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
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.”
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.
Fight fans are still crying foul following the melee that was post McGregor/Nurmagomedov. Social media lit up with a barrage of disgust and disdain towards the so-called “martial” behavior of the fighters and their entourages–the same people who shelled out $64.99 to watch a grudge match promoted in the same vein of Vince McMahon’s WrestleMania. Regardless, it’s a blueprint “endeavor era” UFC has relished in and profited. Extracurricular insults of family, faith, and country (staged or not, you decide) have long been staples of the fight game, so the aftermath isn’t all that shocking. Testosterone fuels a consumer base with a penchant for bloodlust and revenge. Shock and awe fills seats and sells PPVs. It’s a dusty old playbook, but effective. Nonetheless, critics of yesteryear who chastise the most recent UFC spectacle are the same who revel in the days of Tyson gnawing on Holyfield’s ear or reminisce of Larry Holmes, soaring like an eagle long before Khabib drop kicked Trevor Berbick. Such antics are legendary and part of fabric of sports. Be it a bench clearing brawl in baseball or two hockey enforcers dropping the gloves, the raw emotion of the moment is revved by the thirst for violence.
So how is UFC’s outburst any different than NBA’s Ron Artest inciting the infamous Auburn Hills riot or MLB’s Roberto Alomar spitting in an umpire’s face? It isn’t, really, but ambiguity seems to surface because the term “martial arts.” Martial arts are subjective, largely due to Hollywood’s portrayal of ancient oriental teachings in a “death before dishonor” way. We’ve been fed the notion that deep down an authentic “martial artist” is always respectful and disciplined, and for nearly a century, America especially, has swallowed the rhetoric. The industry itself seized the moment and commercialized the arts by catering to children (The Karate Kid, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, etc.). It became more about building self-esteem and less about fighting. McDojos and “pay to play” instructors tainted the arts with watered down systems and fast-track black belts for the right price, but those opportunists are for another discussion.
“Martial arts” today is a catch-all, almost generic term that universally and collectively describes any combat system from around the world. Commonly these arts are paired with East Asian etiquette, the premise of this article. The umbrella covers everyone from military and police to toddlers in little ninja tae kwon do classes to soccer moms taking self-defense. Widespread would be an understatement.
Up until the advent of the UFC, most martial artists were revered as ultimate role models, not ultimate fighters. The octagon changed the landscape, not because we haven’t seen bad behavior in the ring before, but because it was considered taboo for martial artists. The image of noble Samurai-esque karate-ka was largely replaced with a glorified roster of trash talking substance abusers, cheats, and domestic heathens; an unsavory cast of characters that push the envelope. It’s the culture of modern professional sports across the board. Side note: My former favorite Pittsburgh Steeler was recently accused of hurling furniture off a roof in a fit of rage, nearly killing a toddler. Regardless; he’s a football player not a martial artist. If he were a “martial artist” he would have displayed complete self-control! NO. Not anymore. Not ever, really. Akin to a yin yang, fighting (martial arts) and living a moral life (martial way) are polar opposites that can harmonize, but make no mistake; they are not one in the same. This conundrum is not mere semantics, and the UFC knows exactly how to exploit it.
Martial arts has roots in prehistoric times, influencing every culture since the dawn of mankind. Fighting is embedded in our DNA, a transgression that leads to the inevitable: WAR. Paying homage to the Roman god of war, the “Arts of Mars” is a “kill or be killed” philosophy. Many arts are entwined deep within mythology, à la Pankration. My studies support the theory that Alexander the Great was a pervasive influence on primitive Martial Arts, and that his conquests likely spread the fundamentals of the Greek martial arts throughout the world, including India. Popular folklore glorifies an Indian Monk named Bodhidharma, a journeyman who traveled to China establishing Zen Buddhism in the 6th Century A.D. Many believe the training regimen he taught the Shaolin Monks later spread and impacted the development of modern (gendai) traditional martial arts around the world. Millennia later we see the fruits of their labor; an offspring of countless forms of armed and unarmed combat. The Japanese arts in particular have captivated a global audience. Regardless of what styles or theories you embrace, martial arts are obviously not the handiwork of one person, group, or culture; it has evolved over thousands of years and continues to evolve today. But remember, the sole purpose of martial arts is warfare—period.
