The grappling world recently lost two incredible individuals: Judo Gene LeBell and Leandro Lo. One was from an era of tradition, yet broke the rules; the other was from a newer age of a rapid-changing art where the rules were still being written. They both pushed boundaries.
“Judo” Gene LeBell
Judo Gene LeBell, who passed away in his sleep at 89 on August 9, was known by many aliases, including “The Godfather of Grappling” and “The Toughest Man Alive.” He was a World Professional Wrestling champion back when the wrestlers knew more wrestling than just mere theatrics. He was a Judo champion and a professional stuntman. I remember watching the Will Smith film Men in Black for the first time and seeing him on the back of the metro in the scene with the giant worm. I screamed, “That’s Judo Gene LeBell.” No one else in the room was impressed with my recognition.
LeBell was also a pioneer in mixed martial arts. He fought boxer Milo Savage in a controversial mixed rules fight in 1963, with LeBell coming out the victor by choke. He also refereed a later (also controversial) striker-versus-grappler match where Muhammad Ali fought Antonio Inoki in 1976, ending in a draw.
LeBell had a hand in coaching and training alongside some of the world’s elite fighters for several generations. The list includes strikers such as Benny “The Jet” Urquidez and Chuck Norris (who had a Judo background and later became a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt), Ed Parker; and grapplers such as Gokor Chivichyan (another pioneer in mixed martial arts), Karo Parisyan,
“Rowdy” Roddy Piper, and women’s MMA standout/Judo Olympian Ronda Rousey.
Leandro Lo, one of the most accomplished Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu athletes ever, was murdered at age 33 on August 7. After a scuffle at a party, an assailant shot Lo, who died shortly afterward. His passing shook the BJJ community worldwide as a legend gone too soon. Lo holds the record for most IBJJF World titles in different weight classes, largely due to his guard passing skills and tenacity on the mat.
Lo competed and won in many of the world’s largest BJJ and grappling events, including Abu Dhabi and IBJJF. He had wins over other grappling legends such as Lucas Lepri, Keenan Cornelius, and the current “king,” Gordan Ryan. He won the IBJJF world championships eight times across five weight classes (unseating the 20-year record holder, Saulo Ribeiro), making him one of the best pound-for-pound athletes in the sport.
What united LeBell and Lo was their devotion to grappling and the arts they practiced. Both relentlessly applied the techniques and ethos found in Judo and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. While we can consider LeBell and Lo martial artists, it’s safe to say they were first and foremost athletes who adhered to their respective sports with utmost dedication. Their arena was the ring, the mat, and the world stage.
While the grappling community will miss LeBell and Lo, their legacies live on in their students, coaches, and training partners. Their passing reminds us to cherish our time with each other while we have it. Whether old or age or unexpected event, death comes to us all. Enjoy life. Squeeze all you can from it and leave a legacy worth remembering.
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