No figure in the history of martial arts in America has been surrounded by as much controversy, myth, flamboyance and flat-out bullshit as the late John Keehan, also known as Count Dante. The self-proclaimed “Deadliest Man Alive,” Keehan was once a respected sensei, undefeated tournament fighter and former Midwest Director of the United States Karate Association (USKA) and the one person responsible for entrenching the martial arts in Chicago and the Midwest during the early to mid-1960’s.
After parting ways with his instructor Robert Trias (the “Father of American Karate” who opened the first dojo in the USA in 1946) Keehan began promoting himself as the “Crown Prince of Death” and offered his booklet, World’s Deadliest Fighting Secrets, for sale in the back of comic books and bodybuilding magazines.
A young John Keehan outside his dojo, circa 1965. Move over George Clooney, Keehan was the original "Dapper Dan man!"
An absolute attention hound and fierce self-promoter, Keehan would walk his pet mountain lion down Chicago’s Michigan Ave. and along Lake Shore Drive decked out in a top hat and a cape, claimed to have been descended from Spanish nobility (ignoring the obvious fact that he was a red-headed, fair-skinned Irish guy from the south side of Chicago) and thus had his name legally changed to Count Juan Raphael Dante, worked as a hairdresser to and dated/played Sugar Daddy to several Playboy bunnies, rubbed elbows with mobsters of the Chicago Outfit, instigated the now-infamous Chicago “dojo war” with the Green Dragon Society that took the life of his best friend James Koncevic on April 23, 1970, allegedly masterminded the 1974 Purolator armored car robbery and, after a descent into drug and alcohol abuse, died of bleeding ulcers in 1975 at the ripe old age of 36.
Yep, one interesting dude for sure.
Now you might be thinking, “what does this nutjob have to do with Wing Chun?” Fair enough. The answer is really easy: his ATTITUDE towards the martial arts and fighting in general was dead-on point and is one that all Wing Chun folks could (and should) adopt when it comes to training.
I first read about Count Dante at the age of around 8 years old. I went to the local library looking for anything re: martial arts and found a huge book titled Martial Arts: Traditions, History, People. As I flipped through this beefy over-sized volume (which I remember reminding me of the big liturgy book the priest used at Mass and that I had to hold up for him as an altar server) my heart sank as I realized it wasn’t a book that would show me how to do all the cool stuff I saw on TV; rather it was some kind of massive encyclopedia.
Where my fascination with Dante started; this book was so big it reminded me of the one I had to hold up at Mass as an altar boy!
As I scoured each page looking for something to imitate in my mirror when I got home that would transform me into some hell on wheels fighting machine I came eye to eye with a picture of this creepy guy with a snarling face, a weird beard and a gold medallion around his neck, making some animal claw-like shapes with his hands… I was fascinated.
The photo that started it all. To an 8 year old kid, he looked like a demon!
Not 2 seconds later I read that he was from the south side of Chicago. That sealed the deal for me and I have had a fascination with this guy from that day forward. Hailing from the south side Chicago area myself, I instantly felt compelled to research this story further and many years later as the focus and motivation began to shift in my own training from that of immersion in all things martial arts-related to one of purely seeking out combat effectiveness, his words and his attitude started to pop back into my head.
No doubt about it-Dante/Keehan really made me clarify why I train Wing Chun.
As I have stated many times before, everyone has a different reason for why they began their Wing Chun training that is unique to and resonates with them. All are equally valid, as whichever reason you started training is equally as important as the reason that spurred me to knock on the Wing Chun door. While that may be so in getting anyone to start the ball rolling, the fact of the matter is this-there is only one true reason to continue your study of the art of Wing Chun: combative proficiency.
