I don't remember where it was that I first saw the famed Count Dante ad. Strangely enough I don't believe it was in a comic book. Possibly a pro wrestling periodical or a men's sweat magazine. I do know that I thought that he was one of the coolest looking characters that I had ever seen in my young life. With his black martial arts gi and stylized hair and beard, to paraphrase Jim Kelly, he looked he came straight out of a comic book. Maybe a space pirate.
Or a mercenary on the
Red Skull's payroll. But I knew
he couldn't be real. Could he?
A couple of years after first seeing the Count Dante
ad for his booklet " World's Deadliest Fighting Secrets " I found an article on Dante in one of my older brother's Black Belt magazines. It seemed that he was real afterall. And he was one of the original masters of "alternate facts". Born John Keehan in 1939 he boxed and wrestled in high school.After graduating high school he joined the Marine Reserves and later the Army. It was while in the service he began studying the martial arts. With first judo and jiu jitsu.And of course hand-to-hand combat techniques. Later he studied karate under Robert Trias earning his black belt. He would later develop his own system that he would promote as being "street effective". He would also promote full-contact karate tournaments in the early 60s.
In 1967 Keehan legally had his name changed to " Count Juan Raphael Dante " and claimed he was Spanish royalty. He also began promoting his booklet through ads found in magazines and comic books. In his ads he proclaimed himself the "deadliest man alive" and to have fought in " death matches " in China and Thailand. He reportedly was connected to the Chicago mob and owned several adult book stores, beauty salons, used car lots and of course martial arts schools. He claimed to have taught karate to both Playboy bunnies and Chicago's notorious street-gang the Blackstone Rangers. He also famously challenged Muhammad Ali to a no-holds-barred fight.
There are other stories. Some true and of
course some that are utter bull-bleep. It's very hard to find the truth about someone who totally reinvented himself like Count Dante did. Dante died in 1975 of internal hemorrhaging caused by a bleeding ulcer. But his ads have made him a cult figure of sorts. There has been a film in the making for several years now. And I for one would like to see it completed. Count Dante may have been a charlatan and fraud. But he might just as well have been the most interesting man in American martial arts history.
Faux comic cover art by Vance Capley
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