“My name is Gene LeBell. G-E-N-E Capital-L-E-Capital-B-E-L-L. One word like McDonald and if you spell it wrong, I’ll burn your house down.”
– Gene LeBell
One of the most colorful figures in the history of combat sports, who served as a bridge between Ed “Strangler” Lewis and Ronda Rousey, has died.
Ivan Gene LeBell, a legendary figure across multiple industries, died at the age of 89 with the news breaking on Tuesday evening.
It is hard to write about the history of professional wrestling, mixed martial arts, and boxing without LeBell’s name popping up among some of the most significant events in their respective lore.
LeBell parlayed his Judo and grappling expertise into Hollywood where he became one of the most seasoned stunt performers in the industry and was involved in an endless list of film and television projects, often finding himself in the role of a tough guy while working alongside a who’s who of that world.
In 1963, LeBell was light years ahead of the first MMA boom in the country when he fought boxer Milo Savage in a mixed rules match while representing Judo – a sport where he became an AAU national champion in 1954 and 1955. It was promoted on the question of which style was superior, the same question that drove Art Davie to produce the first UFC event in 1993 alongside Rorion Gracie.
On network television, LeBell prevailed after submitting Savage with a rear-naked choke and placing Judo in the limelight, and putting a face on the sport.
LeBell was born into the business to Maurice LeBell and Aileen Eaton. His father died when Gene was only nine years old. His mother was the famed promoter at the Olympic Auditorium that housed boxing and professional wrestling and would marry Cal Eaton. The family had a lock on the Olympic renting it for only $1,500 per month and controlling parking and concessions while also leasing it out for Roller Games and other events on off nights.
His older brother Mike would eventually take over the L.A. office and ran it until 1982 when he sold the territory under Mike LeBell Sports to Vince McMahon Jr. and accepted a role with the nationally expanding promotion as their promoter on the ground in Los Angeles. Gene and Mike were not close as brothers with many that worked with Mike having a negative view of him.
From Freddie Blassie’s autobiography in 2003:
Even during the best of times, I was always waiting for him (Mike LeBell) to put a hatchet in my back. I feel pretty confident saying that every wrestler in the territory felt the same way. Because of all the publicity we got in L.A., you’d wind up with the press clippings while he wound up with the money. When the wrestlers read an interview with him in the newspaper, we’d amuse ourselves by marking it up, changing his words so he sounded like a thief. I used to tell the boys, “When I think of Mike LeBell, I think of love. Oh, how I’d love to kill him.”
Incredibly, LeBell had a brother who was the type of person you’d be proud to call a friend. “Judo” Gene LeBell was a good-hearted guy, and a tough guy, too.
Not only was he one of the top martial artists in the country, he’d trained for wrestling with some of the most vicious shooters in the business. When the family needed an enforcer to step into the ring with a wrestler who didn’t want to go along with the program, all they had to do was open Gene’s bedroom door and tell him to get into his wrestling gear.
It still amazes me that a guy like Gene LeBell could have a brother like Mike. There are times when I’m sure that one of them was adopted.
Mike LeBell died in November 2009 at the age of 79.
During the heyday of the promotion in Los Angeles, Gene was the policeman of the territory that would be leaned on when any wrestler got out of line or there were any concerns of things going awry in the ring.
From Jeff Walton’s book, Richmond 9-5171:
Nobody ever beat Gene. To put it simply, Gene loved to play with people. Gene had workouts at L.A. City College every Monday where he would “stretch” anyone who would get on the mat with him.
Often I would see these so-called tough guys get into the ring at the Olympic with Gene, who would tell them to take their best hold. In a matter of seconds, Gene would tie them up or apply a “sleeper”, a version of a Judo chokehold that would quickly render them unconscious. In all my years at the Olympic, I never saw anyone escape Gene’s “fun”. And nobody ever came back to try again.
As a pro wrestler, LeBell worked as The Hangman and won championships in Kansas City for Central States – becoming its heavyweight champion in October 1967 when he beat Sonny Myers and lost the title to Bob Geigel several weeks later. Under his own name, he won the heavyweight title in Hawaii for 50th State in February 1963 from Neff Maiava and lost it back to him in April.
In Walton’s book, he recalled a big angle where Kinji Shibuya attacked LeBell’s son and set up a Thursday night match in El Monte that drew 1,500 and $7,200.
His last known pro wrestling match occurred in 1981 against Peter Maivia.
For his pro wrestling exploits, he was honored with the Iron Mike Mazurki Award at the Cauliflower Alley Club in 1995, inducted into the NWA Hall of Fame in 2011, and given the Frank Gotch Award in 2005 from the George Tragos/Lou Thesz Professional Hall of Fame.
LeBell was the third man inside the ring of one of the most famous matches in Japanese history and one that had worldwide attention. LeBell served as the referee for the exhibition match between world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali and Antonio Inoki on June 26, 1976, at Nippon Budokan.
Josh Gross wrote an incredible book on the history of the fight and its ramifications in Japan and for both participants’ careers.
