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The fight that sparked the debate of boxer vs. mixed martial artist

The poster promised "something new for sport fans"; new in that they may have never seen anything like this, not that it hadn't been done before, because for millennia it had.

Three decades before Art Jimmerson met Royce Gracie at UFC 1, 47 years before James Toney and Randy Couture are set to tangle in Boston, Milo Savage danced with Gene LeBell on a Monday evening in Salt Lake City. What transpired was the first televised mixed martial arts prize fight: boxing versus judo, in a ring, with rules and a referee.

"Fighting for your life," LeBell, now 78, recalled this week.

It sort of just happened. In the August 1963 issue of Rogue magazine, an early competitor to Playboy, Jim Beck's article titled "The Judo Bums" threw down a challenge: $1,000 to any judoka who could defeat a boxer.

It is with a noted sense of irony and history repeating itself that one recalls the 1989 Playboy article titled "Bad," written by Pat Jordan, that elevated grappling, Rorion Gracie and the Gracie Challenge, and eventually led to the formation of the UFC in 1993. Rorion publicly called out Mike Tyson or any man willing to agree to a winner-take-all, fight-to-the-death match for $100,000.

Had "Judo" Gene been a decade or two younger, he might've taken Gracie's offer as he had Beck's. At the behest of Kenpo karate legend Ed Parker -- "You're the most sadistic bastard I know and we want you to represent the martial arts," Parker told LeBell at the judoka's dojo in Hollywood, Calif. -- the challenge was accepted.

LeBell was raised around fighters. His mother, Aileen Eaten, was the first woman to be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, for her role as a fight promoter on the West Coast, where she staged boxing and wrestling bouts for 38 years at the Grand Olympic Auditorium in downtown Los Angeles. LeBell wanted the Beck-proposed event to take place in L.A., but the California State Athletic Commission would need nearly 40 years before agreeing to regulate MMA. So the fight was shifted to Beck's backyard, Salt Lake City, which happened to be the home of Savage, a veteran boxer who at his peak was considered a top-five-ranked light heavyweight.

LeBell said he saw Savage box in person once, at the Legion Auditorium in Hollywood. It was the main event, a 10-rounder, and LeBell remembers Savage as not needing more than three minutes for the win (Savage's record, 49-45-10 according to BoxRec.com, shows no such result). Savage, who died in 1998 at the age of 74, earned a reputation as a hard puncher, rising from middleweight to light heavy during a career that spanned 25 years. By the time he fought LeBell, Savage was 39 and would box just once more.

When Toney steps in against Couture on Saturday, he'll do so as a 42-year-old fighter in his 22nd year as a professional. Outside of their preferred fistic discipline, age and ring experience are about as far as you can take the Savage-Toney comparison. Toney, a multidivision champion and eventual shoo-in for the Hall of Fame, is far more accomplished in the ring.

His presence, though, has certainly brought life to the boxing-vs.-mixed-martial-arts debate Beck kick-started in 1963. Toney has dismissed Couture, one of the great champions in MMA history, much the same way Savage and his handlers did LeBell.

"Randy's good at what he does, I'm great at what I do," Toney said. "Now he's talking about he's going to lay on top of me? God bless him, but I ain't no female so I ain't going down like that. He's getting knocked out, straight up."

In LeBell's dressing room before fighting in front of a standing-room-only crowd at the Fair Grounds Coliseum -- a ringside seat to Savage-LeBell cost $2.00; it will run you $600 to watch Couture-Toney from the same vantage point at TD Garden on Saturday -- the evening's rules were discussed. None of those funny karate kicks or chops, Savage's people said, for the fight of five three-minute rounds. The boxer intended to strap on boxing gloves, but in the end he wore a fingerless variety that LeBell alleged were doctored with a metal plate. And each wore a gi-top, with LeBell sporting his full judo uniform. Other than that, everything was fair game.

"I asked them what I could do," said LeBell, who pulled out a book on judo he authored and pointed to a photo.

"Can I pick him up over my head like this?"

Savage's handlers laughed.

"Can I choke him?" LeBell wondered as he put his hands over his throat in a "comical way."

A lawyer who accompanied LeBell to Utah told him to stop messing around. But "Judo" Gene couldn't help himself.

"They're laughing," he remembered. "They're just all happy that he's going to knock me out."

LeBell had similar experiences in Amarillo, Texas, where he wrestled professionally and took on challengers from the audience in mixed-style fights. The promotion, which paid locals $100 and out-of-towners $50, pulled competitors from a local army base and the dusty city's barroom tough-guy crowd.

When he stepped into the ring with Savage, it didn't take long to get into the flow of the fight. LeBell felt Savage's power to his body when one punch somehow broke the judo man's new belt -- the same kind he used to tow broken-down motorcycles.

"I've never had 'em stretch or break on me, but when this guy hit me it broke right in half," LeBell said. "This guy hit pretty hard. You could do it a 1,000 times, I don't think he could do it again. He just hit me right."

They kept their distance, Savage understandably tentative to go after LeBell and LeBell understandably unwilling to trade with the boxer. The few times the pair locked up in the clinch, LeBell managed to throw Savage to the floor even though "he had grease all over his body where you couldn't grab," LeBell alleged.

In the fourth round, LeBell tossed Savage to his back and soon had control of the boxer from behind, locking in a choke and making good on his promise from the night before, when, in promotion of the event, LeBell unmercifully strangled a sportscaster on air and dropped him to the floor. The referee, a local doctor, didn't know how to react as Savage lay on the mat, out cold, for what reports at the time suggested was nearly 20 minutes. Eventually, LeBell's teacher came into the ring to revive the boxer. By that time, the arena was angry and chairs and cushions started to fly.

"When I stepped out of the ring, one guy tried to stab me," LeBell said. "I half-parried it and got by him. I kept on going but it went through me. It was a pretty big knife."

Emotions aren't expected to reach that sort of fevered pitch when Toney (72-6-3 in boxing, 0-0 in MMA) meets Couture (18-10). Both men say they're representing themselves more than their respective sports, but it's unlikely many observers will feel the same.

"I don't know a mixed martial artist out there that isn't training in some form of boxing at some time during their training cycle," Couture said. "I don't know why there has to be the animosity between boxers and MMA. I don't think it needs to be there. We both have mutual respect for our respective sports."

Yet some people, like Jim Beck, will continue to debate which is superior. Which is more pure.

"Well, if you ask me, cause I done 'em both, it's the combination," LeBell said. "If you're a boxer, you better know how to sprawl if someone comes in to tackle you. If you're a wrestler, you better know how to bob or weave or block or move around so he doesn't hit you."

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