• 11/28/2009 (9:11:59 pm)
  • Mike Lano

Looking Back On Lebell
Photos and Text By Dr Mike Lano

I just received a ton of sad phone calls that my former longtime promoter boss from '66 to '82, and our area pro-wrestling promoter for the entire So. California wrestling territory, Mike LeBell passed away Tuesday afternoon, 11/24/09 at 3:50p.m. PDT of apparent respiratory failure in Los Angeles. Mike had been hospitalized a few times this year for lung and heart problems and emailed me last spring that he'd been in ill health and "just didn't feel that great."  He wasn't able to take his daily walk the way he always said he enjoyed doing to get out in the sun.

Mike expanded upon the famous Southern California
Hollywood Wrestling Office he inherited not long after his legendary stepfather Cal Eaton's passing.  He began expanding the SoCal cities to include places like El Monte, San Bernardino, Bakersfield, Devonshire Downs, now weekly in San Diego, Wednesdays and Fridays at the Olympic Auditorium, Saturdays until 1974 at the Hollywood KCOP tv channel 13 studios(after losing the much stronger KTLA channel 5 in 1970) to include forays into Northern California in the late 70's and early 80's that further strained relationships with Roy Shire's Big Time Wrestling Promotion up there and even into Reno and Las Vegas the minute Roy closed up shop in January 1982.

Mike also helped do most of the promoting legwork with his mother Aileen for their boxing promotion.  "That was more my passion.  I know Bruno(Sammartino) said on your show that he felt I didn't care much for the wrestling end of things and in a certain way,  he was right.  My passion was with our bigger industry, our boxing promotion, certainly"  Mike said on my show in 1999.

Mike promoted wrestling in California and beyond, during America's more-recent "Golden Age" of wrestling from the early 60's through its demise in 1982 when he closed up shop and "sold" the Southern California territory to Vince McMahon Jr in December of that year. Lebell was 79 years old and he's survived by his brother Judo Gene Lebell and Gene's son David and David's kids. Services are pending.

I was one of the Lebell familiy promotion's program photographers for many years until he closed the famous "Hollywood Wrestling Office" housed out of the famous 1932 Olympic Auditorium's second floor in a sort of Disneyesque, secret location which was gutted when the more recent Olympic owners, the Needleman Brothers gutted the place and reconfigured the seating plan and layout in 1991, primarily to rent the old girl out for movie and tv location shoots like Batman, etc.

Mike and others of us could barely recognize the Olympic Auditorium after all the changes, the taking down of it's famous phone number sign(RI9-5171) which was incessantly plugged as Richmond-9, 5171 for buying tickets to wrestling, boxing and roller derby.  When Mike's Wednesday Hispanic tv version(ala what Paul Boesch was doing with two weekly tv shows in Houston) was syndicated all over the U.S. on SIN,  even the RI9-5171 endless promotion was bored into Dave Meltzer's head, and that of others across North America.

When Cal Eaton died sometime in 1967 after dismantling his long-standing WWA promotion and accepting membership in the NWA capped with the world title vs world title one hour broadway at the Olympic of Bobo Brazil(WWA world champ) versus Gene Kiniski(NWA World Champ) which people still talk about today as a great matchup with tremendous effort by both to make the title unification match special. Although a broadway, the WWA title was dropped, the NWA belt was recognized as the only world title in SoCal(although Lebell in '78 would switch allegiance to WWWF and recognize that as the "true world's title") and Mike instead created a few months later the America's singles and tag titles to replace those under the WWA.  It was one of wrestling's great "phantom titles" with the lore that it had existed as a championship for years in Argentina, with Pampero Firpo the "very first champion beating Colosso Colosetti in 1966" in a final and totally fictitious championship-creating tourny match although Colosetti admitted to me he didn't even start wrestling until years later and never was involved in it, as Firpo also verified to me in 1974 when he actually debuted for Lebell).  The America's singles and tag titles were in fact just created out of thin air to replace the defunct WWA belts.  No harm, no foul tho. This was pro wrestling and you could tell the fans anything when the situation warranted it.

