The Shannon Ritch Archive: Gene LeBell vs Milo Savage (December 2, 1963)

I was listening to NPR’s All Songs Considered recently and they were covering a list of the 200 Greatest Songs by 21st Century Women+. That list was part of an initiative that NPR started last year called Turning the Tables that seeks to re-imagine The Canon in a more inclusive way, because The Canon, like most things, really, is very dude-centric. A quick note for those unfamiliar,  The Canon, that is to say the collected works understood, in a very broad sense, to be fundamental in shaping society and culture, is the sort of thing that doesn’t really exist. There is no agreed upon list — it is almost entirely the creation of academics and really only the function of, and fodder for, debate. It is the sort of thing that seems ultra-important in a college Liberal Arts class, but isn’t the sort of thing anyone would ever discuss in the break room at your job.

That show, the list, and the project as a whole got me thinking about what the MMA Canon would look like. I don’t pretend to have the sort of lofty goals that the people at NPR do, I don’t even think the MMA Canon exists in such a way that it needs to be re-imagined and reshaped with diversity and inclusivity in mind. I don’t think we even have a good idea of what would be included. I want to start that conversation. When you boil it all down, what I want to do is write about the events, the fights, the fighters that shaped MMA into what it is today. And so, named after MMA’s most famous Cannon, The Shannon Ritch Archive will try to solidify, collect, and illuminate the most important things in MMA.

You can trace the origins of MMA as far back as you want. If you want to squint and construe you will be able to find something that resembles MMA is some way in the very beginning of recorded history. Perhaps, in the earliest days of life on earth protozoa worked the guard, pumped a jab, and closed the distance. But, for my money, Mixed Martial Arts, in the form that would be recognizable to today’s audience starts with Gene LeBell and Milo Savage.

Some will point to the earliest versions of Pro Wrestling, to the likes of Frank Gotch and George Hackenschmidt, who in the early part of the last century sold out baseball stadiums competing in legitimate grappling contests but, in my mind, calling those matches Mixed Martial Arts fights is a bridge too far. But Gene LeBell, judo practitioner and Karate stylist, squaring off against boxer Milo Savage, that is a direct ancestor of today’s MMA. It doesn’t look anything like what a fight today would, things have evolved, but it is still the same idea. The fight could take place on the ground, standing up, or somewhere in between. There is the real possibility of submission or a knockout. LeBell-Savage is ur-MMA, the very beginning of the concept that would, several decades later, crystallize as MMA. Everything before it, and some things after it, are proto-MMA, part of the process, but not quite the genuine article.  With all of that preamble out of the way, let’s set the stage.

In August 1963, Rogue Magazine columnist Jim Beck wrote an article cleverly titled “The Judo Bums.” Beck, who may or may not have had a good idea what Judo was, and may have been actually been talking about Karate, spent his column inches that month damning “Judo” and praising Boxing. The article isn’t widely available online, but some sections of it are paraphrased elsewhere. The entire essence of the thing can be gleaned from the following lines: “Judo … is a complete fraud … Every judo man I’ve ever met was a braggart and a showoff … Any boxer can beat a judo man.”

Convinced that Judo, or at least his conception of “Judo,” Beck made a bold declaration. “Judo bums hear me one and all! It is one thing to fracture pine boards, bricks and assorted inanimate objects, but quite another to climb into a ring with a trained and less cooperative target. My money is ready. Where are the takers?” Beck’s offer was $1000, over 8000 dollars of today’s money,  to any “Judo Bum” who would step in the ring with a professional boxer of Beck’s choosing. The article found it’s way to LeBell who quickly accepted the offer and contract talks were initiated.

Gene Lebell was a two-time AAU National Judo champion whose family promoted wrestling in the Los Angeles area. He was an accomplished martial artist, surely he wanted to defend his martial art of choice against Beck’s slander, but he also understood how to promote, he knew how to put on a show, and he saw an opportunity to do both.

Beck’s pick was Milo Savage. Savage wasn’t an all time great boxer, but he was accomplished for his day. Accounts vary on his record heading into the LeBell fight, some going as far to claim an 8 fight win streak and a pending title shot against Dick Tiger, BoxRec on the other hand has the streak at 4. Regardless of his win streak, Savage was, at the very least an adequate boxer, never a world champion, but the type of fighter who could give a champion a bit of test, without ever really being close to winning. The LeBell fight, for Savage, was just another payday and a way to raise his profile.

With the participants squared away, a venue secured, the Fair Grounds in Beck and Savage’s hometown of Salt Lake City, Utah, the only logistical hurdle left was the rules. The trickiest thing about Mixed Martial Arts fights, that is fights between two desperate martial arts, is the rule set. Take for instance Muhammad Ali’s fight with Antonio Inoki, a fight that will probably be included in this series at some point.  By the time Ali and Inoki got in the ring, the rules had been written and re-written so many times, caveats added and loopholes closed, the fight could be nothing more than a glorified farce. The rules of LeBell-Savage are fairly straight forward, and outside of outlawing kicks, are not very restrictive. They are as follows:

  • 5 three-minute rounds
  • Beck was to wear a gi top with a belt, boxing trunks and boots, and unweighted boxing gloves
  • LeBell was to wear his Judo gi, no shoes, and no gloves
  • Punches were allowed in any position, excepting groin shots and punches to the back of the head
  • Any Karate and Judo techniques were allowed, except for the kick
  • The fight could end on a referee stoppage or failure to answer a count of 10
  • If the fight went the distance, the referee was the sole judge.

