Training With Gene LeBell

John Donehue Gene L

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Training With Gene LeBell

It’s hard to describe what training with The Godfather of grappling is like to anyone who hasn’t experienced it. As they say feeling is believing and nothing says that more than when Uncle Gene grabs hold of you with those big thick hands of his and gets the precise angle for a submission and the pain is immediate.

My first experience with him was at LACC (Los Angeles City College) where Bill ‘Superfoot’ Wallace, who I was training with at the time in Kickboxing and Boxing and long time friend of Gene, took me to meet him. Gene was running a Judo class there on Monday nights. Another great Judoka, Hayward Nishioka taught there also.

So I see this older man in a pink gi, not knowing the back-story at the time around that, and think surely not. Bill introduces me and says that “Gene has forgotten more about inflicting pain than you and I will ever know”. Gene shakes my hand with a very soft grip but I still feel how thick and heavy his hands are. After he says hi he tells me to choke him. I replied “excuse me?”

“You know, choke me” as he put his hands out mimicking two hands around someone’s neck.

I thought ok. So I put my hands around his neck and started squeezing. I told myself don’t go too hard on the old guy. Here I was young and fit coming from a boxing and kickboxing background. Knew some basic choke holds, which I was to learn were very basic at best after training with Gene, and I’d been a bouncer for quite a while also, so I didn’t want to hurt him.

As I started the squeeze he looked at straight in the eye and said “you squeeze like a girl come on choke me!”

I thought you old bastard you’re going to get it. So I tightened my grip as hard as I could and even for good measure stuck my thumbs into the soft section at the bottom of the throat. I held this for bit and he just kept looking at me with his relaxed expression that was not changing and eventually said “Good, you’ve got a good grip”

Bill Wallace was just smiling at me and right then I thought I have to learn some of this stuff and from this man.

I did my first Judo class that night where later on he put me with a brown belt. Not really knowing anything except stuff you learnt in the school yard or working in bars I quickly grabbed the guy around the head and twisted and threw him. I’m sure I caught him unaware as it was my first night and he was probably going easy with me. Then he put me up against another brown belt. Needless to say I didn’t catch him unaware!

I remember in the middle of the flight I went on after he grabbed hold of me that I was trying twist around in some weird way and through my own doing landed pretty much on my head. He quickly went into a pin hold down. Well that was fun!

From that day on I kept going back to L.A.C.C. learning from Gene and occasionally Hayward and anyone else who would help. Eventually I earned an invitation up to Gene’s cabin in Frazier Park, a couple of hours north from where I was living. Gene had a dojo built into his house. I would go up there on a Saturday night with anyone else who had been invited to do extra training. It would typically be Silvio ‘Silverado’ Pimenta and myself  George Cardoni, a Judo Black Belt and John Lewis was there a lot also. Different people would come through any given weekend as people would bug Gene for an invitation. Some people would come back but most wouldn’t. I think a lot of people thought it would a short session and just some technique.

We would get there around 5.30pm for a 6pm start and it would not stop until we said we need to go home. Sometimes we wouldn’t leave there till after midnight as if you wanted to keep training or had questions Gene would answer them.

The submission holds we would learn were painful and effective. We would do a combination of Judo and Gene’s old school wrestling finishing holds. There was nothing that was off the table, ankles, knees, necks and even hip locks. We would drill and train for hours. There was no ‘game’ as such. With Gene it wasn’t about passing the guard, to which the wrestlers would call foot and leg control as Gene would show us black and white pictures of his mentors like Ed ‘the strangler’ Lewis demonstrating what we now call the triangle, it was more about what you’re opponent was giving you. Remember Ed ‘the strangler’ Lewis was doing this type of move in the early 1900’s. Gene would say you’re in the guard, lock the leg or the ankle. He wasn’t in any way, shape or form interested in points for Judo or Jiu Jitsu. It was all about the Ippon, pin or the submission.

He would explain things and break them down from a body mechanics viewpoint. So I actually learnt why the hold was working. Where and how it was placing stress on the joint etc. the precise angles. To this day I try and explain things in the same way to my students, as it was very conceptual and an easy way to learn because you understood everything about the technique. Understanding the principles is the key. A lot of people get caught up in just learning a technique which is ok but if things are principle based it will always carry over into other areas and make the learning process a lot easier.

It was such an amazing experience to train with someone so generous with his time and knowledge and one that I will be eternally grateful. This art needs to be preserved, as sadly legends, like Gene, from that era are almost all but gone. So that’s why we try and pass this on in our Gene LeBell class to the next generation.