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Gene LeBell
Ivan Gene LeBell

(1932-10-09)October 9, 1932
DiedAugust 9, 2022(2022-08-09) (aged 89)
Other names"Judo"
  • Martial arts instructor
  • actor
  • stunt performer
  • stunt coordinator
Martial arts career
StyleCatch Wrestling, Judo, Jujutsu, Boxing, Jeet Kune Do
Teacher(s)Larry Coughran
  •   10th degree red belt in Judo
  •   9th degree black belt in Jujutsu
  •   10th degree black belt in Kyokushin Budokai[1]
Notable students
Ring name(s)
  • Gene LeBell
  • The Hangman
Billed height5 ft 10 in (178 cm)
Trained by
DebutDecember 10, 1955
RetiredAugust 29, 1980

Ivan Gene "Judo" LeBell (October 9, 1932 – August 9, 2022) was an American judoka, stunt performer, actor, and professional wrestler. He worked on over 1,000 films and TV shows and authored 12 books.

Early life

Ivan Gene LeBell was born in Los Angeles, California. He started training in catch wrestling and boxing from his early childhood, influenced by his mother, "Red Head" Aileen Eaton, a promoter of both sports who owned the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles,[2] and who was the first woman to be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.[3] LeBell took up catch wrestling under Ed "Strangler" Lewis at age 7, and later moved to train in judo. After getting his black belt, he went to Japan to train in judo at the Kodokan.[4]


Early career

After returning to the United States, LeBell competed as a heavyweight.[2] In 1954 and 1955, while only 22 years of age, he captured both the heavyweight and overall Amateur Athletic Union National Judo Championships. His very first match was against John Osako, one of the highest ranked judokas at the national level. LeBell earned the upset win via an osaekomi. Afterward, attracted by better potential earnings and the family's legacy in the business, LeBell transitioned to professional wrestling.[2] Despite his pedigree, he did not get over immediately with audiences but gradually became known for his martial arts background. He eventually adopted the role as "policeman" for the promotion, maintaining law and order, especially during matches involving his brother Mike LeBell.[4] Gene also wrestled under a black mask as The Hangman, teaming up with Roy Staggs.[4]

Milo Savage match

In 1963, LeBell became involved with a challenge by boxer and writer Jim Beck to the practitioners of Japanese martial arts. Beck claimed that a boxer could defeat any martial artist in a straight fight and offered $1000 to anyone who could prove otherwise. Beck engaged in abundant trash-talk, but revealed a very limited knowledge of martial arts, seemingly mistaking judo for karate.[5]

Encouraged by Ed Parker,[4] LeBell accepted the challenge and travelled to Salt Lake City to meet Beck. To his surprise, he learned his opponent would not be Beck but another boxer, journeyman Milo Savage, who LeBell claimed also had a background in amateur wrestling. An agreement was reached for the match to last five rounds, each lasting three minutes. The boxer's side demanded a stipulation in which the smaller and older Savage (Savage was 39 while LeBell was 31 at the date of the fight) could use any type of punch, while the judoka could not kick, in the apparent belief LeBell was a karateka. An additional stipulation prevented LeBell from attempting tackles or takedowns under the waist.[2][4] In return, Savage offered to wear a judogi. On the day of the match, Savage appeared wearing a karategi instead, much tighter and harder to grab. The Savage camp claimed they did not know the difference.[6] According to LeBell and other sources, Savage's gloves allegedly contained brass knuckles[5][6] and his gi was greased with vaseline to make gripping it more difficult.[2][5] The unusual stipulations convinced LeBell the Savage camp, far from being ignorant about martial arts, had trained Savage in judo in order to defend against LeBell's throws.[5]

The match took place on December 2, 1963. The combatants were initially cautious, with LeBell being the first in pressing the action by attempting to throw Savage down. The boxer blocked the move, which LeBell claimed aggravated an old shoulder injury.[6] LeBell tried several techniques through the second and third rounds and was finally successful in taking Savage down, but Savage kept defending both standing and on the ground in a very technical manner, seemingly confirming LeBell's theory about his opponent's grappling training.[2][6] Savage even attempted to sweep the judoka in one instance.[6][7] Nevertheless, LeBell got mount and found the opportunity to execute an armbar, but he opted instead to seek a choke, concluding that Savage would not surrender to a broken arm.[8] Finally, he performed a left harai goshi in the fourth round and followed by locking a rear naked choke. Within seconds, Savage fell unconscious and LeBell was declared the winner.[6]

