Gene LeBell

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Gene LeBell
Born Ivan Gene LeBell
(1932-10-09) 9 October 1932 (age 83)
Los Angeles, California
Style Catch wrestling, Judo, Jujutsu
Rank      10th degree red belt in Judo
     9th degree black belt in Jujutsu
Notable students Chuck Norris, Bruce Lee, Gokor Chivichyan, Karo Parisyan, Neil Melanson, Bob Wall, Ed Parker, Manny Gamburyan, Ronda Rousey, Tony Halme

Ivan Gene LeBell (born October 9, 1932) is a legendary American martial artist, instructor, stunt performer, and professional wrestler born in Los Angeles, California. LeBell has also worked on over 1,000 films and TV shows[1] and has authored a number of books.[2]

In 2000, the United States Ju-Jitsu Federation (USJJF) promoted him to 9th Dan in jujitsu and taihojutsu. On August 7, 2004, the World Martial Arts Masters Association promoted LeBell to 10th Degree and in February 2005, he was promoted to 9th Dan in Traditional Judo by the USJJF.[3]

Early life[edit]

Ivan Gene Lebell was born in Los Angeles, California. He started training from childhood, influenced by his mother, "Red Head" Aileen Eaton, a promoter of boxing and professional wrestling. LeBell took up catch wrestling under Ed "Strangler" Lewis at 7, also learning boxing under "Sugar" Ray Robinson, but three years later he moved to judo.[4] After getting his black belt, he went to Japan to train at the Kodokan school, where he was considered an outstanding student.[4]


After returning to the United States, LeBell competed in the heavyweight division. At only 20 he won the Amateur Athletic Union National Judo Championships (both heavyweight and overall) in 1954 and 1955, among other minor tournaments. His very first match would be against John Osako, one of the highest ranked judokas at national level, who saw Gene win by osaekomi in an upset. Afterwards, attracted by better payments and the family's value at the business, LeBell focused into professional wrestling. Despite he did not get immediately over, he became known for his martial background, and often acted as a policeman for his brother Mike LeBell.[4] Gene also wrestled under a black mask as The Hangman, teaming up with Roy Staggs.[4]

Match with Milo Savage[edit]

In 1963, LeBell got involved with a challenge by boxer and writer Jim Beck to the practitioners of Japanese martial arts. Beck claimed that a boxer could defeat any martial artist in a straight fight, and offered $1000 of his money to anyone who refuted his claim. The challenge contained abundant trash-talk, evidencing a very limited knowledge of martial arts, to the point that the author seemed to mistake judo for karate.[5]

Encouraged by Ed Parker,[4] LeBell accepted the challenge and travelled to Salt Lake City to meet Beck. However, he then found out that his opponent would not be Beck, but a higher graded boxer, Milo Savage, who had a background in amateur wrestling. The agreed upon time limit for the match was five three-minute rounds. The boxer's side also demanded a special ruleset in which the smaller and "out-primed" Savage could use any type of punch, while the judoka could not kick, seemingly believing Gene was a karateka, and also stipulated that LeBell could not tackle or take down under the waist.[4] In return, they offered Savage to wear a judogi with special fingerless gloves, but the day of the match Beck appeared wearing instead a karategi, much tighter and harder to grab, on the claim they did not know the difference.[6] Also, according to LeBell and other sources, Beck's gloves actually contained brass knuckles,[5][6] and he had also greased up his gi in vaseline to difficult gripping.[5] Due to all those irregularities, Gene believes that the ignorance of the boxer's side about martial arts was not such, and that Savage actually had learned judo in order to defend his throws.[5]

The match took place on December 2, 1963. The contendants were cautious, with LeBell being the first in pressing action by attempting to throw Savage down, but the boxer stopped the move, and Gene suffered the reagravament of an old shoulder injury.[6] LeBell tried several techniques through the second and third rounds and was successful in taking Savage down, but Milo kept defending both standing and on the ground in a very technical manner, apparently confirming LeBell's theory about his opponent knowing judo. Savage even attempted to sweep the judoka in an instance.[6][7] Nonetheless, LeBell got mount and had the opportunity to execute an armbar, but he opted to let the opportunity pass and seek a choke, pondering that Savage wouldn't surrender to a broken arm.[8] Finally, he performed a left harai goshi on the fourth round and landed on his opponent, getting a rear naked choke. Within seconds, Savage was unconscious and LeBell declared the winner.[6]

