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"People always ask me the latest news; I tell em to check my website.
It's ALWAYS up-to-date... my web guy is terrified of me."
- Gene LeBell
Grappling guru Gene Lebell, trainer of Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris, isn't slowing after years of combat -- Brent Hopkins, Staff writer
Toughest Man Alive: Gene LeBell
Sherman Oaks. The phone rings and a mysterious voice rasps through the receiver. The Toughest Man Alive beckons.
"I'm calling on behalf of Gene LeBell," the voice growls. "Be at his house at 11 a.m."
The line goes dead.
This evokes a shadowy, covert meeting at the stronghold of an underworld mastermind, mad scientist or some sort of superhero. LeBell's Sherman Oaks townhouse does not. But although plain on the exterior, within the brown stucco building lurks a 74-year-old man who cracks necks for a living, jumps off waterfalls, crashes motorcycles and beats people up.
This man reputedly once fought a death match with his good friend Chuck Norris. He showed Bruce Lee how to choke a man unconscious. He pulled a gun on Jackie Chan and didn't suffer a thing.
Up the stairs, past the movie posters, down the hall, is his headquarters. Here sits Gene LeBell, judo champion, stuntman, animal lover, sensei, welder, artist, actor and grandfather. After years of training the flashiest guys in Hollywood, he recently relocated his dojo to the San Fernando Valley, making it a mecca for iron-jawed stuntmen and regular dudes off the street alike.
Not far from his home, in an old bakery on Burbank Boulevard, LeBell and his prot g Gokor "The Armenian Assassin" hold court on how to twist arms and pop knees. At the Hayastan Mixed Martial Arts Academy, they teach the meek to grow strong and the tough to get tougher.
Inside, it's kind of like those James Bond movies where the super-spy wanders through the training center and all the wannabe agents are beating on each other. All around the room, kids no taller than a man's waist are tackling each other as intimidating men with tattoos stretch their legs. Bodies fly through the air and slam into the mat.
LeBell wanders around in his signature pink uniform, a flamboyant touch that almost dares opponents to make rude remarks. His hands are as big as canned hams, his arms still thick and powerful. He has ears lumpy from years of brawling and flaming red hair that has thinned a bit. The Godfather of Grappling has not slowed down.
"Now I'm a little blind, so I've got to go on sound these days," he said, gesturing to show the proper way to crank a man's head around. "I like to hear vertebrae crack."
`Toughest man alive'
LeBell grew up as a proud jock, son of Aileen Eaton, the promoter at the Olympic Auditorium. He was, he recalls, a bit of a pain in the butt, so she sent him off to the Los Angeles Athletic Club. At the age of 7, he began training under Ed "Strangler" Lewis, learning martial arts at a time few had ever heard of them.
As he got older, he learned how to knock a man to the ground, grab hold and manipulate his body until the opponent gave up. He took up judo and studied how to fend off an attack with a knife or a club. LeBell fought as many men as he could and made sure word got out that he was no slouch in the ring.
"I traveled around with all the tough guys and worked out with them," he said. "A lot of them called me the toughest man alive. They were stupid knuckleheads. I wasn't the toughest. I was the best-looking."
In 1954, he won the national judo championship, besting Pan American champion Johnny Osako with the aid of an unintentional neck-lock.
Training the stars -- LeBell calls it luck today, but he followed up the next year with another heavyweight championship. Soon his talents would lead him into movie stunt work and a dojo of his own.
That's how he met Norris and Lee, who were relative unknowns when they stepped onto the mat with him. He worked with George Reeves on the old "Superman" show, playing Mr. Kryptonite and teaching the star how to fight before his untimely death. He traded moves with Elvis.
Along the way, he developed beyond just a master tactician into a figure cloaked in legend. When his white gi came back from the laundry dyed pink by an errant red sock, he adopted the color. He became known as a master of the chokehold, able to put a man to sleep with a lightning-fast arm around the neck.
He became so good at the choke, in fact, that he supposedly once had a run-in with a pudgy, ponytailed martial arts actor on the set of a film. LeBell refuses to discuss the incident, but as the story goes, their encounter twice left the far-younger actor unconscious on the floor, the latter time with soiled underwear.
"Guys used to come up to him and try to start a fight and he'd just shrink and say `No, don't hurt me, please don't hurt me,"' said Midge-o The Mean Mistress of Mayhem, LeBell's wife and verbal sparring partner. "He told me, `That way, I save on lawyer fees, doctor fees, and he feels like a real tough guy. Better for everyone that way."'
And though he worked with the legends of the martial arts world, LeBell didn't sequester himself in a pricey dojo for the stars. In the 1970s, well after he'd made a name for himself, he taught a judo class at Los Angeles City College.
Master and student -- He planned on doing it for a year, but ended up teaching for 17. And it was there that he met a young Armenian immigrant named Gokor Chivichyan.
"I didn't even speak English so my cousin translated for me," Gokor recalled. "I said, `I can do judo, jujitsu, sambo, a little wrestling.' He says, `Can you fight my guys here?' `Sure.' So he lines up 30 guys and I fought every one and beat them all."
Just 16 years old and generally known just by his first name, Gokor was already good at judo. LeBell made him better, adopting him as his personal student and teaching him moves not sanctioned in tournaments. The young student already had a nickname, "The Armenian Lion," but LeBell decided "The Armenian Assassin" was much more menacing.
And that's how the master employed his young student. If guys ran their mouths and LeBell didn't like it, he'd bring in Gokor to challenge and embarrass them in the ring. If they hurt students or showed disrespect, Gokor would humiliate them.
Just like "Judo Gene," Gokor would slide an arm around a thick neck and squeeze until the man passed out. The "Assassin," who's quite pleasant in conversation, once put a man's head through a wall when the opponent cheated in a fight and tried to blind him. That was at LeBell's birthday party.
Over their years together, Gokor, now 43, became a champion fighter in his own right and today runs the daily operations of the North Hollywood dojo. He oversees 500 students in mixed martial arts and has raised his sons Arthur and Gary to continue in his judo legacy.
Loving the rough life -- LeBell says he'd like to retire but hasn't really gotten around to it yet. The calls keep coming for stunt work, and the Ultimate Fighting Championship guys keep showing up at the dojo. He hawks his Web site, GeneLeBell.com, and still pulls the occasional gig as a stuntman or actor.
As much as he tries to settle down, he can't seem to give up the rough life he loves.
"I can't tell you the last time we went to a restaurant and someone didn't come up and say, `Oh, my goodness, you're the famous Gene LeBell!"' said Midge, who seems to be the only one who stands up to her husband. "And he starts signing, he's shaking hands, then he's going from table to table. Soon, he's got cold food! Because of who he is, he eats cold food!"
He eats cold food, he works long hours, he still uses his much-abused body to make a living. At an age when many contemporaries consider a fishing trip to be good exercise and two shuffleboard games to be a hard day's work, LeBell has lost none of his drive or his flair.
He plans to live at least to the age of 125, he said. And he doesn't take disagreement lightly.
"Last week, I killed three men," he said. "Two were on purpose. The other one, I cooked him dinner."
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