They are a far cry from today’s unified rules, but excepting for the ban on kicks, the 10-count provision and the call for gi-tops, a fight between two of today’s fighter might not look all that different than one under the “unified” rules.

On the day of the fight, there was some controversy regarding the gear that Savage would wear. Lebell griped that Savage’s gi wasn’t the agreed upon kind, it was too tight, and that his gloves were loaded in someway, perhaps with a metal bar inside. Also, they weren’t really boxing gloves, they were open fingered, a lot like modern MMA gloves. Despite all the pre-fight controversy, Savage, for his part seemed amiable enough, stating that he would fight LeBell in an overcoat if he had to, but Lebell eventually acquiesced and the fight went on with out any last-minute changes. It is unclear if there was actually real reason to complain about Savage’s equipment, this sort of gamesmanship, finding fault in an opponents gloves, boots, trunks, etc. happens still to this day. Regardless, the fight went on, Savage’s potentially  loaded glove and too tight gi top included.

The fight was televised, and while no complete copy of it is easily found online, some clips are still out there, the rest can be gleaned from reports from the Fair Grounds that night. The video can be found here.

I could write up what happened, but the fine folks over at Black Belt Magazine have done that work already, they were there in Utah on that night and really there isn’t much I can add based on the roughly 90 seconds of footage available. So, below is there round-by-round recap.

Round 1

Savage and LeBell moved cautiously toward each other. During the entire fight, Savage never extended his arms except to throw his fast, powerful punches. He maintained perfect balance and refused to rush the judoka. Instead, he moved cautiously, throwing jabs with those deadly gloves. Just before the round ended, LeBell managed to grab Savage’s short jacket, but the boxer was able to jerk away. In the engagement, LeBell pulled his left shoulder, an old contest injury he had reinjured a few weeks earlier.

Round 2

Realizing that he could apply only a limited number of techniques because of his “bum” shoulder, LeBell’s strategy was to set Savage up for a “front choke.” He succeeded to flip the boxer with a “corner throw” and immediately straddled him. Savage kept punching and finally managed to put his legs into LeBell’s, trying to break the hold. But Savage’s effort was futile. LeBell would not relax. Meanwhile, LeBell kept maneuvering for a better position, but the bell rang before he could end the contest. It was easily noticeable that Savage was able to elude the judoist because of his powerful strength and fighting instinct.

Round 3

Savage threw a perfect left jab and a right cross. The right just grazed LeBell as he ducked. And both men crashed into the ropes. LeBell attempted a “standing front choke,” but Savage quickly attacked his opponent’s body and slipped away from the grip. LeBell then grabbed Savage for a hip throw, but the boxer ceased punching and grabbed LeBell’s leg, thereby, preventing the judoka to move in for the throw. At that moment, Savage tried a “foot sweep.” It only jammed LeBell’s foot, but the movement undoubtedly revealed that Savage must have had some judo instruction before the fight. I also noticed several times that the boxer had attempted to ward off the judo expert with jigoti (judo defensive position).

Round 4

Savage leaned against the ropes and compelled LeBell to come to him. LeBell moved under Savage’s jabs and managed to throw Savage with a spectacular left-sided maki hari goshi. He quickly followed with a neck choke. In a few seconds, the boxer was out cold. The choke was what LeBell wanted to use. He explained that he had several opportunities to apply an armbar but feared that he might seriously disable Savage. He wanted to prove that judo could be effective without maiming the other party.

From the recap, a few themes emerge. One is that LeBell controlled the fight for the most part, Savage was able to get off a few punches, some especially effective ones to the body, but Savage spent much of the fight reacting to things LeBell was doing. For as much as LeBell controlled the fight, Savage seemed to have some acumen on the ground and in the clinch, he wasn’t as clueless as, let’s say Dan Severn at UFC 4. Milo Savage had done some work to combat LeBell. Obviously, LeBell won and his grappling expertise won the day, but it wasn’t easy for him.

When the fight ended, Savage’s hometown crowd was none too pleased. They started pelting the ring with trash, bottles, and other bits of refuse. It had all the makings of a riot. Luckily, Jay Fullmer, a retired boxer, one with more accolades than Savage, and a bit of a folk hero in Utah, jumped in the ring to raise LeBell’s hand. The crowd, still angry at LeBell, but unwilling to potentially hit Fullmer in the crossfire ceased their assault on the ring and eventually dispersed.

The fight was over. LeBell had won, Judo had been defended, if only for the moment. A ranked Judoka had defeated a ranked boxer. These were the facts, but nothing had really been solved. The debates still raged, the call for move of these style vs style fights persisted, 30 years later the first UFC event would seeks to put all those questions to bed. That event, held in Denver, Colorado, not that far from where LeBell/Savage took place, would start Mixed Martial Arts as a going concern in North America, continuing, effectively, would was started some three decades earlier.

What stands out about LeBell/Savage isn’t that it was unique in it’s conception. These sorts of contests had happened before, Ad Santel, the German-American Professional Wrestler had these sorts of mixed matches with Judoka in the early 1900s. Plenty of others took place before and after 1963.  But in it’s execution, the rule set that wasn’t limiting to a constraining degree, both fighters had trained in different disciplines, both standing and on the ground, the possibility for a decision at the end of an allotted time, Savage’s gloves. Its MMA, it isn’t something that hints at MMA, it is the genuine article, maybe be not exactly, but is more MMA than it isn’t. That’s why it’s canon, because you can point to this fight, to this night in Utah and say “This is the first one, everything else before it isn’t quite it.” That is important.

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