PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – They say good things come in small packages. But here in Pittsburgh, even small packages pack a punch.
“I am a seven-time state champion, a three-time national champion, and last year I won my world title,” Gabby Viola said as she laid out her impressive resume.
“The Viola karate legacy starts back in the 1960s with my father,” Bill Viola, Sr. said. “He was a pioneer of the martial arts. He opened his first dojo [Viola Karate] in 1969 here in western Pennsylvania. And throughout the seventies, eighties, and nineties, the dojo became a dominant force,” Viola added.
The Viola name became synonymous with champions in this region.
“As I came up through the ranks, I also became national champion, and lo and behold, I have my kids, and they become the third generation of Violas to represent the storied tradition of our school. And so now, my son, Will, and my daughter, Gabby, represent the dojo throughout North America,” the senior Viola said.
“Gabby competes in kata, kobudō, and kumite, those are the three levels,” Bill Viola added.
Gabby then laid out the differences between the fighting styles.
“Kata is empty-hand or an imaginary fight. Kobudō is when you use a weapon to do a form, kind of like kata. Kumite, or sparring, is when you actually fight someone,” Gabby said.
This October, Gabby will be competing internationally, traveling overseas to represent the country, and western Pennsylvania, in the world championships.
“I actually won my world title in kumite, but this year, I’m going to try and get the world title in kata, too,” Gabby said.
Gabby has been training at the dojo since the age of two. She trains by herself seven days a week and then takes additional classes five days a week as well.
She even passes on what she’s learned to those even younger than her, including her brother.
“I like teaching. It’s harder to teach my little brother,” Gabby said with a smile. “He doesn’t listen to me, but the rest of them do.”
Gabby’s father, Bill, told the Fan N’ATion crew how surreal this experience has been, seeing Gabby develop into a champion, because of the time he spent with his father. Now, the elder Viola is sharing his expertise and passing that down to his children.
“We call it a family. I don’t look at our students as clients that come through the door. They’ve become one with us. It’s embedded in our culture here,” Bill said.
“All my family has done it, and I really enjoy doing it. If I have a family one day, I would want them to do karate,” Gabby said.
A North Huntingdon girl has earned her first-degree black belt in karate at age 11, persevering through an inflammatory bowel disease that can be debilitating.
Gabriella “Gabby” Viola, 11, the daughter of Jennifer and William Viola Jr., became the youngest holder of a black belt among those who have trained at Allegheny Shotokan Viola Karate Dojo, a North Huntingdon karate school operated by her father, Bill Viola Jr., and founded in 1969 by her grandfather, Bill Viola Sr. She earned her black belt on Aug. 17, which was her birthday.
“Gabby has what I call ‘zentensity,’ a body-mind connection that pushes past what you thought was possible,” her father said.
Having a black belt runs in the family. Both her father and grandfather have their black belts, as well as four of her aunts — Addie, Jacque, Ali and Joce Viola. Fewer than 100 people who have trained at Allegheny Shotokan over the past 50 years have earned a black belt, her father said.
“I wanted to be like my dad. My black belt is better than any trophy,” said Gabby, who shared the honor with six teammates who also took the test.
The youngster, a fifth grade student at Norwin’s Hillcrest Intermediate School, has been “kicking before she could walk,” her father said.
“She literally grew up in the dojo,” said her mother, Jennifer, of the karate school. “It was like her playground.”
Gabby, who trains three or four times a week, said she underwent a six-hour test in which her skills were judged to earn her black belt. She had gone through a four-month process which involves learning the history of martial arts, Japanese terms, hundreds of techniques, endless combinations, self-defense maneuvers and physical endurance.
Gabby has accomplished this while suffering from inflammatory bowel disease, her father said. It is an incurable form of colitis, an autoimmune condition that attacks the healthy tissue in the intestine. She has dealt with bouts of severe bleeding, dehydration, abdominal pain, cramping and joint and skin inflammation, her father said. She has had to endure a number of setbacks and emergency room visits.
“Martial arts teaches perseverance, and she decided that nothing would stop her from earning her black belt,” her father said.
She undergoes monthly infusions of medication at Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh as part of the treatment regime that includes medical trials, diets, medication, steroids, tests and therapy.
Despite the risk of having a flareup of major symptoms after a period of remission, Gabby has competed nationally. She won a gold medal at a World Karate Commission National Championships for martial arts in 2019 and earned a spot on Team USA. She has been recognized as a five-time state champion and ranked first in the North American Sport Karate Association for black belt sparring in 2020.
As for earning her second-degree black belt, Gabby said she must wait until she is 16 to take that test.
She is joined in her family’s love of the sport by her 4-year-old brother, William Viola IV, who trains in the “Nursery Ninja” program and holds a yellow stripe belt.
Gabby is an ambassador for the sport, promoting it to other youngsters.
“They should try it. It is fun, and it is good exercise,” Gabby said.
“Zentensity” is a phrase coined by her father and author Bill Viola Jr. Zentensity is a manifestation of mind over matter, pushing someone to new levels of achievement. Read more in the book CommonSensei
Durham, NC, December 1, 2020 – Jessie Bowen, Director of the American Martial Arts Alliance Foundation announced the release of highly anticipated 2020 MARTIAL ARTS MASTERS & PIONEERS CHUCK NORRIS BIO BOOK – US & World Edition.
Author Bill Viola Jr. Honored in Chuck Norris “Who’s Who” Book
Bill Viola Jr. and his Father Bill Sr. have been inducted into 2020 AMAA “Who’s Who Legends Hall of Honors” alongside martial arts icon Chuck Norris. The pioneers are featured in the 2020 edition of Who’s Who in the Martial Arts Book.
Bill Viola Jr. has followed in his father’s footsteps taking the reins of Allegheny Shotokan Karate Dojo (family owned and operated since 1969). His son William Viola IV and daughter Gabby (third generation of Viola’s) are now on their way to black belts. Bill Viola Jr. was a multiple time USA Karate National Champion and All-American Athlete. He was named World Champion in 1998 by Arnold Schwarzenegger. In fact it was Arnold that encouraged Viola to establish his own production company, and in 1999 he founded Kumite Classic Entertainment which grew into the mecca for martial arts and fitness in the Pittsburgh region.
Viola Jr. is an accredited associate producer, producer, and executive producer with credits in Pittsburgh area films including Warrior, Tough Guys, and most recently had a cameo as Mary Steenburgen’s “Karate Sensei” in the Hulu’s “Happiest Season” which debuted on Thanksgiving.
Viola Jr. is a #1 bestselling author whose latest project CommonSensei is creating major buzz in the self-help genre. His book series, where each volume you can earn a different colored belt, is slated to launch in 2021. The project is aimed towards millennials and Gen-Z sharing, “everything they should teach you in school, but don’t.” Viola explains that the goal of series is becoming a, “Black Belt in Life.” He was just honored as “Author of the Month” (December 2020) by Elite Publications out of North Carolina.