The loss by Savage, the hometown favorite, caused the crowd to react violently. Bottles, chairs, and other debris were thrown into the ring. To prevent a full-blown riot, hometown hero and rated professional boxer Jay Fullmer (brother of boxers Gene and Don Fullmer) entered the ring to congratulate LeBell. According to 1999 interview with LeBell, the judoka and his team showed their sportsmanship by helping to revive Savage using kappo, as neither the referee nor the ring doctor knew how to resuscitate him. Despite this, LeBell claims that a man tried to stab him on the way out and the latter had to be protected by the judokas and professional wrestlers who accompanied him.[2][4] Dewey Lewes Falcone, who attended the event and wrote a round-by-round recap for Black Belt magazine, made no mention of either of these events as claimed by LeBell.[6]

As noted by Black Belt in a write-up about LeBell following his death in 2022 that briefly covered the event, he was known to fabricate stories regarding his exploits.[9] As a result, it is possible that many of the claims he made regarding the fight, such as the use of brass knuckles, the audience member attempting to stab LeBell, and the extent of Savage's grappling experience, may be exaggerated or outright fabricated.[citation needed]

After retiring

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 from over 200 other applicants to referee the bout.[10] He also continued to work in professional wrestling intermittently, wrestling his final match on August 29, 1981, against Peter Maivia for NWA Hollywood Wrestling.[11]

LeBell has opened two martial art schools in cooperation with others and has touted his 1963 match with Milo Savage as the first televised MMA fight in America.[12][13]

In 1994, LeBell counted kickboxing champion Benny Urquidez and Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioners the Machado brothers among his training partners.[2] According to fellow BJJ artist Royce Gracie, LeBell was invited to compete in Ultimate Fighting Championship in early 1995, after Gracie stopped participating in its tournaments. Being 63 years old, LeBell declined to compete or to send a representative, instead suggesting a match against Royce's 82-year-old father, the renowned Hélio Gracie. The latter then accepted, but only if LeBell could drop 100 pounds to reach his weight, otherwise he would have to face Royce's brothers, similarly 20 years younger than LeBell though still lighter than him.[14]

Along with the awards received for feats in judo and grappling, LeBell was the 2005 recipient of the Frank Gotch Award in celebration of the positive recognition he brought to the sport of wrestling. The Cauliflower Alley Club presented the award. On March 18, 1995, the Cauliflower Alley Club again honored LeBell by presenting him with the "Iron Mike Mazurki" award; presented by one of his teachers, legendary professional wrestling champion Lou Thesz.[15]

LeBell has been reported as the inspiration for the character of Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) in Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. However, Tarantino disputes this claim.[16]

Television and film work

LeBell has worked on over 1,000 films, TV shows and commercials as a stuntman or as an actor (including multiple appearances as himself). LeBell appeared in three Elvis Presley movies as a minor character who starts a fight with the character played by Presley.[citation needed] In addition he also worked on the set of the Green Hornet TV show, in which he developed a friendship with Bruce Lee. Lee was especially interested in exploring grappling with help from him and exchanged ideas[17] on various fighting techniques.[18]

LeBell also appeared in "The World of Martial Arts – Budojujitsu". This 1982 homevideo production, introduced by Chuck Norris and narrated by John Saxon, featured LeBell as a car thief and mugger who (in the prologue) accosts Mitsuru Yamashita and Budojujitsu creator Al Thomas...much to LeBell's regret. The program featured several other martial artists including Graciela Casilas, Karen Sheperd, Victor Ledbetter, Steve Sanders, brothers Benny and Reuben Urquidez, and Dave Vaden.[citation needed]

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

Conflict with Steven Seagal

While serving as stunt coordinator for the film Out for Justice, starring Steven Seagal, Seagal stated that due to his aikido training he was 'immune' to being choked unconscious. It has been alleged that at some point LeBell heard about the claim and gave Seagal the opportunity to prove it. LeBell is said to have placed his arms around Seagal's neck, and once Seagal said "go", proceeded to choke him unconscious, with Seagal losing control of his bowels.[19]

The popularity of this incident led LeBell to be counted in 1992 as a potential additional member of Robert Wall's controversial "Dirty Dozen," a group of martial artists willing to answer to a public challenge made by Seagal.[2]

LeBell was requested to confirm the story publicly in an interview with Ariel Helwani in 2012, but he avoided answering the question, albeit implying that the incident was true.[19] He was quoted as saying: "When we had a little altercation or difference of opinion, there were thirty stuntmen and cameramen that were watching. Sometimes Steven has a tendency to cheese off the wrong people, and you can get hurt doing that."[20] After being asked whether he was not going to directly confirm it, LeBell said: "Well, if thirty people are watching, let them talk about it."[19]

