Gene LeBell is a renowned American martial artist that simultaneously followed two career paths: grappling and stunts. With both, he became immensely successful. He is famous for participating in the first televised mixed martial arts fight in history and for being Ronda Rousey's grappling coach.
Practicing Judo from early age, he became exceptional at it, which the athlete solidified by winning U.S. Judo nationals twice.
Not being able to sustain himself through Judo alone, Gene switched to stunts and made his way to Hollywood productions. Throughout the years, he accumulated more than thousand film and TV series contributions, which means that even he himself doesn't have a list of all of them. Majority of his work is uncredited, so it is very hard to trace.
During the kung fu craze period in Hollywood, LeBell met Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, Jackie Chan and many other famous martial arts action stars, introducing them to the world of chokeholds and armbars and befriending many.
Together with the historical MMA bout, his grappling promotion among the stars has made him a true icon in the martial arts community and a mentor to many.
Ivan Gene was born into a wealthy family. His father Maurice was a Los Angeles surgeon and made plenty of money, which enabled the family to live a luxurious Hollywood life.
That dream got shattered quickly though, as Maurice had a surfing accident which killed him. If losing a father is not traumatic enough, his other parent Eileen now had to find a job and could no longer spend much time with her beloved son.
As a result, Gene was sent to the California Military Academy at Camp San Luis Obispo. He started struggling and became a problem child. His antics there made some teachers believe that the boy is a lost cause.
More changes came soon when Eileen introduced him to a man named Cal Eaton, with which she was involved. In 1942, the two got married and Gene now had a stepfather.
It was a very positive relationship - Eileen was working as a secretary at the Olympic Auditorium and got Cal a job of a promotion manager there. He quickly rose to the occasion and improved boxing profits tenfold. Eileen was no less ambitious, soon becoming a successful business manager. Their duties naturally had common ground, the pair worked together and worked together well.
That change has opened LeBell to a world of top class athletes and he instantly got hooked and started to wrestle. Due to his strict academic schedule, he could not do much, but during summers he was a regular at the Auditorium and then he was training hard.
On top of that, he also completed various tasks that needed to be done at the location. Some of those were pretty dangerous, as he had to work at height, for example. He was eager to do these things and that's how his stuntman spirit first started to come out.
LeBell suffered from anemia for a brief period of time, which caused him to lose the athleticism that he had gained so far. He was determined to get back though and started to practice Judo when finding out that it is a good way to develop muscle strength.
Larry Coughran became Gene's first teacher when the boy was 13 years old. After four years of hard work, he switched to Hollywood Dojo, run by two Japanese men: Tadasu Iida and Tasuke Hagio.
Today, that school is governed with more friendly rules and regulations, but at the time it was more strict and brutal. It wasn't anything beyond LeBell's mental strength though, he took the challenge and grew in ranks.
The next step in education was the Pierce College, where he studied animal husbandry. Few years later, he enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserves due to the Korean War breaking out on June 25, 1950, and United States engaging to help South Korea.
Already deeply in love with Judo at the time, LeBell was always looking for opportunities to improve and test himself physically. He represented the military at the 1954 AAU Judo Nationals and won, giving him his first major tournament win. One year later, he entered the competition again and again took the top spot.
Shortly after, he switched back to wrestling, thinking that it is a better career path than being a Judoka. His mother and stepfather could set him up too, being that they were the pillars of the Olympic Auditorium. He started performing there under the moniker The Hangman.
These performances got him popular, which opened some doors for the young man. Luckily for him, Los Angeles is where all the big American movie studios are and they create demand for both actors (if a person is pretty, has some degree of talent or friends in high places) and stuntmen.
Gene's connection was Jack Alaina, whom he knew from wrestling, and who had walked the same path LeBell was now walking - from contact sports to stunts in movies. The difference was that Alaina wasn't getting his head all swollen up and his neck broken, but instead was responsible for leading others as they do so, making sure that they don't get hurt and it all looks good.
Alaina got him a gig in The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (IMDb) - a popular radio show that ended up a TV sitcom telling the story of Ozzie Nelson, Harriet Hilliard and their family. LeBell was asked to play in a scene, where he was to be banged into the brick wall.