Bill Viola Sr. is the family patriarch of a Pittsburgh’s most famous karate legacy. He is one of the most well-known figures in the karate industry and last year Allegheny Country council honored him by naming September 23rd as “Sensei Viola Day” in recognition of his 50-year anniversary founding Allegheny Shotokan Karate in Western Pennsylvania. Viola Sr. began his journey in combat sports in 1955 in Brownsville, Pennsylvania taking up boxing lessons from the legendary Marion “Slugger” Klingensmith and then in High School he took up Shotokan Karate — never looking back. In 1969 he opened his first dojo (East Allegheny) and then in 1979 he wrote the rules for mixed martial arts (MMA) competition (Tough Guys). He has since been honored by the Heinz History Center as the co-creator of the sport of MMA more than a decade before the UFC. His life story was the subject of the books Godfathers of MMA (2014) and #1 bestselling sports book Tough Guys (2017) which inspired the Showtime film Tough Guys (2017) produced by an Academy Award winning accredited team. He is a member of the USA Karate Hall of Fame, and was named by California University of Pennsylvania as an Illustrious Californian Award (2020).
The ceremony will be an online event with an online Emerging Leaders Conference with special guest speaker Laura Silva Quesada, world renowned transformational coach and author. There will also be online Seminars, martial arts demonstrations and a special salute honoring Grandmaster Chuck Norris, and the Violas.
Jessie Bowen (publisher of Who’s Who) explains, “We are dedicated to preserving and sharing our inductee’s extraordinary journeys with the world. The book is the first of its kind that combines a martial arts history book and directory all in one.
The new Chuck Norris book will be available at Barnes and Noble, Amazon, Lulu, and other book outlets.
For more information, interviews, and demonstration contact Bill Viola Jr. 724-640-2111
Night of Steel featured speakers – The Viola Family.
Gabby Viola was a featured “Impact Speaker” the Western Pennsylvania/West Virginia chapter of the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation for our third annual Night of Steel, a virtual celebration of all things Pittsburgh!
In 2018, Gabby was diagnosed with bowel disease, an incurable inflammatory form of colitis. 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 has made it her goal to “fight” to find a cure and is an advocate for the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation.
The fundraiser was presented by UPMC and the UPMC Health Plan. The evening featured a craft cocktail experience with the Cocktail Guru and standup comedy from well-known comedian, Casey Balsham.
Please join us on our mission to find cures for inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and provide care and resources to patients and their caregivers. With your support, the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation has invested over $350 million to fund critical research for treatments and cures.
The Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation is a non-profit, volunteer-driven organization dedicated to finding the cures for Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. It was founded in 1967 by Irwin M. and Suzanne Rosenthal, William D. and Shelby Modell, and Henry D. Janowitz, M.D. in New York City. The Western Pennsylvania/West Virginia Chapter is headquartered in Pittsburgh and serves the Western PA region including Altoona, Erie, and State College. We also serve the entire state of West Virginia.
In 2007 I set out to share the untold story of the “Tough Guys.” These are the men who created the sport of MMA while Dana White was still in elementary school and 13 years before the UFC existed. A decade later and my book “Godfathers of MMA” is coming to life on SHOWTIME ? The same network that just set PPV records with Mayweather vs McGregor, will broadcast the real origins of MMA in America. Pittsburgh is the “City of Champions” and now can add “Birthplace of MMA” to its banners! It may have been the wrong place wrong time… but it was one hell of a ride. Congrats to my dad and Frank on being a part of American sports history!!!!!!!
Tough Guys reveals the clandestine plot to subvert the “first” mixed martial arts revolution in American history, one poised to challenge boxing as the king of combat sports. Confounded by a freak accident (death in the ring) and widespread corruption, a massive struggle ensued over money, power, and respect between boxing’s gentry and an upstart MMA company from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. CV (Caliguri and Viola) Productions ignited a bitter turf war with the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission that sparked a spectacular David and Goliath battle for leverage. The result was the first law to ban mixed martial arts MMA in America.
The legendary story, buried by rhetoric for years, casts a wide net reeling in everyone from politicians to mobsters, all with ulterior motives; all with eyes on a billion dollar blueprint. From boxing’s “Holy Territory,” the home of Rocky Balboa, to a bizarre connection with the Supreme Court that lead to the first legal precedent for MMA—ever, this is the ultimate inside look.
ACADEMY AWARD® NOMINATED MORGAN SPURLOCK JOINS ACADEMY AWARD® WINNER ROSS KAUFFMAN FOR THE MIXED MARTIAL ARTS DOCUMENTARY “TOUGH GUYS” MMA TV SHOW
MMA TV SHOW ON THE ORIGINS OF THE MIXED MARTIAL ARTS COMPETITION PHENOMENON IS SET TO WORLD PREMIERE ON SHOWTIME
NEW YORK, NY Academy Award® nominated documentarian Morgan Spurlock (SUPER SIZE ME) teams with fellow Oscar® winning filmmaker Ross Kauffman (BORN INTO BROTHELS) to bring TOUGH GUYS – the story of the origins of the mixed martial arts (MMA) fighting phenomenon – to the big screen. The film is executive produced by Kauffman and Spurlock together with Spurlock’s business partner Jeremy Chilnick.
TOUGH GUYS is directed by two award-winning filmmakers, Henry Roosevelt and W.B. Zullo and produced by the award winning commercial producer Craig DiBiase. This moving and insightful non-fiction cinematic film chronicles the origins of the MMA beginning in Pittsburgh, PA in the early 1980s. Back then, these fights were known as the “tough man,” or “tough guy,” or “battle of the brawlers,” or “battle of the superfighters” matches. These fighting bouts have now achieved multimillion-dollar fight status.
“When I was around 12 years old, my dad took me to my first “tough guy” competition in my hometown of Beckley, WV,” says Spurlock. “And I have to admit, it was one of the greatest things I’d ever seen. So when the opportunity came along for me help tell the story of its origin, I jumped at the chance. TOUGH GUYS is an unbelievable tale about the creation of this one of a kind, man against man, skill against skill, sport of the ages. Films like this are rare discoveries, and the characters behind them are even more incredible. If you like watching guys get punched in the face as much as I do, then you are going to love this movie!”
In 1979, Bill Viola and Frank Caliguri dreamed up a contest pitting barroom bigmouths against wrestlers, martial artists, boxers, bouncers and brawlers, billed as no-holds-barred new type of competitive fighting. When the fights succeeded beyond their wildest expectations, they were swept up in a chain of events that ended in the first mixed-martial arts ban in the nation.
Presented through the untold stories of scrappy brawlers and amateur promoters, TOUGH GUYS chronicles the inception of Caliguri and Viola’s first bouts and the colorful, crazy cast of fighters who made them a hit as well as the politicians who brought it all crashing down. The film brings to life a moment when the national martial arts craze was building to a crescendo as the economies of Pennsylvania steel towns were plummeting to levels of unemployment never seen before or since, breeding desperate men looking for chance to prove their worth and earn some money in the ring.