When Seagal was asked about the incident, he denied the incident took place, calling LeBell a "sick, pathological scumbag liar" and offered the name of a witness who could discredit the other account.[21]

Seagal bodyguard and stuntman Steven Lambert, stated he was present and said that a confrontation did happen. According to Lambert, Seagal explained to LeBell that he did not believe his choke hold was effective, and that he could escape from it. LeBell demonstrated the choke hold by putting it on Seagal. Before LeBell could lock the hold, however, Seagal side stepped and swung his forearm backward into his crotch. LeBell came off the floor by a few feet. As soon as he landed, LeBell used a foot sweep to sweep Seagal off the floor, with Seagal landing on his back. LeBell helped Seagal up.[22]


The pink colored judo gi became a trademark of LeBell and was a result of a laundry mixup while preparing for a competition in Japan. A pair of red shorts were 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, as it was considered very insulting, but they somewhat calmed down after LeBell went on to win his division.[18]

LeBell is associated with Gokor Chivichyan's Hayastan MMA Academy where he taught grappling classes.[23] He also did interviews for magazines, newspapers, and radio. LeBell judged fights for several decades, but retired from it after Golden Boy Promotions: Liddell vs. Ortiz 3 on November 24, 2018.[24]

LeBell was friends with world champion judoka AnnMaria De Mars, and had known her daughter, Olympic judoka, mixed martial artist and professional wrestler Ronda Rousey since her birth. He was seen in Rousey's corner during matches and celebrated her victories with her.[25]

Legal issues

LeBell was arrested, charged with, and tried for the July 1976 murder of private investigator Robert Duke Hall. He was acquitted of the murder charge but convicted as an accessory for driving the convicted murderer, pornographer Jack Ginsburgs, to and from the murder scene. LeBell's conviction for being an accessory was later overturned by the California Courts of Appeal.[26]

LeBell and Ginsburgs were former friends and business partners of Hall. Inside Hall's residence police discovered hours of wire-tapped recordings, some of which led to the resignation of the Beverly Hills police department chief of police. Other recordings discovered had ties to the presidential campaign of Richard Nixon.[27]


On August 9, 2022, LeBell died in his sleep.[28][29]


LeBell authored at least twelve books, including:

Championships and accomplishments


Professional wrestling

Mixed martial arts record

Professional record breakdown
1 match 1 win 0 losses
By submission 1 0
Res. Record Opponent Method Event Date Round Time Location Notes
Win 1–0 Milo Savage Technical Submission (rear naked choke) Independent Event December 2, 1963 4 n/a Salt Lake City, Utah, United States