Of note and I talked about this at length with Mike was San Francisco promoter Roy Shire, not to be outdone,  soon after the lauded Kiniski/Brazil title unif bout, had his own attempt at a title unification bout. He had his own champ, Ray Stevens putting the title up against that of WWWF champ Bruno Sammartino billed as "U.S. Title vs World's Title, winner take all" soon after the WWA/NWA match in Los Angeles.  Ray actually won the match but not the WWWF belt, when Bruno was counted out in the first of their two bouts. The second, a broadway draw.

Under Mike's reign, but actually primarily inherited from his stepfather, legendary Cal Eaton,  Mike promoted KCOP tv studios every Saturday from 6-7:30 pm for later broadcast at the old Fairfax location near Hollywood Blvd.  The show was hosted by Dick Lane until a contract dispute with Mike over salary which saw Lane walk in October of 1973 to be replaced by longtime "locker room" interviewer, Gene Lebell.  8 months later, KCOP axed the deal after Mike allegedly, continually violated their new edict telling him to tone down the plugs for all the spot shows.  When Greg Valentine pushed his loser leaves town match at the Olympic with John Tolos "one too many times" as Mike put it on my radio show on March 26, 2000;  KCOP kicked him out.  Mike was forced to rely only on his all-Spanish weekly tv show Wednesdays from the Olympic.  Hosted by Miguel Alonzo and boxing expert Luis Magana,  the interviews were done by either Miguel, Luis, Gene Lebell, Jeff Walton or "at times even the world's greatest ring announcer, Jimmy Lennon if we were shorthanded!"

Mike's true golden period(primarily 1967-1974) was basically when he took over the well-oiled machine from Cal(as appointed by his mom Aileen who was just too busy to promote the wrestling, as the more lucrative and respectable boxing promotion took all her time.  She's in many boxing halls of fame, and her amazing life was the basis of several boxing movies, the most famous starring Meg Ryan loosely based on Aileen's managerial life before actually and fully promoting boxing Thursdays at the Olympic).

Mike of course went to war in '68 and early '69 with Verne Gagne who partnered with Fabulous Forum multi-millionaire famous owner Jack Kent Cooke(who owned the L.A. Lakers NBA team, the NHL Kings hockey team, the Washington Redskins NFL team, etc). 

"Jack had personally been snubbed reportedly by Mike when he wanted to borrow some of my wrestlers for something he was doing outside of L.A.  Or he took it as a snub, and then when we didn't want to join him on boxing ventures, he became angry with us, or me personally. I've heard he sought out Verne Gagne and the AWA,  and promoted just a few shows at the nearby Forum, right off the San Diego and Harbor Freeways.  Mind you, we were just off the Santa Monica and Harbor Freeways at the Olympic.  Another thing I'm going to break here is that despite even the boys thinking we "owned" the Olympic Auditorium, it was no such thing.  We had a sweet deal with the city for multiple years, and just rented the Olympic as primary tenants for our wrestling and boxing shows, tv tapings and we'd get income back from renting out to Bill Griffiths and his roller games,"  Mike told me on one of his two appearances on my old CRN radio show. 

"So Verne loaded up his cards with AWA stars, but we contacted Sam who although he was later friendly with Verne, at this time decided to throw his weight to help us out. We were sent stars from all over to load up our shows the night before each of Verne's shows and trounced him.  Although he had good shows, better than what he might've been promoting in the midwest, he barely drew flies and we won that war."

