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Wrestling: Gene LeBell and Bart Vale on the Ancestor of Jiu-jitsu, Sambo and Judo

Wrestling: Gene LeBell and Bart Vale on the Ancestor of Jiu-jitsu, Sambo and Judo

Everyone, it seems, wants to know about it these days — as if it were some new concept generated by martial arts geniuses a few years ago. Whether we call it judo, jiu-jitsu, sambo, Greco-Roman, freestyle or submission, we’re talking about the same thing: wrestling.

Wrestling is the core of these varied styles, along with many others. And it’s been around for thousands of years, even before the days when two fellows named Odysseus and Achilles were engaging in two out of three falls (the latter, it should be noted, having a severe aversion to foot locks that wrapped around his heel).

The Source

“Jiu-jitsu comes from wrestling. So does judo. They’re really all the same thing.”

While that statement may drive some traditional martial artists up the wall, consider the source: “Judo” Gene LeBell. A two-time AAU judo champion, Gene LeBell is regarded as the authority on grappling. But even when you have a background that includes championship titles in professional wrestling and a lifetime of research into unarmed combat, the contours of history can remain sketchy.

“Someone once showed me a book called Egyptian Walls, and it had pictures of those ancient Egyptian paintings,” Gene LeBell said. “In it was a picture of a guy doing a wrestling-[style] body slam. Another one showed him doing a karate-style kick, and still another had him in one of those old-fashioned boxing stances. I don’t know, but there seems to be a lot of similarity between techniques done in the East and West.”

Like his hieroglyphic friend, Gene LeBell takes a multifaceted approach to combat. In his private dojo, a home for “sadomasochists and other people who aren’t too tightly wrapped,” he teaches his own brand of practical self-defense. If anything, Gene LeBell said, his style is closest to the Japanese sport of shootfighting, which he calls the best self-defense method ever devised. With fighters versed in kickboxing and wrestling, and rules that favor a mixture of both, the sport makes for one of the more well-rounded and realistic martial arts going.

“A lot of guys who are world-class in one art like kickboxing or wrestling come to Japan and lose real quick because they’re not versatile enough,” said Bart Vale, a shootfighting instructor based in Miami.

According to Bart Vale, who has competed — and won — extensively in Japan, the Japanese who started the sport combined their own martial arts expertise with amateur and professional wrestling techniques learned from Western champions, primarily Karl Gotch. Karl Gotch was a shooter (as many real wrestlers prefer to be known) of such ferocity that he often refused to engage in staged matches and was avoided by most American pro wrestlers. Traveling the world, he ended up in Japan in the early 1960s, where he nearly rose to the status of a deity within the local wrestling community. Among his students were the legendary Antonio Inoki, who once fought a memorable, if boring, draw with Muhammad Ali; and Yoshiaki Fujiwara, regarded by many as the finest submission wrestler competing today.

“Karl Gotch is the best wrestler that ever lived as far as I’m concerned,” Gene LeBell said. “He traveled all over the world — India, China, everywhere — to learn techniques.”

Among Karl Gotch’s ports of call was a gym in England that taught the Lancashire style of wrestling, from which he got many of the unique submission holds used today by grapplers.

“That was a place where the first time you came to work out, they’d lock the door and beat the hell out of you,” Gene LeBell said. “Then if you came back the next day, they’d teach you something.”

Modern Times

Today’s methods of grappling instruction are somewhat more civilized, although still quite painful.

Grappling involves a different kind of pain than most martial artists trained in the kicking and punching styles are used to. While a strike may stun a fighter, knock him down or even break bones, it’s different from enduring the searing pain that comes from having a joint twisted past the straining point or the constant grinding of an elbow into the neck.

“When people come to train in shootfighting, the karateka and kickboxers seem to have the most trouble adjusting,” Bart Vale said. “People with an amateur-wrestling background often do better at first because they can take the pain and exhaustion that comes with the sport.”


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Besides conditioning, physical toughness and the aforementioned sadomasochistic streak, wrestling primarily requires technique. The key lies in concentrating all your bodyweight against a single point on your opponent’s body. A good example of this is found in the cross-body armbar frequently seen in grappling demonstrations and MMA matches. A standard technique in judo and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, it’s one of the more common finishing holds used today. Simply, the opponent’s arm is trapped and extended against your body while your legs hold his body down. But the pain comes when you press up with your hips against his elbow joint. (You’ll know you kept the hold on too long when you hear a crack.)

“That’s a great hold because it’s easy to get into from so many different positions,” Gene LeBell said. “In any hold, you have to use all the muscles in your legs, hips and back.”

Another key to successfully using holds like the armbar is applying pressure in two directions. This is clearly shown when someone performs a simple but effective choking technique: While pressing down with your forearm against the carotid artery on the side of your opponent’s neck, simultaneously pull up on his head, thus doubling the pressure. (Kids, don’t try this at home. Bart Vale said he once saw a similar hold, done with the legs, strangle a competitor to death during a shootfighting match in Japan.)

The final principle that contributes to wrestling’s effectiveness is the old judo maxim of using an opponent’s own strength against him. In other words, if you’re trying to twist a person’s head to the left and he’s resisting by turning to the right, change the direction of your technique and go along with him by pushing to the right. Usually, he’ll spin into the desired position.


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Augmentation

All this is not to say that wrestling is the only set of skills that counts in a fight. Just ask former Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight champ Mark Coleman, the world-class wrestler who finally met his match in kickboxer Maurice Smith. The fact is, in many self-defense situations, wrestling is the last thing you would want to do. Bart Vale has firsthand knowledge of this from his days heading up security at several of Miami’s rougher nightclubs.

“The last thing you’d want to do in a bar brawl is go to the ground,” he said. “Whenever I saw a fight go to the floor in a bar, it would become a free-for-all. Everyone would try to kick the people on the ground. I always made sure to end a fight standing up.”

Gene LeBell, who works on his striking skills with the likes of Benny “The Jet” Urquidez and Chuck Norris, agreed that grappling is only part of a complete self-defense system: “Some styles are very good on the ground, but they don’t know how to kick and punch. If you try to wrestle multiple opponents, while you grab one guy, his friends are going to blindside you.”

It seems that most martial artists who are seeking practical self-defense but happen to get caught up in the limitations of one style would do well to follow the pictures on those old Egyptian walls. Learn how to grapple — whether in a wrestling, judo, jiu-jitsu or sambo class — and don’t worry too much about what name your instructor happens to use for the art.


About the Author:
Mark Jacobs brings a unique combination of serious journalism and martial arts expertise to the table for Black Belt. Beginning his martial arts studies as a child in goju-ryu karate, he went on to train in boxing, kickboxing, shootfighting, the Gene LeBell grappling system and kali. In addition to Black Belt, his written work has appeared in publications like Sports Illustrated and Men’s Health. He’s the author of the acclaimed instructional text The Principles of Unarmed Combat, available from Turtle Press, and the novels A Bittersweet Science and Pascal’s Wager. To read more from Mark Jacobs, visit his Writing, Fighting and Other Stuff blog.

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