Many modern wrestling fans know of Ivan “Judo” Gene LeBell from the submission move Daniel Bryan/Bryan Danielson named after him, as Bryan’s coach Neil Melanson was a LeBell disciple. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the influence the man known as The Godfather of Grappling had on pro wrestling and combat sports.
LeBell’s influence will now live on via Danielson and his other students, and students of his students. Mixed martial arts pioneer Bas Ruten shared on Facebook that his friend died recently at age 89:
“The great Gene Lebell, toughest man I know, has passed away and left us at the age of 89... My deepest condolences to his lovely wife Midge, his kids and all his other family members and friends.
“You will be greatly missed Gene, I love you my friend, till we meet again!”
The California-born LeBell began training catch wrestling with Ed “Strangler” Lewis when he was just seven years old. He would also eventually learn from Karl Gotch & Lou Thesz, and travel to Japan to add judo to his studies.
In 1963, LeBell fought professional boxer Milo Savage in response to a claim no martial artist could defeat a boxer. Judo Gene won by rear naked choke in a bout that was a precursor of what would become MMA*. From 1968-1982 LeBell ran the National Wrestling Alliance’s Los Angeles territory, NWA Hollywood Wrestling. He was the referee for another famous crossover match, Muhammad Ali vs. Antonio Inoki’s 1976 fight in Tokyo. LeBell retired from the ring himself after a 1981 match against The Rock’s grandfather Peter Maivia for NWA Hollywood.
Throughout his career as a trainer and performer, LeBell is credited with bringing catch wrestling and grappling technique to both pro wrestling and MMA. His students in those fields included Roddy Piper, Ronda Rousey, and many others. Outside of the fight game, LeBell worked in film & television, appearing in multiple Elvis Presley movies and working on The Green Hornet TV series, where he struck up a friendship with Bruce Lee. LeBell also worked with Chuck Norris, and was one of Quentin Tarantino’s inspirations for creating Brad Pitt’s “Cliff Booth” character in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
Gene LeBell remained a towering figure in the history and expansion of mixed martial arts and sports entertainment. A teacher to many of the sport’s greats, his influence is felt throughout @WWE to this day. Our thoughts are with his family and loved ones at this time.— Triple H (@TripleH) August 10, 2022
My hero.— Paul Lazenby (@MaulerMMA) August 10, 2022
My unfailing reminder that I am ugly and nobody likes me.
RIP to the world's toughest man, Judo Gene Lebell.
I'm going to miss the hell out of you. pic.twitter.com/1f3jlB0s55
Judo Gene Lebell impacted so many lives through his kind, caring, and loving soul. It is through those memories his legacy will become legendary and forever remembered. ❤️ RIP and prayers to all who loved him pic.twitter.com/uEJaJG5e2k— Grand Slam Champ CrisCyborg.com (@criscyborg) August 10, 2022
The late "Judo" Gene LeBell was the referee for Muhammad Ali vs. Antonio Inoki. pic.twitter.com/BWQYGpPdEb— JJ Williams (@JJWilliamsWON) August 10, 2022
RIP Gene Lebell. I’m not sure his contributions to combat sports can be overstated enough. A man’s man, a gentleman and an absolute legend. I enjoyed the times I got to chat and laugh with him over the years. Godspeed sir.— Frankie Kazarian (@FrankieKazarian) August 10, 2022
Gene LeBell had many claims to fame. One was becoming a regular stuntman for Bruce Lee since meeting on the set of The Green Hornet.— Catch Wrestling U (@CatchWrestling) August 10, 2022
LeBell helped Lee choreograph the finish to his on-screen fight with Sammo Hung in 'Enter the Dragon' with a crucifix pin armlock. pic.twitter.com/8BAx6ULNXB
Gene LeBell’s acting & stunt credits were unmatched. From 1961-2012. If there was a wrestling episode, he was almost always the ref. From The Beverly Hillbillies & The Munsters to Taxi and Rush Hour, an insane side-legacy. pic.twitter.com/93GL6QP0fw— RJ City (@RJCity1) August 10, 2022
Rest in Power, sir.
* LeBell had a history of answering these sorts of challenges. A famous story from the set of 1991’s Out For Justice, a Steven Seagal film LeBell worked on as a stunt coordinator, has it that when Seagal claimed he was “immune” from being choked unconscious, LeBell proved him wrong... causing the actor to evacuate his bowels as he passed out.