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Roots of Fight Brings Us the Story of "Judo" Gene LeBell -- MMA Pioneer and Terrifying Old Man

Fightland Blog

By Fightland Staff

Fifty years ago this week, an American judo champion named Gene LeBell stepped into a boxing ring in Salt Lake City, Utah, to fight professional boxer Milo Savage, and MMA, for lack of a better term, was born. That it pretty much died away again right away and for the next 30 years, right up until UFC 1 was broadcast in 1993, doesn’t matter. Revolutions are revolutions regardless of their long-term impact, and besides “Judo” Gene is now a coach and spiritual adviser to Ronda Rousey, who started her own revolution earlier this year when she became the UFC’s first women’s champion. Some people were born to be innovators, I guess.

To celebrate LeBell's little-known but seminal moment in martial arts history—a truly American moment, when you think about it: the idealized and romanticized quest to find the best through the melting pot of mixed ethnic and cultural traditions, like jazz or stand-up comedy—our friends over at Roots of Fight have put together a documentary about the LeBell/Savage fight starring Rousey, referee “Big” John McCarthy (who also knows a little bit about being a pioneer in the world of free fighting), and LeBell himself, a surly old cuss of a guy who delights in telling anecdotes about threatening to take Savage’s eye out during the fight and being called the “most sadistic bastard in the world” by the kenpo karate instructor who first came to him with the $1000 offer to fight the boxer.

It’s amazing how many confrontations can get stuffed into a seven-minute movie, but LeBell seems to have lived his life for confrontation--whether it was walking into a judo gym as a white guy in the late 1940s to get beaten up by Japanese judo masters who had spent time in Roosevelt’s internment camps during World War II, or agreeing to a televised fight in which he wouldn’t be allowed to punch against a professional boxer who would be (and who was also wearing a gi covered in Vaseline) or facing the post-fight insanity of a boxing-partisan crowd that took issue with LeBell choking their favorite half to death, “Judo” Gene has lived his life to fight. Fifty years later, and with MMA the fastest-growing sport in the world, we’re used to guys and girls like that, and most of them seem like decent enough people—but back then LeBell must have seemed like a terror. Just look at him sitting there: an 81-year-old man who looks like he would kill you with his finger tips if it would make his life even the smallest bit less irritating.  

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