Gene LeBell, iconic martial arts pioneer, dies at the age of 89 – San Bernardino Sun


Gene LeBell, regarded as America’s first martial arts sensation before parlaying his athleticism into a career as a professional wrestler, actor and stuntman, has died at the age of 89, his family confirmed.

LeBell, who had been in declining health for the past eight months, died in his sleep at home in Sherman Oaks, with his loving wife of years, Midge, by his side on Tuesday, August 9, 2022.

“He was larger than life, and he was so kind. If you said you liked his shirt, he would take it off and give it to you,” said Midge LeBell. “I am devastated. It’s very difficult. I have been with him for so many years. I don’t know how you go on without him. I am so used to him being there. He’s not hurting anymore. He was a wonderful man and was so good to so many. There is nothing bad you can really say about him. He was a good person, so I am sure he is doing well where he is at now. I am sure he is happy now. I want to thank everybody in the world who has said such wonderful things about him and all the prayers that were said for him. I am thanking them for both he and I.”

Gene LeBell with wife Midge. (Hans Gutknecht/Staff Photographer)

Midge and Gene were married twice. The second time, they said their vows on a motorcycle as Gene performed a wheelie with Midge holding on, followed close behind by the minister on a four-wheeler. The couple wore matching red, white, and blue wedding attire and Midge wore flowers in her helmet.

“Judo Gene” LeBell was revered for his strength and tenacity and often referred to as “the toughest man alive.” Beneath the rugged demeanor, the “Godfather of Grappling” was also known for his warmth and generosity. For years, he taught martial arts in Southern California.

Born Ivan Gene LeBell on Oct. 9, 1932, in Los Angeles, LeBell grew up at the famed Olympic Auditorium, where his mother, Aileen Eaton, was a boxing and wrestling promoter from 1942 to 1980. Eaton was the first woman inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

Gene LeBell, Photo courtesy of Midge LeBell
Gene LeBell, Photo courtesy of Midge LeBell

“Fighters practically raised the young LeBell at the Main Street Gym where he started going at 7 years old,” said Midge LeBell. He once sparred with legendary boxer Sugar Ray Robinson as a teenager. He also trained with wrestlers Lou Thesz, and Karl Gotch while growing up.

It’s no wonder LeBell flocked to combat sports and martial arts.

In 1954 and ’55, LeBell won the AAU National Judo Championships heavyweight and overall divisions. He then embarked on his professional wrestling career, implementing his years of judo and catch wrestling and helping popularize the holds and submission attempts that remain in the sports entertainment industry to this day.

Ronda Rousey gets a hug from 'Judo' Gene LeBell at the Hayastan MMA Academy in North Hollywood, CA. (Hans Gutknecht/Staff Photographer)
Ronda Rousey gets a hug from ‘Judo’ Gene LeBell at the Hayastan MMA Academy in North Hollywood, CA. (Hans Gutknecht/Staff Photographer)

LeBell famously wore a pink gi and would invite anybody to take a turn on the mat with him if they had anything to say about it. The pink uniform originated from a trip to Japan where a pair of red socks, or shorts, made their way into the laundry, turning his white uniform to pink. With only one uniform, he wore it and beat the competition. The newspaper the following day had a story saying the American radish wins. LeBell thought it was because he had red hair before someone told him it was because of his pink attire. He wore the pink gi from then on.

LeBell was a pioneer in the sport of MMA before there was MMA. One of the first martial artists to train in wrestling, judo, boxing, karate, and other combat arts, he blended the techniques into an efficient fighting style. In 1963, in Salt Lake City, LeBell took on boxer Milo Savage the fifth ranked light heavyweight boxer in the world. Kenpo Master Ed Parker asked LeBell to take on the fighter after a challenge was issued stating that a boxer could easily beat any martial artist. LeBell wore a gi for the fight, and Savage had his body greased to make it difficult for LeBell to grab him. LeBell was victorious, choking out the boxer in the fourth round, sparking a riot in the auditorium.

