Gene LeBell, Famed Stuntman and “Godfather of Grappling,” Dies at 89

A martial artist and judo champion, he taught Bruce Lee, fought in an early mixed martial arts fight, and served as an inspiration for a Tarantino character.

World-famous wrestling, judo, and stuntman Gene LeBell trained popular figures such as Bruce Lee, Elvis Presley, and John Wayne. He also appeared in Hollywood movies which served as inspiration for Brad Pitt’s role in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. He died at the age of 89.

LeBell’s Trustee and Business Manager, Kellie Cunningham, confirmed that LeBell died Tuesday morning at his residence in Sherman Oaks.

Gene LeBell, affectionately known as the “Godfather of Grappling” and “Judo” Gene LeBell is a two-time AAU national judo champion. On top of that, he taught his masterful submission techniques to many notable martial artists including Lee, Chuck Norris, World Wrestling Entertainment’s “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, MMA fighter Ronda Rousey and many, many others.

Ivan Gene LeBell was born in Los Angeles on Oct. 9, 1932. His mother, Aileen Eaton, promoted fights at the Olympic Auditorium and was the first woman inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

LeBell moved to Japan to study judo and won U.S. titles in the 1950s before segueing to pro wrestling, learning the art of catch wrestling (a grappling style) from Ed “Strangler” Lewis, Lou Thesz, and Karl Gotch.  

From 1962-82, he ran the Los Angeles territory of the National Wrestling Alliance with his brother Mike.

He authored more than 12 books, including Gene LeBell’s Grappling World — The Encyclopaedia of Finishing Holds, Gene LeBell’s Handbook of Judo, Pro-Wrestling Finishing Holds, and The Grappling Club Master, and filmed his techniques for instructional videos.