If the first MMA fight you ever watched was Stephan Bonnar versus Forrest Griffin, chances are you have no clue who “Judo” Gene LeBell is, but pull up a chair because you’re about to learn about the man in the pink gi.
Many people give credit to the Gracies for bringing MMA to North America since they were responsible for founding the UFC and it’s Brazilian predecessor, The Gracie Challenge, but credit should actually go to Lebell, who helped introduce the sport to the masses nearly 30 years before the Octagon was invented.
Although it was seen as a spectacle or a publicity stunt at the time, decorated judo black belt Judo Gene Lebell called the bluff of a writer from a low budget magazine by the name of “The Judo Bums” that had boldly stated that any boxer regardless of ranking could beat a judo practician because judo players were all frauds.
After Lebell publicly denounced the troll story, the magazine offered to set up a bout between Gene and the writer boxer. He quickly accepted.
The modified ruled, no-holds-barred bout went down in Salt Lake City, Utah in December, 1963, but the pundit subbed in a professional boxer in his stead at the last minute by the name of Milo Savage. Both men wore gi tops and the only agreed upon rule was that they weren’t allowed to kick. Before the fight, Savage was caught trying to conceal brass knuckles under his hand wraps. In spite of the fact that Savage covered himself from head to toe with grease, Lebell still managed to hold onto the slippery boxer long enough to choke him out in the fourth round to become the first winner of a televised MMA bout in North America.
He would go on to train the likes of Bruce Lee, Gokor Chivichyan, Karo Parisyan and Manny Gamburyan while doing double-duty as a coach and movie stuntman over the course of his career.
Perhaps his crowning achievement besides the historic fight with Savage was the time he (allegedly) made Steven Seagal lose control of his bodily functions in his trailer on the set of “Out for Justice.”
As the story goes, Seagal purportedly told Lebell, who was a stunt coordinator on the film, that his Aikido trumped judo in effectiveness and that he could escape any hold Gene could apply. After the 58-year-old choked out “The Glimmer Man,” he proceeded to make him piss his pants by manipulating an acupuncture point on his neck he said was attached to the bladder.
After waking up in a puddle of his own urine, Segal kicked all of the onlookers out of his trailer and called his lawyers, who proceeded to slap a gag order on the cast and crew, warning them that if anyone breathed a word about the event, he would sue their asses. Thankfully the story saw the light of day, or else people may actually think Seagal is a dangerous former CIA operative who could kill you with his pinky finger like he claims.
The Gracie clan tried to set up a bout between Gene and Rickson 20 years ago, but it never materialized since there was a 27-year age difference between the two. Instead, Judo Gene suggested that he fight Helio instead, which the Gracies accepted, only if he could lose 55 lbs for the bout as Helio weighed 145 at the time. What’s curious is the fact that Gracie supporters have maintained that by turning down both bouts, Lebell ducked the family, even though Helio fought men much bigger than he was for most of his career.
Happy birthday to Mr. Lebell, who was born 79 years ago today and thank you for helping make North American MMA what it is today.