT STUDENT KICKS HIS WAY TO A WORLD KARATE TITLE
The World Karate and Kickboxing Commission (WKC) hosted the 2021 World Championships November, 23rd-30th in Orlando, Florida. The weeklong event hosted the world’s best in WKC Tatami-style martial arts competition. Pittsburgh based Allegheny Shotokan “Viola” Karate Dojo earned over 20 medals, including top honors from 20-year-old St. Vincent student Cameron Klos, who was recognized as the overall “Grand Champion.”
Team USA is comprised of 300 athletes from across the country who won the National Team trials in Detroit this past June. Twelve members from Allegheny Shotokan “Viola” Karate Dojo earned positions to represent the United States at the World Championships. Of that group, ten students advanced to the medal rounds and stood on the podium. Sensei (coach) Bill Viola Jr. said, “It is so amazing to see our athletes represent Western PA on an international level. When they play the star spangled banner for one our students, it’s a special moment. Cameron is leading by example.”
The highlight of the week was Cameron Klos earning top honors in the Adult Black Belt Overall Finals. Klos earned a spot to compete by winning gold for his traditional kata (pattern) during elimination rounds. The finals pitted gold medal winners and elite athletes in various disciplines to determine the “best of the best.” The final four international champions represented Canada, Guatemala, Venezuela, and Klos for the United States. In the end, Klos was named Grand Champion of the WKC.
Senator Kim Ward presented Cameron with a proclamation for his victory upon his return to Pittsburgh. He will perform for the County Commissioners at the Greensburg Courthouse of December 16th.
Klos, a Cyber Security major at St. Vincent College, holds a 4.0 GPA. Sensei Viola Jr. says, “It takes a special kind of work ethic to juggle an international karate schedule and remain at the top of his class in college. Cameron personifies dedication. His is earning a ‘black belt in life’.”
The 2022 WKC World Championships will be held in Dublin, Ireland. The team will be fundraising throughout the year to attend and defend their titles. For more information visit www.alleghenyshotokan.com
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.
” ‘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
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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
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.
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
“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.