Martial arts is a science to transform your body into a weapon. Here lay the Conor McGregors, Jon Jones, and Colby Covingtons of the sport. Promoting ethics isn’t their shtick; they fight, and they don’t give a damn what people think about physical or physiological tactics. It’s also big business, and business is boomin’. Conor has singled handedly raised the bar for profit sharing. Love or hate the persona, his acumen is next level genius. He is a martial artist who follows his “own” egocentric path. Spoiler; not all “martial artists” care about character, nor should they. Blasphemy you say, but hear me out.
Sometime around the 16th century a seismic shift took place, especially in Asia, where the “art of war” transcended from physical to metaphysical. Many arts began to adopt lifestyles of selflessness. The Samurai (literally meaning to wait upon) would live and die by a moral code. This metamorphosis was known as Budo (Martial Way). Masters began replacing the suffix “jutsu” with “do” instead. The arts were compartmentalized into physical and mental.
Martial Way / Budo: BU 武 Martial (war) DO 道 Way (path)
By the turn of the century, Jigoro Kano’s Judo (formerly jujutsu) and Karate-do became two of the most famous martial arts to adopt principles of morality. Tenets were embedded within each craft; largely to promote their brand to primary schools and universities. Bujutsu is intrinsically savage, but Budo emphasized sophisticated ethical guidelines–essentially the opposite of martial arts. Think of bujutsu as the skill to kill, while budo is a philosophy of self-control. Bujutsu is self-protection, whereas Budo is self-realization. Karate-do is a path or “way of life” guided by precepts of self-enlightenment (inner and outer peace). Learning karate without the “Do” is merely kicking and punching without consciousness. Gichin Funakoshi, the father of modern karate, preached “perfection of character” as the ultimate lesson. This methodology helped spread his art of Shotokan Karate-do around the world. Funakoshi was a martial artist who chose to be a “martial wayist.” Thus, a Dojo isn’t a martial arts school at all, it’s a place to place to learn “the way” (mastery of body, mind, and spirit) through its parent (bujutsu).
*Bugei a catch-all translation for Martial Arts (performance) that straddles both Jutsu and bu; often, it reflects the refinement of instruction. I’ll reserve the dissection of Bugei for another day. My emphasis is on “battlefield” Japanese martial arts prior to the Meiji Restoration (1868) and its successor, Budo. They undoubtedly have the most social impact. There are no official timelines, as elements of Budo have always existed even if not classified as so.
Post WWII, martial arts and martial way were prepackaged and shipped off to America. The separation between Jutsu and Do wasn’t transparent. If you were a martial artist, you also followed traditions of reverence with blind loyalty. That bond strengthened for decades. By the late 1970s, people began to question the legitimacy and effectiveness of many arts. Hollywood sensationalized martial artists as superhuman (i.e. Bruce Lee) and some people weren’t buying it. This unrest marinated until it reached a boiling point in 1979.
My father wrote the first codified set of mixed martial arts rules (although that term wasn’t used at the time) to settle the debate. He and his co-promoter Frank Caliguri invented the “Tough Guy” concept– they were simply tired of people degrading martial arts (calling it fake, useless etc.). They created a sport where all martial arts were in fact mixed, but calling it “martial arts” didn’t fit the narrative. Why? He and Frank were also martial wayists. They taught karate-do. This flavor of “anything goes” combined fighting was the opposite of what people perceived martial arts to be during the era. Instead, they took a disciplined approach to organizing streetfighters, brawlers and yes, self-proclaimed martial arts champions. Any combination of wrestling, boxing, karate, judo, jujutsu, and everything between was legal. It was an American brand of Vale Tudo with civilized rules. Wrestling and boxing notably had their own identity, so labeling it martial arts would have alienated fans and fighters. At the end of the day it was mixed martial arts and a humbling experience for many.
The league, (although groundbreaking in terms of regulation, rules, equipment, and scoring) retrospectively launched at the wrong place at the wrong time. The Godfathers of MMA were outlawed in 1983 by Senate Bill 632 (Tough Guy Law). A decade later UFC debuted. In a sense, UFC was a Tough Guy reboot without regulations, rules, equipment and scoring. It would take years to catch up to their forefathers, and donning the ominous name no-holds-barred, it was far from sport. As we all know, the image didn’t bode well.
MMA: It’s the abbreviation that saved a fledgling sport. The violent spectacles of UFC 1.0 were no longer apropos, so contemporary ultimate fighting needed a “PG” calling card. MMA was a simplistic acronym that conjured a clean, professional image. Martial artists, after all, are some of the most virtuous people on the planet, right? The nomenclature may have been accidental, divine inspiration, or just dumb luck, but it was the right place at the right time.