The next job opportunity was a step up. A Superman show, starring Noel Neill (from the first Superman movie adaptation from 1948) and George Reeves (from the following one and the TV series adaptation) was to be playing Superman live shows across L.A. and they needed a good stuntman. LeBell impressed Reeves and got the part.
Another big opportunity came when befriended Michael Landon, who played Little Joe in Bonanza, was looking for someone to provide all sorts of stunts and extra roles for the series.
Together with Superman, Bonanza established him as one of the go-to stuntmen in Hollywood.
More job offers kept coming. An interesting one was for Lessie, where a fight between man and bear was needed for one episode. This was nothing scary for Gene, who had actually practiced wrestling with a trained bear named Victor. Together, they got the parts.
Victor's savage nature (or clumsiness) came out during the filming as he beat his human friend, but it was nothing serious and the scene ended up very good.
Bruce Lee is considered to be the grandfather of MMA. Using techniques from various martial arts to develop a new one (Jeet Kune Do) with practical use in mind was very unorthodox, which wasn't received too well by the community.
Similarly, when Gene LeBell walked around trying various things with the same open mind attitude, some people were not fond of it. But the public interest for fighting style comparisons was always big. Can shaolin monk win with a kickboxer? How about boxer against karateka?
In Rogue Magazine's 1963 article, boxer and writer Jim Beck wrote an article in which he criticized martial arts, with judo receiving a special distinction. The conclusion was simple: martial arts want to be fancy so much, but no matter how skilled its practitioner is, he can't beat a good boxer. To back up his rant (or perhaps a smart marketing idea), he offered $1000 to anyone that proves him wrong.
Ed Parker, a Hawaiian born creator of the American Kenpo Karate, got heated up when reading it and started showing it to many martial artists, who were equally eager to prove Beck wrong. They just had to take that challenge! Now, the question was who would take it.
LeBell was his friend and so Parker thought of him, which surprised the stuntman. In his mind, he wasn't recognizable enough in the martial arts community to serve well as a representative. But Parker insisted, and ultimately Gene agreed. There were three major problems with the event though.
The first one was location. California State Athletic Commission said that they are not going to sanction such an obscure event and make rules just for that one show. It had to be moved to Salt Lake City.
The second one was a nasty surprise that awaited LeBell after he got to the destination. He isn't going to fight the arrogant Beck the amateur boxer, but rather Milo Savage! In his prime, Savage had been the 5th best middleweight in the world. At 37 years of age, he was already past his prime, but still in shape and with physique suggesting an uphill battle for LeBell.
The judoka should have opted for more - after all, bringing a famous face to the table surely increased the value of that event. And it was to be televised, with big TV audience expected. Despite Beck playing tricks, the financial terms stayed the same though. LeBell just wanted to choke the man out.
The final surprise was in the ring. Savage didn't wear big boxing gloves, but the minimalistic ones used in grappling. On top of that, below both Milo had knuckle-dusters on! Clearly an advantage over Gene, who had bare hands to go against steel.
To everyone's surprise, Savage's gi was not the one both parties agreed on, but of a different, harder to grab type... and it was soaked with vaseline to make the boxer as slippery as possible!
This and few other things pointed to what the organizers clearly wanted - for the fancy martial artist to get knocked out cold in a spectacular fashion.
The bout took place on December 2, 1963. Both fighters started shy and it took some time before they warmed up to the challenge. LeBell was the more pressing fighter, but Savage showed clear signs of Judo training in how consciously he reacted to what Gene was throwing at him.
In the fourth round, LeBell worked out his way into position and applied a rear naked choke. Savage proved to be the tough guy and did not tap out (to surrender). By today's rules, a judge would stop a fight anyway in concern for the fighter's safety, but there was no such rule in that match. Savage went unconscious and only then LeBell eased his grip.
The audience instantly went bonkers when Gene was declared the winner. They started throwing all sorts of items into the ring, hoping that their local fighter would win it.
