Affectionately referred to as ‘Judo’ Gene LeBell, the man was one of the most important figures in American grappling history passes away at the age of 89. LeBell was an incredibly accomplished martial artist and has earned a 10th degree red belt in Judo, a 10th degree black belt in Kyokushin Budokai, and a 9th degree black belt in Ju Jitsu over the years. In addition to this, LeBell had extensive experience in submission grappling and catch wrestling, having trained with Karl Gotch, Ed ‘Strangler’ Lewis, and Lou Thesz in the past.
LeBell competed as a judoka for a few years and won two Amateur Athletic Union national championships during his tenure, before he switched to becoming a professional wrestler instead. LeBell rose to fame as a result of a single match however, when he engaged in one of the first MMA matches of the modern period against well-regarded boxer Milo Savage in 1963. The rules were entirely open, as LeBell was not allowed to kick or attempt any takedowns under the waist in exchange for Savage wearing a Judo gi during the match, although he would later wear a tighter Karate gi instead.
LeBell went on to win the match against Savage after he choked him unconscious using a rear-naked choke. This victory established LeBell as ‘The godfather of grappling’ and he went on to be involved in both combat sports and professional wrestling for decades to come. LeBell ran NWA Hollywood Wrestling for over a decade and performed as the referee for the legendary bout between Muhammad Ali and Antonio Inoki. As a result of his achievements, LeBell received the Frank Gotch award in 2005 for the positive recognition that he brought to the sport of wrestling.
He went on to serve as a judge for several professional MMA fights and also appeared in the corner of legendary women’s MMA champion Ronda Rousey, as a result of a close personal relationship that he had with both her and her mother. Gene LeBell was a true grappling and MMA legend and as he passes away, he will certainly be remembered fondly and admirably by both communities.