For all of Keehan’s flaws (I’m sure as hell not lobbying for canonization for the guy) his greatest contribution to the martial arts was his criticism and open contempt for instructors who relied on mysticism instead of aggressive and honest contact based training- guys who demanded blind devotion from their students as to the art’s effectiveness instead of jocking up and putting their egos at risk to find the truth for themselves- in addition to his call for the arts’ return to their fighting essence both in the application of their technique and in their proper mindset and attitude.
Page 12 of his above-mentioned 1968 booklet, World's Deadliest Fighting Secrets, has this to say about the state of martial arts as they rely to effectiveness in fighting, self-defense and all-out hand to hand combat. Anyone interested in making Wing Chun effective in a real-life encounter, a street fight or any self defense situation had best read closely, for it contains the secret to making Wing Chun an effective art for self-defense, personal protection and even full-contact fighting or combat sports:
Special note: proper emphasis on courage, aggressiveness, and actual training hall and street application of effective fighting techniques, is the most serious lacking segment in modern day Karate and Gung Fu schools.
Many Chinese systems consider courage more important than technique, strength or speed as without it all else fails, and courage can sometimes succeed alone. Most karate schools place little emphasis on courage or “guts fighting” and aggressiveness and usually even frown on it. They also do not permit body contact in their self-defense and sparring practice. This makes for a safe training hall but does little to help develop the body to withstand strike punishment and actually hinders the student when they are forced to use it on the street…
Remember, the only true test of a fighting man is what he can do, and no more. Form practice, sparring, self defense practice and brick breaking are meaningless if the man cannot withstand the burden of the ‘real thing’…”
In the October 1976 issue of Defense Combat magazine Dante’s handpicked successor and protégé William Aguiar stated that the mental state stressed by Keehan/Dante was that of being a “7 to 10 second drive to the wall, completely going in for one thing and one thing only – to get the opponent down and out and everything over as quickly as possible.” Dante’s methods emphasized ruthlessness, ferocity and full power attack against your aggressor.
Not surprisingly, in an era replete with mystical mumbo-jumbo, this won him few friends and a host of critics. However justified the dislike for Keehan by his contemporaries in other areas may have been, it has been said that progress depends on the unreasonable man and in this respect time has proven the late John Keehan to be a true visionary regarding the reality of self defense and personal protection.
Dante (right) and student Art Rapkin training in street clothes; another all too often overlooked, yet essential aspect of proper self-defense training. If you're gonna get attacked, I'll bet you 10 bucks its not gonna be when your uniform is on or when you've already gone through your pre-workout warm up and stretching routine.
I find it almost comical that Dante/Keehan’s skewering of mainstream martial arts was written in the late 1960’s!! Dante’s time was smack in the middle of what is now known by the old-timers as the “blood and guts” era of American karate and already he felt that the arts had gotten too soft. Can you imagine what his critique would be of the state of the mainstream shopping mall McDojo’s of today?! I’d bet 50 bucks he’d clutch his chest and make like Redd Foxx on Sanford and Son. All’s I know is his critique wouldn’t be pretty-but it damn well would be justified.
For us as Wing Chun people, we have been both blessed and cursed.
Nothing changes the fact that if someone is going to attack you, they don’t care about any of that shit. They are out to do one thing: impose THEIR will on YOU. All of the certificates, lineage and status one can handle won’t apply the art for you, me or anyone else. Our job is to make sure they don't. As Wing Chun folks committed to honest, no-bullshit training, it would serve all of us to see through the hype, myth, machismo and character flaws and really listen to what someone like Keehan has to say on this topic.
One thing can’t be denied: Dante/Keehan knew his shit and spoke the Gospel truth on martial arts and how they need to be FIGHTING arts. Too many people just don’t listen.
Flamboyant showmanship aside, John Keehan/Count Dante was a worthwhile and necessary part of the evolution of the martial arts in America. Love him or hate him, you knew him-and if you knew him, you knew his opinion on the subject of combat effectiveness because he wasn’t afraid to preach the Good News of fighting with as much gusto and passion as a televangelist to a sold out stadium.
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