With the hometown favorite Savage having lost, the crowd began to react adversely, throwing bottles, chairs and other debris into the ring. To prevent a full-blown riot, hometown hero and rated professional boxer Jay Fullmer (brother of boxers Gene and Don Fullmer) entered the ring to congratulate LeBell. The judoka and his team showed their sportsmanship helping to revive Savage by using kappo, as neither the referee nor the ring doctor knew how to reanimate him. Even so, a man tried to stab LeBell on the way out, and he had to be protected by his posse of professional wrestlers.[4]

After retiring[edit]

Following his combat sports career, LeBell, along with his brother Mike, ran the National Wrestling Alliance's Los Angeles territory, NWA Hollywood Wrestling from 1968 to 1982. In June 1976, LeBell refereed the infamous boxing-versus-wrestling contest between Muhammad Ali and Antonio Inoki in Tokyo, Japan. LeBell was selected from over 200 other applicants to referee the bout.[9] LeBell has opened two martial art schools in cooperation with others and has touted his 1963 match with Milo Savage as the first televised MMA fight in America.[10] In his 2005 biography,[11]

Along with the awards received for feats in judo and grappling, LeBell was the 2005 recipient of the Frank Gotch Award in celebration of the positive recognition he brought to the sport of wrestling, the Cauliflower Alley Club presented the award. On March 18, 1995, the Cauliflower Alley Club's again honored LeBell by presenting him with the "Iron Mike Mazurki" award; presented by one of his teachers, legendary professional wrestling champion Lou Thesz.

Television and film work[edit]

LeBell has worked on over 1,000 films, TV shows and commercials as a stuntman or as an actor (including multiple appearances as himself.)[1] LeBell appeared in three Elvis Presley movies as a minor character who starts a fight with the character played by Presley.[12] In addition he also worked on the set of the Green Hornet TV show, and claimed to have had an encounter with Bruce Lee that led to them becoming friends, exchanging ideas[13] and sharing various fighting techniques.[14]

LeBell also appeared in "The World of Martial Arts - Budojujitsu". This 1982 homevideo production, introduced by Chuck Norris and narrated by John Saxon, featured LeBell as a car thief and mugger who (in the prologue) accosts Mitsuru Yamashita and Budojujitsu creator Al Thomas...much to LeBell's regret. The program featured several other martial artists including Graciela Casilas, Karen Sheperd, Victor Ledbetter, Steve Sanders, brothers Benny and Reuben Urquidez, and Dave Vaden.

On March 23, 1991, LeBell was awarded the Honorary "Reel" Membership by the Ring of Friendship of the Cauliflower Alley Club. This award is only given to a select few. Others awarded have been James Cagney, Kirk Douglas, Karl Malden, Cesar Romero, Mickey Rooney, and Sylvester Stallone (movie stars that also did boxing and wrestling).


LeBell has made himself the nicknames "Judo" Gene LeBell, "the Godfather of Grappling" and also "the toughest man alive" for his participation in combat sports. He has trained with or taught grappling skills to many well-known wrestlers and martial artists, such as Benny "The Jet" Urquidez, Bob Wall, Chuck Norris, Ed Parker, Gokor Chivichyan, Karo Parisyan, "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, Mando Guerrero, Manny Gamburyan.

The pink colored judogi became a trademark of LeBell and was a result of a laundry mixup while preparing for a competition in Japan. A pair of red shorts were mixed into the laundry that contained his Gi and turned the uniform a shade of pink. He was set to compete the following day, and being a Saturday evening when he received the now colored uniform, he had to compete in the pink uniform. This set the Japanese crowd livid, as it was considered very insulting, but they somewhat calmed down after LeBell went on to win his division.[14]

LeBell is associated with Gokor Chivichyan's Hayastan MMA Academy where he teaches grappling classes. He also does interviews for magazines, newspapers, and radio as well as judging fights.

