Interview with Gene LeBell

You may have seen his name in the credits of countless movies and television shows dating back to the late 1960’s. You may have caught the “Godfather of Grappling” in one of his matches in the world of professional wrestling, you may know him as the “toughest man on the planet” or first and foremost as one of the primary mentors of women’s MMA great, Ronda Rousey. One way or another, you’ve probably heard the name Gene LeBell.

Beginning his Judo training as a child, (he’s now a 10th Dan in judo, and a 9th Dan in jiu-jitsu) Gene LeBell would embark on a career in stunt work that would span more than fifty years and over one thousand credits on both the big and small screen; in everything from “The Green Hornet”, “Rocky IV”, “RoboCop” and “Rapid Fire”, to “Total Recall”, “Best of the Best 2”, “Rush Hour”, and far too many to possibly list here. At the same time, Gene is also one of the most revered teachers in the MMA world, passing on his knowledge of judo in the respected halls of the Hayastan MMA Academy alongside his fellow masters of martial arts, Gokor Chivichyan and Benny “The Jet” Urquidez!

Today, Gene, now eighty-five years young, sits down with KFK to share a peek into his long history as a martial-arts stunt-performer, along with imparting some of the wisdom he regularly shares at Hayastan MMA. He also gives us a glimpse into his role in the newly released martial arts spoof comedy, “Fury of the Fist and the Golden Fleece”!

Welcome Gene, it’s such an honour to have you with us. Hope you’re doing well?

Hi Brad, I’m doing great, thanks. Happy to talk with you today.

Awesome to hear that! Well, let’s kick off with some basics, like how you first got into the martial arts? How old were you and what different arts have you studied and trained?

I started in judo when I was seven or eight-years-old. My family also owned an auditorium in Los Angeles called The Olympic Auditorium, which my mother ran for thirty-eight years and had hundreds of championship boxing and pro-wrestling fights there, so I also got to learn a lot from the fighters who came through there. Funny thing, that was also where the movie “Raging Bull” was filmed, and I was in the film. One day, I was playing a ring announcer who starts a riot, and the next, I was a stuntman throwing chairs at myself!

Cool that you were part of such a classic! So, who would you credit as having most influenced you in the martial arts; who would you consider your heroes or inspirational figures?

Chuck Norris would be one, he’s one of the greats of all-time and also, Benny “The Jet” Urquidez, who teaches kickboxing at my school. He’s a great teacher, and at his age, he’s still one of the best fighters in the world, I think.

Most definitely. So, you’ve trained in judo in both the US and Japan. In what ways does the training differ in terms of culture, ritual and toughness?

Well, it’s not really that different, to be honest. The culture of judo in Japan is very similar to wrestling in the West, in terms of its training ethos and even a lot of the methodology and different techniques.

Interesting. On that note, what can you share about your relationship with Bruce Lee and your role in training him in the art of grappling, how did that come about?

I met Bruce Lee on the TV series “The Green Hornet”, and he came and trained at my school quite a lot for about a year while we were doing the series. I helped him out with his grappling and judo skills, and he taught me a lot of his spectacular kicks, and I used a lot of what he showed me in my work as a stuntman. Bruce was a wonderful, wonderful guy, and a great athlete, and so was his son, Brandon.

Thanks for sharing your personal experience with them. Looking ahead now, what can you say about your famed match with Milo Savage in 1963?

That fight was the first American televised mixed martial arts event. I’d already seen him fight before that, he knocked his opponent out in the first round, and when the referee had counted to ten and turned around to raise up Milo’s hand, he was already in the dressing room. That impressed me. He was a fantastic fighter, and we had a great match when we got into the ring together.

Speaking of MMA, The Hayastan MMA Academy has many notable instructors, including yourself, and Gokor “The Armenian Assassin” Chivichyan. How has it been teaching MMA alongside Gokor?

Gokor is as great a teacher as anyone’s ever had, and he’s a great person, too. It doesn’t matter if you’ve won as many tournaments as he has if you’re not a good person.

Character and conduct count for pretty much everything. On that note, arguably your most famous student is the legend of women’s MMA, that is Ronda Rousey. How would you summarise the experience, looking back?

Ronda’s a wonderful girl, I’ve known her since she was a kid, and I’m very proud of all the success she’s had in MMA. She’s in the pro-wrestling world now, and I have no doubt she’ll do very well there, as well.

We’re excited to see where Ronda goes in pro-wrestling. Moving ahead, you can also currently be seen in “Fury of the Fist and the Golden Fleece”, which boasts a huge ensemble cast, including Don “The Dragon” Wilson, Danny Trejo, Bill Goldberg, Bianca Van Damme, Michael Dudikoff, Cynthia Rothrock, R. Marcos Taylor, Taimak, Gokor Chivichyan, and many others. What can you share about the experience of making “Fury of the Fist”?

