In Wrestling, Judo and Movie Stunt Work, Judo Gene Has Ac­com­plished More Than Most Peo­ple Could in Two Life­times — and He Isn’t Done Yet!


Wether you're talk­ing about pro wrestling, judo com­pe­ti­tion or movie stunt work, "Judo" gene lebell has ac­com­plished more than most peo­ple could in two life­times. best part is, he isn't done yet!

There are peo­ple who swear “Judo” Gene LeBell has prac­ticed mar­tial arts for so long that an im­age of him putting King Tut in an arm­bar can be found etched in sand­stone in an Egyp­tian tomb. LeBell in­sists that isn’t true: “No, I’m not that old, but I was a body­guard for Genghis Khan.”

From the time he was big enough to choke out the school­yard bully, LeBell has been com­ing to grips with his des­tiny as a mar­tial arts leg­end. And as a Hol­ly­wood stunt­man, he’s rubbed el­bows with Tin­sel­town’s elite and tan­gled with some of the rough­est, tough­est wrestlers ever to slip into a pair of tights.

His mother Aileen LeBell was an icon in the ring: As the na­tion’s first fe­male fight pro­moter, she ran the world­fa­mous Olympic Au­di­to­rium in Los An­ge­les with an iron fist. Con­se­quently, young Gene was able to pal around with some of the best box­ers and wrestlers in the busi­ness.

“I was 7 years old when I started wrestling with the pros,” LeBell re­calls. “My mother sent me down to the Los An­ge­les Ath­letic Club to play, and at the club were a hand­ful of re­ally good shoot­ers. This was se­ri­ous wrestling, a lot of tech­ni­cal skills — none of the clown stuff or gags like you see on TV. All we did was fin­ish­ing holds.”

The owner of the club took a lik­ing to the spunky red­head and asked him what he’d like to learn. His an­swer: Greco-Ro­man wrestling, freestyle wrestling, sa­vate, karate or judo.

“Well, karate wasn’t that pop­u­lar at the time — it was mostly kata — and what they called ‘judo’ was like wrestling with­out a gi,” he says. “For ex­am­ple, when you grab for a harai goshi (sweep­ing hip throw), you hook the neck and use it as a han­dle.”

Back then, wrestlers re­ferred to body parts like the ears, mouth and nose as “han­dles” be­cause they gave the grap­pler some­thing to grip, LeBell says. “It’s a very ef­fec­tive way to make some­one say ‘un­cle.’”


So be­gan a le­gacy that reads like a script from a Hol­ly­wood movie. In 1954 and ’55, LeBell won the Na­tional AAU Judo Cham­pi­onships, plac­ing first in the heavy­weight and over­all di­vi­sions. His path to the podium in­cluded a tri­umph over John Osako, who at the time was the top judo player in the United States.

At the AAU event, LeBell won 18 matches in two days, 17 with stand­ing throws. To this day, that feat hasn’t been du­pli­cated in a sanc­tioned judo com­pe­ti­tion. Gene LeBell may have walked onto the mat as an un­known, but he bowed out as a judo leg­end.

LeBell also com­peted in wrestling. He holds the du­bi­ous dis­tinc­tion of hav­ing held a world ti­tle for 12 sec­onds. It would have been longer, but in a mo­ment of ex­u­ber­ance, he ac­ci­dently hit the Texas wrestling com­mis­sioner in the head while swing­ing his newly won belt.

“I tried to ex­plain to the guy that it was an ac­ci­dent,” LeBell says with a grin. “But he was re­ally steamed, and he yanked the belt and ti­tle from me on the spot. So I of­fi­cially be­came a cham­pion for 12 sec­onds.”

His ex­pe­ri­ences in those grap­pling arts led LeBell to de­velop his own style of com­bat, one that merged what he deemed the best of wrestling with the best of judo. As a re­sult, many of his trade­mark sub­mis­sion holds can’t be found in any rule book or text­book. But then, “Judo” Gene has al­ways been a guy who makes up the rules as he goes.


LeBell raised more than a few eye­brows when he bucked the rules and wore a rather un­tra­di­tional pink gi to a very tra­di­tional judo tour­na­ment in Ja­pan. When he bowed onto the mat wear­ing pink, the mar­tial arts fash­ion po­lice were out­raged. LeBell just smiled, then set about pin­ning and toss­ing his op­po­nents, prov­ing that real men do wear pink.

