Print is technology, an increasingly outdated technology, inarguably losing ground to electronic media. One aspect of advancing technology taken for granted, or increasingly overlooked, is how technology is used for training. The most innately physical of endeavors – the martial arts – has long been transmitted via technology. Whether in ancient scrolls such as Miyamoto Musashi’s Book of Five Rings, sold in books and in DVDs, or transmitted online through streaming video, technology has been informing martial study for centuries.
One of the oldest commercial means of “teaching” the martial arts recently collided with one of the newest. The affair concerns one John Keehan, better known as “Count Dante.”
In the spring of 1964, Black Belt magazine’s John Van Nutter credited John Keehan as one of two men greatly responsible for what Nutter called the rapid growth of the United States Karate Association. At the time, the organization had more than 5,000 members and had the previous July held its first nationwide karate tournament. By 1967, however, Black Belt had changed its tune, and John Keehan had fallen out of favor.
The ads Keehan was taking out in the backs of comic books proclaimed him “The Deadliest Man Alive.” In them, for a mere 4 dollars and 98 cents, the reader was promised “the FORBIDDEN and SECRET training manual of the BLACK DRAGON FIGHTING SOCIETY,” the “DEADLIEST and most TERRIFYING fighting art known to man – and WITHOUT EQUAL. Its MAIMING, MUTILATING, DISFIGURING, PARALYZING and CRIPPLING techniques are known by only a few people in the world.” To those in the “legitimate” martial arts world, the flamboyant Keehan became almost a pariah, a self-styled karate villain whom Black Belt invited its members to pillory in the article, “Storm Clouds over Chicago.”
Keehan’s World Karate Federation was, at the time of the article’s writing, slated to stage an infamously billed “no-holds-barred” karate competition in Chicago that summer. Black Belt was quick to point out that the WKF was “mainly confined to a few dojos [martial arts schools] in the Chicago area.” It was in 1965 that Keehan was arrested on charges of trying to bomb a competitor’s school, a charge that would follow him as surely as would the charge of murder that still lay in his future.
In 1969, Black Belt’s managing editor, D. David Dreis, penned an article called “The Trial of Count Dante,” in which he commented at length on a martial arts forum held in Chicago with John Keehan and several other martial artists. The forum was, in Dreis’ words, “a means for [Count Dante] to explain himself; to tell all of us who he really is.” Dreis admitted that Black Belt had refused to cover the man who, in his words, had done “more harm and more good for karate than any man in Chicago.” Dreis’ bias is clear; he describes Keehan as a “smartly dressed, bearded karateka [karate stylist] with a pomposity in his manner which seems to mark him as a man set apart from the usual trappings of the Oriental karateka.”
The real reason for Dreis’ and Black Belt’s disdain, one imagines, may be found a couple of pages into the piece. Dreis mentions Dante’s self-published booklet, “World’s Deadliest Fighting Arts” (getting the title wrong), and says, “Why [Keehan] would publish such a booklet is beside the point. The answer is readily understandable. The fact that the book is spawning ‘fighters’ throughout the nation is an uncomfortable reality to those who know of his reputation and who are trying to wade their way out of the mire he has put them in.” Keehan’s sale of the martial arts by mail was, in other words, unwelcome.
Attorney Robert Cooley, writing with Hillel Levin in the book, “When Corruption was King,” described John Keehan’s often abruptly violent world. Keehan was charged with murder under an accountability statute that held him liable for the death of his student, after he started a fight at a competitor’s school and the student was run through with a spear.
In court, Cooley argued that the students of the competing Black Cobra Hall were the aggressors, but once on the stand, Keehan was as belligerent and macho as ever. He declared that no one could ever get away with attacking him; the competing martial artists were equally belligerent. In the end, the judge declared them all “a pack of lunatics” and dismissed the charges against everyone.
Keehan was still making headlines in Black Belt in 1976, when noted firearms writer Massad Ayoob wrote an article titled, “Count Dante’s Inferno: What It’s All About.” The self-appointed Count was now newsworthy for doing something he’d never done before nor probably thought likely: He was dead at only 36 years old.
Today, the life and death of John “Count Dante” Keehan are poised again to become a popular culture phenomenon. Filmmaker Floyd Webb is raising funds through crowd-sourcing, working to bring his vision of Keehan’s legacy to the big screen (and ultimately to your streaming video devices). The memory of the man who helped create the mail-order martial arts industry will be preserved by that field’s technological descendant.
The movie promises to be fascinating … while raising to national consciousness the story of a man who might otherwise be forgotten. Reading of John Keehan’s disdain for the powers that were during his day, it is hard not to develop a certain regard for him. In some ways, he had the right attitude about self-defense. He dismissed traditionalism in favor of efficacy, and he spat in the faces of those who presumed to tell him what he could or could not do.
He was also, from all accounts, a huckster, a showman and possibly a deluded egomaniac with a violent temper and poor impulse control. His fame did little to hurt karate as a commercial martial art in the long run, as was feared during his day. Those following his business model continue to empower or to misguide self-study practitioners, however, which surely constitutes a blow to the traditional and commercial martial arts model, both then and now.