Verne's first show saw him defend the AWA title vs Dick the Bruiser, co-mained by Lou Thesz vs Larry Hennig along with the Vachons, Crusher, Blackjack Lanza and other stars.  Mike's opening match the night before advertised Don Leo Jonathon and Prince Iaukea vs Ray Stevens and Pat Patteson.  "How was that for an opening match?!  Each of our matches to battle Verne really could've been main events anywhere else in the world.  We had Blassie taking on Dory Funk for the NWA title, Mascaras vs Gordman and also Bull Ramos in mask vs hair matches, Dory Funk Sr and Terry Funk teaming up, Fabulous Moolah defending her women's title, Paul Jones and Nelson Royal coming in to team, Danny Hodge, you name it.  Sam and several NWA promoters sent us a lot of stars. Even Lonnie Mayne came down from Don Owen.  The Assassins from the south which was my first time meeting Tom Renesto, who'd later become my booker in the late 70's."

While Renesto was always viewed as a nice guy and great to be around, many questioned Lebell picking him to book and run things, particularly after all the many years of Los Angeles version of the "Golddust Twins" in booking legends Jules Strongbow and Charlie "Mr" Moto.   Strongbow originally was the far more successful promoter in the Hollywood/Los Angeles area in the 50's until reaching "an arrangement" to come book and partner with Cal Eaton and Sandor Szabo(who at the time, was booking Lou Thesz around the country. Lou home-based out of L.A. for much of 1960-1961 until some disagreements with Eaton) and then base the entirely new "Hollywood/Los Angeles Wrestling Office" out of Cal's building, the Olympic Auditorium.  For years, Strongbow was doing Vince Jr before Vince, booking and promoting while portraying himself as simply the locker room interviewer on his Long Beach Arena and Hollywood pro wrestling shows, syndicated around the U.S. and Canada until 1960.   Strongbow pushed Blassie and Charlie Moto(until Moto's official and final ring retirement in 1964 when he began helping Jules run and book the office and full territory for Cal).  Blassie felt he was getting stale and at times during Cal's tenure "which was a love/hate relationship like I'd later have with his stepson Mike" Blassie told me;  he'd hiatus and work for Vince Sr and throughout his beloved Southeast.  "Sometimes, as successful as I was in Southern California, I'd have to get away. Any time I'd come back, business would soon pick up as it was the NEW Blassie," he said on my show.

When Aileen had her son from a previous marriage(Mike) fully promote the wrestling, there were a few bumpy years until that famous L.A. promotional war with Verne Gagne.  Some shows sold out, some didn't with Buddy "Killer" Austin on top if Blassie was away.  Destroyer who'd been a Cal Eaton mainstay, didn't work much for Mike Lebell, "instead only doing spots here and there when I was going or coming from Japan," Dick told me a few years back.  The famous albeit brief feud with Bearcat Wright in 1971 which was a throwback to Bearcat refusing to drop the WWA belt to Blassie until Cal and Mike sent office policeman Gene after him post-show in the Olympic Aud parking lot.  Then the too-brief legendary teaming of Destroyer with John Tolos who donned his "Golden Mask" in fall of 1971.  Destroyer's last show for Lebell was two cards in January 1973 to set up past sell-out glory and a renewed feud with Fred Blassie(who Destroyer "cost" winning that year's battle royal).

The L.A. office began experiencing problems, growing pains, etc when longtime stars Blassie and Tolos were vocally disgruntled with their historic L.A. Coliseum paydays in August of '71.  Blassie wanted to leave in the worst way he said, and later that year accepted Vince Sr's offer to move back and work permanently for WWWF.  Blassie had his notable title feud the next year with Pedro Morales and soon the great pairing of him and Lonnie Mayne as a colorful WWWF team, managed by Lou Albano.  Tolos was turned face, drawing record crowds and a renewed partnership with Baba and All Japan wrestling that resulted in a great grudgematch on the last Olympic Aud show of 1971, pitting Tolos and "new friend" Giant Baba against the ultimate tag team heels in Kenji Shibuya and Massa Saito.  In 1972, when Tolos wanted also to get away allegedly from Lebell over monetary issues and "lack of proper pay,"  Lebell renewed a friendship with Vince McMahon Sr that later in the decade would result in the figurehead position on paper of being "WWWF V.P" replacing Willie Gilzenberg's name.  That title was scraped when Senior was convinced to shorted the name to WWF and join the NWA.  Soon, Shinma Sr was named WWF VP.  But the McMahon Sr/Lebell/NJPW connection became great as Inoki would send talent to Lebell to finesse them for appearing in MSG, McMahon would send names and acquisitions like Judo champ Allen Coage to train for pro with Gene Lebell in L.A. before using him in WWWF/WWF or sending him to Inoki, with favors flying all over.  Lebell in 1971 and 1972 had worked from a Japan standpoint, primarily with Baba and the JPW office putting the UN National belt on Inoki twice at the Olympic(once vs Tolos, once vs the first Dan
King Krow
Kroffat) and telling Los Angeles fans that any show involving Japanese wrestlers was "being beamed back live to Japan tv."  In truth, the shows were taped and shown in Japan at a later time after post-production.

