American grappling pioneer Gene LeBell passed away this week at the age of 89.
The news was confirmed by his close family friends earlier this morning, and has led to an outpouring of tributes from the martial arts community.
Born in California in October, 1932, LeBell began training catch wrestling at an early age before finding judo, earning his black belt and traveling to the venerated Kodokan school in Japan to further his knowledge. LeBell’s competitive career included two consecutive Amature Athletic Union National Judo Championships in 1954-55 before enjoying a successful stint in professional wrestling.
LeBell’s first major gift to the martial arts world was his participation in a mixed-style bout against boxer Milo Savage in 1963. Answering a wager that any skilled boxer could defeat a martial artist, LeBell agreed to several handicaps, including no takedown attempts below the waist and no kicking, before entering the ring in December.
LeBell emerged victorious, choking out Savage with an RNC after taking him to the ground. This would go on to be considered the first official mixed martial arts match in American history. The event sparked widespread interest grappling, and LeBell would go on to referee the infamous Muhammad Ali vs Antonio Inoki mixed rules fight among other boxing vs wrestling events.
As the 90’s rolled in and more cohesive MMA promotions emerged in the states, LeBell would find himself coaching and developing championship-level talent. Included among his students are UFC legends like Bas Rutten and, perhaps most famously, former women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey. Both Rutten and Rousey offered tributes to their longtime mentor after the news broke.
Alongside his former student and MMA legend Gokor Chivichyan, LeBell would coach both grappling and MMA to the best of the best for decades. Outside of sports, LeBell enjoyed a storied career in entertainment. He worked on stunts for several episodes of The Green Hornet, leading to a deep friendship with fellow martial arts legend Bruce Lee, and acted on screen alongside Elvis Presley for three pictures.
All told, LeBell lent his services both behind screen and onscreen to over 1000 TV shows, commercials and movies. But perhaps the most infamous of his movie exploits came from his alleged altercation with Steven Seagal on the set of Out For Justice.
A legend of the sport, he was impossibly crucial in its birth and the success of many of its greatest stars.
Rest in Peace.