Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Sunday, September 11, 2022

Gene LaBell and Donn Draeger

Over at Ellis Amdur's wonderful Kogen Budo blog, there was a guest post by author Mark Jabobs on the relationship between the legendary martial artists Gene LaBell and Donn Draeger. Below is an excerpt. The full post may be read here. Ellis Amdur's many books may be ordered here.

Some time ago, Ellis Amdur asked me if I’d be interested in contributing a guest post for the site. Knowing of my friendship with the renowned grappling expert, “Judo” Gene LeBell, and aware of Gene’s past relationship with the famed budoka, Donn Draeger, Ellis thought I might be able to offer some of Gene’s recollections to provide a different-than-usual take on Draeger, and the martial arts of a bygone era.

While Gene’s memory for details has faded a bit with time, I’ve had a number of extensive conversations with him in the past for various magazine articles, not to mention an aborted collaboration on his first attempt at an autobiography years ago. So I’m probably as qualified as anyone to share his impressions on these matters.

As far as Draeger goes, Gene always spoke very highly of him. “A great judo man” and “the best with weapons” was how he described Draeger to me on one occasion, opinions which probably won’t surprise anyone familiar with Draeger’s career in the martial arts. A generation older than Gene, Draeger came out of that pre-war school of judo which the early Japanese instructors in the West employed. My sense of that type of judo, both from talking to Gene and my own research, is that it was a somewhat more combative style, one laced with a bit more groundwork than would come to be the norm in the postwar years. That’s the style Gene appreciated, and I think he respected that “hardcore” approach in Draeger’s style.

The admiration was apparently a two-way street as Draeger expressed his respect for LeBell’s skills in letters to his longtime collaborator, Robert W. Smith. On one occasion, when Gene was scheduled to come into Tokyo to referee the infamous boxer vs. wrestler match-up between Muhammad Ali and Antonio Inoki, Draeger wrote to Smith that, while he thought the bout itself would be a farce, he was looking forward to getting a chance to visit with LeBell.

Draeger went so far as to offer the opinion that the best man in the ring that night would be Gene, who could take either of the two headliners in a fight. As an interesting aside, one of Inoki’s cornermen for the match was legendary catch wrestler, Karl Gotch, known in Japanese pro wrestling circles as Kamirasu, “the god of wrestling.” Years earlier, Gotch had been one of Gene’s main grappling coaches and, while Draeger thought Gene could take either Ali or Inoki in a fight, Gene once commented to me that what no one watching the match realized was Inoki’s cornerman, Gotch, could have taken both men at the same time!


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