Former stuntman, wrestling promoter Gene LeBell dead at 89

ST, LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. — Gene LeBell, a stuntman and actor who also co-promoted professional wrestling matches in Los Angeles for two decades, died Tuesday. He was 89.

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LeBell died in his sleep Tuesday at his home in Sherman Oaks, California, his trustee and business manager, Kellie Cunningham, told The Hollywood Reporter.

Pro wrestler and former MMA competitor Bas Rutten announced LeBell’s death via Facebook, writing, “You will be greatly missed Gene, I love you my friend, till we meet again!”

LeBell was a jack of all trades, learning to wrestle when he was 7 under the tutelage of Ed “Strangler” Lewis, Variety reported. He learned martial arts from pro wrestler-trainer Karl Gotch and later worked with legendary pro wrestler Lou Thesz, Variety reported. He also boxed and was a judo champion. From 1962 to 1982, he and his brother, Mike LeBell, promoted National Wrestling Alliance matches at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles.

Known as the “Godfather of Grappling” and “Judo” Gene LeBell, he was a two-time AAU national judo champion. He later taught his submission techniques to Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, pro wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper and MMA champion Ronda Rousey and many, many others.

LeBell tried pro wrestling but returned to martial arts when he challenged and defeated pro boxer Milo Savage, in 1963, according to Variety.

LeBell once joked that “every star in Hollywood beat me up” when he was a stuntman and actor, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

John Wayne punched him in the face in “Big Jim McLain” (1952), Elvis Presley karate-kicked him between the eyes in “Blue Hawaii” (1961), Gene Hackman roughed him up in “Loose Cannon” (1990), and Burt Reynolds kicked him below the belt in “Hard Time” (1998), the entertainment news outlet reported.

Steve Martin tossed LeBell into a swimming pool in the 1979 film, “The Jerk.”

“The more you get hit in the nose, the richer you are,” LeBell liked to say.

He also faced off against Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme on film, Deadline reported. He was the referee when Muhammad Ali faced Japanese wrestler Antonio Inoki at the Nippon Budokan arena in Tokyo on June 26, 1976.

LeBell held a 10th-degree red belt in judo and a ninth-degree black belt in jiujitsu, according to Deadline.

LeBell was one of Quentin Tarantino’s inspirations for Brad Pitt’s stuntman character in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” according to Variety.

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, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

LeBell was acquitted of a murder charge but convicted as an accessory for driving pornographer Jack Ginsburgs to and from the scene of the murder of private investigator Robert Duke Hall in 1976, according to the Los Angeles Times. LeBell’s conviction was later overturned by the state Court of Appeals.

In a statement, the Stuntmen’s Association of Motion Pictures wrote that “There’s way too much to say to even begin to scratch the surface of the career and life Gene lived.”

“His talent in his field was known worldwide and those that got to know him knew he had a heart that matched that talent. I won’t say rest easy … because we just don’t see that happening with Gene. So may you rest in power, Gene.”