Rather than Ali coming into the country and putting over Inoki, the match went into the ring as a legitimate contest with Inoki famously going to his back for the majority of the fight and attacking Ali’s leg with kicks. While it was an incredibly dull affair, it’s a fight that is often cited as the birth of mixed martial arts in Japan and is a giant piece of Inoki’s legacy despite the western media looking down on the great Muhammad Ali taking part in a fight that was viewed as a farce.
For Ali, he had just fought Richard Dunn the previous month and would take the fight with Inoki only three months before his third fight with Ken Norton.
The fight ended in a fifteen-round split draw with judges Kokichi Endo having it 74-72 for Ali, Kou Toyama having it 72-68 for Inoki, and referee LeBell being the swing vote and scoring it 71-71 after a series of point deductions throughout the contest. In the modern scoring system, Inoki would almost surely have run away with the scores in his favor as Ali landed six punches over fifteen rounds.
Many of the top wrestling promoters in the U.S. ran the fight on closed-circuit and attached a card with their local talent but it was a big success in this part of the world. Vince McMahon Sr. booked Shea Stadium with the dual attractions of Bruno Sammartino returning to the ring several weeks after legitimately breaking his neck in a match with Stan Hansen. Sammartino had no business wrestling so soon but McMahon Sr. reportedly urged his top star that he was needed, or it could be disastrous for the territory. The card at Shea Stadium included its own Boxer vs. Wrestler match-up with Chuck Wepner taking on Andre the Giant.
One month later, LeBell was arrested and charged in connection with the murder of a private investigator named Robert Duke Hall. LeBell was acquitted of the charges but was convicted as an accessory to the murder for his role in driving the convicted murderer to-and-from the scene of the crime – a conviction that was later overturned.
LeBell’s combat sports history is enough to fill several books but the man was even more recognized through his film and television work with over one hundred acting credits on his resume and countless more for his stunt work.
LeBell’s acting credits include Raging Bull, General Hosptial, the Mission: Impossible television series, the Batman television series, Beverly Hillbillies, Walking Tall (the 1973 original and remade in 2004 starring Dwayne Johnson), The Rockford Files, Kojak, The Six Million Dollar Man, Starsky and Hutch, The One and Only, The Fall Guy, Family Matters, Ed Wood, Walker Texas Ranger, Married with Children, Rush Hour, That ‘70s Show, Man on the Moon (starring Jerry Lawler), The X-Files, Rat Race, Men in the Black II, Reno 911, and 24.
His stunt credits are even longer with many high-profile projects he was attached to.
In recent years, LeBell was credited as the inspiration behind Brad Pitt’s character in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood with Quentin Tarantino including a scene where Pitt’s character, Cliff Booth got the better of Bruce Lee on the set of The Green Hornet. The scene received a lot of backlash over the portrayal of Lee, but Tarantino defended its accuracy.
LeBell spoke about his relationship with Lee in Jonathan Snowden’s 2012 book Shooters:
I was a stuntman on The Green Hornet. Bruce was a hard guy to get to know, always actin’ kinda sophisticated. So, when I got tired of it, I’d pick him up, sling him over my shoulder, and run all around the set with him. He’d scream, ‘Put me down, put me down’. I reckon I teased him so much I eventually got him to loosen up a little. He got to where he took jokes pretty good – ‘specially if ya’d grabbed him ‘round the neck.
Bruce loved learning grappling and ate it up. He said that people would never go for it in movies or TV because the fights are over too fast and most of the good stuff was hidden from view. He said they wanted to see fancy kicking, acrobatics, and weapons – he was a savvy showman who knew how to give exactly what they wanted. I wish he could be around now to see how well grappling is doing these days.
There was also a well-shared story of LeBell choking out actor Steven Seagal, which Seagal has denied and even swore on his children that it didn’t happen.
In the modern MMA era, he was frequently credited as a mentor to Ronda Rousey during her explosion between 2011 and 2016 with LeBell often being in Rousey’s corner and holding a stopwatch to time how fast she could submit her opponent.
Within professional wrestling, Bryan Danielson’s Omaplata was named The LeBell Lock after Gene, who had a link between them in coach Neal Melanson – a student of LeBell’s, who later worked with Danielson at Xtreme Couture in Las Vegas.
Another student of LeBell’s was Roddy Piper, a figure that Piper was never shy of heaping praise toward.
There are few people that tied so many areas of pro wrestling, MMA, boxing, and film together quite as LeBell did. His life story is fascinating and one that could fill multiple books and require a multiple-episode documentary series to truly encapsulate the life experiences and events he was attached to.
“Judo” Gene LeBell was 89 years old at the time of his passing.
Recommendations and several notes courtesy:
–Mike LeBelle obit (Wrestling Observer Newsletter)
-Gene LeBell, Famed Stuntman and “Godfather of Grappling,” Dies at 89 (Hollywood Reporter)
–‘Judo’ Gene LeBell, Last of the Sadistic Bastards by Aubrey Sitterson
–Ali vs. Inoki by: Josh Gross
-Gene LeBell, dead at 89, was an old softie (SLAM Wrestling)
–Listen, You Pencil Neck Geeks by: Freddie Blassie & Keith Elliot Greenberg
-Richmond 9-5171 by Jeff & Scott Walton
–Shooters by Jonathan Snowden