“Judo” Gene LeBell is one of the true legends in the martial arts. Literally born into the fight game, his mother, Aileen Eaton, was the main promoter of boxing and wrestling in Los Angeles from the 1940s through the 1970s. LeBell grew up around the best wrestlers and boxers of his era, receiving his first lesson at age 6 from former world wrestling champion Ed “Strangler” Lewis. He eventually added judo to his repertoire, becoming a two-time national champion in the 1950s before going on to a career as a pro wrestler. He also engaged in what might be considered the first ever televised mixed martial arts contest in 1963, choking out boxer Milo Savage in a judo vs. boxing match. A movie stuntman for more than fifty years, he has possibly appeared on screen more than anyone in history. As a coach, he was worked with former UFC contenders Karo Parisyan and Manny Gamburyan and current women’s champion, Ronda Rousey. He recently sat down for a one on one interview about his career, MMA, Rousey and why he loves being a sadistic bastard.
So who were some of your main teachers and what can you tell us about them?
There were a lot of them. Lou Thesz, Karl Gotch and Vic Christy all taught me a lot about grappling. When I was training, there were 8 or 10 real shooters (serious catch wrestlers) in the Los Angeles area and when someone wanted to get into that group, they’d beat the crap out of guy and if he came back they knew he was serious and he could work out with them. If he didn’t come back, he wasn’t good enough anyway. I started with these guys when I was a little kid. Christy was one of best of them, though you don’t hear too much about him. I learned a lot of finishing holds from him, arm locks, leg locks back locks, neck locks. From Thesz I learned how to hurt people. He had a little bit of a sadistic side. So did Gotch. Karl told me I’d never be a champion till I learned to be a sadistic bastard. And Larry Coughran was my first judo teacher. He had a judo school and I started there when I was 13. I also trained at the LA Athletic club. But it wasn’t the kind of competition judo you see today where they only allow you a few seconds on the ground.
You talk quite a bit about having a sadistic side as a fighter. Why is that so important?
If you fight for a living you can’t give a damn about the opponent because they’re trying to take food out of your mouth and your kids’ mouths. Thesz told me life is grappling. You’re in competition with everybody. I tell my grandson if you get an A in school and someone else gets a D, he’s going to be a waiter and you’re going to own the restaurant. The trick is, just don’t let them know you’re competing against them.
You hear a lot among catch wrestling enthusiasts about Karl Gotch. Some of them say he was the best grappler ever.
Well I won’t argue with them. He showed me a lot of stuff. I saw him get hold of Olympic wrestlers and just gobble them up with front facelocks, choke them out, or break an ankle. He said if a guy gets you in the guard position (what Gotch called foot and leg control) and you can’t break his leg, you should quit wrestling. That’s why I’ve always liked to work a lot of leg locks.
Then why is it we don’t see more leg locks in mixed martial arts competitions?
Eventually we will see more of it. But really, you have to be able to do everything. When they started the UFC, that Gracie kid (Royce) was a great grappler but he eventually learned you have to work on other stuff like boxing and standing takedowns. When he went against Matt Hughes, Hughes hurt him with punches because he was a better boxer. I’m not knocking anybody – Gracie was the best of his time and Hughes was the best of his time. The same way Thesz and Gotch were the best of their times. But to me, if an Olympic champion was like an 8, Karl was a 10.
I saw in an interview, Gotch said when he worked with you, he worked on getting you to wrestle without the gi.
It was a learning process for me. I started out doing wrestling but also did a lot of judo where you could choke a guy with your belt – which is technically illegal but who cares – or his collar and that’s a real advantage. So I ended up getting good with the gi and without. Now, in mixed martial arts, they say “rear naked choke.” I was the one who started calling it a rear naked choke in a judo book I wrote back in 1953 to explain the difference between using a gi and no gi, but no one remembers that. They used to just say “choke” before that.
You fought a boxer named Milo Savage in a judo vs. boxing match. How common were those kind of mixed bouts back then?
Not very common. This was in 1963 and it was the first televised mixed bout ever to my knowledge. Milo was rated number 5 in the world as a boxer. He was really a great fighter. We tried to promote the fight in Los Angeles but the athletic commission wouldn’t allow it because they said it was a duel not a sporting event.
You trained in catch wrestling, judo and boxing. How common was cross training in different styles back then? Did you see many boxers that learned some wrestling or wrestlers learning some judo?
When guys would get together, sometimes they would exchange information. A few other wrestlers tried judo but most judo guys couldn’t take the wrestling because they got slammed too hard. Someone would pick them up for a double leg, drive them into the ground and bust their shoulder. That was the way Gotch used to do it. I got kicked out of a lot of gyms because if I was at a judo school, I’d tackle them or slap them a little “accidentally.” Or in a boxing gym, if I guy started beating me too bad, I’d suplex him. The only guys really doing cross training back then were a few of the wrestlers. Now MMA has made it profitable to cross train. When you see a karate school nowadays, it says karate and MMA or you see a judo school that has a cage to train in. But who knows how good the teachers are. But my philosophy has always been it’s good to learn everything.
What was your secret for blending all those styles together?
Everything I did was practical. You have to strip things down and get to the practical stuff.
How do you compare the level of fighters/martial artists in general from that era to this? Are they better all-around fighters nowadays?
There are more good fighters now because of MMA. Also, you never heard of women getting tough before but now there are a lot of really good women who can beat the crap out of some of the men.
What would you say today’s fighters could learn from the way the old-timers trained?
How to be a sadistic bastard and also how to practice things over and over. Look around at the gym and out of 30 people maybe there are 3 or 4 that are doing a technique over and over. When I teach a group of students, as soon as they practice one hold, most are looking to learn a new one. People think they can take a pill and become a champion. But the harder you work, the luckier you get. You have to work a move hundreds or thousands of times. People don’t do that anymore. When I trained, we’d work out for 6 hours straight, my partner and I would do a hold 100 times back and forth. We’d also work a lot blindfolded so we’d learn to go by feel and know what part of the body we’re going to squash.
Come back tomorrow for part 2, where Judo Gene talks about the UFC and his protege, Rousey.