LeBell has been spotted in the corner of former US Olympic judoka and current mixed martial artist Ronda Rousey, often seen standing next to her to celebrate her victory. "He befriended Rousey’s mother, AnnMarie De Mars, leading up to her winning the judo Worlds in 1984. He’s known Ronda since birth."[15]


LeBell has authored at least twelve books, including:

  • The Handbook of Judo: An Illustrated Step-by-Step Guide to Winning Sport Judo by Gene LeBell and Lauri C. Coughran. 1962, 1963, 1969, 1971, 1975, 1996.
  • Your Personal Handbook of Self-defense by Gene LeBell. 1964, 1976.
  • Judo and Self-defense for the Young Adult by Gene LeBell. 1971.
  • Pro-Wrestling Finishing Holds by "Judo" Gene LeBell. 1985, 1990.
  • Grappling Master: Combat for Street Defense and Competition by Gene LeBell. 1992.
  • Gene LeBell's Handbook of Self-Defense by Gene LeBell. 1996.
  • Gene LeBell - The Grappling Club Master by Gene LeBell, Ben Springer, and Steve Kim. 1999.
  • Grappling and Self-Defense for the Young Adult by Gene LeBell and Bob Ryder. 2002.
  • How to Break Into Pro Wrestling: "Judo" Gene LeBell's Insider Guide to the Biz by Gene Lebell and Mark Jacobs. 2003.
  • Gene LeBell's Grappling World: The Encyclopedia of Finishing Holds by Gene LeBell. 1998, 2000(2nd expanded edition), 2005(3rd edition).
  • The Godfather of Grappling (authorised biography of LeBell) by "Judo" Gene LeBell, Bob Calhoun, George Foon, and Noelle Kim. 2005.

Championships and accomplishments[edit]


Amateur Athletic Union
  • AAU National Judo Championship (1954)
  • AAU National Judo Championship (1955)

Professional wrestling[edit]

  • Iron Mike Mazurki Award (1995)
  • George Tragos / Lou Thesz Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame
  • Frank Gotch Award (2005)


  1. ^ a b Gene LeBell at the Internet Movie Database
  2. ^
  3. ^ Gene LeBell biography - at the USA Traditional Kodokan Judo website (a program of the USJJF)
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Jonathan Snowden, Shooters: The Toughest Men in Professional Wrestling, 2008, ECW Press
  5. ^ a b c d MMA Origins: American Experiments,, 2012
  6. ^ a b c d e Dewey Lawes Falcone, Judo Versus Boxing, Black Belt Magazine May 1964. URL accessed on April 2, 2010.
  7. ^ Gene LeBell vs Milo Savage: The Day Gene LeBell Saved Martial Arts
  8. ^ Jonathan Snowden, MMA Encyclopedia, 2010, ECW Press
  9. ^ Dave Meltzer. Boxers in wrestling a rich tradition. March 27, 2008.
  10. ^ MMA History - Gene Lebell VS Milo Savage, 1963 on YouTube
  11. ^ The Godfather of Grappling (authorised biography of LeBell) by "Judo" Gene LeBell, Bob Calhoun, George Foon, and Noelle Kim. 2005
  12. ^ According to the cast audio commentary on the DVD of "Reno 911 Miami"
  13. ^ "Where Are They Now?". Inside Kung Fu. Retrieved 2011-01-22. 
  14. ^ a b Jacobs, Marc. "Tough Guys Wear Pink.1995-04-03. Sports Illustrated.
  15. ^ "Gene LeBell and Ronda Rousey's golden lineage". "Fox Sports". 
  16. ^ "NWA Central States Heavyweight Championship history". 
  17. ^ Gerweck, Steve (2011-11-14). "NWA Hall of Fame Class for 2011 announced". WrestleView. Retrieved 2011-11-14. 
  18. ^ "NWA Americas Tag Team Championship history". 
  19. ^ "NWA Hawaii Heavyweight Championship history". 
  20. ^ "NWA North American Heavyweight Championship (Amarillo version) history". 


  • Corcoran, John; Emil Farkas (1983). Martial Arts: Traditions, History, People. Gallery Books. ISBN 0-8317-5805-8. 

External links[edit]