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The Life & Times of Gene LeBell

Updated: Oct 30, 2023

Gene LeBell died in his sleep on August 9th 22, at age 89, two months to the day shy of his 90th birthday. A pioneer of martial arts, he lived a long and fascinating life. Today we will take a look at just a fraction of it.

Gene LeBell, also known as ‘Judo Gene LeBell’ is best known for, you guessed it, judo. The truth though is that he was a rare example of a martial artist in the first half of the 20th century who trained in multiple martial arts. Bruce Lee is also well known for this, but LeBell’s accomplishments are slightly different. Whereas Bruce Lee trained in a myriad of martial arts and combined them into his own named style, Jeet Kune Do, or Jun Fan Kickboxing depending on your grip on life, LeBell trained grappling and boxing and tried to put them together in a fashion similar to MMA today.

In his early years, LeBell’s mother worked as a boxing promoter, as a result he was immediately around martial arts. His first notable teacher however, is actually Ed ‘The Strangler’ Lewis, the professional wrestler, who taught LeBell catch wrestling, before he started judo. If you’ve read my history piece on Rikidōzan, you’re probably aware that professional wrestling in it’s early days was a legitimate martial art that was used for worked performances.

In Ed Lewis’ day a lot of the contests you would see in professional wrestling were in fact, legitimate. LeBell was learning from perhaps the best wrestler in the world at the time, putting him in the company of the legendary Lou Thesz, who we also talked about briefly in the Rikidozan piece.

Eventually Gene moved into judo, training it alongside boxing. This path saw him at the centre of several weird and wonderful moments of martial arts history. Gene LeBell was well known for exaggerating and outright fabricating stories – after all, he had that wrestling background and knew what his shtick was. So, I’ve done my best to get the true accounts, to the best of my ability.

Gene LeBell vs Milo Savage

Boxer Jim Beck made the bold claim that a professional boxer would be able to beat any martial artist. When Gene LeBell answered the challenge, he found his opponent switched to Milo Savage. The fight was contested with both athletes wearing judogi’s, a reasonable compromise in the days before no-gi grappling was all the rage. If you’ve ever seen Randy Couture vs James Toney, you’ll know where this is going. The grappler took the boxer down and tapped him with a choke.

In truth though, it wasn’t a great showing, despite the claims that Milo Savage was a top 5 ranked light heavyweight, in reality he was a middleweight journeyman who won about as often as he lost. He was also smaller than Gene LeBell, who for whatever reason struggled to put him away until the fourth.

Muhammed Ali vs Antonio Inoki

Thirteen years later boxers still hadn’t learned their lesson, and Muhammed Ali entered the worst fight ever committed to tape against Antonio Inoki, a catch wrestler and tough man of pro wrestling. The referee? None other than Judo Gene LeBell.

This fight is worth an article on its own, but for now we will say the rules would not allow Inoki to kick Muhammed Ali in the leg, unless Inoki’s knee was on the ground. The reason obviously being that if Inoki was allowed to leg kick, Inoki would win.

Inoki buttscooted the entire match and kicked two blood clots into Muhammed Ali’s legs. There was a brief moment where it looked like Inoki might have started roughing up Ali, but it didn’t quite happen. The fight was ruled a draw, Ali came off the worse of the two, and everyone promptly forgot that it ever happened.

Legal Issues

Strap in guys, this is where it gets weird. Gene LeBell drove Jack Ginsburgs, a porn director, to the home of Robert Hall, a private detective. Ginsburgs shot Robert Hall in the head, killing him. It turned out that Robert Hall wasn’t just a private detective, he had ties to the mob and intelligence services, as well as Robert Vesco, the administration financier of Richard Nixon.

There is much more to it than that, but in short, LeBell was found guilty as an accessory to murder, although this was later overturned by the state Court of Appeals. It’s a strange, unusual story, but with LeBell, you can almost kind of expect these wild tales, especially in the 1970s.

Training with Bruce Lee

I mentioned Bruce Lee earlier, and it’s time to bring him back up. LeBell also had a stint in Hollywood as an actor and stunt man, using his martial arts skills to land him jobs on shows like The Green Hornet, where he met The Dragon.

The two spent at least some time working together training, with Lee learning some grappling technique off LeBell. Perhaps he wasn’t Lee’s teacher, but he certainly had an impact on the worlds most influential martial artist.

Training Ronda Rousey

Perhaps his final big moment in martial arts came when one of his students, Ronda Rousey, became a household name after having a storied career in both mixed martial arts and professional wrestling.

It’s interesting things came full circle for his legacy, with a pupil who would excel in both of the most famous aspects of LeBell’s life, wrestling and martial arts. Her career so far can best be described by LeBell on the Joe Rogan Experience: ‘She used to be such a quiet girl, and now she won’t shut up.’

LeBell leaves a complicated and fascinating legacy, as he was around for so many weird and wonderful moments in martial arts.

This is without getting into his hilarious and childish feud with Steven Segal or his work as a wrestling promoter. There’s no better sign of a life well lived, when the movie of your life, would have to be a four hour disjointed, unbelievable mess, just to try to capture it all.

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