Bas Rutton with 'Judo' Gene LeBell at National Fight Alliance Valley Invasion 2 at the Warner Center Marriot in Woodland Hills Friday, April 6, 2012. (Hans Gutknecht/Staff Photographrer)
Bas Rutton with ‘Judo’ Gene LeBell at National Fight Alliance Valley Invasion 2 at the Warner Center Marriott in Woodland Hills Friday, April 6, 2012. (Hans Gutknecht/Staff Photographrer)

Highly decorated in judo and jiu-jitsu, LeBell also began teaching grappling to notable names: Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, Benny “the Jet” Urquidez, Roddy Piper, Bill “Superfoot” Wallace, Gokor Chivichyan, Steve McQueen, George Reeves, Robert Duvall, John Saxon and many more.

LeBell’s top student Gokor Chivichyan started training with him at the age of 16 and now runs the Hayastan MMA Academy in North Hollywood. “I look at Gene as my second father. He had a big heart. He was a good man. We are going to miss him a lot,” Chivichyan said of his teacher.

Grappling with the ‘Toughest Man Alive’

 

In 2006, LeBell even welcomed an unsuspecting Daily News reporter to the Hayastan Academy for a lesson that went about as you would think when LeBell started it with his common non-serious threat: “Alright, you bums! Let’s get working, or I’ll burn your houses down.”

Photo courtesy of Midge LeBell
Photo courtesy of Midge LeBell

In the 1960s, LeBell began acting and doing stunts, including in three movies with Elvis Presley. On the set of “The Green Hornet,” LeBell struck up a friendship with Bruce Lee, and they began cross-training, with LeBell showing Lee his pain-inflicting holds, locks and throws, and Lee demonstrating his lightning-quick kicks and strikes. Lee and LeBell had a rocky start to their friendship after LeBell hoisted Lee on his back in a fireman’s carry without Lee’s cooperation. Eventually, LeBell put Lee down, and the pair became friends.

Ronda Rousey talks with her mother AnnMaria DeMars and 'Judo' Gene LeBell at the Hayastan MMA Academy in North Hollywood, CA. DeMars won the 1984 World Judo Championships in Vienna, Austria.(Hans Gutknecht/Staff Photographer)
Ronda Rousey talks with her mother AnnMaria DeMars and ‘Judo’ Gene LeBell at the Hayastan MMA Academy in North Hollywood, CA. DeMars won the 1984 World Judo Championships in Vienna, Austria.(Hans Gutknecht/Staff Photographer)

LeBell’s students included AnnMaria De Mars, the first American to ever win a gold medal at the World Judo Championships in 1984, and De Mars’ daughter, Ronda Rousey, who became the first American woman to earn an Olympic medal in judo by winning bronze at the 2008 Beijing Olympics before embarking on her illustrious MMA career.

“Very, very few people believed in me at the very beginning of my MMA career, you could literally count them on one hand. He was one of the people trying to convince my mom to let me do it, but he was also privately trying to convince me not to do it. He totally supported me, he was telling my mom to let me do it, and he was telling me, ‘I’ve won every R-E-A-L fight and never made a penny and lost every R-E-E-L fight and I am comfortably retired, think about that kid.’ He said he would help me out with this MMA stuff, but he was always trying to get me stunt jobs and to meet the right people in the stunt works so I would have somewhere to go after fighting. He not only tried to help me get into fighting, but he also helped me think about life afterward before anybody would even entertain the thought. He was already trying to get me out and convince me that I am more than just a fighter and capable of so much more.” Rousey said of her longtime friend and mentor, LeBell.

Ronda Rousey getst a kiss from 'Judo' Gene LeBell at the Hayastan MMA Academy in North Hollywood, CA. (Hans Gutknecht/Staff Photographer)
Ronda Rousey gets a kiss from ‘Judo’ Gene LeBell at the Hayastan MMA Academy in North Hollywood, CA. (Hans Gutknecht/Staff Photographer)

Rousey’s husband, Travis Browne, a former top-ranked UFC heavyweight fighter, met LeBell before meeting his future wife. LeBell gave Browne one of the coveted patches that he always had on hand to make a fan smile. Browne put a patch featuring Rousey and Lebell in his gym bag, and there it remained for five years before meeting, falling in love with, and marrying Rousey. “Uncle Gene let him (Browne) know all about me before we met. He put me over to my future husband before we ever met,” said Rousey. LeBell also helped Rousey secure her nickname “Rowdy” from his former black belt student Rowdy Roddy Piper. “He told Rowdy Piper that he would stretch him if he didn’t let me use it,” Rousey said with a chuckle as she recounted the story.

