Martial Arts Legend Frank Dux Makes a Wish Come True
By Ed Rampell
The award-winning “original ultimate fight champion” Frank Dux was portrayed by Jean-Claude Van Damme in the Belgian actor’s star-making turn in 1988’s Bloodsport, about underground fight-to-the-death tournaments in Asia. According to his bio at IMDB.com, “Dux’s fight stats credit him with 56 consecutive knockouts, the fastest knockout, and the most victories (over 300).” The Toronto-born ex-Marine and undercover agent authored the 1996 HarperCollins book The Secret Man: An American Warrior’s Uncensored Story and developed the Dux Ryu Ninjitsu school of self-defense.
Nevertheless, despite Dux’s impressive record, one could argue that John Lombardo Jr., best known as “Johnny,” has fought a tougher battle than any the legendary martial arts master ever faced in the ring, on the battlefield or depicted in 1996’s Thailand-shot The Quest, co-starring Van Damme and Roger “007” Moore, co-written by Dux.
On a sunny August day Dux and his 30-something wife Keira--a lovely blonde Texan, former cheerleader and martial artist with incredibly sky blue eyes color coordinated with her turquoise necklace - made the trip down from Los Angeles to a retirement community of Laguna Woods, CA to be introduced to Johnny and the rest of Lombardo clan.
The visit was to make the Bloodsport fan’s dream to meet his hero come true. It’s easy to see why Johnny emulates the six foot, one inch Golden Global International Martial Arts Hall of Famer: The diminutive, bespectacled Johnny is ensconced in a wheelchair, strapped to various tubes and thingamajigs to help him breath, talk, eat and more.
Johnny has Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD), a severe form of the disorder that is incurable. Due to his immobility, Johnny receives around-the-clock care at his Laguna home from John, Sr. and Carol, his aging parents, and government-provided nurses. According to the book International Neurology, the average life expectancy for someone with DMD, which mostly afflicts males, is 24. (Johnny’s younger brother, Chip, also suffered from DMD and passed away in 1996, while his three sisters don’t have the neuromuscular disease.)
Considering Johnny’s weakened muscles it’s easy to understand why he’d admire Dux, the man depicted by the so-called “Muscles from Brussels” and who is a martial arts legend in his own right. However, Johnny has defied the odds and according to his father, at age 59 he’s bravely beating the odds as “the oldest living person known who has Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy.”
Not only that, but the undaunted Johnny bowls (albeit using a stick and specially made ramp), writes poetry and, as his mother explains, “paints with a paintbrush in his mouth.” Johnny’s watercolors depict sunsets, surfing and other colorful tableaux. The original images and poems are carefully preserved in portfolios and proudly, lovingly shown to Dux by Carol. The Italian-American household is adorned with a framed poster of Frank Sinatra, which is only fitting - like Ol’ Blue Eyes, Johnny, too, is a sort of “Chairman of the Board.”
Clearly impressed and moved, the tournament winner renowned for superhuman feats such as punching through bulletproof glass at 1993’s International Martial Arts Festival in Paris, tells the beaming Johnny, “You’re a champion in your own way.” Dux - the son of Holocaust survivors, a former fighter, Marine and covert operative who is no stranger to adversity himself and has also had to contend with serious health issues - is obviously being sincere. Frank may have kicked ass in exotic-named jousts such as the Kumite and Ghang-gheng in the far out Far East and beyond, but it takes a real gladiator to get into the arena day after day and take on a deadly disease like DMD.
Sitting in his wheelchair in a green shirt, black pants and slippers, his adorable Chihuahua Toby perched beneath his feet, Johnny asks his hero a series of questions. The first inquiry of the man confined to a chair is: “Did you travel the world?” The globe-trotting Dux, casually clad in a black polo shirt, jeans and boots, shades and a stylish turquoise ring, nonchalantly responds, “I traveled to 15 countries in 12 months last year.”
Like any other fan boy Johnny wants to know, “What were your fights like, especially the one in Hong Kong?” Remembering the Kumite, which is rather memorably staged in Bloodsport, the film that put Dux on the map and brought him to Johnny’s attention, Frank surprisingly confesses, “I was scared when I entered the ring.”