The last full-fledged Baba/Mike Lebell show was in spring of 1972, with "ticket prices will be raised from $5 to $7.50 for this magnicent card beamed back live to Japan," Mike would intone.  You'd know as a fan it was something special, when Mike would come on tv, standing next to the printed or lettered ad board signs showing all the matches, hyping and shilling it like "it was the second coming."
That card's maine vent saw Baba and Sakaguchi beat the Funks for "the Int'l Tag Team titles," Chris Tolos pin Superstar Graham with John Tolos as ref, Goliath beat Black Gordman in the Blassie Cage in the "Who's the Boss? Match, Killer Kowalski drew Nick Bockwinkel in the opener as Nick was h eading to Hawaii and J apan,  Dory Dixon lost to Fritz Von Goring and more.

Later in 1973 and beyond,  the few times Mike would come on camera to hype his next "big show a week from this Friday night at the Olympic, call RI9-5171 to get your tickets and ticket prices are up to $7.50 for this special international card with talent flying in from all over the world," but that was with Inoki's NJPW office.  For example, the "world tournament" of 1974 "beamed live back to Japan" with Inoki and Sakaguchi(who left Baba for Inoki) beating Pat Patterson and Johnny Powers reffed by Joe Lewis on top.  Killer Tim Brooks in his only L.A. match headed to Japan, drawing fellow heel in Butcher Brannigan,  Pork Chop drawing Victor Rivera, Tolos under the hood as Mr California teamed with Black Gordman losing the America's Tag Titles to the original Dr Wagner and Angel Blanco from CMLL,  and Pampero Firpo debuting as a tremendous babyface, getting the El Garfio claw submission from a departing Ernie Ladd to take the Ameica's title.

Business behind the scenes and crowd-wise began a slow descent.  Strongbow and Moto were gone as bookers,  and a variety were tried(even Tolos briefly but John said he hated booking) until Atlanta genius Leo Garabaldi came in to replace the horrendous booking of Louie Tillet.  Louie was well-liked until he began putting himself on tv as an actual wrestler, looking like a late 50's old poor imitation of Blassie when the ever-growing Hispanic Southern California crowds were clamoring for someone younger and more credible in the ring.  Tillet had gone from simply replacing Jeff Walton in the fictitious on-camera role as "NWA representative,"  to America's champion beating Tolos, Greg Valentine, Choi Sun and others as crowds dwindled in mid 1975 and he got the ax to be replaced with fellow southern booking mind and star, Leo Garabaldi.

Leo was far more accomplished and did wonders in 1975(improving the locker room atmosphere), slowly debuting Chavo Guerrero, then his dad Gory, then Mando and finally Hector; creating the entire gimmick for Piper who'd originally debuted at the January 1976 battle royal as a babyface drawing Tony Rocco in a singles "scientific" match and more;  but he brought in too many of his Southeast cronies who just didn't draw well.  For example, JC Dykes and the Infernos turned in dismal attendance numbers, replacing the Hollywood Blondes and Humperdinks as area top tag heels against the likes of new babyface duos like Black Gordman and Great Goliath, Don Muraco and Larry Zbysko, etc.  Things just weren't working, Mike was reportedly cutting pay even more, and many fans lamented that "tv jobbers elsewhere like WWWF are coming in here and they're making them champs.  Like Porkchop Cash(Al Nelson, Bobby Cash), Butcher Brannigan(Joe Nova), SD Jones, Tom Jones(who Leo G had brought in), Fabulous Frank Monte, Hippie Beastman Mike Boyette, Blackjack Slade,  etc.

