Black Belt EXCLUSIVE
Gene’s funeral will be private for immediate family only. A celebration of his life will be held on his 90thBirthday October 9th, 2022 at the Hayastan Academy led by his student, Black Belt Hall of Fame Member - Gokor Chivichyan.
More information will be forthcoming in Black Belt.
Gene LeBell - A celebrationThis is an extract from the Nanka Dining with Judo Legends event in October 2016.
More information will be forthcoming in Black Belt.
Several generations have passed since we have had a great public champion
like Gene LeBell. Today there are only a handful who truly understand what a
remarkable champion Gene LeBell was. Those who ever worked with Gene
know. They know that even when he grabbed your wrist, you instantly knew, you were
in trouble. Not only your wrist but your hand turned white, for lack of blood. No doubt
anything else he had his hands around would suffer the same fate.
While he was a champion in a very professional way as an actor, stuntman,
wrestler, and businessman, in reality, he was always a judoka at heart. Known to the
public as “Judo” Gene LeBell. He advertised the word “judo” and brought it to the
forefront and made it a household name. In 1963 his match with boxer Milo Savage, a
boxing match on public television pitted boxing against judo. Not only did he win, he
made history as the first MMA professional bout being made public.
At the same time, he brought to light the effectiveness of judo to the public at large. Over the years he has acted as a mentor and inspiration to many of us in Nanka judo including Ronda Rousey, Gokor Chivichyan, Jim West, Gary Goltz, Hal Sharp, and myself, and many of my students, as well.
In his earlier days in judo when judo was still in its infancy, Nanka judo was
largely composed of Japanese members and Japanese ways of thinking about judo. It
was more a Japanese cultural event than an Olympic sport then. When meetings were
held, only the selected members were invited. The meeting then commenced in
Japanese. It wasn’t that they were trying to be exclusive. It’s just the way the old timers
were at the time, up till the early 1950s. Most everyone of high rank only spoke
Japanese and there was no understanding of rules of order. As awful as it sounds here
in print. Our founding fathers of early Nanka Judo did the best they could and did a
good job for what they had going for them at the time.
In the midst of this chaotic time there was the genius of Gene LeBell who
represented Nanka Judo yudanshakai and in 1954 and 1955 he beat all comers to judo
in the National AAU Judo Championships of the United States. That included U.S. judo
greats such as Vince Tamura and Johnny Osako whom he beat in the Grand
Championships. Soon after, Gene turned his attention to professional wrestling a
completely different sport yet was thought of as the “Bad Boy” of judo, for gaining
money for sport.
With the passage of time and changing social conditions, what was once taboo
was reevaluated and today athletes traverse freely from amateur courts to professional
venues even in the Olympics helping to serve the search, the cause, of finding true
excellence, whether it be on the court, track, road, field, mat, floor, water, or air, it’s all
about , Citius, Altius, Fortius. (Faster, Higher, Stronger).
What is little known to the judo public is that Gene was also an actor and
stuntman. One of the best in Hollywood. He made anyone look like a hero. It was
always a joy to see him all of a sudden appear as the bad guy, crashing into tables,
falling off a building, or just plain being smacked around by the star, which included
some of Hollywood’s most famous. He was seen but not seen many times.
It was him, but he was made up to be the bad guy. He probably had bit parts in over a thousand
movies. Some of them you couldn’t tell it was him, and in others you’d catch yourself
saying, “Hey!! That’s Gene!” – – – I will miss being able to say that now.
His more recent part was assumed as one of Ronda Rousey’s mentors. I’m sure
it was he who showed her how to look mean and to not be the nice girl that she was. It’s
all a part of the show. Make them hate you! They’ll actually love you for it!
In truth, he was a real nice man. One of the best that Nanka Judo ever produced.
Unknown to many he volunteered his time to judo at Los Angeles City College Judo for
over 25 years every Monday night between 6 to 8 in the evening from somewhere in the
late 1970s to around the 2000s when Gokor provided him a place of honor at his dojo.
There he taught many of the champions of Hayastan his famous grappling holds. One
of his interesting questions was done in conjunction to one of his painful finishing holds.
He’d be cranking on your arm, leg, neck or body and ask you the question. “Who’s the
best looking guy in this dojo?” the answer was, “you are Gene, you are!!”
The good Lord had provided Gene with many gifts among them was a strong
body and a sound mind. He wrote eight books on grappling and in addition he was an
artist. I will miss receiving one of his annual patches to add to my collection of about 35
of them. The one I love the best is showing some guy running off without his head,
which is being held tightly by Gene, with the words below. “When in doubt, Choke ‘em
We all miss you Gene!
September - 2022
- 3rd to 5th Saturday to Monday - Nanka Shorai Camp with Darcel Yandzi, Baldwin Park, CA
- 11th Sunday - 1st Annual North American Judo Championships, Wayne, NJ
- 11th Sunday – Nanka Fall Tournament, Westminster, CA
- 17th Saturday - Becerra Judo Challenge, Plano, TX
- 18th Sunday – Nevada State Kosen Judo Championship, Las Vegas, NV
- 24th Saturday – Referee Clinic Tijuana, Mexico
October – 2022
- 1st Saturday – Goltz Judo Dr. Z Memorial Scrimmage, Claremont, CA
- 27th Thursday & 28th Friday - Nanka's Hand-On Police Judo Workshop, Santa Clarita
December – 2022
- 2nd Friday to 4th Sunday - Grassroots Judo Winter Nationals & Clinics, Azusa, CA
I’m always looking for new subjects to write about regarding judo as well as contributions from my readers. Please send them to email@example.com