Strikeforce Women's Champion Ronda Rousey beats Sarah Kaufman to retain her belt at Valley View Casino Center in San Diego Saturday, August 18, 2012. Rousey beat Kaufman in the first round via arm bar. (Hans Gutknecht/Staff Photographer)
Strikeforce Women’s Champion Ronda Rousey celebrates with coach Gene LeBell after defeating Sarah Kaufman to retain her belt at Valley View Casino Center in San Diego Saturday, August 18, 2012. Rousey beat Kaufman in the first round via arm bar. (Hans Gutknecht/Staff Photographer)

As Rousey rose to prominence in the UFC as the first woman on its roster and its first female champion, LeBell was always in her corner, often seen with a stopwatch to record her first-round finishes. She has a tattoo of her winning fight times on her right wrist down her forearm. “I got a tattoo of how many seconds it took me to win all my (MMA) matches. My first match, the official time, and his time differed by two seconds, and I was like (expletive) the official time, Gene’s time is what matters, so I tattooed his time.” Rousey and mother De Mars gifted LeBell a new stopwatch for his 80th birthday in 2012.

She will hurt you: Ronda Rousey, 24, “owns it” in MMA ring

In a story in the L.A. Daily News in 2011 to feature Rousey’s breakout potential in the sport, nearly a year and a half before she made her UFC debut, LeBell offered his assessment of his pupil.

“She gets in that ring, and she owns it mentally,” said LeBell, then 78, who couldn’t resist touching upon his pro wrestling background and growling to describe Rousey colorfully. “She says, ‘This is my house. This is my bedroom, my kitchen, my garage and my front room.’ LeBell continued

“She’s gonna annihilate you. She’s gonna mutilate you. She’s gonna assassinate you.”

Gene LeBell, Photo courtesy of Midge LeBell
Gene LeBell, Photo courtesy of Midge LeBell

In the end, LeBell had appeared in more than 1,000 films, shows and commercials. His roles went from such series as “Mission: Impossible,” “I Spy,” “The Wild Wild West,” “Baretta,” “Married … with Children,” and “Baywatch” to feature films “Raging Bull,” “Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins” and “Ed Wood.” One of his last appearances was in “Men In Black II” in 2002. LeBell was presented with the Taurus Lifetime Achievement Award on Saturday, May 13, 2017 for his outstanding contribution to the world of action feature films. The Taurus World Stunt Awards are held yearly to honor stunt performers in movies.

It has been said that Brad Pitt’s character of stuntman Cliff Booth in the 2019 Quentin Tarantino film “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” which included a memorable sequence with Lee, was an homage to LeBell.

Photo courtesy of Midge LeBell
Photo courtesy of Midge LeBell

LeBell was also at the center of one of the most highly anticipated fights of the 1970s. The “War of the Worlds” pitted heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali, against Japanese professional wrestling star Antonio Inoki on June 26, 1976, in Tokyo, with LeBell working as the referee. Watched by more than a billion people worldwide, the fight ended in a draw, with LeBell’s score (71-71) determining the outcome after one judge scored it for Ali and the other for Inoki.

Into his 80s, LeBell was still working as a Nevada and California Athletic Commission MMA judge, scoring fights ringside with his ever-present bag of candy, which he always shared, tucked inside a larger bag resting at his feet.

Tributes came from around the world following the announcement of his passing, including on twitter from Chuck Norris, Triple H, Titus Welliver and others.

 

LeBell is survived by his wife, children, and grandchildren.

Services will be private, and donations in Gene LeBell’s name can be made to St. Jude Children’s Hospital.



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