Ivan Gene LeBell was born on October 9, 1932 and passed away at the age of 89 on August 9, 2022.
"Judo" Gene had a legendary career in martial arts and is widely credited with popularizing grappling in a nation that defined self-defense as centering on the striking arts of boxing, karate and later, kung fu. A professional stuntman and actor, LeBell appeared in over 1,000 films and TV shows, and authored 12 books. A student of catch wrestling titans Lou Thesz, Karl Gotch, and Ed "Strangler" Lewis, LeBell's notable students include Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, Benny "The Jet" Urquidez, "Rowdy" Roddy Piper and Ronda Rousey. If you saw Quentin Tarantino's "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood," LeBell served as an inspiration for the Cliff Booth character played by Brad Pitt.
Before Royce Gracie pitted Brazilian jiu-jitsu against the boxing of Art Jimmerson at UFC 1, LeBell put his art on the line against the sweet science, on a live broadcast all the way back in 1963. It was the first mixed rules bout ever broadcast on American television. Some consider it the birth of MMA.
Others point to pro-wrestler Antonio Inoki vs. Muhammad Ali in a mixed rules bout in 1976 as the birth of MMA; LeBell was the referee at that one. No matter how you look at it, LeBell was there.
The birth of MMA in North America
A decorated judoka who won the AAU National Judo Championship in 1954 and 1955, LeBell found himself having to represent the art in an open challenge. It was issued by boxer Jim Beck in Rogue Magazine to practitioners of the Japanese martial arts, claiming boxing would defeat any martial art style. A $1,000 cash prize was at stake.
Taking the bait, LeBell traveled to Salt Lake City to participate in the challenge, only to have a last-minute opponent change, to a much more accomplished boxer in Milo Savage, a future New Jersey Boxing Hall of Famer, who ranked No. 5 at the time, and was ranked as high as No. 3 globally.
Like any early style vs. style bout, there was a kerfuffle over the rule set, with the boxer’s camp insisting LeBell could not strike, and LeBell's camp returning with the stipulation that Milo had to wear a gi. To be sure, the rule set recognized winning via a knockout standing, and via submission on the ground. It was therefore, by definition, a mixed martial arts fight.
Come fight day, Milo was wearing a much lighter and tighter karate gi, not a judo gi, making grips much more challenging. Further, Savage had reportedly lathered it up with Vaseline to make it much more difficult for Gene to grab him. Further, there was speculation that Milo’s gloves contained brass knuckles.
Regardless of the disadvantages, Gene LeBell was able to close the distance, get Milo to the mat with a harai goshi, transition to the mount position, and sink in a rear-naked choke.
With LeBell having defeated the hometown favorite, a riot occurred, with chairs and bottles getting thrown in the ring. Nevertheless, it was the first mixed martial arts fight shown live on American television, and many mark it as the beginning of MMA in North America.