But the fan perception beginning in spring of 1975 with the departing Tolos, Firpo and yes, the great Ed Carpentier; was that Lebell was devoid of stars. Sure, Tolos would come back for several months to help out; but just the thought of megastars like Tolos and Blassie being permanently replaced in the fans minds with Piper and Guerrero cost the office.  Ticket prices were often lowered and to try to make more money, the once every-other biggest cards of the region at the  MSG of Los Angeles(The Olympic Aud)went from every other Friday, to every Friday.

Many regard 1974 as Lebell's last star-studded era for his wrestling office as the Sheik took over the book briefly and brought in a wealth of his talent, plus that from Montreal that Louie Tillet was bringing in.  From Sheik came Firpo, Mighty Igor, the Canadian Wolfman, etc.  Tillet had preceded Leo Garabaldi, and brought in the Hollywood Blondes, Dino Bravo and others.   Even Bobby Shane, before his death, made a pass thru L.A. as a great heel for tv.

With the loss of the English tv version to promote shows in KCOP axing Lebell and his wrestling, and only the weekly primarily-Hispanic "Lucha Libre Shows" on KMEX syndicated on SIN(the Spanish Int'l Network) to promote them,  Lebell began using primarily Hispanic stars from Mexico as he'd first done in bringing in Mil Mascaras in 1967.  By the end of the 70's and early 80's, and briefly losing the Olympic Aud and his sweet/cheap L.A. County deal there and being forced to instead pay far more to promote at the costly L.A. Sports Arena, it was said he brought in great lucha stars who weren't quite perceived as "names," but worked for far less interspersed with greenies like Walter Johnson who the Sheik would send to Lebell to allegedly get seasoned.  The shows had Ringo Mendoza, the Brasos, a returning Sicodelico, Mascaras maybe every other year when Lebell "could afford him, I made him a star around the U.S. and now he wanted far more money from me and wasn't very grateful. I brought Mil in when I could, because he would help our crowds which were dwindling at the time in 1981 and 1982 until we just sold the territory to Vince."    This was the earliest piece of the puzzle in Vince Jr's planned expansion and Mike said he was told he'd be the permanent Southern California promoter for WWF.  That only lasted a few years, until the full national expansion however and Mike was axed out of the picture, according to him.

He later founded Mike Lebell Video and reportedly sold dubbed-onto-VHS old movies(public domain and otherwise), sports events and even adult videos-all out of his garage.  "We began teasing him about it," Red Bastien told me in 1991. "He went from promoting boxing and wrestling, and was a big time promoter, attending many of Sam Muchnick's annual NWA meetings in Vegas to selling dubbed movies and things he had no rights to.  But we stayed good friends and we used to rib him.  He and Gene stopped getting along, and began feuding soon after Mike sold the officed to Vince Jr."

Many have emailed me their thoughts on Mike's passing since yesterday;  from his brother Gene(who's doing my radio show tonight to talk about his "difficult" promoter brother), Gene's son Dave, Frank Monte, and many of Mike's workers from the late 70's on including Bill Anderson, Jesse Hernandez and others who mourn Mike's passing so soon after we all lost the great John Tolos who really made Mike Lebell a fortune, and at many times in our promotion's history, literally save the office according to those inside and the boys as well.  That's why John claimed it hurt him "deep to the gut" that he felt Mike at times slighted him on owed pay.  Well, Blassie, Sheik, Lonnie Mayne and many others felt the same way.  Piper a few years back was more philosophical.  "Working in Los Angeles and for Mike Lebell really helped put me on the map. Didn't make much money, doncha know and I think he still owes me some.  But it was my first big territory for any period of major time that helped when I got to San Francisco, Portland and Charlotte and Atlanta.  I really became a star there working with the entire Guerrero family, Tolos and so many others; with a lot of help from Leo Garabaldi who was one of my second fathers like Don Owen.  Lebell's office sent me for my first appearance at Madison Square Garden and it was a big deal. Although the stories I'll tell you again about Blassie and Albano are another thing there and why I didn't go back East for a few years!  But working for Lebell sure got me in the magazines for the first time, and helped my career."