“Like my previous films, BORN INTO BROTHELS and E-TEAM, TOUGH GUYS is about underdogs striving to achieve the impossible,” states Kauffman. “In TOUGH GUYS, the underdog is America’s working class who are searching for respect and ultimately a way to survive. When I got involved I didn’t know how timely the story would be.”
ABOUT TOUGH GUYS:
Told through the colorful stories of scrappy brawlers and amateur promoters, TOUGH GUYS brings to life the birth of mixed martial arts competitions in 1980’s Pittsburgh. The idea to legitimize street fighting by putting it in the ring, brought big money, crowds, copycat competitions and ultimately scrutiny and tighter control. The film is directed by Henry Roosevelt and W.B. Zullo and produced by award winning commercial producer Craig DiBiase. It is executive produced by Oscar winner Ross Kauffman together with Oscar nominated director Morgan Spurlock and his producing partner Jeremy Chlinick. The film is based on associate producer Bill Viola Jr.’s book Godfathers of MMA.
ABOUT MORGAN SPURLOCK:
Morgan Spurlock is an Oscar® nominated filmmaker and founder of Warrior Poets, a New York-based production studio. His first film, SUPER SIZE ME, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004, winning Best Directing honors. The film went on to win the inaugural WGA Best Documentary Screenplay award, as well as garner an Academy Award® nomination for Best Feature Documentary. Since then he has directed, produced, and distributed multiple film, television and online projects, including THE GREATEST MOVIE EVER SOLD; WHERE IN THE WORLD IS OSAMA BIN LADEN?; RATS; MANSOME; CNN’s INSIDE MAN; and more.
ABOUT ROSS KAUFFMAN:
Ross Kauffman is the Academy Award winning Director, Producer and Cinematographer of BORN INTO BROTHELS, winner of the 2005 Academy Award for Best Documentary. He is Co-Director of E-TEAM, a documentary about the high-stakes investigative work of four human rights workers and winner of the 2014 Sundance Cinematography award. He served as Executive Producer on the documentary feature IN A DREAM, which was short-listed for the 2009 Academy Awards and as Consulting Producer on the Academy Award nominated film POSTERGIRL. Ross is a Founder and Creative Director of Fictionless.
The Car Crash that ended my Karate Career… or did it?
I’m in my early 20’s, and I had just graduated college. Pitt was a great university, but I didn’t attend for the academics. Nope, I chose this campus because I needed to commute and train 5 days a week. The 1999 USA Karate National Championships were slated for mid-August and I was a defending Gold 🥇, poised to repeat. My hard work was finally paying off.
Up until now, I was groomed to be a champion🏆. It was all I knew: school, karate, eat, sleep, repeat. No other activities were allowed! Day in, day out I had tunnel vision toward Olympic greatness. I was not naturally gifted with speed or size by any means. In fact, my high school my driver’s license listed me as 5’6” and 105 lbs. Yea, I was a twerp. How the heck did I become an All-American? I had no choice — Sensei says, “Be a champion,” and you know the rest. I had to hold my own against animals at the dojoand bullies at school who thought karate was a joke. Toughness and tenacity were byproducts of survival. I sure took some lumps and abuse, but when my growth spurt hit, it was payback👊. By the time I entered college, I was 6 foot tall with something to prove. I fought in -60 KG category (that’s still only 132 lbs). Hardly menacing, but my confidence grew with my height. I was lean, mean, and kickin’ ass. I didn’t have all the finesse yet, but I unleashed my frustrations in the ring. Win or lose, they remembered the name.
Some careless jagoff in a box truck literally rear-ended my dreams — Fractured neck 😱😥🤕 (summer of 1999). It was earth-shattering. I was just coming into my prime and now my new uniform was a neck brace. Diagnosis from the doc, “Don’t fight anymore.” My heart sank into my shoes and the walls closed in. I had never looked past karate — ever. I was 😡 at the world, and needed a reboot. So I followed an old saying, “Go West young man.”
I took a leap of faith and moved to Los Angeles to learn the entertainment biz 🎥. What?!? I wanted to be a promoter just like my Sensei, and thought Hollywood 🎬 was the ticket. I knew absolutely nothing about the industry, so my friends and family were skeptical to say the least. Fake it till you make it, right? I borrowed my dad’s swagger and walked in like I owned the place. I had instant success. Confidence is contagious, there is no other explanation. SAG card in hand, I worked with A-listers; everyone from Britney Spears to Arnold Schwarzenegger, and all along the way, despite my decision, no one was prouder of me than my father. I knew a conventional job wasn’t for me.
I went to Hollywood 🎬, crushed it, and came back a new man. I missed my college sweetheart (and future wife), my family, and dojo. I refused to let this car crash define me. What should have “broke me; woke me.” It took some Cali🌞for it to sink in, but being a Sensei was in my blood. When I returned to Pittsburgh, the students rejoiced. I didn’t realize how much they missed and needed me. It was just the therapy I needed.
The car crash that should have “broke” me “woke” me.
Being a Sensei was my destiny, and I turned the negative into a positive. That’s right, it can either break you or wake you. My passion inspired new avenues including coaching, promoting and of course confirming my calling to be a lifelong Sensei.
Sensei Bill Viola Jr Karate 空手 🥋 Sport Karate Highlights from the 1990s. Viola was a champion karate competitor in kata, kumite and kobudo. He retired from tournaments in 1999 after a career ending car crash accident. #karate #kumite #pittsburgh #irwin #northhuntingdon #alleghenyshotokan #norwinninjas USA Karate National Champion
Billy and Addie Viola stood on the sidelines and patiently watched 11 members of Father’s Allegheny Shotokan Karate School in North Huntingdon Township win 36 medals at USA Karate’s 25th National Championship in Canton, Ohio.
There was no doubt the siblings were happy for the students – most of whom they helped train – but there were times when they stared out at the mats and wondered, “Why us?”
Billy and Addie Viola, who had competed and won medals at the national competition 18 years in a row, wanted desperately to compete in the tournament, but it wasn’t going to happen this year. They had to miss nationals for the first time in their lives due to off-mat incidents out of their control.
Billy Viola, 22, a six-time Pennsylvania state karate champion from North Huntingdon Township, was unable to defend his national title win of a year ago because he was recovering from a cervical sprain and a small fracture in his neck that he suffered in a car accident two weeks earlier on Route 30 in North Huntingdon Township.
Addie Viola, 20, also an accomplished karate champion, was involved in a separate car accident on Route 30 three weeks earlier. She suffered head and neck injuries, including a gash on her forehead that will require several plastic surgeries to correct.
The Violas’ father, Bill, was concerned for his son and daughter, not only because of their injuries, but because they trained all year for nationals but could not compete.
“That was very disturbing,” Bill Viola said. “It was something that just happens. After all the training, sweat and time they put in, and then this happens.”
Even though the Violas were unable to compete at nationals, they still wanted to be there for their students. The only problem was they were in Denver, Col., with their University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg ecology class when the championships started. The Violas talked the rest of the class into jumping in the van and finishing their trip early so they could return in time to see some of the matches in Canton. Twenty-nine consecutive hours of driving later, the Violas, exhausted and sore, arrived at the Civic Center to the surprise of their students.