Because of the extended choke, Savage was unconscious disturbingly long. The referee was completely unprepared and did not know how to resuscitate him. Gene's staff offered help and they had to do it. In spite of that, Milo was gaining consciousness, completely unaware of what's going on, and moments later losing it again.
One final nasty surprise awaited LeBell on his way back to the locker room. A frustrated fan charged his way with a knife and a clear intent to carve a new hole or two in Gene's body. Fortunately, that threat was seen in advance and quickly neutralized.
Now, he was $1000 richer, but more importantly he defended the honor of all martial arts and proved a point, validating their practical use in the eyes of the Americans.
As such, it was a historical moment. And technically speaking, it was the first publicly aired mixed martial arts match in history. That is why by many Gene LeBell is considered to be the father of MMA.
First stunt gigs
Versatile and with some experience under his belt already, LeBell became a stunt coordinator for one episode of The Munsters in 1964. Following his career, one would think that he's branching out, but in reality he was merely testing waters. After doing some coordinating work in a number of pictures in the 1960s, he came back to just doing stunts and rarely coordinated them again.
The year 1966 saw LeBell working with the biggest star he ever met - Elvis Presley. The movie was called Paradise, Hawaiian Style (IMDb) and was another display of sub-par acting in a cheesy story, which was characteristic to the great singer's obviously forced movie career.
LeBell couldn't care less and was just needed for a bar fight with Presley, which he was of course destined to lose. The singer was so impressed with Gene's gymnastics that he paid him extra. The person who set him up for the role was again an old friend Ed Parker.
Meeting Bruce Lee
That same year, Gene met another soon-to-become martial arts legend Bruce Lee. The show Green Hornet was being made and they needed someone to get beaten badly. The challenge was greater than usual, because casted as Kato was a young kid from Hong Kong who was of small stature, but for his size had a ridiculous dynamic strength.
LeBell soon found out about it directly, as he was advised to watch the little immigrant, and later tested things out with him. Absorbing one kick was enough to convince him that Lee is not to be underestimated.
The first contact between the two was awkward initially. Goofing around, Gene grabbed him and started running around the room. Everybody was laughing except Bruce, who was confused and did not know what to make of it, not realizing that this is just a way to say 'hello'. After a while, he relaxed and started laughing too.
Whatever tensions there were in the beginning disappeared quickly. One common quality that both athletes shared was the curiosity about other martial arts. They both wanted to try out every single one of them!
At the time, Kung Fu was still a mystery to Americans to some extent and vice versa: Bruce Lee did not know squat about grappling. Interested in what they can learn from each other, they started training together. Sometimes Lee visited LeBell in his dojo near Paramount Studio, other times it was LeBell who came to Lee's dojo in Chinatown.
Bruce wasn't too keen on grappling at first. He not only found it boring to watch and participate in, but also not practical at all! Rolling with Gene gave him new perspectives and opened his mind to some extent. He was always a stand-up fighter first, but thanks to Gene he implemented some of the Judo moves into his arsenal. The best example of the choke Lee did in his legendary movie Enter the Dragon.
LeBell performed stunts in many episodes of The Green Hornet, but he is uncredited, which is the norm for stuntmen. Gene got his due in minority of movies and TV series that he was hired for.
Stunt work continues
The next big production he was hired for was the classic Franklin J. Schaffner movie Planet of the Apes. Forced into ape costume in the gargantuan summer heats of Calabasas, filming it provided extra kinds of struggles LeBell was not yet accustomed to, but his role was minor and the pay was good.
In the next years, the stuntman was also hired for part two and part three of the franchise.
The same year when Conquest of the Planet of the Apes saw the light of day, one classic TV series was released. It was the title that many generations of kids are drawn to even to this day - Kung Fu, starring David Carradine. The show was made to capitalize on the explosion of martial arts popularity, for which Gene's pal Bruce Lee was largely responsible.
LeBell marked his presence by participating in a fight which ended with both his character and the opponent knocked unconscious.
His following movies were sub-par compared to some of the earlier productions he starred in, but he probably didn't care and it would of course be ridiculous to hold him accountable for the movies he was bringing minor contributions to.