I want to point out how successful Mike Lebell was for long periods of time, and at least prior to 1974, with tremendous international talent.  He helped make Mil Mascaras a household name everywhere with his very first territory outside of Mexico in ours(Los Angeles) which catapulted Mil to legendary status in Japan as well as globally.  Blassie turning, the cage wars with Sheik, the legendary feud between Fred and John, the battles behind the scenes with Millie Burke and those front and center with Cooke and Gagne.  And so much more.  Whether it was by Scroogian design or no, no-name green talent often blossomed in Lebell's world and went on to later greatness.  Turns meant something in L.A., with those of Blassie, Tolos, Gordman and Goliath, Shibuya and Saito, Victor Rivera, even Pampero Firpo all creating box office.  It may not have been as athletic a territory as say St Louis or in Eddie Graham Florida; but it was all we had and we loved it.  The greatest tv announcer(Dick Lane). The greatest ring announcer(Jimmy Lennon Sr).  The greatest booking genuises in Jules Strongbow and Charlie Moto.  And the great promos and feuds ever in Tolos/Blassie, Sheik/Brazil.  And anything and any time Ernie Ladd came in with his crown.  Those memories offset the less positive ones of the "fan from the stands attacking Maniac Tolos" in Porkchop Cash, Andre tearing off the mask of the "Living Frankenstein Monster,"  or attempting to replace true legends with no names who'd agree to work for less.  Or the incidiary apartments the boys were put in, in Santa Monica.  At least they were near the ocean!

While American promoters usually always have their good and bad qualities(unless someone is as universally respected as a Paul Boesch or Sam Muchnick(although in reality, Sam was regarded by his sportswriting/non-wrestling peers as a very smart but cagey, tough businessman totally in contrast to his Saintly rep in our industry, particularly as he got older)  Mike Lebell had his good and his well, otherwise traits.  He was very successful for many years and for certain periods of time within not so successful(or as we called them "lean") years.  Repeat sellout and near-sellout crowds made him a millionaire in the 70's.  And he didn't even have to bury his loot to hide it from a wife discovering a picadillo, as did someone North of him admitted to doing.  We all know of the temerous relationship between Mike and Roy.  Mike would genuflect to him in person, but on a few occasions behind the scenes,  would pull shenanigans.

Bruno Sammartino and others have been candid about their thoughts that Mike may not have loved or respected the wrestling business that made him wealthy and successful.  Bruno said he felt this upon his return to our territory after his historic debut in L.A. in January of 1972.   That night as I shot ringside, Bruno blew the people away putting on the greatest L.A. Battle Royal event ever that night in January of 1972(bearhugging Ripper Collins for the win, but also defeating Kenji Shibuya in a great singles match).  It would be the only time for example, Bruno put hands on Mil Mascaras in the ring during that 22 man mega event, which was always the last match on the show. I remember Mike always asking when I'd fly up to shoot Shire's 18 man royals days after his own, why Shire put his battle royal on as the first match which struck him and others as odd.

I told him Roy told me if someone was on their way
to Japan, and they were just doing him a brief favor to simply just appear in the the royal only and then split; Shire could tell the ring announcer to tell the people that guys' advertised singles match was cancelled by the ring doctors because he was insured in the battle royal. Which allowed said talent to in truth, hop the next flight to Honolulu or Narita Airport from nearby SFO.