Well, I’m really close with Pete Antico, who was the stunt coordinator on the film, and one of the best stunt guys in the business. I’d already worked with him on many, many projects before, so, I was happy to come aboard “Fury of the Fist” when he asked me to appear in it. I only worked for a few days on the film, but it was great to work with Pete and the cast like Don Frye and Don “The Dragon” Wilson, great fighters, both of them.

Double dose of ‘Don’ there! So, what kind of action movies does Gene LeBell like?

I actually like movies with wire work quite a lot, so that always appeals to me.

Those sure can get creative! Moving onto training, what was a typical workout for you back in the day, Gene?

I don’t work out as fanatically today as I would when I was younger. I used to box in the morning, wrestle in the afternoon, and do judo at night, and I would do a thousand sit-ups or push-ups without stopping, but I can’t really do that anymore!

Totally with you! In hindsight, what’s your view on stunts; any serious injuries etc?

I’ve been blessed. I’ve pulled a few muscles, cracked a few bones, and gotten some burns here and there, but I’ve never had any injury in my stunt career that would’ve stopped me from going to work the next day.

That’s pretty remarkable given you’ve been involved in stunt work for so long. Tell us, how does your diet shape up these days?

I’m a believer that you are what you eat, so I don’t really eat anything that I think will help my body, but everybody’s different! Usually when I go out with my wife, we’ll split a T-Bone, and then fight over the dessert! (Both laugh)

So, what’s one geeky thing that people don’t really know about you?

I’m a pretty big motorcycle enthusiast, and I have quite a few bikes.

On that topic, if you could be a superhero, who would you be and what superpower would you love to have?

I’d want to be able to time-travel. I’d love to turn the clock back fifty or sixty years to when I used to do back flips and jump a motorcycle seventy or eighty feet for a stunt. You have to realize that when you get older, your timing goes, your eyesight goes, and you can still function, but you’re not as fast, you’re not as good-looking, but these are your golden years.

Golden nugget (or piece of fleece) right there! So, what are some of your other hobbies?

I used to love to paint and sculpt, but these days, I just really like motorcycling and training in the dojo.

Favourite music?

I like a lot of older music, but I don’t really care for a lot of music that’s popular today like rap. Whenever my grand kids are around, I tell them, “Don’t play that stuff around me!”

Favourite movies? (non-martial arts)

One of my favourites is “Singin’ in the Rain” with Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds. I actually got to do a show with Debbie Reynolds once on a TV series in Hawaii where I do a stunt off a cliff.

So, what’s one thing in life you really like and dislike?

I like people that just give respect to other people. I really don’t like people that knock other people or disrespect them.

Absolutely. So, what would you say is your proudest accomplishment so far?

I’ve always said that when a teacher dies, a library is burnt. I’m proudest of being a teacher of so many great students. I’m also really proud of my kids and grandkids.

Nicely summed up. Well, as we prepare to sign off, what message would you like to share with Kung Fu Kingdom readers and your fans around the world right now? Are there any warrior-wisdom quotes or sayings that you live by that have helped keep you motivated this long?

Just do for others as you would have them do for you. Also, the best way to lose a friend is to loan them money. (Both laugh)

Words to live by in both cases, philosophically and practically! Thank you so much for the privilege of this interview, Gene. We look forward to all the stunts and MMA commentary you have coming up in the future.

Thank you Brad. Pleasure to speak with you guys at Kung Fu Kingdom!

“Fury of the Fist and the Golden Fleece” is now available on Video On Demand platforms, such as Amazon and iTunes. Seen it yet, what are your impressions? What do you remember ‘Judo Gene’ LeBell the most for? Who’s the king of kung-fu komedy in your opinion? Let us know in the comments below; Like, share and join in the conversation on Facebook and follow us on Twitter and Instagram (Get to grips with our other heavyweight exclusive interviews too!)

From the earliest days of childhood, Brad Curran was utterly fascinated by martial arts, his passion only growing stronger after spending time living in the melting pot of Asian cultures that is Hawaii. His early exposure developed into a lifelong passion and fascination with all forms of martial arts and tremendous passion for action and martial arts films. He would go on to take a number of different martial arts forms, including Shaolin Ch'uan fa, Taekwondo, Shotokan Karate and remains a devoted student, avid and eager to continue his martial arts studies. Brad is also an aspiring writer and deeply desires to share his love for martial arts and martial arts movies with the world!

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