by: Adam benShea
Having appeared in over 300 movies, won the first sanctioned mixed martial arts match in America, taken gold (twice) at the AAU Judo national championships, wrestled bears, held the world wrestling championship (for 12 seconds) and played an integral role in shaping some of today’s best grapplers and MMA fighters “Mean” Gene LeBell is, both, a certified pioneer in the martial arts community and an all-around bad ass.
The son of legendary boxing and professional wrestling promoter Aileen Eaton, Gene was influenced by the numerous boxers and wrestlers who worked his mother’s shows at the LA Olympic Auditorium. These fighters would help a young “Judo” Gene hone the boxing skills he was developing at the Main Street Boxing Gym and the Judo techniques he was acquiring at the Hollywood and Sawtelle Dojos.
As a student, one of Gene’s most influential mentors was the old time hooker (a term used to describe legitimate old time wrestlers who had mastered submissions, or ‘hooks,’ that were developed in the days of the traveling carnival) Ed “Strangler” Lewis. The “Strangler” installed in Gene a deep appreciation for a rough and tumble type of grappling, where pain was the game and rules were as welcome as Michele Bachmann in San Francisco’s Castro district.
As a teacher, he is the bridge connecting the early American martial artists and the modern hybrid cage fighters. Some of his early students included Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, Bob Wall, and legendary kickboxing champion, Benny “The Jet” Urquidez.
His unique blend of grappling has also influenced many modern fighters, including: Karo Parisyan, Gokor Chivichyan, Manny Gamburyan, Bas Rutten, and the Gracie family’s cousins, the Machado brothers.
These days, “The Godfather of Grappling” is not hard to miss with his tuft of red hair, broad chest, and charismatic personality all stuffed into a pink (yes, pink) gi. He continues to teach his no nonsense style of submission oriented, body-bending techniques to students on a regular basis. Having had the opportunity to take in his teachings, I can attest to the pain of his techniques and the good nature of his offbeat humor.
What is more, we can all take something away from his old training regimen. Of foremost importance to Gene was time on the mat. When preparing for competition, Gene would spend six hours a day grappling.
However, he also had a physical conditioning routine that was as straight forward and no nonsense as his grappling. While in the Coast Guard, Gene was inhibited by his obligations to the Uncle Sam and could not train as much as he would have liked. Not one to be deterred from a goal, Gene put together a functional, do-anywhere type workout. On a daily basis, he would bang out 500 push-ups, 500 sit-ups, and 1,000 jumping jacks.
In addition, Gene found a way to combine his two loves (outside of his wife, Midge) motorcycles and training. On a football field, Gene would take a motorcycle tire, lift it over his head and throw it as far as possible. He would continue this until he reached the end zone and then would complete a celebratory throw through the goal post.
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