NORTH HOLLYWOOD, Calif. – On Sunday, October 9, Gokor Chivichyan held a private memorial for his long-time business partner and dojo owner, Judo Gene LeBell, on what would have been Gene’s 90th birthday. It was fittingly at the famed Hayastan MMA Academy in North Hollywood, California.
The dojo was packed with Gene and Gokor’s students, including Ronda Rousey and her playful daughter, La’akea, as well as many MMA/UFC stars including Bas Rutten, Josh Barnett and others. Photographer Dan Westbrook and I attended to represent the pro wrestling side of Gene’s career and, more importantly, to show our industry’s love and respect for all Gene accomplished plus all he did to enhance every aspect of fighting sports, acting, stuntwork, motorcycle fandom and much more.
It was “private” because the memorial could easily have filled a larger venue with Gene’s many fans. Their students said they wanted it at his gym, where he impacted and helped so many lives.
Gene’s wife Midge attended, wearing her a white coat covered with Gene’s annual Christmas cloth patches depicting his “Judo Gene” cartoon character. Gene’s closest friends received these patches in his annual Christmas cards.
Midge spoke fondly of the patches. “We created a different one every year for over 30 years with Gene doing various activities. And with funny slogans he came up with. They were expensive to reproduce, but he loved doing them and they had his sayings like, ‘Every time I’m done shooting a movie or TV, I’m unemployed.’”
Chivichyan, an accomplished MMA legend, started the Gene Tribute Day by playing a video with photos highlighting Gene’s many careers, including his massive accomplishments in judo, martial arts, stuntwork, film and TV. Photos were shown of Gene’s many training books besides his athletic and entertainment career highlights. Gene still has a record number of acting roles and stuntwork on IMDB and other major career-retrospective sites. Photos in the video drawing the most applause (besides several shown of Gene refereeing Antonio Inoki versus Muhammad Ali, as well as with Bobo Brazil and announcers Dick Lane and Jimmy Lennon Sr.) included Gene on television’s Jack Benny Show, The Munsters, Green Hornet in 1967 with Bruce Lee, Married With Children and others. There were also shots of Gene’s many movies like Ed Wood, Rush Hour and the Man On The Moon, the Andy Kaufman biopic that also included wrestling industry legends like Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler.
A little-known but powerful folk song underneath the photo montage was played, “The Ballad of Gene LeBell,” written and sung by Mike Vendrell. This Peter, Paul & Mary-esque song described Gene’s winning ways in judo and martial arts. It also noted his well-known 1963 win over braggadocious boxer Milo Savage, recognized as one of the earliest modern-day MMA bouts pitting disciplines against one another. Savage had long claimed he could easily defeat anyone from martial arts or grappling. The video of that match was then shown, ending with Gene standing over Savage, the latter flat on his back on the mat — squashed by the Godfather of Grappling.
During the video montage of Gene’s life, Midge cried several times, but said they were tears of joy. She was thrilled Gene sold out another venue.
Rousey was the first speaker, holding her daughter while she talked about Gene’s kindness, friendship and love, as well as his help in training first her mother in judo and then her, readying her for her Strikeforce and MMA careers. Of course, Rowdy Ronda is now in pro wrestling, following in the footsteps of Judo Gene and Rowdy Roddy Piper.
After she finished, Ronda passed the mike to me, to talk about the Gene that Dan and I knew as ringside photographers in the Los Angeles territory in the 1970s. It was a pleasure to pay respect to our dear friend Gene. I talked about the times that Gene gave me a few lifts to the fabled Olympic Auditorium and to our Saturday night studio wrestling TV shows taped at KCOP-13 in Hollywood, before I was old enough to drive. Back then, I’d talk to Gene at least three or four times a week.
I mentioned how few of our L.A. territory fans from the 1960s on knew what a badass Gene actually was. Beginning with his 1963 days, Gene usually wrestled as the “Hangman.” Many fans through the 1970s even asked why he was constantly referred to as “Judo Gene” doing locker-room interviews with wrestlers on both our weekly Hispanic and English TV shows. In 1997, Gene told me, “I never liked tooting my own horn. I’d like to have told our fans my idol Lou Thesz was my primary trainer for grappling and pro wrestling. That I spent lots of time as well with Karl Gotch, who years later I suggested to Inoki that he use them initially to get New Japan off the ground. Lend it their credibility.”
Gene first befriended Inoki in 1963, and Antonio became a near-annual presence wrestling in Los Angeles through the late 1970s. Inoki chose Gene to be the arbiter in his bout with Ali, to act as go-between communicator (as Gene called it) in case things broke down — which Gene lamented happened many times. The two lifelong friends and confidants passed months apart.