“The pink gi wasn’t some­thing I did in­ten­tion­ally,” LeBell says. “It hap­pened while I was train­ing in Ja­pan. I ac­ci­den­tally washed it with a red shirt and some other brightly col­ored cloth­ing, and my gi came out a deep pink. When peo­ple started teas­ing me, it gave me a good ex­cuse to get them on the mat and stretch their bod­ies a bit.”

One Ja­pa­nese judo cham­pion and his en­tourage were less than im­pressed with the larger-than-life gai­jin in pink, so much so that they trav­eled to Los An­ge­les armed with an at­ti­tude and a chal­lenge.

“They came to my dojo at Los An­ge­les City Col­lege, and the in­ter­preter said his friend was some kind of a cham­pion in Tokyo,” LeBell re­calls. “I re­ally didn’t pay too much at­ten­tion. Then he said they wanted to fight. I said, ‘You want to do ran­dori?’ He said, ‘No! We do newaza,’ which is mat work. So I lay down and told him to get his best hold, and he put me in a side pin.”

The Ja­pa­nese champ was a bit taken aback; he never ex­pected LeBell would give him the op­por­tu­nity to put him in a hold at the start of the match. With the Amer­i­can’s judo stu­dents sit­ting against the wall watch­ing, LeBell calmly asked his op­po­nent if he was ready. That ap­par­ently ticked him off, and he mut­tered some­thing in Ja­pa­nese to his in­ter­preter.

“He said you need to have a doc­tor stand­ing by,” the in­ter­preter ex­plained. That didn’t sit well with LeBell, as would soon be­come ev­i­dent to ev­ery­one.

“We started, and I just rolled him over, and since he had an at­ti­tude, I choked him out real fast,” LeBell says. “When he came to, I turned around, and the guy and his en­tourage took off with­out even say­ing good­bye.”

What was the se­cret of LeBell’s es­cape from the side pin? “From my wrestling days, I knew how to get out of that hold eas­ily — which isn’t the Kodokan way of get­ting out of a scarfhold,” he says. “One hand goes be­tween the legs, and you squeeze his balls a bit while you roll the guy over. Since there’s no ref­eree, you just do what you gotta do.”


Long be­fore the Ul­ti­mate Fight­ing Cham­pi­onship made the Gra­cie name a house­hold word in the world of grap­pling, there was a con­test that pit­ted a na­tion­ally ranked heavy­weight boxer against a world-class judo player. The boxer was No. 3–ranked Milo Sav­age, and the ju­doka was Gene LeBell.

It all started in 1962 when a man named Jim Beck boasted to a room full of karate stu­dents that he could beat any mar­tial artist in the world. A black belt named Gene LeBell ac­cepted the chal­lenge, only to find out he’d be fight­ing Sav­age in­stead of Beck. The win­ner of the bout would take home $1,000, a hefty purse back then.

Plenty of in­trigue and back­stab­bing is con­nected with what en­sued. LeBell and Sav­age agreed to face off in a box­ing ring, and Sav­age may or may not have had an ad­van­tage or three. “He used brass knuck­les un­der his gloves,” LeBell says. “I was also fight­ing with a dis­lo­cated left shoul­der, so I had to be care­ful not to get tagged.”

In round four, LeBell slipped un­der Sav­age’s jab and ex­e­cuted an ex­plo­sive maki komi harai goshi, dump­ing the sur­prised boxer on the mat. The grap­pler then ap­plied one of his fa­mous chokes, putting the pugilist to sleep. “Judo” Gene had made his­tory — and he had to slip out the back as a riot erupted. He did, how­ever, pocket a grand for his labors.


As Gene LeBell de­voted more of his life to the mar­tial arts, the arts were kind enough to give back. They cat­a­pulted him into the movies, where he worked as a stunt­man, tele­vi­sion sports­caster and pro­moter. Even now, it’s tough to turn on a tele­vi­sion and not see LeBell be­ing set on fire, fall­ing off a build­ing, smash­ing a mo­tor­cy­cle into a big rig or, my per­sonal fa­vorite, sink­ing in a vat of wet con­crete in 1985’s Remo Wil­liams: The Ad­ven­ture Be­gins.

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