Ultimate Grappler and Ultimate Striker, Part 1: Gene LeBell

Exclusive Black Belt interviews with the legendary Gene LeBell and the incomparable Benny Urquidez!

When MMA began its rise, martial artists started thinking in terms of whether a practitioner happened to be a grappler or a striker. That, of course, leads to two questions: Who is the ultimate grappler? And who is the ultimate striker? Opinions, of course, will vary, but few could argue that "Judo" Gene LeBell and Benny "The Jet" Urquidez are not worthy of those titles. That observation inspired this article, an interview with the "ultimate grappler" and the "ultimate striker."

Gene LeBell is so highly regarded by martial artists that he's become a living legend. How does a person beat a guy like him in a match? "You don't," says UFC veteran Ken Shamrock. "A guy like that is so tough that you're not going to intimidate him. He's so strong that you're not going to knock him out. Basically, to beat a [guy like] Gene LeBell, you have to cheat. You either have to come up from behind him and get lucky to get a choke, or you have to kick him in the groin."

Black Belt: Do you fight a grappler differently from a striker?

Gene LeBell: You always go for what you consider his weakness. You attack or counterattack his weakness, no matter if he's a wrestler or karate man.

Black Belt: If your opponent is built strong on top, you go down for his legs?

Gene LeBell: Yes. Everybody has a different weakness. Some are jabbers; some are plodders; some are fast movers. You attack them all differently. Every martial artist has weaknesses, some more than others. And every art has weaknesses, and that includes judo and wrestling.

Black Belt: Can you give an example of taking advantage of the other person's weakness?

Gene LeBell: If you're fighting a boxer, he has no defense below his waist; you take him down and then it's the best wrestler [who wins]. You play your own game, not his. A boxer can't force you to stand up, but you sure can force him to lie down.

Black Belt: Are certain techniques more effective for certain body types, like a 5-foot-4-inch, 130-pound man who has to fight a big, strong wrestler like Ken Shamrock or Dan Severn?

Gene LeBell: The first thing you do if you run into a Shamrock or Severn is get out of his reach fast. You must live to fight another day. But if you can't get out of there, you can open your hand so you have a 4-inch longer reach, and the toughest guy is the one who can take out the other man's eyes first. The nerve endings are so close to the brain that you don't even have to take the eye out — you can "dot" it. If you get a thumb in the eye, it can be all over.

Black Belt: No one can resist an eye strike?

Gene LeBell: Right. The ultimate martial artist is a guy who can humiliate his opponent instead of hurting him. Benny Urquidez can hit you 100 times in a minute and kill you with any one of them, or just humiliate you like that and not hurt you. The thing I admire about Benny is that not only is he a classic in his field and a legend in his own time, but he's also an outstanding grappler. People don't know he's a grappler because when they see him, he's doing full-body contact. Grapplers should also know how to block, bob and weave. You should learn all arts so you can defend against all arts.

Black Belt: What should students look for in an art, an instructor and a school?

Gene LeBell: If you're going to talk the talk, walk the walk. The man that enjoys himself will [learn] better. When I say learn, I mean ....

Black Belt: ... That it becomes second nature in a real fight?

Gene LeBell: Good. How many people have taken grappling or karate and when they get in a real fight, they start swinging [wildly] with their arms? Make sure the techniques work — whatever art you practice — and that they become second nature, like walking or eating strawberry shortcake.

Black Belt: What does it take to be a great fighter?

Gene LeBell: Practice and conditioning. To get good, you have to be in condition. This is critical. Also, full-body contact and sparring against an opponent who resists are very important.

Black Belt: How many times a week should a person work out?

Gene LeBell: The more you work out, the better you get. The harder you work out in any vocation or avocation, the better you get.

Black Belt: And the length of each workout?

Gene LeBell: It depends on your teacher. Some work you for a half hour, some for an hour, some for an hour and a half. My students are not commercial fighters, and they're usually all champions and contenders in their own right. I like to work them long and hard for six hours. When they call me a sadistic [so-and-so] under their breath, I consider it a compliment.

Black Belt: Do you have any special techniques for fighting a guy who is much bigger and heavier?

Gene LeBell: Yeah, a gun. Size is not the criterion; it's the amount of ability the size has. If a guy is much bigger, you must estimate his ability, and you can never be completely accurate. If it's [Mike] Tyson, you fight him differently than a guy who just got out of an iron lung or who's just big and eats a lot. Sometimes it takes years before your technique becomes second nature. There are no shortcuts to success.

Black Belt: Do you have a favorite technique?

Gene LeBell: I like a series of techniques. If a man does not have a weapon, he has only five units: two ....

Black Belt: ... Two arms, two legs and a head to attack you with. If he's beside you, he has two weapons: one arm and one leg. When you're behind him, he doesn't have any.

Gene LeBell: You're my man!

Black Belt: I have seen your videos and read your books. I think Grappling Master and The Handbook of Judo form the bible of grappling.

Gene LeBell: Good. The first and most important thing in self-defense is to not get hurt — to save your butt. If a guy has a tremendous advantage and you're the underdog, get out of there and come back and fight when you're not [the underdog].

Black Belt: What is more important: speed or strength?

Gene LeBell: It's a combination of both. If you're strong but you move in slow motion, you're not going to hit anything.

Black Belt: Do you fight differently for self-defense as opposed to competition?

Gene LeBell: Yes. In self-defense, if two or more guys are attacking, [one attacker] could blindside you while you are grappling with [his friend]. You'd have to use full-body-contact striking and grappling — such as Benny does.

Black Belt: Are there any other karate people you like?

Gene LeBell: There's a lot of them. For starters, Joe Lewis, Bill "Superfoot" Wallace and Chuck Norris. They're my heroes, along with Benny. I like Bill Wallace because he's a scratch golfer and rides motorcycles. Joe Lewis I like because in a commercial he used my three-finger grip, plus he eats raw meat — both of which are my inventions. Joe is also a fantastic karate man who likes to grapple. I always admire martial artists who do other arts besides their specialty. I like Bill also because he eats hamburgers for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Black Belt: Who are your favorite grapplers?

Gene LeBell: Lou Thesz and Karl Gotch. Karl taught me, also. He would just put his hands on you, and it'd hurt.

Black Belt: You are a big fan of reality-based combat. Why do great, experienced fighters sometimes forget the simple things like using the finger spread, grabbing the groin or using the "half Boston crab" when held in the guard?

Gene LeBell: Bad training or bad trainers.

Read Part 2, the companion interview with Benny Urquidez, here. For more information about Gene LeBell, click here.

Interview by Tony Salzano

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