The late ‘Judo’ Gene LeBell’s 90th birthday is celebrated by 200 friends, students, family

On Sunday, October 9, legendary martial artist and “Judo” stuntman Gene LeBell would have turned 90. Two hundred of his friends, students and family gathered at the Hayastan MMA Academy in North Hollywood to celebrate his legendary life and remember how he touched each of them in ways only LeBell could.

LeBell’s top student, Gokor Chivichyan, hosted the event at his martial arts academy to celebrate the life of his mentor and close friend. “It’s his 90th birthday and a celebration and a memorial to him,” Chivichyan said. “It’s her wish, to do this, and I promised her I would do this on her birthday, and I’m keeping my promise today.”

LeBell died on Tuesday, August 9, 2022, just two months before he was in his nineties.

A large picture frame surrounded by a pink gi – his signature judo uniform – hangs above a door leading to the practice area. The pink gi was inspired by a trip LeBell took to Japan where a pair of his red socks or shorts ended up in the laundry room, turning his white uniform pink.

With only one uniform in his luggage, he wore the pink gi in Japan and beat the competition.

Almost everyone present to honor him wore a Gene LeBell T-shirt, and his widow Midge sported a sweater covered in patches that LeBell has made over the years to give fans memorabilia.

A video shown at the memorial showcased many of his stunt and martial arts accomplishments, evoking smiles, laughter and tears that left many in the crowd wiping their eyes.

  • People gather to celebrate the life of “Judo” Gene LeBell on what would have been his 90th birthday at the Hayastan MMA Academy in North Hollywood on Sunday, October 9, 2022. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News /SCNG)

  • AnnMaria De Mars (L), with her daughter, former UFC champion...

    AnnMaria De Mars (L), with her daughter former UFC champion and WWE star Ronda Rousey and Rousey’s daughter Po, pose for a photo with Midge LeBell, wife of ‘Judo’ Gene LeBell, during a celebration of his life on what would have been Gene’s 90th birthday at the Hayastan MMA Academy in North Hollywood on Sunday, October 9, 2022. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

  • Martial artist Bas Rutten poses for a photo with Midge...

    Martial artist Bas Rutten poses for a photo with Midge LeBell, wife of “Judo” Gene LeBell, during a celebration of his life on what would have been Gene’s 90th birthday at Hayastan MMA Academy in North Hollywood on Sunday, October 9, 2022. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

  • Former UFC champion and WWE star Ronda Rousey talks...

    Former UFC champion and WWE star Ronda Rousey talks about her friend and mentor ‘Judo’ Gene LeBell during a celebration of her life on what would have been her 90th birthday at Hayastan MMA Academy in North Hollywood on Sunday, October 9, 2022. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

  • Former UFC heavyweight champion Josh Barnett talks about

    Former UFC heavyweight champion Josh Barnett talks about ‘judo’ Gene LeBell during a celebration of LeBell’s life on what would have been his 90th birthday at Hayastan MMA Academy in North Hollywood on Sunday, October 9, 2022. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

  • Former UFC champion and WWE star Ronda Rousey talks...

    Former UFC champion and WWE star Ronda Rousey talks about her friend and mentor ‘Judo’ Gene LeBell during a celebration of her life on what would have been her 90th birthday at Hayastan MMA Academy in North Hollywood on Sunday, October 9, 2022. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

  • Former UFC champion and WWE star Ronda Rousey talks to...

    Former UFC champion and WWE star Ronda Rousey chats with Midge LeBell, wife of ‘Judo’ Gene LeBell at a celebration of his life on what would have been the 90th birthday of Gene at the Hayastan MMA Academy in North Hollywood on Sunday, October 9, 2022. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

  • People gather to celebrate the life of

    People gather to celebrate the life of “Judo” Gene LeBell on what would have been his 90th birthday at the Hayastan MMA Academy in North Hollywood on Sunday, October 9, 2022. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News /SCNG)

  • People gather to celebrate the life of

    People gather to celebrate the life of “Judo” Gene LeBell on what would have been his 90th birthday at the Hayastan MMA Academy in North Hollywood on Sunday, October 9, 2022. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News /SCNG)

  • Bas Rutten, Gokor Chivichyan, Paul Lazenby and Josh Barnett during...

    Bas Rutten, Gokor Chivichyan, Paul Lazenby and Josh Barnett at a celebration of Gene LeBell’s “life for judo” on what would have been his 90th birthday at the Hayastan MMA Academy in North Hollywood on Sunday, October 9 2022. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Among many others, speakers included Ronda Rousey, former UFC champion, WWE professional wrestler, actress and Olympic judo medalist; Bas Rutten, former UFC heavyweight champion and three-time King of Pancrase world champion; catch catcher, former UFC heavyweight champion, former Openweight King of Pancrase world champion and Bellator fighter; and AnnMaria De Mars, the first American to win a gold medal at the World Judo Championships.

Each speaker spoke fondly of the larger-than-life LeBell, recounting stories and memories of how he inspired them and the love they felt for him.

They shared their stories of the warmth and generosity of “the toughest man alive” and the “godfather of grappling”.

“He was a man that no company was too big for him,” Josh Barnett said of LeBell. “So to be a martial artist with your degree in the art of judo is amazing; to be a professional wrestler of this level, unbelievable; but then for the stunts and the motorbike and the acting and everything. To start academies and then have a line of students that he raised, not just martial arts but also film.

Barnett said of his accomplishments, “It’s truly amazing to see someone being able to tip the scales of the world with their own hands like that. … I feel really lucky to have had him in my life the way he is, and really happy that I also got to tell him what an amazing human being, and what an amazing martial artist he was – straight to his face. ”

Challenge coins, decorated with an image of LeBell, were sold for donations, which raised more than $2,000. It will be donated to St. Jude Children’s Hospital in Southern California in LeBell’s honor.