“Judo” Gene LeBell, who was a prominent figure across martial arts and the entertainment industry, has died at the age of 89.
LeBell’s longtime friend Bas Rutten first revealed the news on Facebook.
“The great Gene Lebell, toughest man I know, has passed away and left us at the age of 89,” Rutten wrote. “My deepest condolences to his lovely wife Midge, his kids and all his other family members and friends.
“You will be greatly missed Gene, I love you my friend, till we meet again!”
A larger than life influence to many fighters and professional wrestlers, LeBell got his start in martial arts when he was just 7 years old when he started learning catch wrestling under Ed “Strangler” Lewis before transitioning to judo where he became a black belt training both in the United States and Japan.
After he became famous for his exploits in the judo world, LeBell decided to try his hand at pro wrestling but he eventually crossed back over to martial arts when he challenged professional boxer Milo Savage in a mixed-rules bout in 1963.
LeBell won the fight with a rear-naked choke in the fourth round.
From there, LeBell ended up as a pro wrestling promoter for many years running the NWA territory for 14 years. He also famously served as the referee in the mixed-rules bout between Muhammad Ali and Antonio Inoki that took place in 1976.
In addition to his martial arts and pro wrestling work, LeBell also started appearing in a number of television and film projects as a stuntman and actor. He befriended Bruce Lee on the set of his series The Green Hornet and LeBell’s initial interactions with him served as part of the inspiration for a character in Quentin Tarantino’s 2019 film Once Upon a Time … In Hollywood.
Of course, LeBell never took a step away from teaching and training martial arts where he worked with a number of high profile athletes over the years including a close relationship forged with UFC Hall of Famer Ronda Rousey as well as names such as Karo Parisyan and Manny Gamburyan.
He also trained numerous pro wrestlers including “Rowdy” Roddy Piper while also working with notable celebrity martial artists such as Chuck Norris as well.
LeBell was also a fixture at many MMA events where he served as a judge until 2018.