Bruce Lee fans were incensed (and took to the message boards) after the release of Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
General fans weren’t the only ones to take umbrage at Tarantino’s portrayal of Lee. In August Kareem Abdul-Jabbar penned an op-ed painfully titled “Bruce Lee Was My Friend, and Tarantino’s Movie Disrespects Him.” Bruce Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee has decried the portrayal as well.
Why were Lee fans and friends so upset? If you’ve seen Once Upon a Time you know that its central character, aging Hollywood stuntman and stand-in tough guy Cliff Booth, flashes back to working on The Green Hornet, and an incident on set where he beat up the famed martial artist Bruce Lee and was a fired as a moment his career took a downturn (no matter he can’t get work because folks think he killed his wife). Film viewers are largely on Booth’s side here as Lee is portrayed as a cocky showoff, claiming he could take Muhammed Ali (this is the notion Booth seeks to disabuse Lee of).
If you don’t remember The Green Hornet, you’re not alone, as it only ran for a single season on television, 26 episodes worth, in 1966 and 1967. However, since its sidekick star, Bruce Lee, got ‘uber mega famous’, it has seen second life in the all encompassing category of “cult classic.” If you don’t know the show, you certainly won’t recall a red-headed baddie that appeared in several episodes. That man was former wrestler and NWA Hollywood champion, Gene LeBell.
Wrestler? LeBell? LeBell Lock? Yes! Daniel Bryan. Bryan’s famed move is named for the very same stuntman. Bryan trained under LeBell protege, Neil Melanson. Read a few behind the scenes interviews and it won’t be long before you’ll see Bryan mention LeBell and the grappling-style influence of the California territory wrestler.
LeBell’s influence on the modern (and slightly premodern) product does not stop there. Ronda Rousey was taken practically from birth and trained in LeBell’s brand of judo, and, again it was LeBell showing her the ropes when she moved from mixed martial arts competition and UFC to professional wrestling and the WWE.
When Rousey wanted the “Rowdy” moniker as part of her MMA name, that too was LeBell’s doing. It was LaBell who called a former wrestler turned Hollywood tough guy, his friend and protege, Roddy Piper to get the okay. Piper was a long time student of LeBell, and LeBell claims Piper is one of only a handful of black belts LeBell has awarded (his was for wrestling). Look up LeBell and Piper online and you’ll get a number of awesome tributes from LeBell for his friend Piper after Piper’s passing in 2015.
How does one become so central a character in the art of pro-wrestling and so highly regarded as a mixed martial artist and stunt fighter? Partly, it may be the circumstance of birth. In the same way the von Erichs or the Harts or the Funks were born into wrestling and picked up its inner workings from the very start. LeBell, like McMahon, was born to a fight promoting family. His mother, Redhead Aileen Eaton, promoted catch wrestling and boxing as part of the owning family of the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles.
From the earliest age, LeBell trained in wrestling, boxing, and martial arts. As a lifelong student of what we have come to call combat sports, still living and teaching at age 87, LeBell has become one of the world’s experts. His career bore that out.
After winning amateur national competitions in judo, LeBell decided to make the switch to pro wrestling as it offered more lucrative earnings. There he found quick success.
Gene wrestled for the Los Angeles territory he and his brother Mike would run for 20 years after their mother had done so, NWA Hollywood Wrestling. Gene’s earliest success as a face came as a policeman gimmick that kept “law and order” in the ring (Big Boss Man origins anyone?). When the 1957 Colorado State Fair decided to host a wrestling match with George Reeves dressed as Superman versus Mr. Kryptonite, his success was such that Gene LeBell was called on to play the heel.
Ali-Inoki was not, by a long shot, the first boxer versus grappler special promotion. In a shoot-challenge in 1963, writer and boxer Jim Beck maintained that a boxer could always beat an opponent using mixed martial arts. LeBell took up the challenge and won easily against boxer Milo Savage in a Salt Lake City bout in December of that year. Thirteen years later, it was Gene LeBell who would be called on to referee the Muhammad Ali-Antonio Inoki matchup in Tokyo, Japan (YouTube that for some comedy…Inoki just gets on the mat and starts kicking Ali’s legs).
As he moved away from pro wrestling and into stunt and acting work in films and on TV, LeBell continued to run the NWA Hollywood with his brother until it folded in 1982. The NWA Los Angeles territory would help kickstart the careers of the likes of Roddy Piper, Pedro Morales, Billy Graham, Freddie Blassie, Chavo Guerrero Sr., Chris Adams, and Lord James Blears. Among other milestones, it was the first major territory promotion to award its world championship to a black man, when Bearcat Wright won the crown in 1963.
LeBell though shifted primarily to work in the movies. LeBell has worked as a stuntman or appeared as an actor (usually as a bad guy getting beat up by a good guy) in over a thousand films. He was an early teacher and promoter of Chuck Norris, and Ronda Rousey’s mother AnnMaria De Mars. His stunt work credit, unlike Cliff Booth’s, are numerous, including titles like Smokin’ Aces, Entourage, Reno 911!, Blue Hawaii, The Shield, Batman & Robin, US Marshals, Independence Day, Walker, Texas Ranger, The Sandlot, Army of Darkness, Hook, Tango & Cash, The Lost Boys, RoboCop, The Dukes of Hazzard, Magnum P.I., Rocky, Airplane!, Murder She Wrote, Friday the 13th, Laverne & Shirley, Lou Grant, The Fall Guy, and Kung Fu. In other words, there’s probably not a top ten (okay maybe top twenty) list of favorite TV and movies from any era since the 1970s that wouldn’t include a title LeBell has worked on in some capacity.
On The Green Hornet there was a scuffle between LeBell and Bruce Lee, though it’s a little less Hollywood than Tarantino’s film portrays it. When LeBell was brought in he was told Lee wasn’t pulling kicks and punches enough. For his part, Lee wanted to a do a good job on camera and make it look as real as possible. There was some talk of teaching Lee a lesson about grappling versus martial arts, but more in a joking sense (the way LeBell recounts it). In a fight practice, LeBell took a stiff jab, then in counter picked up Bruce Lee in a fireman’s carry and refused to put him down. When Lee demand he be released, LeBell joked he couldn’t because if he put Lee down Lee would kill him.
The incident endeared Lee to LeBell and Lee too became a student of LeBell’s brand of judo.
Just another strange story of the cult-classic-Bruce Lee-Elvis Presley-Muhammed Ali-Chuck Norris-Ronda Rousey-Roddy Piper-Bruce Campbell-superhero life of Judo Gene LeBell.
You can find me on Twitter @gritvanwinkle.