“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. You can read part 1 here.
What did you think of the UFC when it first came along?
I loved it. It gave a combination of all the martial arts which is what I always liked to do. If I get you in a leg lock, it’s not legal in judo but it works so who cares? I didn’t like it when they brought more rules in – if I can use your hair or your jamoke as a handle, hey it may not be acceptable but it works – but overall the rules against hitting to the groin or eyes have been a good thing for the sport.
What’s your opinion of how it’s changed?
There’s more variety now. I think it’s changed for the good. Dana White has really done a great job. He is a hero of mine because he did something I couldn’t do, he made MMA fighting profitable. And a lot of fighters are now earning enough money where they can make a living, buy a house, buy a car because of him.
It sounds like you’re kissing up to Dana?
Who are the best MMA fighters you’ve seen and what do you like about them?
Well of course my favorite is Ronda (Rousey).And I liked Randy Couture because he was a champion wrestler but got to where he could fight on his feet quite well also. “Bones” Jones is great. He’s very talented. He can punch, kick, wrestle. He does it all. But there are a lot of good fighters, too many to name.
A lot of people feel Jon Jones is unbeatable right now. How long do you think he can last as champion? Five years? Ten years?
I don’t see anyone being champion for 10 years. There’s always some guy, maybe not as good as you, but he has a good night and you have a bad night and he puts you in retirement.
You judge MMA matches in California. What do you think of the quality of officiating throughout the sport?
I’ve been a fighter, a referee and a judge but I’m not in charge of hiring officials, it’s not my business. But I think there are a lot of people around the country who shouldn’t be working as officials. You get people who are just fans but they know someone in power and become judges.
What can be done to improve MMA officiating?
Well, the new head of the California Athletic Commission, Andy Foster, is taking the right steps. He’s the best commissioner I’ve ever seen. In other places people might get their job because they know someone but not with Foster. And a lot of people that used to officiate in California aren’t working anymore because he wants the best. He’s made a lot of the officials here go to John McCarthy, who’s as good a ref as there is, and sign up for his course and they’ve improved. They have to actually learn the sport. A lot of judges maybe have just done boxing or wrestling or muay thai but they don’t know about the other stuff. They don’t really know how much pressure it is on a neck crank or how much a jab can hurt you. If they know some of this stuff, it will make them better officials.
Let’s talk about Ronda Rousey. Did you coach her mother?
I never coached her mother but was close to her. We’d always see each other at different tournaments and became good friends. Ann Maria was a great champion. She beat everyone back then. She still teaches as a guest instructor at our school occasionally.
Did you work with Ronda when she was younger?
I worked with her a little bit when she was small. Her mother would come to work out sometimes and Ronda would be there but she was little so it was more like playing games. Then, after she won the bronze medal in the Olympics, I told her she’d win a gold in the next one but she said there’s no money in it. So I introduced her to Darin Harvey, a fight manager who trained with us at my student Gokor’s school (Hayastan MMA), and Darin became her manager.
What did you tell her about going into MMA?
I just told her three words: “Break an arm.” She’s had 10 matches – 3 amateur and 7 pro – all ended in the first round with an armbar. And she’s busted a few. She has a nice sadistic attitude which is good.
She sometimes gets criticized for her attitude in interviews but you say she’s a very different person in private.
In pro wrestling, they call the bad guy “a heel” but he’s the one people come to see. Ronda is a heel sometimes, she’ll insult opponents in interviews, so fans don’t always know how nice she really is. But outside the cage she’s a sweetheart.
What are her strengths and what does she still need to work on?
She does everything. Her boxing is very good now, her wrestling has always been very good. Her judo is good. But now there are a lot of other women who are also very good. Two people will race and one will win by a yard every time. They just have a will to win and they work harder. That’s her big strength.
What do you think of her upcoming fight with Miesha Tate?
I Just hope it draws money. I want everyone to make money win or lose. It will be tough. This gal, Miesha Tate, is very good.
Ronda beat her pretty convincingly the first time.
The gal is tough though, she didn’t want to give up when Ronda armbarred her. Miesha said “I’m double jointed.” Well now she’s triple jointed. Ronda is a little sadistic in the cage. She had one match where the other girl was tapping and the referee didn’t stop it. So Ronda rolled her over and broke her arm, which is the right thing to do. There are only two people who can stop a fight, the doctor and the referee. And if the referee doesn’t know what they’re doing, there’s trouble.
We often see you in Ronda’s corner for fights. What advice do you give her?
I’m in her corner but what I say is a secret. Look, now that she’s a champion, everyone says “I taught her this and I taught her that.” Well her mother taught her that armbar when she was 6. I’m not taking credit for her work, she trains with a lot of good teachers. Let everyone else say it’s them. Meanwhile, Ronda insists I’m in her corner and there’s a reason for it.
She’s recently begun doing movies. As someone who’s worked in a lot of films, do you think she’ll excel at it?
She’s doing The Expendables 3 and some other stuff. It takes years to be a good actor but her interviews on camera are always great and she’s got a lot of personality.
Are you worried it will interfere with her training? In general, is it a good idea for fighters to try an acting career while they’re still in the middle of their fight careers?
I think everyone should have five fingers. If three of them get shot off, you still can still pick up your food with the other two. If your MMA or boxing goes down drain, you better have something to keep the wolf away from the door. Ronda was a bartender before she became a successful fighter. What are you going to do, go back to bartending? If she can make it as an actress that’s a good career to have.
So what’s in the future for Gene LeBell?
I just became partners with Trebla Sports to make a line of martial arts and MMA gear I’m endorsing that includes pads, gis, all sorts of stuff. But I’m 81 years old, I just want to retire and race motorcycles. Motorcycles are like sex to me and I’m not too old for sex.