Gene LeBell is responsible and recognized for popularizing grappling as a combat sports discipline. Recently, he passed away at the age of 89.
Lebell was a well-known character in the martial arts community. He also worked as a stuntman in Hollywood and in judo, mixed martial arts, professional wrestling, and other sports. Before finally switching to professional wrestling, he won the heavyweight and overall Amateur Athletic Union National Judo Championships in 1954 and 1955.
Lebell gained fame more recently for supporting former UFC women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey. Among the notables he has trained are members of many different echelons of society, like Sugar Ray Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, and Roddy Piper, to mention a few. Gokor Chivichyan, Karo Parisyan, and Manny Gamburyan are among the more well-known people who studied under Lebell.
Lebell has written 12 books and starred in more than 1,000 films. Additionally, he served as the influence for Brad Pitt’s character Cliff Booth in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”
Former UFC champion and star of the television show ‘Pancrase’ Bas Rutten paid homage to Lebell on Facebook. He also made a reference to a time when “The Godfather of Grappling” purportedly choked out Steven Seagal on a movie set.
Rutten wrote: “The great Gene LeBell, toughest man I know, has passed away and left us at the age of 89.”
“…We all heard the crazy stories, about Seagal, and that he was the first guy to fight MMA in a match against the Boxer Milo Savage in 1963 (I wasn’t even born), still pulling wheelies on his motor cycle when he was like 84 years old and if you go online, you find thousand more stories. I have always loved Gene, every single person I know loves Gene, and I am proud to say that we always had fun when we met, always cracking jokes.”
The only bout documented in Lebell’s MMA career is the one mentioned above with Savage. He won the match by choking the professional boxer on December 2, 1963, in the fourth round of their battle. It is said to have been the first legitimate mixed martial arts match.