Colleagues of mine believe the term “mixed martial arts” originated from the pro-wrestling circles of the 1970s, although there is no conclusive evidence. The earliest mainstream usage comes from Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Howard Rosenberg, who may have inadvertently named the sport in his Los Angeles Times article: “’Ultimate’ Fight Lives Up to Name: Television: Pay-Per-View Battle, Instead of Being Merely Gory and Funny, Gets Interesting After the First Two Bouts.” (November 15th 1993). The excerpt reads,
“St. Louis cruiserweight boxer Art Jimmerson didn’t get to throw even one punch before giving up. He was swiftly taken down and dispatched with a chokehold by jujitsu master Royce Gracie, whose family is synonymous with the sport in their native Brazil, where mixed-martial arts championships like this one are commonplace.”
Unbeknownst to him, his casual albeit monumental classification would influence the course of a billion dollar business. Former UFC Commentator Jeff Blatnick began popularizing the term on-air in the 1990s in an effort to remove the stigma of violence. Loretta Hunt, author of the book, Let’s Get It On, claims that John McCarthy is responsible for naming the sport, stating its origin stems from an LAPD work permit that McCarthy filled out to work UFC 2. Hunt explained, “It was called ‘No Holds Barred’ or ‘Ultimate Fighting’ back in the early days. Himself and Jeff Blatnick – a former commentator for the UFC – came up with the ‘Mixed Martial Arts’ name, but it was John’s phrase. And Jeff Blatnick is the one who pushed it on the pay-per-views until people really started picking it up.” Regardless if it rose from the depths of catch-wrestling, a regional promotion, Rosenberg, Blatnik, or McCarthy, semantics saved the sport. The allure of budo gave UFC the facelift it desperately needed.
The emotions elicited by the cage and its extreme monikers were still vivid, but now the sport lay under the martial arts banner for acceptability. As a traditional Shotokan karate-do Sensei myself, I was initially uneasy with the “mixed” suffix adjoining martial arts in the ‘90s because of the aforementioned public misperception. I was a martial wayist, and everything I stood for was being scrutinized. Looking back, the pivot from NHB to MMA was the right move. Fans need to recognize there are two types of martial artists, those who follow the way and those who don’t. The likes of Royce Gracie adorned a martial wayist type persona, while others villainized, vis-à-vis Ken Shamrock, represented martial arts in its original form. It was a savvy move by the UFC, and caught the modern traditional martial arts community off guard. People could not see the forest for the trees; instructors took the use of “martial” personally and immediately pushed back. Streetfighters were not martial artists in their eyes, but the sport gave them its stamp of approval. Fans can’t grasp that martial arts exist without Budo, but Budo cannot exist without martial arts. In layman’s terms, any tough guy off the street can be a martial artist, but martial wayists are defined by traditions and ethics. Machida, Super Sage and GSP are martial artists just like Conor and company, but they also identify as marital wayists, cognizant of their path. There is a grey area; those fighters who drift away from budo, similar to a Ronin, they muddle the martial debate.
Martial Wayist / Budo(shi): Bu 武 (Martial) Do 道 Way (path) Shi 士 (gentleman)
Marital Wayist / Budo(ka) 家 (practitioner) *suffix -ka, when added to a noun, means a person with or special knowledge or expertise)
Although “martial wayist” isn’t a popular term, it’s more or less something I teach my students to illustrate our philosophy, I felt compelled to share. In Japanese, budoka or budoshi can accurately describe a martial wayist. I categorized a martial wayist as one who lives by the bushido (way of the warrior) code, typically bound by eight virtues:
This internalized moral compass shapes a budoka’s body, mind and spirit. Martial wayists are flawed like everyone else; however the difference is they are held accountable for their actions. Martial Arts do not build character, but it can and will reveal it. Bujutsu is instinctive, primal, and physical, but living budo is a peaceful choice. Choose wisely.
* The Kanji (武 ) Bu is also read “Takeshi” and is comprised of 2 characters, tomeru (止める ) which means to stop /suppress and Hoko (戈 ) which means spear or lance. Scholars believe it means to suppress revolt by the use of the spear/lance. So Bu can be literately interpreted as stopping war.
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.
On September 23rd, 2019 Allegheny County Council proclaimed “Sensei Viola Day” for the Pittsburgh Region in recognition of the Dojo 50th year anniversary (1969-2018)
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. On William Viola IV’s birthday (September 23rd, 2019) Both Allegheny and Westmoreland Country area celebrated “Sensei Viola Day” for the Pittsburgh Region in recognition of the Dojo 50th year anniversary (1969-2018)
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.
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).