“I’ve been in martial arts since I was 3 years old, and this is one of the rare times I had to miss the national championships,” Billy Viola said. “Being a defending champion, it was difficult to watch. But I had to be there for my students.”
Addie Viola agreed.
“It was tough to watch and not be able to do it,” she said. “We still went and watched and supported them.”
Their students didn’t disappoint. Billy Leader, a 7-year-old from NorthHuntingdon Township, won two golds in weapons and advanced synchronized weapons, a silver in kata and a bronze in sparring. His 5-year-old brother, Dominic, the youngest representative Allegheny Shotokan sent to the championships, won a gold in weapons and silver medals in kata and sparring.
Ian Elms, 7, of North Huntingdon Township, brought home three gold medals in weapons, sparring and advanced synchronized weapons team. Ian also earned a bronze in kata.
Leah Ray, a 10-year-old from Larimer, won a silver in sparring and a bronze in kata. Another 10-year-old, Brian Hails from Jeannette, led the 10-13 age group advanced synchronized weapons team to a gold medal and won a silver in kata.
Rick Fox, 17, of Irwin, won golds in weapons and adult synchronized weapons team and a silver in sparring. Theresa Perry, an 18-year-old intermediate green belt from McKeesport, earned gold in weapons, silver in kata and bronze in sparring.
Two intermediate green belts, 22-year-old Christina Adams of Irwin and 24-year-old Tim Meyer of Greensburg, won golds in kata and sparring and silver in weapons. Meyer also captured a gold medal in adult synchronized weapons and a bronze medal in advanced adult team fighting.
Nick Cyktor Jr. of West Newton, who was competing in his first national championship, won a gold in sparring and a bronze in adult team fighting. Cyktor, a beginner white belt, impressed his teammates by taking on black belts in the team event despite a lack of experience.
Rocky Whatule, a 21-year-old advanced black belt from Jeannette, led the adult synchronized weapons team to a gold medal, won a silver in kata and bronze medals in weapons, sparring and adult team fighting.
The Violas’ students and training partners missed seeing them compete. Whatule, who learns and trains with Billy Viola, said this was the first tournament he attended that Billy didn’t compete in.
“As soon as I’d get done with a fight (at past events), I’d head over to his ring and cheer him on and vice versa,” Whatule said. “I used to get pumped up by watching him fight and cheering him on.
“I hope their health stays good and they can compete again soon. When you don’t have a member of your team there, a lot of people get thrown off their games.”
The Violas hope to get back into competition in a couple months. Billy Viola is undergoing therapy three days a week at the Medical Wellness Center in Jeannette, but still teaches at the karate school to stay active. So does Addie Viola, who will need a skin graft to cover the scar on her forehead.
“My goal is to make it back to nationals next year and not move a step back from the previous year when I was the champion,” Billy Viola said. “I want to be right back where I was.”
The car crash did end Bill Viola Jr.’s competitive career, but it opened the door to his true passions.
Bill Viola Jr. began his non-profit work as a Senior at the University of Pittsburgh (1999). Viola founded Kumite International (KI), a scholarship foundation (the first of its kind in the United States) through a partnership with Western PA Police Athletic League and Eckert Seamans Law Firm. KI allocated $50,000 in scholarship funds for karate athletes and 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 his 2004 Kumite Classic.
Viola poised to provide karate scholarships to youth
By Brian Hunger
July 22, 2001
The tone in his voice tells it all.
He wouldn’t tell you it himself, but when Bill Viola graduated from HempfieldArea High School in 1995, he just might have been the most accomplished athlete in his class. But because his specialty was karate, a sport offering little opportunity on the college scene, Viola, now 24, was left with no scholarship offers. He surely had the credentials. A nine-time Pennsylvania state champion who had won six national titles and a 1998 world title, Viola graduated in the top five percent of his senior class, which was one of the biggest in the state.
It seems hard to believe there was no money waiting for him, considering an athlete with similar accolades in, say football, could pick any school he wanted, from Notre Dame to perhaps the Ivy League. Not Viola. He would sit back and ponder whether to laugh or cry. Lots of his friends, most of whom were good athletes but not great ones, received numerous offers from colleges to wrestle and play football or baseball. “I graduated at top end of my class and had a No. 1 rating (in the nation), but couldn’t get any kind of scholarship,” Viola said. “It really bothered me a lot. Even mediocre kids were getting a lot of money. I went to the state and had references and everything but just couldn’t get a dime.” Forced to pay his own way, Viola enrolled at theUniversity of Pittsburgh and graduated Summa Cum Laude and in the top one percent of the political science program.
Still disgruntled years later, Viola recently developed a program called “Kumite International,” which is the first non-profit sport karate rating organization in the United States based upon competitive scholarships. Through two sponsors, Viola designed a ranking system called KicKiss, which is Pennsylvania’s first and only rating system supporting the academic and sport goals of karate students. Viola held his first tournament, the Kumite Classic, recently atHempfield Area High School. The event marked the first of several competitions over the coming year. The top 10 scorers each will be given a $1,000 scholarship. “It’s a unique program,” said Viola, who has won more than 2,000 medals and trophies. “There’s been no financial aid to help in schooling for so long, and there really has never been a board to bring all the other schools in the area together. This new system is like a league of sorts because it brings everybody together, and it’s really catching on in the martial arts community.” Viola said one of the things that bothered him the most regarding the lack of financial support for karate students is that most of them are forced to quit the sport and pursue other avenues in the hope of landing an athletic scholarship. “I’ve known so many people who could have possibly been Olympians, but quit because they needed to go to college,” he said. “There’s no support for them. This is a theme long over due, and we’re starting to draw some national attention. We’re just starting, but it had to begin somewhere.”
Prior to becoming a karate teacher and coach, Viola saw his own career of competing come to an end in a automobile accident. Seemingly invincible, Viola endured a life-changing day in 1999. While travelling on Route 30, his car was struck from behind and he suffered a fractured neck. The accident ultimately ended his competing days, and also left him unable to defend his 1998 national title. “The wreck sure put my life on a different avenue,” he said.
A few months after the accident, Viola moved in with his cousin in Hollywood and did some acting and modeling, including an appearance in a Britney Spears video. He has also coordinated several karate stunt shows on ESPN.
While Viola said he could see himself working in movies as an instructor someday, lately he has been solely a karate connoisseur. “It’s all I really know,” he said. “My dad’s been teaching it since the 1960s and I’ve been doing it since I could stand.”
Karate Instructor Passionate About Foundation
By Dustin Dopirak
June 13, 2002
Bill Viola Jr. had spent countless hours on the phone, on airplanes and in different cities trying to get his organization, Kumite International, going. He had put everything, even a budding career in Hollywood, on hold.
But he remembered why he was doing it the first time he saw the fruits of his labor.
