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Wrestling / Gene LeBell

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"Bruce Lee's bodyguard was a very good friend of mine: Gene LeBell. When Bruce Lee got in problems, they called for LeBell to take care of it."
Billy Robinson, pro wrestling Hall of Famer

Ivan Gene LeBell (born October 9, 1932 - August 9, 2022) was a judoka, Professional Wrestler and Mixed Martial Arts trainer. He started his career training catch wrestling and some boxing, but it was in judo where he shone, gaining several championships and being sent to the Kodokan school in Japan, where he cleaned house. Back in United States, he competed in the regional pro wrestling circuit without much success until 1963, the year in which he took part in a primitive (and ridiculously rigged against him) style vs. style fight against boxing champion Milo Savage, who LeBell ended choking out. Now as a known name in the world of martial arts, LeBell went to work as a stuntman, actor and choreographer, eventually befriending Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris. He also stood out as a trainer, founding the Hayastan academy along his pal and apprentice Gokor Chivichyan and being the man behind MMA fighter Ronda Rousey.

Before passing on of natural causes on August, 2022 LeBell was one of those charismatic if controversial guys in the mixed martial arts business. He might have taken part in some awkward incident with Steven Seagal, and he also had some opinions about Bruce Lee which are debated and disputed. But he was possibly most famous as the flagbearer for the Real Men Wear Pink trope.

He was also the inspiration behind Brad Pitt's character Cliff Booth in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

"The Toughest Tropes Alive":

