What You Didn't Know About Martial Arts Legend Gene LeBell

You don't usually hear about stunt people by name. They're the anonymous professionals who make the actors look good once the closeup is over. Actors who brag about doing their own stunts, and how often they've been hurt doing them — clearly they should have let the professionals handle it. Because that's what the professionals are paid for.

Case in point: Quentin Tarantino's 2019 film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood features a character played by Brad Pitt, a stuntman who gets into a tiff with Bruce Lee. Pitt's character is widely said to be based on a real-life stuntman who's a martial artist, trainer, and (again, widely said) the toughest man alive: Gene LeBell.

LeBell has appeared either as a character (including an uncredited appearance as a Klingon on Deep Space Nine, says Memory Alpha) or stunt double on nearly 1,000 movies and TV shows, says his citation by the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. That includes the real LeBell working with the real Bruce Lee on the TV series The Green Hornet. Rather than some kind of macho face-off, LeBell had nothing but good things to say about Lee. In an interview with Faded Sideways, LeBell called him a "wonderful guy" and "a great martial artist."

LeBell is widely considered the "toughest man alive"

They actually worked out at each other's schools during the year of the Hornet. "I taught him judo and wrestling and stuff like that, and some finishing holds which he later worked into some movies," said LeBell. "And he showed me a lot of his kicks and strikings which even today I use in the movies."

If it sounds like LeBell is someone who's a lifelong student of combat sports, you're right. First known as a wrestler and judo expert, he expanded his knowledge base and skills set throughout his life. In 2014 he told Black Belt Magazine: "I never said one art is better than the others. They're all good. You should learn everything. You're not a complete martial artist unless you do everything."

He was born October 9, 1932, in Los Angeles, into a family where combat sports were second nature: His family owned the Olympic Auditorium, and his mother was a match promoter. He was a champion in national judo competitions and worked as a professional wrestler (the money was better), says The Wrestling Movement. And with all of that, LeBell — teacher, author (The Toughest Man Alive, The Encyclopedia of Finishing Holds, The Godfather of Grappling), performer — has another "first" on his resume: His was the first sanctioned mixed martial arts match.

He trained his niece, Ronda Rousey

The date was December 2, 1963, says The Fight Nerd, when he took on boxer Milo Savage in Salt Lake City. LeBell won in four rounds by choking out his opponent.

He's trained innumerable actors, stuntmen, and fighters over the course of his career, including Chuck Norris, and anecdotes and legends abound, including the story of the day he put Steven Seagal into a chokehold (reportedly, Seagal soiled himself as a result). It's quite possible he takes the most pride in family: His niece is Ronda Rousey. He introduced her to judo and stepped in again when she was ready to head for mixed martial arts competition.

What if he were 30 again? Black Belt asked him if he'd go into the MMA arena. His reply? "I probably would. But if I had the brain I have now — I'm a lot smarter than I was when I was 30 — maybe not. I do stunt work, and when you're making $200,000 or $300,000 a year doing stunts and collecting residuals, why the heck should you get beat up?"