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Who is ‘Judo’ Gean LeBell?

Eric Kowal
26 February 2013
Who is ‘Judo’ Gean LeBell?

If you have been following the career of UFC women’s champion, Ronda Rousey, chances are you have seen an older gentleman follow her to the octagon or helping her prepare for her fights inside the cage but you may not know or recognize who he is? While he is one of the most highly decorated craftsman and pioneers of his era it appears even he is confused as to exactly who he really is. Who is he?

Eighty-year-old ‘Judo’ Gean Lebell, is martial artist, instructor, stunt-performer, and professional wrestler. He is a 10th degree red belt in Judo and a 9th degree black belt in Jiu-Jitsu.

In 2000, he was promoted to 9th dan in Jiu-Jitsu and Taihojutsu by the United States Jiu-Jitsu Federation (USJJF). In 2004, LeBell was promoted to 10th Degree by the World Martial Arts Masters Association and in February 2005, he was promoted to 9th dan in Traditional Kodokan Judo by the USJJF.

LeBell has also worked on more than 1,000 films and TV shows and has authored a number of books.

Fighting Career

Competing in the heavyweight division, LeBell won the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) National Judo Championships (both heavyweight and overall) both in 1954 and 1955. In Dec., 1963, LeBell participated in a match with former top ranked middleweight boxer Milo Savage in a special challenge match. The bout came about after a writer named Jim Beck made a challenge to any Judoka that if they could defeat a boxer he would award them $1000 of his own money.

The match was set for five three-minute rounds. The rules allowed the "out-primed" Savage to use any type of punch, while LeBell could use any judo or karate techniques except kicks.

Savage was allowed to wear a pair of special speed bag gloves but also had to wear a judo robe to make the boxer easier to grab. The fight lasted four rounds with LeBell failing to takedown Savage on many attempts until the boxer was tired, then LeBell eventually got hold of him and executed a left sided harai goshi on Savage before landing on his opponent and then choking him out.

Within seconds Savage was unconscious and LeBell was declared the winner. With the hometown favorite Savage having lost, the crowd began to throw bottles, other debris and chairs into the ring. To prevent a full blown riot hometown hero and rated professional boxer Jay Fullmer (brother of boxers Gene Fullmer and Don Fullmer) entered the ring to congratulate LeBell.

Following his combat sports career, LeBell, along with his brother Mike, ran the National Wrestling Alliance's Los Angeles territory, NWA Hollywood Wrestling from 1968 to 1982.

In June 1976, LeBell refereed the infamous boxing-versus-wrestling contest between Muhammad Ali and Antonio Inoki in Tokyo, Japan. LeBell was selected over 200 other applicants to referee that bout.

Along with the awards he has received for his feats in Judo and grappling, he received the 2005 Frank Gotch Award to celebrate the positive recognition he has brought to the sport of wrestling.

In his final fight, LeBell lost a boxing match to the infamous Jon North but not before LeBell's sidekick Andy Blevins knocked North out with one boxing glove. He also has a wrestling technique named after him, Daniel Bryan's (wrestler) finishing move, the LeBell Lock (which was later renamed to the NO! lock).

Television and film work

LeBell has worked on more than 1,000 films, TV shows and commercials as a stuntman or stunt co-coordinator, and as an actor (including multiple appearances as himself). He appeared in three Elvis Presley movies as a minor character that starts a fight with the character played by Presley. In addition he also worked on the set of the Green Hornet TV show, leading to an encounter with Bruce Lee that would lead to them becoming friends and exchanging ideas and sharing various fighting techniques.

On March 23, 1991, LeBell was awarded the Honorary "Reel" Membership by the Ring of Friendship of the Cauliflower Alley Club. This is award that is only given to a select few. Other awardees have been James Cagney, Kirk Douglas, Karl Malden, Cesar Romero, Mickey Rooney, and Sylvester Stallone (movie stars that also did boxing and wrestling).

Conflict with Steven Seagal

A 2002 Vanity Fair article claimed that LeBell choked out martial arts actor Steven Seagal as part of an informal aikido exhibition. Seagal was said to have lost control of his bowels during his unconsciousness.

Despite this claim, LeBell never publicly confirmed this story. On March 6, 2012, LeBell was being interviewed by MMA reporter, Ariel Helwani when LeBell was asked by Helwani to confirm if the story had really happened. LeBell continued to dance around the subject by frequently talking off-topic and eventually gave a rather disjointed account of his previous claim.

Seagal was on the same show later and he described LeBell as a scumbag and a pathological liar if LeBell had really made that story himself. Despite this accusation, LeBell has still not publicly answered whether he really choked out Seagal after he was asked to talk about it on many public events over the years following the release of that article. Helwani also spoke out at the end of the show saying that LeBell should be ashamed after listening to both accounts of the story.

In Oct., 2012, LeBell appeared in a private interview, not associated with any formal organization or TV show, where he was asked again to discuss the story and give a response about being accused as a pathological liar by Seagal, but he still avoided to give a direct answer and implicated that he's restricted from speaking about it by a legal gag order, which allegedly also prevented the 30 witnesses that LeBell claimed to exist from talking about it.

So far no independent witness or court record could support this claim. However, he did state that his student, Ronda Rousey, had issued Seagal a challenge and that he thought she would have easily beat Seagal.

Love for Self

LeBell gave himself the nicknames ‘Judo’ Gene LeBell, ‘the Godfather of Grappling’ and also ‘the toughest man alive’ for his participation in combat sports. He has taught grappling skills to any well-known wrestlers and martial artists, including Chuck Norris, ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper, and Karo Parisyan.

The pink colored Judo Gi became a trademark of LeBell and was a result of a laundry mix-up while preparing for a competition in Japan. A pair of red shorts was mixed into the laundry that contained his Gi and turned the uniform a shade of pink. He was set to compete the following day, and being a Saturday evening when he received the now colored uniform, he had to compete in the pink uniform. This set the Japanese crowd livid (it was considered very insulting). LeBell claimed that he went on to win his division.

Self-Declared - The Grandfather of MMA

Lebell was cast on the 'I am Bruce Lee' documentary about the life of the martial arts legend Bruce Lee, but there he referred Lee as an athlete rather than a martial artist. In that documentary, Lebell was seen to be provoked when the UFC President, Dana White, and other UFC fighters talking about Lee's contributions and influences on modern MMA, and were adamant that Lee was the real ‘Father of MMA.’

Later in the film LeBell professes, in a close-up shot on screen:

"They say that Bruce Lee was the father of mixed martial arts. That bothers me; if he's the father of mixed martial arts, I'm the grandfather of mixed martial arts, and if you don't believe me, I'll choke you.”

LeBell also said that he was the one who taught Lee the 'arm-bar', which Lee used in the opening scene in the movie, 'Enter the Dragon'. However, that technique was actually a 'crucifix submission' (different with an arm-bar) which Lee had demonstrated in one of his early books.

Despite Lebell’s many claims that he had a working relationship and influence on Bruce Lee's grappling, Lebell was not even mentioned once by Lee anywhere, and his claims are always seen to be exaggerated, burden of proof or against what other people know about Bruce Lee.


Last Modified:
26 February 2013

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