  • Alternate Company Equivalent: He could be the American version of Jon Bluming, or perhaps Jon Bluming could be the Dutch version of Gene LeBell.
  • The Apprentice: To Ed "Strangler" Lewis, Karl Gotch and Lou Thesz, among other guys.
  • Arrogant Kung-Fu Guy: Mostly averted by the ever goody Gene, but according to his own testimony, he used to be kicked out from gyms because he punched wrestlers around and threw boxers down when he felt like it thanks to his knowledge in both. Still now, he seems to have a wicked penchant for recommending to break arms and such.
  • Author Appeal: His teachings are described as a mixture of shoot wrestling, which Gene described as "the best self-defense method ever devised".
  • Badass Boast: "I'm going to strike him, freeze his body and hammer him to the ground. And I'll leave him on the ground until summer, defrost him and pull him out, then choke him out."
  • Badass Family: His mother, "Redhead" Aileen Eaton, was a promoter of boxing and wrestling. His stepdad and brother were the promoters of NWA Hollywood.
  • Badass Teacher: Trained people like Ronda Rousey, Benny "The Jet" Urquidez, Bob Wall, Chuck Norris, Bruce Lee, Ed Parker, Gokor Chivichyan, Karo Parisyan, "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, Mando Guerrero, Manny Gamburyan and others.
  • Bash Brothers: Had Tag Team title runs with Pat Patterson and Chino Chou.
  • Boisterous Bruiser: Like the old pro wrestlers of yore.
  • Bullying a Dragon:
    • Boxer Jim Beck should have thought better before challenging the American judo community. Even against an opponent who secretly knew judo as well, was oiled up, wore tight clothes to avoid being gripped instead of the intended uniform and wielded concealed brass knuckles, LeBell was too much for the challenge.
    • Related to above, the host of a sports show who was interviewing both LeBell and Milo Savage was openly mocking of judo and his techniques, and asked Gene to demonstrate a choke on him. Gene proceeded to choke the host out for total KO and take his turn to laugh at his unconscious body.
    • And then, similar to the above choke demonstration, it was the infamous Steven Seagal incident...
  • Catchphrase: "This is not legal in competition, but this is how you do it" or some variant while explaining moves.
  • Celebrity Resemblance: Used to look oddly like Gérard Depardieu, which was commented in some interviews.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: He had a tendency to behave rather... tongue-in-cheek in his public apparitions.
  • Combat Pragmatist: Some of his instructionals teach, half-joking, half-seriously, about biting and eye-gouging.
  • Combat Referee: Gene was the referee in the (in)famous fight between Muhammad Ali and Antonio Inoki, as he was the only guy they could get their hands on who knew what was up with the concept of a mixed fight.
  • Cool Old Guy: Helped in the training of Rowdy Roddy Piper, Mando Guerrero and Lightning form GLOW.
  • Cool Teacher: He is sometimes cited as a friendlier teacher than his colleague at the Hayastan Academy, the notoriously distant Gokor Chivichyan.
  • Crazy-Prepared: One of the judo black belts who acted as cornermen to LeBell in his match with Savage was an attorney, just in case. He also was accompanied by some pro wrestlers in case (as it was) that the crowd turned into torches and pitchforks against him.
  • Defeating the Undefeatable: Won over John Osako (a grand judo champion who was not only heavier than LeBell, but also known for winning his weight division championship and defeating all the other weights’s champions) by ippon and sode both times he competed against him.
  • Defeat Means Friendship: According to him, he and Bruce Lee became friends when they were sparring on the set on The Green Hornet - Gene threw down Lee and he asked him to let him get up, which LeBell refused on the saying Lee was gonna punch the hell out of him if he did so. They then laughed and became usual sparring partners, teaching each other methods from their styles.
  • The Dreaded: LeBell had some challenge on and off with Hélio Gracie, but the latter only wanted to face him if Gene lost at least 60 ibs to be in equal conditions. This is really notable because Gracie had faced guys much heavier than LeBell through all his career without any problem.
  • Embarrassing Nickname: Was nicknamed "Daikon" ("Raddish") by the Japanese press after he won a judo tournament clad in a pink gi.
  • Fiery Redhead: Despite some hair loss, but still had it.
  • Finishing Move: Ankle lock, cross armbar and figure four leglock.
  • Hero Killer: At the time of his match with Milo Savage, judo was relatively unknown to the public while boxing was huge. Seeing a national boxing champion lying on the ground unconscious before a dude in a white pajama was quite a shock for everybody.
  • Hidden Depths: LeBell's specialty was grappling, but according to John Perretti, who is a tae kwon do black belt himself, the old guy also has some wicked roundhouse kicks.
  • Honor Before Reason: According to Gene, he had many opportunities to finish Milo Savage with armbars, but he opted for waiting for the rear naked choke as he deducted that the boxer would not tap out even if he broke his arm, and he wanted to prove that judo could disable an opponent without maiming him.
  • I Know Karate: Judo, 9º dan black belt and national champion. He also knew catch wrestling, and some boxing and Japanese jujitsu, along with some other traditional martial arts.
  • Insistent Terminology: He hilariously referred to himself as a "sadistic bastard" every time he talked about himself. Apparently it was Karl Gotch who inculcated that custom on him, as he once said to a young Gene that he would never be a champion until he became a sadistic bastard, and it stuck.
  • Instant Expert: He shocked the Machado brothers with his positional and submission knowledge the first time he rolled with them, which he explained with the obvious relation between his judo and their Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. At the end, it was him the one who taught them, especially about leglocks and neck cranks, which he knew from catch wrestling.
  • Malevolent Masked Man: As one half of the Hangman tag team, who did in fact carry ropes with which to garrote and hang their opposition.
  • One-Hit Kill: According to witnesses, Gene was able to choke unconscious an average opponent in three seconds after locking up the hold.
  • Only Sane Man: When you are standing in a building full of ridiculously angry boxing fans who throw chairs and want to stab you, or refereeing a fight between a crazy boxing champion and a possibly crazier Japanese pro wrestler, you know you are.
  • Real Men Wear Pink: LeBell was known for wearing a trademark pink judo gi while in training, which actually came from a funny incident. He supposedly was getting ready for a judo tournament in Japan when he accidentally put his gi along with a red garment in the washer, which dyed the white suit into a pinkish color, and because he did not own another, he had to wear it during the tournament. Japanese crowds only forgave him for the offense when they saw him kicking ass comfortably in it.
  • Red Baron: "Judo" LeBell, "The Toughest Man Alive", "The Godfather of Grappling".
  • The Rival: To Neff Maivia in the old Hawaii territory.
  • Save the Villain: After he knocked out Milo Savage with a choke, Gene and his judo coach were the only guys in the building who knew what to do, and had to do kuatsu or reanimation on the poor guy because the ring referee (a boxing referee, evidently) was clueless.
  • Third-Person Person: Sometimes spoke this way in interviews for comedic effect.
  • Training from Hell: Some of his first judo trainers were survivors of the Internment of Japanese Americans, so little American boy Gene definitely had to endure some heat from his masters. Nonetheless, he kept on.
  • Ur-Example:
    • Gene claims to have coined the term "rear naked choke" in a book he wrote in 1953. Until then, it had been refered as a hadaka-jime (Japanese for "naked strangle"), a sleeper hold (a term from catch wrestling which is still used in Japanese MMA circuit) or simply a choke.
    • He also claimed to have invented the three-finger grip.
    • His match with Milo Savage was the first proto-MMA match in America that was recorded on film.
  • Wrestler in All of Us: Rather logically as Gene was a pro wrestler, but his self-defense tapes sometimes contain pro wrestling moves, which is quite odd. However, he labeled them as moves that you have to be a lot better than your opponent to be able to apply, and thus he endorses simpler techniques to get the business done.
  • Your Princess Is in Another Castle!: Gene featured an outlandish moment in pro wrestling history when he was stripped out of the NWA Championship belt mere seconds after winning, due to him accidentally striking a referee with it while he was whipping to the air in celebration.