Deadliest Man Alive! The Strange Saga of Count Dante
Many martial artists will be at least peripherally aware of the late John Keehan, a.k.a Count Juan Raphael Dante, who was possibly the most colorful character of the late-'60s/early '70s US martial arts scene. His ferocious, goatee-bearded visage earned him a place in international pop-culture history through his famous "Deadliest Man Alive!" comic book advertisements.
Keehan was obviously an eccentric and an iconoclast. He resented and then dramatically broke from the curious Japanese/Okinawan/military/blue-collar American caste system that evolved during the early years of the American martial arts industry. With little to lose, partly, I imagine, because his family had money, he then attempted to live his own bad-ass martial arts mythology; creating the Count Dante persona and his own style of martial arts, as well as cultivating associations with secret societies both real (the Mafia) and probably imaginary (underground death matches in exotic Asian locales). He also promoted what may well have been the first true full-contact, few rules, all-styles martial arts tournaments in the USA.
Count Dante kept a pet lion in his dojo and dressed the hair of Playboy models, ran a chain of pornography stores and became involved in a feud with a rival Chicago dojo that ended with the death-by-spear-thrust of his best friend. He was a drug user, a highly successful entrepreneur and a bullshit artist of the highest caliber. In short, this was an interesting man.
It's fair to say that T.L. Roy's biography of Keehan/Dante is a quick, easy read. In fact, I read the whole book (108 pages, not counting the bibliography and index) in under one hour. I was helped along by the fact that the spacing between each line of text is the widest I've ever seen in any book, so wide, in fact, that the spaces probably account for about 1/2 of the total volume. Note, however, that the author was kind enough to send me a proof copy and this might have been some sort of printing error or other quirk that will be amended in normal sale copies.
Although it's written in a lively, conversational style, I have to say that I was frequently frustrated in reading "Deadliest Man Alive". Many fascinating details (the pet lion, Dante's purported involvement in a famous armored car robbery, his alleged prejudice against "Orientals", etc.) are mentioned in passing and then abruptly dropped. The story moves along at a brisk pace, but many times I wanted Roy to linger over some point, to offer an opinion or, especially, to dig deeper into the history. A number of intriguing references are left unattributed ("It is said that ...", etc.) Also, there are curiously few direct quotes from Dante himself or from contemporary reviews of his tournaments, etc. (possibly due to copyright concerns). On balance, though, the book certainly includes many details that were news to me.
One incident that is covered in some depth, presumably because it made headline news at the time and was the subject of a criminal trial, was the infamous 1970 "Dojo War" or "Dragon War" that ended tragically with a scene straight out of a Z-grade kung fu movie. The rivalry between Dante's Black Dragon dojo and the Green Dragon school culminated in the ultimate gong sau, a challenge that turned deadly when swords, spears and other weapons were pulled from the dojo walls. The Dragon War is still the subject of controversy, even of urban legend in Chicago martial arts circles, and Roy's re-telling makes for gripping, "True Crime"-style reading.
The overall impression is that Keehan/Dante was a fabulist, though the degree to which he actually believed his own hype is open to question. He was also, by most reports, a tough, skilled fighter and a good coach and teacher, who pioneered a number of attitudes and practices that have now (for better or worse) become part of the American martial arts sub-culture. He seems to have existed in a weird early '70s netherworld of gangsterism, tacky chop-sockey fantasy and street-fighter chic.
The 33-odd photographs are not of great quality, but they're clear enough given that most of them are reproduced from 30+ year old magazines and other ephemera. Here is the young Keehan posing with Ed Parker, Jhoon Rhee and others at an early '60s karate tournament; here is a poster for one of his "World Fighting Arts Championships"; here is Count Dante in all his geek/tough glory, scowling so hard it looks like he's grinning. The pictures are well-chosen and well-placed in the story.
In sum, T.L. Roy has produced an eminently readable light biography. I really enjoyed the book and would recommend it to anyone who, like myself, has a casual interest in the Keehan/Dante story, though I wish it was at least twice as long and went into much greater historical depth. I would also recommend reading Masaad Ayoob's series of Dante interview/articles for "Black Belt" magazine, originally published shortly after Dante's death in the mid-'70s, to supplement and round out the story of the "Deadliest Man Alive".
3 minute Deadliest Man Alive gets record views on Internet.
A lot of the truths about John Keehan aka Count Dante are stranger than fiction.
This is clearly the wierdest and unusual film documentary film project I have ever been involved in. Plus it has me being sued in Federal Court, not by his estate but the son of a former associate.