TOUGH GUYS WEAR PINK
In any color, judo master and film stuntman Gene LeBell is one hard hombre.
- by Mark Jacobs, Sports Illustrated
IT'S HARD to believe. The toughest man alive is standing before me wearing pink pajamas. O.K., they're not really pajamas but rather a baggy judo uniform that has been dyed bright pink. Still, the person martial arts media such as INSIDE KUNG-FU magazine have since the 1950's dubbed the "toughest man alive" turns out to be 62 years old, and he is wearing not only rose-colored clothing but also a pair of reading glasses which together make him look like a benevolent grandfather on Christmas morning. I'm beginning to think I'm in the wrong gym until the old man says "Let me show you something fun" and slaps an Indian death lock on me.
"This is a good one," he says, rolling me over into a hold he calls the figure-four double ouch. "Then you can try this ..."
The pudgy hands of Gene LeBell, nicknamed Judo Gene by a TV announcer in the 1950's, work me over with an excruciating series of locks, cranks and stretches -- each punctuated by LeBell's question, "Now who's better looking, you or me?"
It is a provocative notion, given that LeBell's face bears the marks of 55 years of judo, wrestling, boxing, karate and movie stunt work. There is scar tissue around his eyes. His nose has been bashed bulbous and his ears have gone beyond cauliflower-ed to broccolied. One does not easily come by a reputation as the toughest man alive.
LeBell, though, was literally born into the esoteric brotherhood of professional tough men. His mother, Aileen Eaton, began promoting boxing and wrestling at Los Angeles's Olympic Auditorium in 1942. At the time she was the only female promoter in the country. This tiny, widowed mother of two was a shrewd businesswoman who made the Olympic a popular boxing arena. She also revolutionized professional wrestling by persuading a grappler named George Wagner to dye his hair blond and hire a valet. Thus was born Gorgeous George.
Lacking a father figure, Gene LeBell was enthralled by the larger-than-life figures who worked for his mother. He got his first wrestling lesson at seven when he asked former professional heavyweight Ed (Strangler) Lewis for instruction. The 300-pound Lewis obviously had a soft spot for children. "He slapped a headlock on me, and I felt like the room was spinning for 10 minutes," says LeBell.
At 12 LeBell took up judo. To round out his education in the martial arts, he also began frequenting the Main Street Gym in Los Angeles, where the West Coast's best boxers gathered. One day in 1948, when he was 16, LeBell found himself in the gym with Sugar Ray Robinson. Robinson asked the teenager if he felt like sparring. Ever humble, LeBell agreed and promised not to hurt the welterweight champion. After being hit by about 300 of Robinson's jabs, LeBell told his sparring partner to come back the next day if he wanted another beating.
LeBell's manic, varied training paid off when he won the 1954 AAU National Judo Championships. As an unknown 21-year-old, he pinned John Osako, considered the top judo player in the U.S., in his first match of the tournament. Although LeBell weighed only 160 pounds, he won the heavyweight division and the overall title. The following year he repeated as national champion, winning 18 matches in two days. So superior was LeBell that he won 17 of those matches with standing throws, never being forced to grapple on the mat.
"At the time, it wasn't that hard, because I was training with 300-pound wrestlers," LeBell says. "The wrestlers back then were tougher."
After LeBell won his second championship, he traveled to Japan with a group from the Air Force to train and compete with the world's best judo players as well as karate and aikido masters. He often practiced in Tokyo at the Kodokan, the headquarters of of judo, where he would work the "slaughter lines," fighting a series of opponents until he lost. LeBell typically ran through lines of 20 men.
It was also in Japan that LeBell's uniform was accidentally laundered with other, brightly colored clothing and emerged from the washer a deep pink. He wasn't unhappy. "It was something different," he says, "and when people teased me about it, it was a good excuse to get them on the mat and stretch their bodies a bit."
Because judo was strictly amateur, LeBell turned to professional wrestling to make money. His first match, in 1955, was at the Olympic Auditorium. The two-time U.S. judo champion was cheered by the crowd for first -- and last -- time. Knowing that the highest-paid performers were the bad guys, LeBell sought to become the nastiest wrestler of all. He was so unpopular that in order not to embarrass his family he often wore a mask, fighting under the name of the Hangman.
In 1960 LeBell held the world wrestling championship -- for all of 12 seconds. After defeating champion Pat O'Connor in what he insists was a legitimate wrestling match, LeBell accidentally hit the commissioner in the face with the championship belt while posing for photographers. Thinking he had been hit intentionally, the commissioner disqualified LeBell and stripped him of his title.
It would be easy to blame any of LeBell's antisocial tendencies on the fact that he had no father, but in truth, Judo Gene was raucous almost from the beginning. When he was five his older brother contracted diphtheria and was confined for six months to a wheelchair. One day Gene took his brother for a stroll and left him in the middle of busy Olympic Boulevard. His brother survived and got even. As a wrestling promoter he fired Gene more than once. "What Gene did was terrific" says his brother, "but sometimes even I thought he was crazy."
Gene first worked as a movie stuntman in 1955, and his movie work gradually replaced wrestling. Stunt coordinators hired him because he take a punch better than anyone, and they knew actors would be safe with him. The toughest man alive has been beaten up by everyone from Jerry Lewis ("I was ahead on points," LeBell says) to Ruth Buzzi ("She blindsided me"). He has appeared in so many movies and TV shows that he has made more than $100,000. annually in residuals the last 25 years. "People in the stunt world can't say enough nice things about Gene," says Roydon Clark, a stunt coordinator. And actors know he will always lose.
When the cameras aren't rolling, however, however, it's a different story. Except for one defeat as a teenager, LeBell was unbeaten in his judo career, winning more than 2,000 matches in eight years. In training he has bested half a dozen Olympic gold medalists. Even years after retiring from competition he was virtually untouchable. LeBell's son David, himself an accomplished judo player, recalls two-time Olympic gold medalist Willem Ruska visiting from the Netherlands to learn some grappling moves, which, by the way, could never be used in judo competition. "My father showed him a few new ways to tie a man's limbs in knots," says David.
Bob Wall, a former world professional karate champion and friend of LeBell's used to bring martial arts stars Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee to train in karate and judo with LeBell. Wall and Norris were co-owners of a karate school. "The first time Lee sparred with Gene, Gene picked him up and held him overhead," says Wall. "Bruce said, 'When you put me down, I'm going to get you,' so Gene just kept him up there a while. Gene is absolutely the toughest man alive."
LeBell, though, prefers to play down the sobriquet. "People saying you're the toughest guy around is great, but it still doesn't add up to one car payment. Now I get beat up by every wimp in Hollywood and make thousands of dollars. You tell me which is better."
At his age LeBell thinks of himself as a teacher rather than a fighter. He works with martial artists selected to develop new methods of hand-to-hand combat for the L.A. Police department and still teaches a judo class in his cabin about 75 miles north of Los Angeles. He has trained six national judo champions, including the current U.S. title holder, a former Soviet named Gokor Chivichyan. "There were a lot of beautiful judo players in the Soviet Union, but no one like Gene," says Chivichyan, 31. "I hope I have half his strength when I'm his age."
As if to prove the point, LeBell gladly shows off his abilities whenever a visitor is foolish enough to ask for a demonstration. And LeBell can't stand to let someone leave without applying a last wrenching hold accompanied by the question, "Now who's the best-lookin' guy around?"
You are, Judo Gene. Absolutely.
Mark Jacobs of White Plains N.Y., writes often for Sports Illustrated.