In 1996, Gene said that, “Inoki taught me enough basic Japanese plus the best swear words back in the ’60s, that I could get around there on my own.” Not long after Inoki founded New Japan in December of 1972, he’d send Gene green talent to polish, learn American-style and return them to Japan as more complete wrestlers. The gaijin (foreign) talent studying for a time under Judo Gene’s learning tree included “Bad News” Allen Coage and “Judo” Chris Adams. A young, green and clumsy “Mr. Seki” came over in January 1974, and Gene stretched and spent lots of time with the future Mr. Pogo behind the scenes.
Famed names such as Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, John Saxon and countless other martial arts, boxing and grappling greats also sought Gene out for similar finessing, as well as requesting help navigating Hollywood’s film and TV systems.
Piper was already trained when Paul Boesch and Red Bastien sent him to L.A. for the January 1976 battle royal where he debuted wrestling Tony Rocco to a draw, second from the bottom match. Gene said on my radio show, “Roddy was just supposed to stay a few days, but our then booker Leo Garibaldi and I got hold of this unknown, who’d only wrestled a bit in Winnipeg, Kansas City, and Houston. We saw something special in the kid as I called him. I had him come regularly to my dojo and Leo worked with him on the whole heel Rowdy character. Instead of just spending a few days with us and going to his ultimate destination working for Roy Shire (when he eventually did) in San Francisco, Roddy quickly became our lead heel. Wrestling, managing, heel refereeing, everything. He stayed with us for 2 1/2 years and was main-eventing for us on Friday nights and then main-eventing for Shire at the Cow Palace often the next night. Two territories at the same time, which was unheard of then. I took a lot of pride in recommending to ‘Tony'” — Gene called Inoki that — “to bring the kid over to New Japan and I helped get Roddy ready for that tour. And later worked with him and other boys like Rock Riddle, Jack Armstrong and Jesse Ventura with acting advice, how to get the right agent, work and press. I told Roddy to start using ‘barbell plates and T-bone steaks’ as his earliest tag line in his promos. Man, did he get over and with his own talent. I felt like a dad helping Ronda (Rousey) and her mom years later as Ronda was a big Piper fan, becoming close friends with Piper. A great full-circle.”
In my speech, I also credited Ronda’s long history of praising her mentor Gene, which along with Bryan Danielson’s LeBell Lock, has kept Gene’s name relevant to new generations. We have seen Rousey wear Gene’s unique pink judo gi to the ring in WWE, immediately after he passed. Gene routinely praised her, publicly and privately, whether it was her Olympic accomplishments, or fighting in Strikeforce and UFC, and more recently WWE.
Ronda put over Gene’s extreme kindness, respect and help to any who sought him out, wanting to become better athletes, entertainers and people. He was a world-class mentor to her and her mom. La’akea, writhing in Ronda’s grasp, frequently grabbed for the microphone, to the point where Ronda challenged her daughter to cut a promo for Gene when she was “going home,” literally. In true Rowdy style, the crowd at Gene’s memorial got a loud “GOO!” from La’akea.
In most of his acting and stunt work, Gene played villains, but he never complained, always saying that he was fortunate to have made a good living from motion picture residuals. Gene was always down-to-earth with a good sense of humor. A master showman and artist, Gene was fearless, always ready to try his hand at anything new. Gene once told me, “I like trying to accomplish things I’ve never done before. Things I’m not comfortable or familiar with, like learning Japanese from Inoki. Doing some new stunts I’d never done before for a TV show with that wrestler Edge who’s one of the top boys out there. I think that’s how I keep my brain fresh. I hope it’s fresh. I hope I’m fresh!”
After Ronda and I spoke, many other attendees followed sharing their thoughts on Gene, while standing on the dojo mat. Many had been trained by LeBell and Chivichyan in that very spot for martial arts, grappling, pro wrestling and as was often noted, for “life in general.”
And they all said that there’s no replacing the Godfather of Grappling.
TOP PHOTO: Ronda Rousey, left. Photo by Mike Lano, WReaLano@aol.com; a display for Judo Gene LeBell, right. Photo by Dan Westbrook
DAN WESTBROOK AND MIKE LANO PHOTO GALLERY OF GENE LEBELL
- Aug. 11, 2022: Guest column: Gene LeBell was one of a kind
- Aug. 10, 2022: Mat Matters: Gene LeBell, dead at 89, was an old softie
- Aug. 10, 2022: Wrestling, MMA, movie worlds pay tribute to Judo Gene LeBell
- Aug. 10, 2022: Guest column: What was it like writing Gene LeBell’s book? Squirrely
- Nov. 24, 2009: Los Angeles promoter Mike Lebell dies
- Oct. 19, 2006: Straight shooting with ‘Judo’ Gene LeBell
- Buy The Godfather of Grappling at Amazon.com or Amazon.ca