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Gene LeBell reflects on 50th anniversary of first major American mixed fight

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"Judo" Gene LeBell was a mixed martial artist before the phrase existed. Whether it was wrestling, boxing, or judo, LeBell did it all.

To this day, the 80-something Southern California resident remains a part of the fight scene as a California State Athletic Commission judge for Golden State MMA events.

And after a lifetime spent around the industry, LeBell's advice to fighters is timeless: "If you're going to be a martial artist, don't criticize, learn," LeBell said on Monday's edition of The MMA Hour. "You've got to have an open mind. When I went to a boxing gym, someone would beat me up. Then I went to the judo school, someone who was a lot better than me when I was young, I'd hit him with a punch and knock him to the nickel seats and get kicked out of these places."

LeBell is back in the limelight on the 50th anniversary of what's considered the first notable mixed martial arts fight in the United States, even though the term wasn't used: His Dec. 2, 1963 matchup with boxer Milo Savage in Salt Lake City, Utah. Roots of Fight has put together a documentary on the bout.

The genesis of the fight came from a story in a magazine called Rogue, which offered $1,000 to "them judo bums" to step in the ring with a boxer. LeBell, a two-time AAU national judo champ, says he accepted the fight after chatting with Kenpo karate standout Ed Parker.

"I was approached to fight this man by Ed Parker and I said ‘why me?' and he said ‘Well, we had a big meeting with 200 black belts and they needed somebody to protect the martial arts. I said ‘why me' and they said ‘basically, because you're the most sadistic bastard I know.'"

The fight itself was originally planned to be contested at Los Angeles' legendary Olympic Auditorium, but CSAC put a nix on it, forcing the location change to Utah.

As for the fight itself, well, let's just say that this was prior to the days of the unified rules. Among other things, LeBell claims that Savage, a competent professional boxer, had brass knuckles in his gloves and also bit him over the course of the fight.

"When I went to went the ring, the guy had what looked like speedbag gloves with a little metal in it, in other words, brass knuckles you could say. During the bout, and it shows it in the film. when he hit me in the stomach and I had a judo suit on with a brand-new black belt, he broke it right in half. ... He put my hand in his mouth and started to bite, and I said ‘hey Milo, you bite me and I'm going to take your eye out."

And while there may be a bit of tall tale in his recollection --- this is someone who has worked in the film industry for decades, after all -- the end isn't in dispute: LeBell choked Savage out to win the fight, and the fans in Salt Lake City weren't happy with the result.

"I don't remember stepping on the man," LeBell said with a cackle that suggested otherwise. "But other people in the audience thought I did and started throwing chairs and pillows and couches and all that. It was interesting trying to get out of the ring, one guy tried to stab me. It was very nice. Salt Lake City didn't show me much respect. The very act they threw chairs at me, that means they had a good time."

Back in the day, LeBell's family ran the Olympic, one of the America's most famous venues for boxing and professional wrestling in the mid-20th century. If you were a big name, you eventually crossed paths with LeBell, as he picked up pointers from the best boxers and legitimate wrestlers in the country. LeBell trained with everyone from wrestling legend Ed "Stangler" Lewis to boxing Hall of Famer "Sugar" Ray Robinson.

So it wasn't a surprise that with decades of experience as the guy who mixed the martial arts before anyone knew of such things, LeBell ended up the third man in the ring for another of the most famous fights of the primitive mixed bouts.

The June 26, 1976 bout between pro wrestler Antonio Inoki and boxing legend Muhammad Ali was originally supposed to be a scripted pro wrestling match. But things fell apart at the last minute when Ali refused to lose on purpose, so they agreed to fight for real. The bout ended in a draw.

LeBell explained how he ended up the referee for the fight.

"There were 200 people who tried to get the gig," LeBell said. "[Ali] said no I want Gene, because I refereed boxing, I refereed wrestling and I knew wrestling. I did it. I wrestled, I boxed."

Meanwhile, LeBell keeps up with the MMA scene, and like many others, had an opinion on the recent and controversial Georges St-Pierre vs. Johny Hendricks fight. "I think he's a great, great competitor, one of the best of all times," LeBell said of GSP. "But watching it, I said, ‘he got beat.' The other guy didn't have a mark on him. St-Pierre, he was cut up pretty good. That's just my opinion."

And then, of course, there's his relationship with Ronda Rousey, his most famous student in modern times. LeBell made considerably more money over the years from his Hollywood work than his fighting escapades, he's not going to tell the UFC women's bantamweight champ that she should pick fighting over the movies.

"I've done stunt work 55 years," LeBell said. "In residuals alone when they replay it, I make over six figures a year. When Ronda gets older, she'll get that $7-8,000 check every month. I've got lifetime insurance, you don't get that from MMA. I'm not telling her to walk away from it. Do what's in your heart."

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