That changed in 1974 with Earthquake - a disaster film centering around the fate of various people trying to recuperate from a devastating Los Angeles earthquake. Given the subject of the film, there was a lot of stunt work and LeBell had his hands full on this one.
Right after, the stuntman moved to another traumatizing set. This time, fire broke in a new building and trapped inside many people gathered to celebrate its opening. The Towering Inferno won 3 Oscars, all for technical aspects despite the cast being stuffed with the Hollywood elite.
Two of those were Steve McQueen and Paul Newman, for whom the movie was a challenge (and filming it with fire and smoke everywhere certainly was). Both tried to do as much as they could without being substituted by the likes of Gene in the most dangerous manoeuvres, which earned them few bruises.
In 1975, the athlete was hired for Starsky and Hutch. Plenty of stunt work was needed in this police show and Gene was the go-to guy for it. Contributing over many episodes, producers were so satisfied with his work that they gave him a distinction.
More catastrophic work came a year later, except this time a giant monkey was the source of trouble. King Kong, starring Jeff Bridges, had a big release and was profitable, but it was no work of art by any stretch of the imagination. Similarly to The Towering Inferno (also by the director John Guillermin), it sacrificed substance for professionally-engineered thrills. And those kinds of movies need stuntmen by the dozen.
Gene starred in a very dangerous scene, where King Kong unloads his unjustified rage on a train passenger car, inside of which there are people trapped, LeBell included. Shaken and stirred in a rapid fashion, it was a hard scene to film without anyone getting hurt along the way.
The year 1978 was when the stuntman first met Clint Eastwood. He got handpicked by the actor to get punched and fall of a motorcycle in front of camera in Every Which Way But Loose, even though Clint was just an actor in that movie.
A year later, The Dukes of Hazzard started airing on CBS and as the title suggests, there were plenty of scenes that needed stunt experts.
LeBell didn't walk out of that show without a scratch. He spotted pyrotechnician placing a charge poorly, which could result in glass shattering in all directions, and decided to take a precaution and wear glasses for the scene. Gene's worst predictions came to reality and his face saw plenty of glass coming through. Fortunately, it only ended with shallow cuts.
Walking to the technician dead scared and perhaps wondering how is the stuntman still in one piece (as opposed to the glass), Gene said
Well, at least I won’t have to shave tomorrow!.
The worst was yet to come though, as the following scene was even more recklessly planned. Again, the problem was glass and this time he decided to walk up to his superiors to point out the risks. Not humbled at all by the flop that had just happened, they just brushed him off.
The result turned the set into a horror movie one: glass again shattered, with one piece cutting one side of Gene's face much deeper this time and from eyebrow to jaw. While some people in his position might just want to sue at that point (a risky approach, given that everybody might then be afraid to hire him afraid of them getting sued as well because of some mishap), LeBell just stopped the bleeding and continued playing. He visited the hospital later.
Just as he personally witnessed the rise of Bruce Lee, he soon came in contact with another character that would take the kung fu flicks world by storm. After playing beat-up guys in local movies, Jackie Chan set sail in hopes of making it in the USA. Battle Creek Brawl (also known as The Big Brawl) was his American debut and there Gene was set to fight the famous wrestler Ox Baker in a brutal street fighting tournament.
Baker was to win and knock out Gene, which he did without complications, but problem emerged while shooting another scene, when he landed on a concrete instead of a soft pad and injured his shoulder as a result.
In 1980, Martin Scorsese was making the all-time go-to Hollywood boxing movie Raging Bull and there Gene got two roles! What's more, they were connected... by a chair. He played ring announcer in Jimmy Reeves' fight, which led to an angry audience screaming their lungs and throwing objects towards the ring. At one moment, a chair was thrown in, which the announcer threw back, hitting a character... also played by LeBell!
In his stuntman career, LeBell had and saw many accidents, but there was only one movie where one of the brave men risking their lives ended up dead. It was Million Dollar Mystery and that person was Dar Robinson.
LeBell is one of the veterans of the profession, but Robinson was in the league of his own. The man held a different approach - he liked to break new records and throughout the years had accumulated many. Ironically, death knocked on the door while he was doing the final test to a chase scene he would be usually able to do with his eyes closed.
