In 1963, LeBell became involved with a challenge by boxer and writer Jim Beck to the practitioners of Japanese martial arts. Beck claimed that a boxer could defeat any martial artist in a straight fight and offered $1000 to anyone who could prove otherwise. Beck engaged in abundant trash-talk, but revealed a very limited knowledge of martial arts, seemingly mistaking judo for karate.
Encouraged by Ed Parker, LeBell accepted the challenge and travelled to Salt Lake City to meet Beck. To his surprise, he learned his opponent would not be Beck but a higher regarded boxer, Milo Savage, who also had a background in amateur wrestling. An agreement was reached for the match to last five rounds, each lasting three minutes. The boxer’s side demanded a stipulation in which the smaller and older Savage (Savage was 39 while LeBell was 31 at the date of the fight) could use any type of punch, while the judoka could not kick, in the apparent belief LeBell was a karateka. An additional stipulation prevented LeBell from attempting tackles or takedowns under the waist. In return, Savage offered to wear a judogi. On the day of the match, Savage appeared wearing a karategi instead, much tighter and harder to grab. The Savage camp claimed they did not know the difference. Also, according to LeBell and other sources, Savage’s gloves contained brass knuckles and he had greased up his gi with vaseline to make gripping it more difficult. The unusual stipulations convinced LeBell the Savage camp, far from being ignorant about martial arts, had trained Savage in judo in order to defend against LeBell’s throws.
The match took place on December 2, 1963. The combatants were initially cautious, with LeBell being the first in pressing the action by attempting to throw Savage down. The boxer blocked the move, which aggravated an old shoulder injury of LeBell. LeBell tried several techniques through the second and third rounds and was finally successful in taking Savage down, but Savage kept defending both standing and on the ground in a very technical manner, seemingly confirming LeBell’s theory about his opponent’s grappling training. Savage even attempted to sweep the judoka in one instance. Nevertheless, LeBell got mount and found the opportunity to execute an armbar, but he opted instead to seek a choke, concluding that Savage would not surrender to a broken arm. Finally, he performed a left harai goshi in the fourth round and followed by locking a rear naked choke. Within seconds, Savage fell unconscious and LeBell was declared the winner.
The loss by Savage, the hometown favorite, caused the crowd to react violently. Bottles, chairs, and other debris were thrown into the ring. To prevent a full-blown riot, hometown hero and rated professional boxer Jay Fullmer (brother of boxers Gene and Don Fullmer) entered the ring to congratulate LeBell. The judoka and his team showed their sportsmanship by helping to revive Savage using kappo, as neither the referee nor the ring doctor knew how to resuscitate him. Despite this, a man tried to stab LeBell on the way out and the latter had to be protected by the judokas and professional wrestlers who accompanied him
BLACK BELT: Would you call your match with Milo Savage America’s first MMA bout?
Gene LeBell: It was the first televised MMA match. It was billed as pitting a judo, karate and wrestling guy against the No. 5 light-heavyweight boxer. I was known mostly for judo because I’d won the Nationals a few times, but I’d also done boxing, wrestling, karate, taekwondo and kenpo, mixing them together before it was popular.
BLACK BELT: Why were you chosen for the match?
Gene LeBell: A fellow who did kenpo karate, Ed Parker, a great teacher and a great human being, came to my school and said a guy named Jim Beck had called us “karate and judo bums” and offered $1,000 to anyone he couldn’t beat. The karate guys were emotional about it, and they had a big meeting. They wanted someone to fight Beck and decided on me. I said, “Why me? I’m not known as a karate or kenpo guy.” They said, “Yeah, but you’re the most sadistic bastard we know.” They said, “If you win, you get $1,000.” I said I’d fight my grandmother for $1,000. But she’d have beaten me
BLACK BELT: Did anything out of the ordinary happen before the bout?
Gene LeBell: Well, they did a bait-and-switch. I thought I’d be facing Beck, an amateur fighter, but they put in Milo Savage, a great boxer with a wrestling background.
BLACK BELT: Did that bother you?
Gene LeBell: Not really. I’m no mental giant, so I viewed it as more of a challenge: The tougher your opponent is, the better you look if you beat him. The only thing that bothered me was what happened later — instead of boxing gloves, he wore what amounted to speed-bag gloves with metal inside.
BLACK BELT: The fight was held in Salt Lake City. Why not Los Angeles, where you were based?
Gene LeBell: They tried to get it in LA, but the California Athletic Commission said no because it was against the law. They said it would be categorized as a duel. We ended up in Utah.
BLACK BELT: What was the lead-up to the bout like?
Gene LeBell: The day before, they told me to go to the offices of a big TV network in Salt Lake City to see a guy who did a sports show. The host was obviously for the boxer, who was from Salt Lake City. During the interview, he was articulate and used every two-liner he could to put me down, but I wasn’t sharp enough to say anything. Then he asked, “How are you going to win?” I said, “I’m going to strike him, freeze his body and hammer him into the ground.” Of course, I was showboating. My manager told me to stop fooling around. Then I said, “I’ll leave him in the ground until summer, defrost him and pull him out, then choke him out.” The host said, “Those chokes don’t work … show me.” I snatched him, choked him out and dropped him on his head. He dropped the mic, and I picked it up and said: “Our commentator went to sleep. I guess he’s quitting. Now it’s the Gene LeBell Show! Come to the arena tomorrow night and watch me annihilate, mutilate and assassinate your local hero because one martial artist can beat any 10 boxers.” The place sold out — they all wanted to see me get killed.
BLACK BELT: You won in the fourth round, right?
Gene LeBell: Yes. When I choked him out, the ref, who was also the doctor, didn’t know how to resuscitate him with katsu. After he’d been out for 20 minutes, my coach went in and revived the guy. The next morning, the newspaper headlines said, “The Savage Was Tamed.”