Gene LeBell and Ronda Rousey's gold lineage
Feb 19, 2014 at 5:03p ET
When judoka Ronda Rousey returned with a bronze medal from the 2008 Olympics, she expressed interest in mixed martial arts. Gokor Chivichyan, “Judo” Gene LeBell’s understudy and Rousey’s first MMA coach, encouraged the idea. LeBell responded to Chivichyan, “Well, women don't draw anything."
How the times have changed.
Rousey (8-0; 2-0 UFC) is headlining UFC 170 this Saturday at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas, Nev. She defends her bantamweight championship against Olympic silver medalist wrestler Sara McMann (7-0; 1-0 UFC) in Rousey’s second main event in three outings. It’s the first time two Olympians—let alone Olympic medalists—will meet in the Octagon. Also, Rousey-McMann is a rare title tilt between two undefeated fighters.
LeBell is well acquainted with stardom and Rousey’s ascent into it. Now in his eighties, LeBell was the national heavyweight judo champion in 1954 and 1955. He won the open-weight competitions those years too. He’s the great grandfather to mixed martial arts; representing judo against boxer Milo Savage in 1963 in America’s first-ever mixed fight. A consummate shooter, he held the NWA world heavyweight championship in pro wrestling. He’s a famous Hollywood stuntman too, notably teaching Bruce Lee chokeholds and judo throws. He befriended Rousey’s mother, AnnMarie De Mars, leading up to her winning the judo Worlds in 1984. He’s known Ronda since birth.
He attributes Rousey’s star power to confidence and attitude. Being loved or hated is better than being in between with the “wannabees” according to LeBell.
“She's as sweet as a gal you've ever met in your life, but being hard, or villainous, comes easy to her,” LeBell told FOXSports.com of Rousey’s ability to elicit emotion and draw crowds. “She's good at it, very good. She's not afraid of anything. Hard work doesn't scare her."
You may recognize LeBell as the elderly gentleman straggling behind during Rousey’s Joan Jett “Bad Reputation” walkout. Dealing with the jeers during her last walkout in December, the martial arts legend soaked in the moment, thinking, 'They came to see her get beat…and she's not going to lose.'"
LeBell dismisses his role in rounding out Rousey’s appeal as a perfect eight-for-eight armbar finish fighter. At most, he called his pupil WWE Hall of Famer “Rowdy” Roddy Piper to secure his blessing for Rousey to carry the “Rowdy” moniker in MMA at her behest.
"You know what I taught her?” asked LeBell. “I'll tell ya, but you can't let this out. Three words when you're fighting: ‘Break. An. Arm.’"
LeBell is known for light-hearted humor and sheer ruggedness, characterized on the cheeky cartoon souvenir patches he distributes to fans. Rousey affirms she is honored his trademark patches now feature her. It’s the highest compliment, and another way LeBell’s character colors Rousey’s story.
- Lebell regularly passes out homemade patches of Rousey to fans
For his contributions to marital arts are unparalleled, but the longer Rousey goes on writing her pioneering legacy as a flagship female star in mixed marital arts, the greater LeBell’s echoes.
Gene LeBell’s relationship to Ronda Rousey is as if Bruce Lee mentored UFC heavyweight kingpin Cain Velasquez.
"I think the general public can't realize the importance Gene has played in the development of martial arts,” Rousey said. “It took me a long time to see it and he was so close to me and my family, so how can I expect everyone else to? It's part of what makes him so awesome.
“He's the most uncelebrated hero in martial arts and he's the most happy and content guy ever. You would never hear the slightest bit of resentment from him for lack of recognition for what he's done even though I feel he deserves a whole lot more."
One place LeBell felt respected is ringside at the UFC. He called UFC President Dana White the greatest promoter ever, partly because of a run-in years ago. White asked where LeBell was staying that night in Las Vegas. “Not here,” replied LeBell, “It’s $500 a night.” Suddenly LeBell’s accommodations upgraded and he was front row for the fights.
Maybe White loves LeBell for his role in building Rousey, or maybe LeBell is putting over White because White is responsible for lining up Rousey with rich fight purses. Either way, Rousey’s presence in the cage is in high-demand. It is in Hollywood too.
LeBell comments he’s seen countless fighters spend their money like drunken sailors and become broken down, out of business. He relays he’s done well for himself because of years and years in the Screen Actors Guild. So while he’s committed to Rousey full-time in fighting, he’s supportive of her Silver Screen endeavors too because a life after fighting is something every combatant deserves.
"Residuals," he says plainly.
Backup plans are a significant plus. LeBell knows McMann, a three-to-one underdog, can topple Rousey. Upsets are a realistic possibility. Everyone loses if they fight long enough, and McMann is worth her undefeated Olympic wrestler billing in his estimation.
"A car that's out of gas doesn't run,” said LeBell. “I saw [McMann] go three rounds and she didn't even break a sweat. That's a good thing. Who's going to win? Buy a boleto [Spanish for ticket] and see."
If Rousey’s popularity continues to blossom under the prideful watch of Gene LeBell, more women may be inclined to hit the judo mats and sign up at their local MMA school. Thus LeBell’s trademark pink gi might take on new meaning.
"More pink gis means more girls doing more martial arts,” says Rousey. “The more pink gis the better, I say."
LeBell is a true icon, a living history of martial arts, but to Rousey he’s simply “Uncle” Gene.
"I can't see him from the outside,” she said. “I see him as my Uncle Gene in the pink gi that gives me the patches and isn't that funny? Isn't that funny he has a pink gi? Did he leave it in the wash with something red?"
Chances are he did—something blood stained. For Gene LeBell is the world’s most well-known sadistic grappler, and Rousey is his latest star pupil—the biggest to ever hit the UFC—with love-‘em-or-hate-‘em limb-ripping tendencies he shouts at everyone to witness for themselves.
Danny Acosta contributes to Maxim Magazine. Listen to the "Acosta KO" Tuesdays (4:30 p.m. EST/1:30 p.m. PST) on Sirius Fight Club (Sirius XM 92) and his MMA podcast Majority Draw Radio on majoritydrawradio.com. Follow on him on Twitter and Instagram @acostaislegend