  1. ^ "IBK International Kyokushin Budokai – Blak Belts". International Kyokushin Budokai. Archived from the original on November 9, 2019. Retrieved November 9, 2019.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i [better source needed] Thomas Nilsson, A Conversation with "The Toughest Man Alive": "Judo" Gene LeBell Has Seen and Done It All in a 50-Year Martial Arts Career, Black Belt magazine, February 1999
  3. ^ Gutknecht, Hans; Martin, Brian (August 11, 2022). "Gene LeBell, iconic martial arts pioneer, dies at the age of 89". Daily News. Retrieved March 27, 2024.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Jonathan Snowden (2012). Shooters: The Toughest Men in Professional Wrestling. ECW Press. ISBN 978-17-709022-1-3.
  5. ^ a b c d MMA Origins: American Experiments Archived September 23, 2015, at the Wayback Machine,, 2012
  6. ^ a b c d e f g Dewey Lawes Falcone, Judo Versus Boxing Archived June 15, 2014, at the Wayback Machine, Black Belt Magazine May 1964. URL accessed on April 2, 2010.
  7. ^ Wilson, Terry (January 1, 2013). "Gene LeBell vs Milo Savage: Gene LeBell Saved Martial Arts". Archived from the original on October 9, 2019. Retrieved October 9, 2019.
  8. ^ Jonathan Snowden, MMA Encyclopedia, 2010, ECW Press
  9. ^ Bryan, Andrew (October 5, 2022). "The Life & Times of Gene LeBell". Black Belt Magazine. Retrieved March 15, 2024.
  10. ^ Dave Meltzer. Boxers in wrestling a rich tradition Archived April 3, 2008, at the Wayback Machine. March 27, 2008.
  11. ^ "Matches « Gene LeBell « Wrestlers Database « CAGEMATCH - the Internet Wrestling Database". Archived from the original on July 18, 2021. Retrieved July 18, 2021.
  12. ^ MMA History – Gene Lebell VS Milo Savage, 1963 on YouTube
  13. ^ The Godfather of Grappling (authorised biography of LeBell) by "Judo" Gene LeBell, Bob Calhoun, George Foon, and Noelle Kim. 2005
  14. ^ Royce Gracie, The Ultimate Fighter – The Rumor Mill, Black Belt magazine, June 1995
  15. ^ "List of CAC Award Winners". Cauliflower Alley Club. Archived from the original on April 13, 2014. Retrieved August 19, 2018.
  16. ^ Atkin, Nicolas (August 15, 2019). "Could Gene LeBell beat up Bruce Lee? Meet the real life Cliff Booth from 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood'". South China Morning Post. Archived from the original on November 27, 2021. Retrieved December 4, 2021.
  17. ^ "Where Are They Now?". Inside Kung Fu. Archived from the original on July 13, 2011. Retrieved January 22, 2011.
  18. ^ a b Jacobs, Mark. "TOUGH GUYS WEAR PINK IN ANY COLOR, JUDO MASTER AND FILM STUNTMAN GENE LEBELL IS ONE HARD HOMBRE". Sports Illustrated. Archived from the original on July 27, 2021. Retrieved July 27, 2021.
  19. ^ a b c Jenness, Kirik. "Gene LeBell talks Steven Seagal s----ing himself". MMA Underground. Archived from the original on November 28, 2015. Retrieved March 18, 2015.
  20. ^ Archived October 6, 2019, at the Wayback Machine.
  21. ^ Steven Seagal denies Gene LeBell made him poop his pants Archived August 19, 2021, at the Wayback Machine.
  22. ^ "Truth Finally Revealed on Seagal and LeBell According to Actual Eyewitness Steven Lambert Testimony!". YouTube. Archived from the original on March 17, 2021. Retrieved March 23, 2021.
  23. ^ Markazi, Arash (October 22, 2010). "Gokor Chivichyan's influence felt". Archived from the original on September 23, 2018. Retrieved August 19, 2018.
  24. ^ "'Judo' Gene LeBell retires from MMA judging following Liddell vs. Ortiz 3 event". November 25, 2018. Archived from the original on November 29, 2018. Retrieved November 29, 2018.
  25. ^ "Gene LeBell and Ronda Rousey's golden lineage". Fox Sports. Archived from the original on September 24, 2015. Retrieved August 6, 2015.
  26. ^ Farr, Bill (October 8, 1986). "Killer's Impending Parole Scuttled by Extortion Plot". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on August 22, 2021. Retrieved August 22, 2021.
  27. ^ Lindsey, Robert (September 13, 1976). "Los Angeles Stirred by Detective's Mysterious Death". The New York Times. Archived from the original on August 22, 2021. Retrieved August 22, 2021.
  28. ^ admin (August 10, 2022). "Judo legend Gene LeBell passes away aged 89 years old". BudoDragon. Retrieved August 10, 2022.
  29. ^ "Gene LeBell, Famed Stuntman and "Godfather of Grappling," Dies at 89". The Hollywood Reporter. August 10, 2022.
  30. ^ The Godfather of Grappling by Lebell, "Judo" Gene (January 17, 2005) Hardcover. Gene LeBell. January 17, 2005. ISBN 9780967654355.
  31. ^ "Hawaii Heavyweight Title". Archived from the original on May 16, 2013. Retrieved September 20, 2010.
  32. ^ "NWA Central States Heavyweight Title". Archived from the original on August 28, 2008. Retrieved September 20, 2010.
  33. ^ Lee Bateman, Oliver (August 16, 2022). "Gene LeBell Did It All". The Ringer. Retrieved July 10, 2023.
  34. ^ Hillhouse, Dave (October 19, 2006). "Straight shooting with 'Judo' Gene LeBell". Slam! Wrestling. Retrieved July 10, 2023.
  35. ^ Gerweck, Steve (November 14, 2011). "NWA Hall of Fame Class for 2011 announced". WrestleView. Archived from the original on November 17, 2011. Retrieved November 14, 2011.
  36. ^ "NWA Americas Tag Team Title". Archived from the original on January 15, 2016. Retrieved October 9, 2019.
  37. ^ "North American Heavyweight Title (W. Texas)". Archived from the original on September 16, 2019. Retrieved October 9, 2019.