Kumite International is a non-profit organization that sanctions events in sport karate, a sport which allows martial artists of every discipline to compete against one another with a unified point scale. Throughout the year, competitiors accumulate points for winning matches at tournaments. The organization ended its third year of existence with the Kumite Classic April 27 at Hempfield AreaHigh School.
This year’s event marked the first time Viola, 25, was able to award scholarships to those who had earned the most points in each division. It made his organization the first non-profit organization to award scholarships to sport karate athletes.
“It was just a tremendous feeling of gratification,” Viola said. “It was great to know that all of that work we put in allowed them to receive something they truly deserved. I know how much they put into this sport and how little they get for it. Karate athletes face a lot of obstacles that a lot of people don’t know about.”
Viola knows as well as anyone. He began his competitive martial arts career when he was 3 years old, learning karate at his father’s school, the AlleghenyShotokan Karate School in North Huntingdon Township. He won nine state titles, six national championships and one world title in 1998. He already owned four national titles by the time he graduated from Hempfield Area in 1995, but unlike conventional athletes, his successes were rewarded only with trophies.
“I was about as good as there was in the sport of karate, and there was no money there at all for college,” Viola said. “There was a lot for football and basketball and sports like that. Even guys that were mediocre could get a scholarship.”
He graduated from the University of Pittsburgh, and continued to practice karate while he was in school. However, his career ended when he suffered a broken neck in a car accident in 1999. While recovering, he decided to find another way to contribute to karate, and that was where Kumite International found its beginnings.
After leaving the hospital, Viola contacted James Cvetic, president of the Western Pennsylvania chapter of the Police Athletic League, whom Viola had known since his youth. Cvetic put Viola in touch with C. James Parks of the law firm of Eckert, Seamans, Cherin and Mellot, who made the foundation a legal entity.
Viola went on the road to promote the foundation and took it from there. In its second year, Kumite-sanctioned events dotted the East Coast. There are sanctioned tournaments throughout the United States and in Canada and Italy. Last season, there were approximately 18 sanctioned events throughout the entire season. Viola already has scheduled 15 through November.
“Kids his age usually don’t know what they want to do,” Viola’s father said. “But he’s always been very goal-oriented, and you see that in the way he works with this. It’s become like a job to him, and its difficult to have a job like this to do, and he’s done a great job with it.”
The foundation brings in money through selling memberships and through various other fund raisers.This year, it awarded $10,000 in scholarship money to the overall national point champions in novice and advanced divisions in three age groups: 11-and-younger, 12-18, and adult. There are also scholarships for junior black belts (17-and-younger), adult black belts and female black belts.
Next year, Viola said he plans to allocate an additional $10,000 in scholarship money for members who show leadership. High school seniors and college students who intend to teach martial arts also will be able to apply for scholarships.
The foundation has allowed Viola to help a few people that have followed his path, including Angelo Marcile, one of Viola’s best friends and toughest karate rivals.
Marcile, 30, is a blackbelt who has won more than 30 national and state titles in his continuing career. He didn’t have enough money to go to college when he graduated but remained dedicated to the idea while working as a free lance subcontractor and teaching karate at night.
He is enrolled at Point Park College, where he will begin classes after he finishes a course at Community College of Allegheny County to get his grades up. He expects the scholarship he won to pay for his books.
“He told me he was thinking about doing this, and I told him I would help him out anyway I could,” Marcile said of Viola. “He’s really put his heart and soul into this and I’m very thankful for what he’s done.”
‘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”
Meet my Daughter Gabby Viola. An inspiration…
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 Viola 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.”
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. *UPDATE (now that the Pandemic has cancelled the Olympics, we hope to attend in 2020) 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 Viola 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!
he team is gearing up for the 2020 WKC World Championships held in Madrid, Spain and fundraising to visit Tokyo, Japan and attend the 2020 Olympics . For more information visit www.alleghenyshotokan.com
Gabby Viola 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.
Gabby would also like to send this positive vibes and energy out to her Allegheny Shotokan dojo brothers who also suffer from GI complications: Sensei Conor Burns, Sensei Dave Zezza, and Senpai Mike Pietrzyk.
Viola is “Sensei” of Allegheny Shotokan Karate, the gold standard for martial arts in Western PA (celebrating its 50-year anniversary in 2019). The family-owned and operated dojo is blessed with 3 generations of Violas who carry on the legacy. Over the past fifty years, Viola’s karate school has welcomed and transformed everyone from children struggling with autism to Olympic level competitors. On September 23, 2019 the Pittsburgh region celebrated “Sensei Viola Day” to honor the dojo’s contributions to the community over the past 1/2 decade.
“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). The growing Pittsburgh karate legacy includes all four of his sisters and now his daughter, Gabriella Capri Viola (2018 US Open International Champion) and a son, William Viola IV born 2017.
Sensei Bill Honors:
Triple Gold Medalist USA Karate Jr. Olympics
Multiple time USA National Champion as Junior athlete
Recognized as World Champion by Arnold Schwarzenegger -1998
Member of the USA Karate National Team
4x USA Karate Federation National Champion (1995-1998)
4x USAKF All-American Athlete (1995-1998)
Most successful PKRA State Champion of his era.
Creator Sensei Says ® Life Skills Curriculum
2003: Inducted into National Black Belt League The Martial Arts Hall of Fame, 2003
2005: Recipient of The Lifetime Achievement Award, Sport Karate Museum
2011: The Willie Stargell “MVP Award” for community service
2016: Pittsburgh Magazine’s 40 under 40 recipient.
2017: “Whos Who in the Martial Arts” (Legend of American Karate recipient)
In 2020 Viola Jr. was inducted into “Who’s Who Legends” Hall of Fame and was featured in the Chuck Norris edition 2020 Martial Arts Masters and Pioneers book.
Bill Viola was introduced to the art of Shotokan Karate by his father William Viola, founder of Allegheny Shotokan Karate. His lessons began in the late 1970s as a toddler.
As a youth Viola was one of the most consistent and well rounded competitors in the country recognized as a USAKF Jr. Olympic champion and 1993 Overall Sport Karate International Champion. He went on to be the most successful sport karate champion in Pennsylvania Karate Rating Association history winning an unprecedented 8-consecutive black belt overall state titles (1992-1999). As an open and traditional competitor Viola excelled on multiple circuits including NBL, NASKA, AAU, and USAKF. He competed across North America as a member of X-Caliber and Metro All-Star national travel teams.
He was recognized as a multiple USA Karate All-American Athlete and National Champion. Viola was the only adult black belt triple gold medalist (Kata, -65 Kilo Kumite, Kobudo) at the 1997 USAKF National Championships in Akron, Ohio. read more
Bill is the head coach of “Team Kumite,” an all-star travel team that represents Pittsburgh on an international level. Most recently he coached his student, Xander Eddy at the Pan American Championships in Cancun, Mexico. Eddy became the youngest American in history to win Gold and was honored by the Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf and WTAE featured athlete. In 2020, the team is slated to compete at the Irish Open in Dublin, Ireland and visit Tokyo, Japan for the Olympic Games.
