Friends, Disciples Say Goodbye to Judo Gene LeBell

NORTH HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — On Sunday, October 9, Gokor Chivichyan held a private memorial for his longtime business partner and dojo owner, Judo Gene LeBell, on what would have been Gene’s 90th birthday. It was fittingly at the famed Hayastan MMA Academy in North Hollywood, California.

The dojo was filled with students of Gene and Gokor, including Ronda Rousey and her mischievous daughter, La’akea, as well as many MMA/UFC stars, including Bas Rutten, Josh Barnett and others. Photographer Dan Westbrook and I were on hand to represent the professional wrestling side of Gene’s career and, most importantly, to show our industry’s love and respect for all that Gene has accomplished and all that he has done to enhance all aspects of combat sports, acting, stunts, motorcycle fandom and much more.

It was “private” because the memorial could easily have filled a bigger room with Gene’s many fans. Their students said they wanted him in his gymnasium, where he impacted and helped so many lives.

Gene’s wife, Midge, was in attendance, wearing a white coat covered in Gene’s annual Christmas cloth patches depicting his cartoon character “Judo Gene”. Gene’s closest friends received these patches in their annual Christmas cards.

Midge LeBell at the Hayastan MMA Academy in North Hollywood, CA during a tribute to Gene LeBell on Sunday, October 9, 2022. Photo by Dan Westbrook

Midge spoke fondly of the patches. “We created a different one every year for over 30 years with Gene doing various activities. And with fun slogans he came up with. They were expensive to reproduce, but he loved making them and they had his sayings like, “Whenever I finish shooting a movie or TV show, I’m out of a job.”

Chivichyan, an accomplished MMA legend, kicked off Gene Tribute Day by releasing a video with photos highlighting Gene’s many careers, including his massive accomplishments in judo, martial arts, stunts, film and television. Photos were shown of Gene’s many workout books in addition to his highlights from his sports and entertainment career. Gene still has a record number of acting and stunt roles on IMDB and other major career retrospective sites. The photos in the video that received the most applause (in addition to several showing Gene refereeing Antonio Inoki against Muhammad Ali, as well as with Bobo Brazil and announcers Dick Lane and Jimmy Lennon Sr.) included Gene on television. Jack Benny Show, The Munsters, Green Hornet in 1967 with Bruce Lee, Married with children and others. There were also shots of many Gene movies like Ed Wood, Peak hour and the Man on the Moonthe Andy Kaufman biopic that also included wrestling industry legends like Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler.

A little known but powerful folk song under the photo montage was played, “The Ballad of Gene LeBell”, written and sung by Mike Vendrell. This Peter, Paul & Mary style song describes Gene’s winning ways in judo and martial arts. He also noted his well-known 1963 win over boastful boxer Milo Savage, credited as one of the first modern MMA fights pitting the disciplines against each other. Savage had long claimed that he could easily defeat anyone through martial arts or grappling. Video of that match was then shown, ending with Gene standing on top of Savage, the latter flat on his back on the mat – crushed by the Grappling godfather.

During the video editing of Gene’s life, Midge cried several times, but said they were tears of joy. She was thrilled that Gene had sold another room.

Ronda Rousey attended a tribute to Gene LeBell on Sunday, October 9, 2022 at the Hayastan MMA Academy in North Hollywood, CA. Photo by Dan Westbrook

Rousey was the first speaker, holding her daughter as she spoke of Gene’s kindness, friendship and love, as well as his help in first training her mother in judo and then her, the preparing for his Strikeforce and MMA careers. Of course, Rowdy Ronda is now in pro wrestling, following in the footsteps of Judo Gene and Rowdy Roddy Piper.

After we finished, Ronda passed me the mic to talk about the Gene that Dan and I knew as front-row photographers in the Los Angeles territory in the 1970s. It was a pleasure to pay tribute to our dear friend Gene . I talked about the times Gene drove me to the legendary Olympic Auditorium and our Saturday night studio wrestling TV shows taped at KCOP-13 in Hollywood, before I was old enough to drive. At the time, I was talking to Gene at least three or four times a week.

I mentioned how few of our fans in 1960s LA Territory knew what a badass Gene actually was. Beginning in his 1963 days, Gene usually wrestled as “Hangman”. Many 1970s fans even asked why he was constantly called “Judo Gene” during locker room interviews with wrestlers on our weekly Hispanic and English TV shows. In 1997, Gene told me, “I never liked to honk my horn myself. I would have liked to tell our fans that my idol Lou Thesz was my main trainer for grappling and professional wrestling. That I also spent a lot of time with Karl Gotch, to whom years later I suggested Inoki use them initially to get New Japan off the ground. Lend them their credibility.

Gene LeBell as the Hangman, in a photo dedicated to Dan Westbrook

Gene first befriended Inoki in 1963, and Antonio became an almost annual presence in Los Angeles until the late 1970s. Inoki chose Gene to be the referee in his fight with Ali, to act as a go-between communicator (as Gene called him) in case things broke down – which Gene lamented happened many times. The two lifelong friends and confidants passed months apart.

