It's hard to believe. The toughest man alive is standing before me wearing pink pajamas. O.K., they're not really pajamas but rather a baggy judo uniform that has been dyed bright pink. Still, the person martial arts media such as Inside Kung-Fu magazine have since the 1950s dubbed "the toughest man alive" turns out to be 62 years old, and he is wearing not only rose-colored clothing but also a pair of reading glasses, which together make him look like a benevolent grandfather on Christmas morning. I'm beginning to think I'm in the wrong gym until the old man says, "Let me show you something fun" and slaps an Indian death lock on me.
"This is also a good one," he says, rolling me over into a hold he calls the figure-four double ouch. "Then you can try this...."
The pudgy hands of Gene LeBell, nicknamed Judo Gene by a TV announcer in the 1950s, work me over with an excruciating series of locks, cranks and stretches—each punctuated by LeBell's question, "Now who's better looking, you or me?"
It is a provocative notion, given that LeBell's face bears the marks of 55 years of judo, wrestling, boxing, karate and movie stunt work. There is scar tissue around his eyes. His nose has been bashed bulbous, and his ears have gone beyond cauliflowered to broccolied. One does not easily come by a reputation as the toughest man alive.
LeBell, though, was literally born into the esoteric brotherhood of professional tough men. His mother, Aileen Eaton, began promoting boxing and wrestling at Los Angeles's Olympic Auditorium in 1942. At the time she was the only female promoter in the country. This tiny, widowed mother of two was a shrewd businesswoman who made the Olympic a popular boxing arena. She also revolutionized professional wrestling by persuading a grappler named George Wagner to dye his hair blond and hire a valet. Thus was born Gorgeous George.
Lacking a father figure, Gene LeBell was enthralled by the larger-than-life figures who worked for his mother. He got his first wrestling lesson at seven when he asked former professional heavyweight champion Ed (Strangler) Lewis for instruction. The 300-pound Lewis obviously had a soft spot for children. "He slapped a Deadlock on me, and I felt like the room was spinning for 10 minutes," says LeBell.
At 12 LeBell took up judo. To round out his education in the martial arts, he also began frequenting the Main Street Gym in Los Angeles, where the West Coast's best boxers gathered. One day in 1948, when he was 16, LeBell found himself in the gym with Sugar Ray Robinson. Robinson asked the teenager if he felt like sparring. Ever humble, LeBell agreed and promised not to hurt the welterweight champion. After being hit by about 300 of Robinson's jabs, LeBell told his sparring partner to come back the next day if he wanted another beating.
LeBell's manic, varied training paid off when he won the 1954 AAU National Judo Championships. As an unknown 21-year-old, he pinned John Osako, considered the top judo player in the U.S., in his first match of the tournament. Although LeBell weighed only 160 pounds, he won the heavyweight division and the overall title. The following year he repeated as national champion, winning 18 matches in two days. So superior was LeBell that he won 17 of those matches with standing throws, never being forced to grapple on the mat.
"At the time, it wasn't that hard, because I was training with 300-pound wrestlers," LeBell says. "The wrestlers back then were tougher."
After LeBell won his second championship, he traveled to Japan with a group from the Air Force to train and compete with the world's best judo players as well as karate and aikido masters. He often practiced in Tokyo at the Kodokan, the headquarters of judo, where he would work the "slaughter lines," fighting a series of opponents until he lost. LeBell typically ran through lines of 20 men.