“Judo” Gene LeBell, one of the true legends of the martial arts world, has passed away at the age of 89. A Black Belt hall of famer, LeBell may have had a significant influence upon the martial arts world through competition, teaching, writing books and appearing in films for a more extended period of time than anyone in history. Those he imparted his unique blend of grappling to include film legends Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris, grappling expert Gokor Chivichyan, national judo champion Hayward Nishioka and UFC great Ronda Rousey.
Born in 1932, LeBell was involved with the fight world since early childhood. His mother, Aileen Eaton, promoted boxing and wrestling at Los Angeles’ Olympic Auditorium, the west coast’s premier fight venue. From an early age, LeBell was exposed to many of the best fighters on earth. His first grappling lesson is reputed to have come at the age of seven, when he asked the former world wrestling champion, Ed “Strangler” Lewis, to teach him some moves.
During his youth, LeBell had the opportunity to spar with boxing greats like Sugar Ray Robinson and learn catch wrestling from renowned experts like Karl Gotch. He would also take up judo at the age of 12 using what he already knew of wrestling to make a name for himself in that sport, twice winning the United States AAU national championship in 1954 and 1955.
Retiring from judo, LeBell became a professional wrestler, typically playing the bad guy. He toured Japan several times as a wrestler sometimes training in judo at the famed Kodokan, where he became well known among the international judo community befriending legends like Donn Draeger and Jon Bluming. When LeBell visited Japan in 1976 to referee the infamous boxer vs wrestler bout between Muhammad Ali and Antonio Inoki, Draeger told his colleague, Robert W. Smith, that LeBell would have beaten either man.
LeBell is remembered by many in the martial arts community for his role as a participant in another early mixed rules bout when he faced one-time top 5 middleweight boxer Milo Savage in 1963. Asked by kenpo karate master Ed Parker to represent martial arts after Savage’s manager had disparaged Asian fighting styles, LeBell choked Savage unconscious in the fourth round. It was just one example of the skills that lead to him being known within the martial arts world as “the toughest man alive.”
LeBell’s other career was as a film stuntman. Starting in the 1950s appearing in the old George Reeves Superman TV show, LeBell worked consistently in film and television for more than 50 years. It’s possible no one in history has appeared on screen in more total films and TV shows than LeBell, with the number likely well into the thousands. On any given day one can search cable television and eventually find an episode of an old TV show where, if you look carefully, you will see LeBell appearing as a stuntman being tossed around by the star. He once noted that while he was known in martial arts as the toughest man alive, it never added up to a single car payment for him yet he made hundreds of thousands of dollars for being beaten up by every wimp in Hollywood, concluding it’s often better to be the loser.
In real life though, he was seldom the loser. Stories have floated around Hollywood for years of LeBell off screen manhandling cinematic tough guys who got out of line with him including aikidoka Steven Seagal. A famous incident where he pressed Bruce Lee overhead on the set of the Green Hornet TV show is said to have been the basis for the infamous fight scene between a fictional Bruce Lee and Brad Pitt’s stuntman character “Cliff Booth” in the Quentin Tarantino movie “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”
Away from the set and the mats however, LeBell was one of the most beloved figures in martial arts. He was known for a generosity and a kindness that extended to complete strangers. He was almost universally liked and respected within both the martial arts and the film world.
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