In 1996, Gene said, “Inoki taught me enough basic Japanese and the best 60s swear words that I could navigate on my own.” Shortly after Inoki founded New Japan in December 1972, he was sending green talents to Gene to polish them, learn the American style, and send them back to Japan as more complete wrestlers. The gaijin (foreign) talent who studied for a time under Judo Gene’s learning tree included “Bad News” Allen Coage and “Judo” Chris Adams. A young, green, and clumsy “Mr. Seki” arrived in January 1974, and Gene stretched out and spent a lot of time with the future Mr. Pogo backstage.

Famous names such as Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, John Saxon and countless other big names in martial arts, boxing and grappling have also sought out Gene for similar refinement, as well as asking for help navigating through Hollywood’s cinema and television systems.

Piper was already trained when Paul Boesch and Red Bastien sent him to Los Angeles for the January 1976 battle royal where he made his debut battling Tony Rocco to a draw, second in the final match. Gene said on my radio show, “Roddy was only supposed to stay a few days, but our booker at the time, Leo Garibaldi, and I got our hands on this stranger, who had only struggled a little in Winnipeg, Kansas City and Houston. We saw something special in the kid as I called him. I brought him into my dojo regularly and Leo worked with him on the whole character of Heel Rowdy. Instead of just spending a few days with us and going to his ultimate destination working for Roy Shire (when he finally did) in San Francisco, Roddy quickly became our main heel. Wrestling, management, heel refereeing, everything. He stayed with us for 2 1/2 years and was the main event for us on Friday nights and then the main event for Shire at the Cow Palace often the following evening. Two territories at the same time, which was unheard of at the time. I was very proud to recommend ‘Tony’ – Gene called Inoki – “to bring the kid to New Japan and I helped Roddy prepare for this tour. And later he worked with him and d other boys like Rock Riddle, Jack Armstrong and Jesse Ventura with acting advice, how to find the right agent, the job and the press I told Roddy to start using “barbell plates and steaks in T” as his first catchphrase in his promotions. Man, he overcame and with his own talent. I felt like a father helping Ronda (Rousey) and his mother years later, because Ronda was a huge fan of Piper, becoming close friends with Piper. A big full circle.

In my speech, I also credited Ronda’s long history in praising her mentor Gene, who, along with Bryan Danielson’s LeBell Lock, has kept Gene’s name relevant for new generations. We saw Rousey wearing Gene’s unique pink judo gi in the WWE ring, immediately after his passing. Gene has regularly praised her, publicly and privately, from her Olympic accomplishments to her fights in Strikeforce and UFC, and most recently in WWE.

Ronda extended Gene’s extreme kindness, respect and help to all who sought him out, wanting to become better athletes, artists and people. He was a world-class mentor to her and her mother. La’akea, writhing in Ronda’s grasp, grabbed the mic frequently, to the point where Ronda challenged her daughter to do a promo for Gene as she “went home,” literally. In true Rowdy style, the crowd at Gene’s memorial heard a “GOO!” of La’akea.

In most of his acting and stunt work, Gene played villains, but he never complained, always saying he was lucky to have lived well off the film residue. Gene was always down to earth with a good sense of humor. Showman and entertainer, Gene was fearless, always willing to try something new. Gene once told me, “I like trying to do things I’ve never done before. Things I’m not comfortable or familiar with, like learning Japanese with Inoki. Doing new stunts that I’ve never done before for a TV show with this Edge wrestler who is one of the best boys out there. I think that’s how I keep my brain fresh. I hope it’s fresh. Hope I’m cool!

Gokor Chivichyan during a tribute to Gene LeBell on Sunday, October 9, 2022 at the Hayastan MMA Academy in North Hollywood, CA. Photo by Dan Westbrook

After Ronda and I spoke, many other attendees followed to share their thoughts on Gene standing on the dojo mat. Many had been trained by LeBell and Chivichyan at this very location in martial arts, grappling, professional wrestling, and, as has often been noted, “general life.”

And they all said there was no way to replace the Godfather of Grappling.

TOP PHOTO: Ronda Rousey, left. Photo by Mike Lano, [email protected]; a display for judo Gene LeBell, right. Photo by Dan Westbrook

DAN WESTBROOK AND MIKE LANO GENE LEBELL PHOTO GALLERY

RELATED LINKS

  • August 11, 2022: Guest column: Gene LeBell was one of a kind
  • August 10, 2022: Mat Matters: Gene LeBell, dead at 89, was an old softie
  • August 10, 2022: The wrestling, MMA and movie worlds pay tribute to judo Gene LeBell
  • August 10, 2022: Guest column: What was it like writing Gene LeBell’s book? squirrel
  • November 24, 2009: Los Angeles promoter Mike Lebell dies
  • October 19, 2006: Straight shot with ‘Judo’ Gene LeBell
  • www.genelebell.com
  • To buy The godfather of grappling on Amazon.com or Amazon.ca