Stunt Work & Professional Shows
Viola has served as a stunt actor and choreographer including performances for Paramount Pictures, Nickelodeon Movies, US Steel, Police Athletic League, Eckert Seamans Law Firm, and the University of Pittsburgh. Over the years Viola has participated as a spokesperson for national campaigns including, Say No to Drugs, a tour took Viola coast to coast from Los Angeles to New York. -Pictured left, Bill Viola congratulated by Arnold Schwarzenegger for winning the Arnold Classic -1998
Viola has won numerous national and international titles and was inducted into National Black Belt League Hall of Fame in 2003 (Houston, Texas). He was also inducted into the National Federation of Martial Arts Hall of Fame, Kumite International Hall of Fame, and the Pennsylvania Karate Rating Association Hall of Fame. In 2004 he was honored at The Sport Karate Living Legends Banquet with the Lifetime Achievement Award, Lynchburg, Va. Viola was recognized at the 35th Annual Willie Stargell Memorial banquet on December 16th 2010. He received the “Pittsburgh M.V.P.” award for his work within the fitness and Martial Arts industry.
In the summer of 1999, Viola was involved in an automobile accident on US Route 30 in North Huntingdon, PA. He sustained a serious cervical neck fracture injury that effectively ended his competitive karate career (1981-1999). –Tribune Review Westmoreland Sports August 15, 1999 page 6.
In 2000, Viola partnered with the Western PA Police Athletic League and Eckert Seamans Lawfirm to establish Kumite International college scholarships for competitive martial artists. May 8th 2004 Viola and former NFL Professional Lynn Swann (Chairman, President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports: June 20, 2002 – July 30, 2005) honored scholarship recipients at the Kumite Classic. In 2002 Team Kumite was founded, and have earned the only NBL World Titles in the Pittsburgh region since its inception. NBL World Champion alumni include; Alison Viola, Terrence Tubio, Nicole Sullivan, Jose Rivera, and Dominic Leader. Kumite International was awarded the “Image Award” at the 2005 Arnold Classic in Columbus, Ohio. The ceremony was covered by Black Belt TV.
Fitness And Sports Training
In 1995 Viola began teaching sports endurance and cardio classes. In 2004 Viola expanded his personal training and established “Fitness And Sports Training” (The FAST Class). The conditioning and sports performance classes focused on improved speed, agility and strength for competitive sports teams in the Pittsburgh region.
Viola has served as a consultant for martial arts documentaries and coordinator for International martial arts events across North America including the Mexican Open and the NBL Supergrands World Games; (Jacksonville, Florida / Houston, Texas / Myrtle Beach, South Carolina).
Viola has served as a talent judge and promo coordinator for Sony Pictures Entertainment. He acted as a consultant for the motion picture Warrior, a mixed martial arts movie filmed in Pittsburgh (released September, 2011 by Lionsgate). Viola teamed up with longtime associate Jim Cvetic (Western PA Police Athletic League) to help organize major scenes for the production.
Bill Viola (member of SAG/AFTRA) has made numerous television, film, and radio appearances on networks such as MTV, NBC, CBS, ABC, FOX, UPN, WB, USA, Blackbelt TV, ESPN and more.
In 2000, Viola won Sisqo’s Shakedown, MTV’s most popular program at the time. Singer-choreographer Pink selected him as the most dynamic performer on the show. He has also made appearances in national commercials for companies such as 7-Eleven and built an impressive portfolio as a fashion and commercial print model, featured on MTV’s Hitched or Ditched (Big Bear, California) working along side Jennifer Lopez, Mandy Moore and Carson Daly.
Viola has worked as a freelance talent scout and entertainment entrepreneur. He has mentored top martial arts performers, helping them gain exposure within the entertainment industry. Viola helped launch the modeling career of Nick Bateman at the Model Universe competition in Miami, Florida. Bateman was discovered by fashion Icon Calvin Klein at the event.
Viola has extensive experience within the entertainment industry, working behind the scenes of major Hollywood productions. He has worked on location for big budget music videos sharing the set with musical artists such as the Def Tones, Britney Spears, and The Black Eyed Peas. The experience influenced the creation of The Kumite Classic concept.
You put your right punch in, you put your left kick out, you put your right block in, and shake it all about… 😂
Ah, the classic participation dance where being a Sensei just isn’t enough. This is a lighthearted look at the thousands of Great Glorious Grand Masters, Supreme Grand Masters, Eternal Masters, Ultimate Masters, Sultans, Luminaries, Grand Poohbahs, and Sōke who seem to rival the omnipotent 😮. The self-proclaimed Mega Master can be found in every state, city, and neighborhood across America, just let your fingers do the walking (or nowadays google ‘em). The results will make you go hmmm: “Master “XYZ” from Podunk, Iowa is the undisputed undefeated world champion” (even though they’ve never fought outside their zip code). A similar story repeats in the next county, and the next and the next — it’s mind boggling. To mythbusters, the martial arts industry has become a circus chock-full of showman touting clown credentials like PhDs of martial science, and while Doctor is reserved for academia, the truth is there is no regulation of martial arts, so we rely on the honor system. *Google provided 7,230,000 results for “PhD martial arts,” offering a plethora of scams and diploma mills to choose from:
I’ve been studying Shotokankarate-do my entire life (40 years this past April) under the watchful eye of my father, who’s dedicated a lifetime of service long before me, so I feel confident sharing my observations. I’m forever a student of the “martial way” and by no means an expert in Japanese nomenclature, but I studied 3 years of Japanese language in high school and 2 additional years in college, so I’m well-versed. Sadly, I’ve seen far too many egos inflated simply by perusing a Japanese/English dictionary and thesaurus. The psychological warfare of “one upping” the instructor next door is a game I call the Sōke Pokey. First, instructors spin the wheel of fortune in search of an exotic sounding prefix. Popular honorifics include Kyoshi and Hanshi, but sometimes those are just too plain Jane. How about Kancho, Kaicho, Shidoshi, Shoshum or Meijin? Those sound a little more obscure and mystical. You get the idea. Next, said bogus promotion is christened under the banner of a cyber roundtable who legitimize the rank (for 3 installments of $199.99). I know that may seem a bit snarky, but it’s just too easy with all the nonsense online. You can almost hear the “as seen on TV” voice say, “But wait there’s more! You get an embroidered dragon patch and certificate with assorted random hanko at no extra charge.” It’s obnoxiously oversized, so it’s perfect for a profile pic. For a little extra coin, they will throw in a hall of fame honor where Bruce Lee is a member. Authenticity guaranteed—notarized on parchment paper from an ancient Buddhist temple. These head honcho with 13th degree barber shop belts in muckety muck are the essence of capitalism and the contradiction of budo. It’s ok to chuckle, we all know the type. FYI: hancho (班長) is Japanese term now part of American Jargon meaning, “squad leader.”
