The Old Man and the Gi

Ahead of his Time

By Joseph Santoliquito Jul 16, 2013
Gene LeBell still teaches classes at the Hayastan MMA Academy. | Photo: D. Mandel/

LeBell had one glaring problem back then, and it led him down other incredible paths.

“I had to make a buck and get a job,” he said with a laugh. “In 1955, someone called me to do stunts in a movie, and they kept calling me.”

And they have not stopped. His movie credits as an actor and stunt coordinator reach back to 1963, and he still receives requests today. One of his more memorable experiences came in the mid-1960s while working on the set of the “Green Hornet,” a television series which starred Van Williams and the incomparable Bruce Lee.

“I was the stunt coordinator for ‘Green Hornet’ and Bruce was a little guy, 5-foot-4, 140 pounds and so fast that people didn’t know how to react to him,” LeBell said. “I got to know Bruce pretty well, to the point where I teased him a little one time. I snatched him in a fireman’s carry and walked around with Bruce sitting on my shoulders. He said to put him down or he would kill me. I told him I couldn’t, [that] if I put him down, he would kill me. I put him down and he told me he demanded respect, and he was right. I was wrong.

“We became friends,” he added. “I went to Bruce’s dojo. He came to where I worked out, but he wouldn’t want to work out in front of people, because he wanted to give people the impression he knew everything. He got me jobs, because I knew how to take falls for him. He was a very, very nice man. It was shocking to hear about Bruce’s death. It hurt when I heard he died. I liked Bruce a lot. A lot of these guys who do kung fu actually do a little bit of everything. Bruce was one of those guys who believed that. I have the same philosophy. Bruce really popularized martial arts.”

So did LeBell.

* * *

Hulton Archive/Getty Photos

Bruce Lee was a close friend.
LeBell began training students in the late-1960s and still teaches classes five decades later. He took in Chivichyan in 1980, and the two have been like father and son ever since.

“I was 17 the first time I met Gene, and he wanted me to fight a lot of his Olympians,” Chivichyan said. “He lined up all his black belts that were there. It took me 10 minutes to beat them. It was a very short time; I think that’s why Gene was impressed. He never saw anyone submit all of these guys. Our friendship started from that day. He’s been in my corner every time I fought.

LeBell now works for Chivichyan at the Hayastan MMA Academy in North Hollywood, Calif, and he does not take a cent for his time and expertise. He has an office with a desk and his own set of students to teach.

“I think what makes Gene a unique teacher is because he has a big heart,” he added. “He teaches from his heart. He has a unique style and no one else knows that style. He knows a lot of wrestling and a lot of judo, and I think that’s his biggest strength; he’s a master of different disciplines.”

Dr. Ann Maria DeMars, the first American woman to win the World Judo Championships, heard about LeBell through common channels. Roughly 13 years ago, she noticed Hayastan fighters were knocking out everyone they faced. DeMars wanted to increase the competition level for her somewhat scrawny, 80-pound daughter, who was 13 at the time. Rousey soon took off.

“I remember Gene would take her into a corner and teach her chokes and escapes, and it’s funny, because I had heard stories about Gene all of the time and how he was the toughest man around,” DeMars said with a laugh. “I put this little girl in front of him, and he melted. By the time I took Ronda there, Gene was older and not breaking heads anymore. If you were interested in learning, you were really taken in. Ronda still works with Gene sometimes, because her travel schedule is unbelievably insane.

“Gene’s known Ronda since she was a little girl, and right off the bat, [he] treated her with respect,” she added. “It’s not like she came around after being on two Olympic teams, but Gene will always see Ronda as this 13-year-old girl, like his daughter. He is very protective of Ronda. He’s helped her in a lot of ways, in addition to judo. I believe the people that help you early on in your success, when you’re a kid, those are the people who make a difference. Gene’s had more of an effect on Ronda because he’s been there since she was young.”

DeMars wonders if LeBell receives the credit he deserves.

“You see the respect Gene gets today, and that’s validation for all things he did when he was younger,” DeMars said. “Gene broke down a lot of barriers. He helped put MMA on the map. He was a fighter and a stuntman, and there were some that ostracized him early on because of that. I remember going into the Nanka Judo Association Hall of Fame in the mid-2000s with Gene. I wondered why Gene wasn’t inducted 20 years earlier.”

He may move and talk a little slower nowadays, and his reflexes may be worn from years of tossing others and being tossed himself, but, yes, after all of these years, he remains every bit the badass.

Recently, LeBell and his wife were pulling into a gas station when someone swerved around them -- a young driver in a rush who had no trouble cutting off the older couple. The young man had no idea he had crossed a line. He stopped in front of the pump LeBell was driving towards. “Judo” Gene climbed out of the car, his wife too late to grab him.

“The guy runs in, pays the cashier and he came out and I confront the guy,” LeBell said with a chortle. “I just grabbed his shirt and pushed him around a little. That was bad judgment. My wife told me to back off and to let him get his gas. She thought I was nuts, so I backed away and I told the guy I would check his plate and see if he had a warrant out on him. He jumped in his car and took off. I hate bullies. It always bothered me that you always have a guy who’s a bully, and it’s always been a breaking point with me.”

LeBell enjoys life, soaks in what he has accomplished and shares the knowledge he acquired through decades spent in the martial arts. He judges fights, taking time and care to explain the finer points of certain techniques to younger judges. He cherishes the crowd and the adoration, and he loves setting aside time to sign autographs and take pictures with adults old enough to be his grandchildren.

“I do love where I am right now, but it is getting tougher because many of the people I knew aren’t around,” a tranquil LeBell admitted. “I saw Bruce [Lee] and his son die. That’s not easy. I have friends who come up with cancer and you don’t hear from them. I send out 1,200 Christmas cards every year and the list is getting smaller. Guys I used to compete with, they’re dead now and it’s like a void in my life.

I can say I’ve been there and played
with the gods. I’ve been really
blessed. I made a good living and got
to do what I liked to do. How many
people can say that?

-- “Judo” Gene LeBell, Hayastan MMA Academy

“I can say I’ve been there and played with the gods. I’ve been really blessed,” he added. “I made a good living and got to do what I liked to do. How many people can say that? It’s nice when people come in and they know you. The stunts and the wrestling, the martial arts, it’s all different worlds, but you don’t have to climb a mountain in the Himalayas to see me. I don’t know how long my body will last, but I plan to keep on going.”


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