In a getaway drive test, Dar went past LeBell and didn't slow down nor turn in time, but instead went out of road and down, crushing on the rocks together with his motorcycle. Gene rushed to his help instantly, but in a terrible condition he was in, the crew managed to transport him to the hospital, where at that point they couldn't do anything to help him.
It was a very hard experience for LeBell to digest and probably a wake up call as well. After all, one small mistake and he could be dead too.
On a lighter note, the stuntman's contact with the Star Trek franchise came in 1993, when he participated in the filming of one Deep Space Nine episode, playing a Klingon. At first, it was supposed to be another part where he shrugs it off with a positive character and ends up getting hurt, but he got a small talking part in the process too.
Steven Seagal challenge
One anecdote following the stuntman everywhere he goes is the Steven Seagal confrontation. Yet another Hollywood martial artist on the rise, Seagal made his mark with Above the Law, and now he wanted to follow it up with another hit. The title was Hard to Kill.
Seagal, known for his bragging, supposedly walked around the set stating that nobody ever took him down and nobody ever will. Confident in his abilities, he offered $500 dollars to anyone that succeeds. LeBell didn't need to hear more and took the challenge.
In a matter of seconds, he was on the ground and choked. After regaining consciousness, Seagal claimed that it was just luck and asked for second attempt. Eager to get the reward, Gene again quickly took Steven down (albeit taking slightly more punishment before that happened) and again applied a chokehold. There were no more rounds.
In one interview, LeBell suggested that Seagal even pooped his pants while being submitted, which can sometimes happen under the circumstances.
When confronted about the situation, Steven denied the pooping and even that the fight existed at all. Instead, he said that the only close contact between the two came in his trailer - Seagal was hanging out there with Conrad Palmisano (a famous stuntman) and LeBell came to socialize, which they did. And that's it.
Below is a fragment of an interview conducted by Ariel Helwani, where Seagal talks about the subject.
Relationship with Chuck Norris
Two more people need to be mentioned in relation to Gene LeBell before this article comes to an end.
The first one is Chuck Norris. He is yet one more of an all-time martial arts craze Hollywood cast whose paths somehow crossed with the stuntman.
Norris arranged a training with LeBell and was astonished when realizing the practical applications of grappling in a world dominated by the idea that the best way to win a physical confrontation is a high kick to the face. And just like with Bruce Lee, with Norris LeBell also managed to convert a skeptic into an enthusiast.
Outside martial arts, the two also bonded a lot and became lifelong friends. They also crossed paths professionally - Gene got his bottom whopped in one episode of Walker, Texas Ranger.
If you're interested in delving a little deeper into the subject, below is a video of Norris talking about Gene.
Relationship with Ronda Rousey
The second person that needs mentioning is Ronda Rousey. Her mother AnnMaria De Mars is not only a passionate judoka, but an accomplished one at that. In 1984, she became the first American athlete to bring home Gold in Judo world championships.
Through the martial art, AnnMaria met Gene and they became great friends. Shortly after coming to this world, Ronda saw Gene's face, and since he was a frequent visitor, he witnessed her growing up just as much as close family member would. In Ronda's mind, he practically is one, that's why she frequently refers to him as 'uncle Gene'.
Rousey followed in her mother's footsteps and started practicing Judo at an early age. At 21, she mirrored AnnMaria's achievement by becoming the first American woman to earn an Olympic medal in Judo (she won Bronze). That was just the beginning though and soon she made an even bigger mark by impressing in the experimental female MMA division in Strikeforce and later moving to a newly-formed UFC female division after Strikeforce buy-out by the MMA giant.
So far, she remains the most dominant force in female MMA practically as much as Fedor Emelianenko was before he flopped. In large part, this is Gene's success. Together with Gokor Chivichyan and other coaches at Hayastan MMA Academy, he remains Ronda's grappling coach.
Rousey has nothing but kind words when asked about Gene during interviews. Below is a video depicting a one happy family - Ronda, her mother, Gene and Gokor at the gym.