Not all egomaniacs are selling snake oil, some are actually very good at fighting, but once injected, narcissistic bujutsu can be deadly. Think Cobra Kai, “fear does not exist in this dojo.”The antivenom is budo, but some posers hide under its guise. Beware of the charlatan preaching humility; there is a profound philosophical difference between a martial artist and a martial wayist. It may be cliché, but actions do speak louder than words, unless you’re an unsuspecting white belt who doesn’t know any better. Newbies often get swept up in the cult. I’m not saying you can’t be proud of your dojo’s accomplishments, you should be, just don’t fabricate them. My father taught me that, “Character is a commodity you can’t buy, you can only build it—authentic budo is priceless.”
There are far too many self-promoted gurus who exaggerate to the nth degree. What may have started as a “white” belt sized stretch can quickly escalate to “black” belt levels of hyperreality. Most often the offenders share the same M.O.: out of shape, brash and boastful. You might overhear tales of a shaolin monk that blessed them with holy water or how their system is far too lethal for competition. Their ensemble includes a tattered Crayola inspired obi that Liberace would be proud of, and a uniform bedazzled with patches and chevrons signifying eminence, but nobody has actually seen them do anything—ever. Are these kuchi bushi (mouth warriors) lost in delusions of grandeur? Each case is different, but many have lineage that is hazy at best. There are always exceptions to the rule, but if it walks and talks like a duck, well…
Some are harmless, while others harmful. I do believe there are innocent casualties of this vicious cycle, byproducts of second or third generations of blasphemy. Alas, Funakoshi Sensei must be rolling over in his grave. The father of modern karate never really bothered with rank himself; instead progression was dignified through a journey of self-perfection. I’m not saying modern kyu/dan ranking is wrong (we use it), I am emphasizing it shouldn’t be the bane or your existence. Hierarchy is necessary for the success of commercial karate schools and is beneficial when kept in perspective. There are certainly qualified Grand Masters and 10th degree black belts who deserve this rank, but they are far and few between. Not every McDojo headmaster is qualified.
All Japanese arts, be it ikebana (flower arrangements) or tea ceremonies, are highly structured and regimented so it’s no surprise karate followed this pattern. However, belts, uniforms, and degrees are a modern phenomenon that didn’t exist in feudal Japan. Its history really began with the Dai Nippon Butoku Kai 大日本武徳会 (Greater Japan Martial Virtue Society) established in 1895 in Kyoto (under the authority of the Japanese Government).
Its purpose was noble; solidify and standardize all disciplines, and it worked for a time. At the turn of the 20th century the Butoku-kai tested the water by issuing titles of Hanshi and Kyoshi to several kendo experts. (Prior, menkyo or secret scrolls were common). These licenses are not, I repeat, not spoken titles (only used in written format). In layman terms, my brother in-law Tim is a Master Plumber, but I don’t greet him as, “Master Tim,” although he might get a kick out of that. The only place I see it is on his resume. In Japan, using “Master” in the first person is a breach of etiquette. Yes, you have earned that rank, but it’s impolite and ignorant to broadcast it. Sensei is the polite accepted title when speaking of lawyers, teachers, doctors or martial arts masters. Sadly, for insecure karate-ka, that isn’t very sexy. Speaking of etiquette, don’t forget the physical act of rei (bowing) is literally pushing down ego (the core value of budo).
The initial disciplines of the Butoku-ka were Jujutsu, Judo and Kendo. Kano Jigoro (the founder of Judo) had already adapted the kyu/dan system (1883) however it was not a new invention as some like to romanticize, it was modified from the ancient Japanese board game Go. Later a black sash would accompany the dan rank followed by the judogi and iconic kuro-obi (black belt) circa 1907. Why did Kano choose white/black? Other Japanese athletic departments such as swimming used a black ribbon to designate advanced competitors. There is no conclusive evidence, but I also believe the influence of Taoism (yin and yang) is a plausible reason for black belt and white dogi contrast. The urban legend of a white obi soiled through blood and sweat as means to reach black color is nonsense. Japanese culture has a propensity for cleanliness.
When Itosu Anko, passed away, Funakoshi picked up his mentors torch and followed Kano’s lead. On April 12, 1924, he awarded the first karate dan rankings to seven of his students, acquiescent to Butoku-kai standards. At the time, Funakoshi himself held no rank, although he eventually accepted the title of Kyoshi in 1943 and he never promoted anyone above 5th dan (including himself). Direct disciples such as Oshima Tsutomu (awarded 5thdan by Funakoshi in 1957) set Godan as the ceiling, never to be surpassed. Others such as Nakayama Masatoshi rose to 9thdan (10th posthumously). Both karate-ka were pioneers with different ideology in terms of relative ranking, so splinters among the core were inevitable (many of Funakoshi’s students established their own organizations, styles, and associations). *Colored belts would not become in vogue until Kawaishi Mikonosuke (Judo) popularized the concept throughout Europe in 1930s as a visual reward system to correspond with Kyu ranks.
Funakoshi and Kano were educators and understood the political clout and power the butokai wielded. If they wanted their respective arts to flourish, they had to play nice in the sandbox and follow government “suggestions.” By the 1930’s karate gained recognition after meeting certain criteria, conformities that had been in motion for years due to Japanese nationalism: Karate had to be written as “empty hand” (Japanese), karate had to adopt a standard dogi and kyu/dan rank system, and karate had to development a sport aspect (competition).
From the beginning, there were mixed emotions on rank. One of Funakoshi’s contemporaries, Chojun Miyagi (Goju-Ryu founder) said, “I believe once dan ranks in karate are awarded, it will inevitably lead to trouble. The ranking system will lead to discrimination within karate and karate-ka will be judged by their rank and not their character. It will create ‘inferior’ and ‘superior’ strata within the karate community and will lead to discrimination between people.” Wow, prophetic. Incidentally, the character “Mr. Miyagi” of Karate Kid fame was inspired by the aforementioned Master. Robert Mark Kamen, co-creator of the movie, was a Goju-ryu student which explains the philosophy behind this famous exchange:
Daniel LaRusso: Hey, what kind of belt do you have?
Mr. Miyagi: Canvas. J.C. Penny. Three ninety-eight. You like. [laughs]
Daniel LaRusso: No, I meant…
Mr. Miyagi: In Okinawa, belt mean no need rope to hold up pants. [laughs; then, seriously] Daniel-san, karate here. [taps his head] Karate here. [taps his heart] Karate never here. [points to his belt] Understand?
Daniel LaRusso: I think so.
The real deal, Grand Master Demura Fumio (Shito-ryu), was Pat Morita’s stuntman for the film.
At the end of war, General MacArthur dissolved all military related organizations in Japan, including Dai Nippon Butoku–kai. In one fell swoop, the flood gates opened, and during the early 1950’s, associations formed left and right by the dojos in each style, each with authority to rank. Big brother could no longer oversee or regulate the industry, and a “title” wave soon to hit the US shores. It was a sea of chaos that Robert Trias and Nakayama Masatoshi tried to regulate. The USKA (United States Karate Association) and JKA (Japan Karate Association) kept things in check, but with no true governing body, it was still the Wild West. Have you ever see the movie Catch Me If You Can with Leo DiCaprio? Con men of his image were common in the martial arts field as it was a lucrative business opportunity. Decades and thousands of associations later, there is still no honor among thieves.
