Judo Gene LeBell: A Grappling Pioneer

Last updated on 20.08.2022 by

The grappling community lost several legends during the summer of 2022, the latest with Judo Gene LeBell’s passing.

One of the most respected American Judokas ever, LeBell was an early pioneer of grappling. If you’ve never heard the legend of Judo Gene, you’re in for a real treat. Let’s get into the story of the legend, ‘Judo’ Gene LeBell.

Judo Gene’s Early Life 

Judo Gene was born and grew up in Los Angeles during the early 1930s. LeBell was born into the combat sports world as his mother, ‘Red Head’ Aileen Eaton owned the famous Olympic Auditorium.

In addition to owning the Olympic Auditorium, Gene’s mother was also a fight promoter. She promoted both boxing and pro-wrestling events for years.

Growing up with a promoter for a mother allowed LeBell to begin training from an early age. He began learning catch wrestling at six years old under famed professional wrestler and legitimate grappler, Ed ‘Strangler’ Lewis.

On top of learning catch wrestling, Gene also took boxing classes and trained in Kyokushin Budokai Karate.

Judo Gene the Judo Champion

Gene practiced in various fighting forms from an early age, but the one he excelled the most at was Judo. During his teens, LeBell already had the ability of Judokas twice his age.

He won multiple tournaments during his time in the color belts before earning his black belt. Once Gene earned his black belt, he decided to move to Japan to continue training at the Kodokan. 

LeBell spent close to two years at the Kodokan in Japan, training Judo all day and learning everything he could about the martial art.

At 22, he returned to the US and began competing on the national level. In Gene’s first appearance in the national championship tournament, he grappled #1 ranked John Osako.

Gene caught the attention of everyone by beating the top ranked Judoka in the country. LeBell bested Osako by completing a throw and then pinning him in kesa gatame, scarf hold position.

LeBell went on to become a national champion in 1954 and 1955.

Judo Gene the Wrestler

Judo Gene loved Judo, but at the time the American Judo scene didn’t offer enough opportunity for someone hoping to compete in it full time. This led him to enter into the family business and begin a career as a pro wrestler.

Judo Gene LeBell Wrestling
Credit: judogene.com

Since he grew up around pro wrestling and learned catch wrestling from Strangler Lewis, he didn’t need to be “smartened up.” He received further pro wrestling training from Lewis and also from pro wrestling legends Lou Thesz and Karl Gotch. Both Thesz and Gotch are remembered as excellent grapplers who won numerous amateur wrestling titles.

From 1955 to 1980 LeBell wrestled for different territories that were under the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA), from Hawaii to Texas.

Judo Gene the Shootfighter

During his life, Gene was involved in a few legitimate “shoot fights” where he fought opponents with different backgrounds. The most famous of those shoot fights was against a boxer named Milo Savage in 1963.

This fight happened after Jeff Beck, a boxer and writer, said Japanese martial arts could never beat boxing. Beck even went as far as to put down a $1000 bet to any Japanese martial artists to beat a boxer.

Beck hurled numerous insults at Judokas, but by doing so revealed that he knew nothing about Japanese martial arts, confusing Karate with Judo multiple times during his rants.

LeBell’s karate instructor and friend Ed Parker convinced LeBell to take Beck up on his offer. He would find out that the match would not be against Beck himself, but against a veteran boxer named Milo Savage.

Judo Gene agreed to all of the stipulations for the fight and the boxer also offered to wear a Judo gi. Savage actually ended up wearing a karate gi, with his camp claiming not to know the distance.

They also lied about not knowing about Judo and didn’t inform LeBell that Savage trained in amateur wrestling. Gene also claimed that Savage was greased up and wearing brass knuckles under his gloves.

None of this mattered, because Gene took Savage down within a minute and strangled him, proving the effectiveness of Judo and grappling as a whole.

Judo Gene the Stuntman

On top of being an accomplished Judo champion and pro wrestler, LeBell was also a famed stuntman and actor. He worked in over 1000 TV shows and films in his three decades as a stuntman and actor.

Judo Gene & Bruce Lee

One of the early stuntman jobs that Gene was offered was on the 1666 TV show, The Green Hornet. Producers told Gene that the actor who played Kato, Bruce Lee, wanted to do his own stunts. While Bruce had been acting for a while at this point, this was his first role in the American market.

Since Lee was a martial artist, the producers wanted another martial artist that knew how to fall to work with Bruce. Gene took the job and the two became close friends.

LeBell and Lee trained with each other, with Gene showing Lee various grappling techniques and submission holds. Their relationship showed Bruce the importance of grappling along with striking. 

Bruce would demonstrate many of the techniques that he learned from Gene in various movies before his death.

The Steven Seagal Incident

If you knew who Gene LeBell was before reading this, then you probably heard about the alleged Steven Seagal incident. The story goes that Gene was working as a stunt coordinator on the set of the 1990 movie Marked For Death.

While this movie was being filmed, Seagal claimed that he was impervious to being choked, kept safe by his knowledge of an Aikido move that prevented chokes from working on him.

Gene called BS and wanted Seagal to try the move on him. Steven let Gene put him in an RNC and tried to block the choke by chopping LeBell in the balls. 

Judo Gene kept the choke, squeezing tighter until Seagal was put to sleep. The story, perhaps apocryphal, even mentions that Seagal needed a change of pants afterwards – on account of shitting himself as he went out.

Judo Gene the Trainer

One of LeBell’s many epithets was “the godfather of grappling.” This nickname was given from Gene spending decades teaching grappling.

He taught grappling to everyone from actors, to pro-wrestlers, and even legitimate fighters. He had a hand in training MMA veterans Karo Parisyan and Manny Gamburyan.

Gene was also close to the famous Rousey family of Judokas, and was one of Ronda Rousey’s instructors.


When did Gene LeBell begin training?

LeBell began training catch wrestling under Ed ‘Strangler’ Lewis at the age of six. He later got involved in boxing, karate, and Judo.

How many Judo championships did Gene LeBell win?

Gene won two national Judo championships in 1954 and 1955.

How long was Gene LeBell’s pro wrestling career?

LeBell’s wrestling career lasted from 1955 until he retired in 1980. He won various NWA championships.

How many films and tv shows did LeBell work on? 

Judo Gene worked on over 1000 films and TV shows in his career which lasted over three decades.

Who trained with Gene LeBell?

Gene trained everyone from Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, Roddy Piper, Benny ‘The Jet’ Urquidez, Karo Parisyan, Ronda Rousey, and Manny Gamburyan.

What martial arts ranks does Judo Gene hold?

  • 10th degree red belt in Judo
  • 10th degree black belt in Kyokushin Bushido Karate
  • 9th degree black belt in Japanese Jujutsu

Judo Gene LeBelle’s Legacy

Sadly, the late great Judo Gene LeBell passed away on August 8th, 2022. Gene was a martial artist for over 80 years and literally did it all.

He was a Judo champion, pro wrestler, competed in shoot fights, worked as a stuntman, and taught grappling – and was an incredibly influential individual who was beloved and lived a full life. 

You can’t ask for more in a lifetime than what LeBell had accomplished. Rest easy Judo Gene.