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Gene LeBell is enjoying himself these days.
Long known as the "toughest guy around," LeBell has witnessed a transformation that once seemed impossible, and after a lifetime dedicated to the martial arts, he can't help but marvel at the world he now sees around him.
Back in December of 1963, LeBell, then a 31-year-old world champion judoka, faced off against former top-five middleweight boxer Milo Savage in what is now known as history's first televised mixed martial arts match. It took just four rounds for Savage to be choked unconscious.
He may have understood the magnitude of his accomplishments that fateful night, but LeBell had no grasp of the implications it would have on fight sport history. Almost fifty years later, aspects of his legacy remain unavoidable fixtures of the world's fastest growing sport.
But ask LeBell today, and the conversation inevitably turns back to his favorite topic, his old student and women's MMA's brightest star, "Rowdy" Ronda Rousey.
"I'm excited. I feel like just jumping off a building," LeBell gushed on The MMA Hour. "I knew Ronda before she was born and I'm very close to her mother. It's a family thing. I'm Uncle Gene. She's the best and you always want the best for the best."
In his younger days LeBell trained often with Rousey's mother Ann Maria, herself a Judo champion in 1984, and as he attests, the apple didn't fall far from the tree.
"You meet her and you fall in love," LeBell raved. "A lot of people say ‘geez Ronda is the prettiest woman in the whole world. I'd like to date her, I'd like to marry her.' Well, I'll tell you something, she'll go out with anybody, any man that can beat her. She's a 25-year-old virgin because nobody can beat her. I mean, she just beats the living hell out of me, but she does that because she's sadistic like her Uncle Gene."
As he jumps in and out of third person, that old pro wrestler bubbling to the surface, LeBell seems like your run-of-the-mill cantankerous, but harmless grandpa. But the title of toughest guy around isn't just handed out willy-nilly.
In truth, LeBell's past exploits were the stuff of legends. From besting Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee in his trademark pink gi, to refereeing Antonio Inoki's famed match against boxing legend Muhammad Ali -- "Ali should have thrown a lot more punches," he cracks -- Judo Gene has seen and done it all.
And if you're willing to test that theory, just ask about the time he choked out Steven Seagal so hard, Sensei left with a case of dirty trousers.
"When we had a little altercation or difference of opinion, there were thirty stuntmen and cameramen that were watching," LeBell recounted with a chuckle. "Sometimes Steven has a tendency to cheese off the wrong people, and you can get hurt doing that.
"So if a guy soils himself, you can't criticize him, because if they just had a nice big dinner an hour before, you might have a tendency to do that."
With his stockpile of equally charming anecdotes and an infectious enthusiasm for telling them, it's easy to see how LeBell brims with youthful energy at the spry age of 79. So of course, now that the sport he debuted has hit the bigtime, LeBell remains a rabid supporter.
But ultimately, like many fans, he's become disenchanted with MMA's growing black eye.
"I have a beef with judging and refereeing," LeBell groaned. "To me, I don't think you should ever be able to referee or judge unless you have a physical background in that art. I'm a big fan of professional football, but I'm not qualified to be a judge.
"It should be mandatory for these judges that want to do MMA, go to Muay Thai schools, go to Judo schools, go to Greco-Roman schools, go to freestyle wrestling schools, Kenpo, Shotokan, Taekwondo, all those schools, and learn a little bit of everything. You want to know if a body slam hurts more than a left hook and how much damage can something get," he finished.
"You have to be on the mat or in the ring to know the difference."
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