While Ali-Inoki is the first widely recognized boxer-wrestler matchup of the modern era, it is, of course, not the first mixed fight by any stretch of the imagination. After all, what was ancient Olympic pankration if not a mixture of boxing and wrestling technique?
Into the modern era there was plenty of intermixing between the arts, especially at the turn of the century when bareknuckle boxing saw an awful lot of greco-roman wrestling technique come into play. In post-industrial America boxing legend Jack Dempsey once demolished pro wrestler "Cowboy" Clarence Luttrell in Atlanta in front of a stunned crowd. But the most famous proto-MMA contest happened in 1963 in front of a modest crowd of pro wrestling fans in Salt Lake City, Utah.
With "Judo" Gene LeBell it's never easy to seperate fact from fiction. When you talk to Gene you don't interview him as much as listen to his schtick. And the man is full of interesting stories. But, more often than not, he's also completely full of crap. Which is why his bout with boxer Milo Savage deserves such close scrutiny.
LeBell is often credited as being one of the toughest men of his generation. His Hollywood connections made through his work as a stuntman and character actor led to him training with many famous martial arts personalities like Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris-it also led to an inflated reputation. Nothing made that more clear than his 1963 showdown with Savage.
The bout started in a strange way-an open challenge in a national periodical called Rogue Magazine. Boxing enthusiast Jim Beck called judo a fraud and said any judoka he'd ever met had been a braggart. Those were fighting words in those days, but that's not what intrigued LeBell. It was the offer that followed: Beck was willing to put up $1000 that a judoka couldn't beat his boxer:
"Judo bums hear me one and all! It is one thing to fracture pine boards, bricks and assorted inanimate objects, but quite another to climb into a ring with a trained and less cooperative target. My money is ready. Where are the takers?"
LeBell was keen to take home that $1000 and took the bet. What happened next is an ever shifting story. You can forgive the Fight Nerd for getting many of the details wrong. After all, LeBell is a canny carny with a significant pro wrestling background. Some basics:
1. LeBell was not "surprised" by his opponent. Attorney Dewey Falcone helped LeBell come up with a contract that stipulated the rules the match would be fought under. LeBell knew Savage was his opponent going in.
2. Savage was not a "top 5" light heavyweight boxer. Nor was he, as Falcone wrote in a May 1964 issue of a Black Belt magazine, a contender about to fight the great Dick Tiger. Savage, in fact, was a career long middleweight who had put together an uninspiring 49-45-10 record. Savage was not only past his prime, he was gasping for air in the boxing business. Like James Toney, he couldn't find work in the ring-so he was reduced to this kind of spectacle to make a buck. And at a shade over 160 pounds, he was severely undersized.
3. LeBell was not a stranger in a strange land in Utah. Judo Gene was part of the wrestling family, a fraternity brother of sorts-there's no way he was at a disadvantage at a Dave Reynolds promoted wrestling show. Marks don't work the wrestlers, wrestlers work the marks. In this case, Savage and Beck were the marks.
The excuses for LeBell's poor performance have changed as the years have gone bye. In 1964 LeBell's inability to finish a much smaller boxer who was forced to wear a gi top was blamed on an old shoulder injury and Savage's decision to wear a karate gi instead of a judo-gi. By the time the Fight Nerd heard the story, Savage was covered in vaseline and wearing brass knuckles. I wish I was making this up.
The truth is, Lebell had an awful showing against a much smaller boxer. But in the end, he triumphed with a choke that put Savage's lights out. Black Belt Magazine had the call:
LeBell moved under Savage’s jabs and managed to throw Savage with a spectacular left-sided maki hari goshi. He quickly followed with a neck choke. In a few seconds, the boxer was out cold. The choke was what LeBell wanted to use. He explained that he had several opportunities to apply an armbar but feared that he might seriously disable Savage. He wanted to prove that judo could be effective without maiming the other party.
James Toney can take heart from this fight. Here we see a boxer with limited grappling training stifling a grappler's upper body throws and taking the fight to him. And Toney is a much better boxer than Milo Savage ever dreamed of being.
Gene Lebell vs Milo Savage (via BlackShinobiShozoku)
MMA History - Gene Lebell VS Milo Savage, 1963 (via TheFightNerd)