Directions: Shake pride, greed, and ignorance over ice cold ego and stir. Just add students. Sōke (宗家), not to be confused with Sake (although it helps to have a sip or two when encountering grandstanders) is commonly referred to as head of a family or house in Japan. In America, the title is controversial and raises red flags. The pseudo Sōke starter kit typically includes a resume full of multi-10th degree black belts, 15+ hall of fame inductions, and a VHS series of secret waza to supplement the new style they have created. Mind you, I know certain individuals who deserve this moniker, but then again you don’t hear them bragging or selling memberships, so this isn’t their concern. Or is it? The damage done by counterfeit karate-ka is crippling the arts with fiction.
Sōke is synonymous with the term iemoto (family foundation) of a traditional Japanese art. In Japan, this title is rarely used and only applicable to very old martial arts (koryu). The fact remains karate is NOT an old discipline, so why do we have soooo many Sōke in America? Rock beats scissors of course. It’s just another rung on the vanity ladder to prove who’s top dog. They’ve punched their ticket into the Supreme Eternal Grand Master Poohbah club; one part boasting, two parts marketing—all status. With 300+ million Americans to target, it’s not hard to find naïve students who will follow a master in BS.
Without going into a dissertation, Sōke originally had no connection with martial arts at all. Sōke was a quasi-political title often held by the head of the family while the successor (Sōke) was responsible for the “secret transmissions” of the clan. Basically Sōke is heir from generation to generation. Over time, Sōke also included the rights to familial items such as art, plays, and poetry etc. Like the Rockefellers or Carnegie’s, the Japanese upper class aristocrats held court like a corporation. If you’re not familiar, tune into the HBO series Succession, some American Sōke would fit right in. All kidding aside, an exuberant number of martial artists claim to have “inherited” these highly guarded ancient teachings despite not being of Japanese descent or a direct family member. That’s right, all the secrets have been willed to Sōke Joe Sixpack of Ohio. Seems a bit absurd, right?
Others, who can’t verify credentials, find the ShodaiSōke route as the path of least resistance. Adding the Shodai (first generation) to the title is a quicker way to reach Sōke stardom. It’s madness; someone makes up a system, rearranges some kanji and poof, a new style is born. A bit pretentious don’t you think? Worse yet, 20-somethings are getting in on the action. Why not, nobody can stop them from the make believe, it’s as if we are stuck watching Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. Sōke Pokey practitioners swiftly move round and round, in and out of hypocrisy where respect is demanded, worship appreciated and blind loyalty required. The music is loud—so loud they become tone deaf. It echoes, “You put your ego in, you pull your credibility out, you put your arrogance in and you shake it all about.” As the volume reaches dangerous decibel levels, it’s too much for some to bear; others double down.
Pseudo Sōke are eager to defend themselves. The go-to for damage control is cross-training. It’s not uncommon to dabble in multiple styles (an admirable path) earning several 1st and 2nd degree black belts in various arts. Problems arise when those ranks seem to rise exponentially by some illogical compound formula. Regardless, a collective effort is still master of none. Mixing a few disciplines together is just that, mixed martial arts, not a revolutionary ryu. Unless you’ve had some divine intervention, all “contemporary” hybrid systems fall under the MMA umbrella today. Through my own interpretation and innovation, I teach a unique brand of Shotokan. I’ve incorporated elements of kyokushin, capoeira, tegumi, kickboxing, BJJ, and kicking techniques from various Korean arts. It works for me, but at the end of the day my root is Shotokan and my title is Sensei. It is not a newfangled style, just a creative curriculum inspired by Shuhari (Obey, digress, and separate). Shuhari is commonly known as three stages of mastery . First we learn from tradition, then we break from tradition so we can transcend.
I love Jesse Enkamp’s cooking analogy, so I’ll share:
At first, you follow the recipe exactly (Shu).
But when you’ve memorized the recipe, you don’t use it anymore (Ha).
Eventually, you start freestyling, substituting ingredients according to your own taste, creativity and feeling (Ri).
Voila, you are a Master Chef; but you didn’t invent cooking. This is why we have a Sōke epidemic. Philosophically speaking we are encouraged to evolve, but many misinterpret and don’t grasp that combing or modifying traditional techniques isn’t the exception, it’s the norm. We are not in feudal Japan, and Sōke does not mean founder. Unfortunately, it’s grossly and loosely used as propaganda, and Westerners continue to exploit the semantics. If you want to be remembered as a “creator” we already have an appropriate English term, “founder.” I suppose using the esoteric Japanese title gives the users an ordained feeling, but it’s unwarranted in most circumstances.
Honestly, being a Sōke in America today is kind of like being rich in Monopoly: Do not pass go, do not collect $200—go directly to jail. Seriously, I am NOT saying all Sōke are fake, the term exists for a reason (some have legitimate lineage). What I am saying is that very few men or women belong in the same conversation as Funakoshi or Kano. If you fancy yourself in the same breath, then we can agree to disagree. For the small percentage of genuine Sōke or Grand Masters, thank you for your contributions. Legends of the game like Kanazawa Sōke (Shotokan) or Grand Master Ochiai Hidehiko (Washin-ryu) are examples and rightful members of the fraternity. While imposters continue to ride their coattails, it is flattery we can all do without.
As American karate slides down the slippery slope of sokeship, please ingest the rhetoric with grain of salt. Make no mistake, this is not an isolated “karate” problem, it’s widespread: tae kwon do, tang soo do, kung fu, etc. In the end, I’m reminded of a Pastor who fooled his flock. Television evangelist Jimmy Swaggart didn’t do Christianity any favors with his antics, and many Masters tarnish martial arts in the same vein. There will always be those who desire to be a “personality” rather than a “servant.” Even if remorseful, the collateral damage is done, however those hypocrites don’t represent the majority! Despite the heretics, my religious faith hasn’t wavered and neither has my conviction to be a Sensei. Martial-vanity is an easy rabbit hole to fall into, but it’s an alternate state of mind (conscious or subconscious).
Confucius said, “Humility is the solid foundation of all virtues.” As a budoka, I want to influence, not impose; earn, not demand; and lead, not command my students. I will continue to count my blessings and not the amount of stripes on my belt. Rank does not define me, the integrity of my dojo does. Although I’ve technically earned a master title, being a Sensei is all I ever wanted. An average teacher tells, a good teacher explains, a superior teacher demonstrates, but a Sensei inspires.
If my point of view made you question some of your steps, maybe it’s time to change the choreography of your dance. It’s not too late to turn yourself around—budo, that’s what it’s all about.
PS, it’s pronounced “so-kay” not “so-key” if you insist on moving forward. It’s not surprising because the most mispronounced word in Japanese history is Karate. We are all guilty of calling it “kuh-rah-dee” but it’s pronounced “kah-rah-tay.” It’s mispronunciation is pretty much accepted as colloquial slang at this point.
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.