Star-struck, Johnny inquires about “the guys you fought, like Chong Li,” the warrior portrayed in Bloodsport by Canton-born Bolo Leung, who was nicknamed “the Chinese Hercules” after he won the Mr. Hong Kong bodybuilding championship. Leung also appeared as Yang Sze in the 1973 Bruce Lee classic Enter the Dragon and in the 2017-released Diamond Cartel, with the late Peter O’Toole, Armand Assante and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa.
After Dux’s reply, Johnny asks about Chuck Norris, whom Frank respectfully says is “a point fighter and kick boxer.” But unafraid to call a spade a spade, he describes a different contestant as “a scary fighter. He killed guys in the ring and took cheap shots.”
The admiration between Johnny and Dux is clearly mutual. “You’re an inspiration to others,” gushes Dux. “It gives meaning to life. It makes you a warrior.” Touched, the strapping “Shi Chang Gui” (Dux’s Shaolin name) reaches into his pockets, pulling out a gold medallion embossed with an image of Frank in a combat stance, Dux’s dukes up. Frank explains he was given this glittering accolade when he was honored at the 2016 awards ceremony in San Antonio of the Masters Hall of Fame, where as “Grand Master” he was the keynote speaker for the organization Recognizing Excellence in Martial Arts.
Then Dux - who is making this unpaid personal appearance to Johnny simply to fulfill the stricken man’s request - gives the golden prize to Johnny as a gift, placing it beneath his atrophied hands. As the appreciative Johnny smiles, John, Sr. blurts out, “There will be a good place in heaven for you. Do you realize how many people who have your notoriety wouldn’t do a thing like that?” Reverting to his tough guy persona, the sensitive sensei good-naturedly quips, “I don’t want to see it on eBay!”
Frank then autographs and inscribes a copy of the book Shidoshi, a novelized account of Dux’s clandestine adventures in the martial arts world written by Gordon Richiusa. It was this author and black belt who serendipitously brought Dux together with the Lombardos, after John, Sr., seeking to help make Johnny’s wish come true, asked Richiusa - who lives in the same retirement enclave and John, Sr. knew had a martial arts background - if he happened to know Frank Dux. As it turned out, not only did Richiusa indeed know him - since the early 1980s! - but Gordon had actually been one of the highest ranking instructors at Dux’s dojo.
Richiusa also founded the nonprofit entity Heroes’ Hearts, and is its Director. The organization was inspired by a survivor of the Pearl Harbor sneak attack, Salvatore “Sam” Richiusa, Gordon’s father. On Dec. 7, 1941 Sam was a Marine serving at Oahu who took aluminum from a downed Japanese warplane and fashioned it into a bracelet depicting two hearts beating as one. Shortly afterwards, Sam gave the one of a kind bracelet to his sweetheart, Flora “Mae” Villani. The Italian-American lovebirds wed not long afterwards; following World War II the Richiusas had five children and were married for 72 years. When Mae passed away, Sam gave the bracelet to his son Gordon with the direction, “Do something good with this.”
Using laser technology, Heroes’ Hearts® Inc. makes exact replicas out of aluminum and copper of the original design depicting intertwined hearts. John, Sr., a tool and die maker by trade, helped make the bracelet’s prototype on a pro bono basis. For this, he was given an “Aloha Award,” a plaque that incorporates the bracelet motif, and is given on behalf of Heroes’ Hearts to people who have shown selflessness and done things on behalf of others. Ed Hoffman, an Auschwitz survivor, also created the copper version, because he felt that “copper is healing.”
“Our motto is: ‘Do something good,’” explains Richiusa. “Our mission statement is simple: ‘We help heroes one good deed at a time.’ Whenever anyone does something on behalf of another without asking for compensation, those people are heroes.” (For more info see: www.HeroesHeartsBracelet.org.)
One of those “good deeds” is helping people afflicted with PTSD. Another is fulfilling wishes, especially for people dealt a bad hand by life. John Sr. and wife Carol issued this statement one day later: "No matter how big Frank's body is, it's too small for his heart."
Witnessing kickass badass Frank Dux’s act of kindheartedness and Johnny’s tenacious struggle to live long and enjoy his time on Earth reminded me of Billy Joel’s song “Angry Young Man” on the “Turnstiles” album, wherein the Piano Man sings:
“I believe I’ve passed the age
Of consciousness and righteous rage
I’ve found that just surviving was a noble fight…
And life went on no matter who was wrong or right.”