Bruno (in L.A. storylines) returned in March of '72 to "help out his friend Fred Blassie after Killer Kowalski broke Blassie's leg" on KMEX tv, cancelling their match(Fred had to bail, because Baba was calling him to Japan for an emergency backup as talent). Brune had his incredible 45 minute broadway with Walter, and in the d.r., Bruno proudly asked Mike if he'd seen his match and
wasn't it incredible

To Bruno and Walter's dismay, Mike said he hadn't bothered to watch the match and typically never watched his own card.  That he had more important things to do.  Bruno said we really had the people, aren't we coming back with me taking on Walter in a rematch with some stips?  Mike said no, he was moving Bruno vs Sheik and Tolos vs Kowalski.  Bruno said if he as a promoter had such little interest in watching and studying his main events, with no logical follow-up which would sell the place out, then he wouldn't be back nor ever work for him again.  And he never did which was something Mike would later regret.  Before Bruno camed back at Vince Sr's urging to have the title put back on h im 12/10/73 at MSG; Bruno set all sorts of records in Atlanta(for Annie Gunkel), all over Bruiser's WWA, in Montreal of course, a few shots for Tunney, and of course in Puerto Rico, So America and Japan.  Even doing a few 6 mans for Roy Shire teaming with his friends Rocky Johnson(who Bruno said begged him to help him get into WWWF) and Pepper Gomez.  Rocky reportedly told him that he was "finally tired of low California paydays from Shire and Lebell!"

So whether Mike loved or had a passion for the biz is up for debate.  But the many incredible matches, the years of sellouts at not just the primary venue in the Olympic Auditorium, but all over his empire are not. He was a promoter(and yes, he had the best bookers all the years he had the duo of Strongbow and Moto). 

But Lebell was also innovative in being wrestling's first promoter to not just run outdoors inthe modern era(which McMahon Sr would soon follow suit with Bruno/Pedro at the very first Shea Stadium spectacular influenced by Lebell;  but was the first wrestling promoter to put his matches on closed-circuit screens in many movie theatres and buildings in SoCal when the Olympic was sold out for Tolos-Blassie, Tolos-Mascaras, Tolos-Rocky Johnson, etc.  The annual L.A. battle royals up through 1976 were always assured sellouts besides nearly every Tolos-Blassie match. After years of big money with week after week of innovative matches between John and Fred; several years later it was repetitive big money with Chavo vs Roddy Piper.  One can't knock success, and for many years(despite or because of Mike) he made big money with huge crowds for ridiculously low rent money for the city and country at the venerable Olympic Auditorium.  And yes, while most of the boys prefered Gene over Mike;  they may not have always liked him, but they certainly respected him.  In person, he could be gruff and no-nonsense;   but there was a generous side of him too particularly at the holidays and around family.  He always was respectful in the presence of his mom, and deferential to legends Dick Lane and Jimmy Lennon(Sr) who he knew were his good will factors with his paying audience.

And he had the support of Southern Cal's #2 newspaper(to the L.A. Times), the L.A. Herald Examiner which printed not just the results of each Wednesday and Saturday's tv taping squashes, but also for every big Olympic Aud card.  And for disclosure, two of my uncles were founding editors of the Herald newspaper allowing me to do several unusual shoot interviews at the time with Mike, Lane and Lennon Sr in 1973.  Along with Tolos and Blassie.  Lebell was also a primo beneficiary of talent influxes, primarily in the 70's, with boys coming and going from Japan and Ed Francis' Honolulu doing one shots in L.A.  Lebell will also be remembered on the other end for allegedly screwing over Johnny Valentine on the book in '73.  The only reason respected wrestling mind Johnny had even agreed to come in was because he claimed Mike promised him he'd be sole booker for the circuit, the first to replace departing Jules and Charlie.  Johnny came in and did KCOP tv(defeating Mando Lopez in a squash but wowing the crowd as a killer heel opponent for Tolos) and that Mike reassured him when he came back in a week from doing a brief tour for Inoki that he'd turn over everything to him.  Instead, he claimed he was halfway thru the NJPW tour when he said Tolos phoned him and said Mike had changed his mind and that he might feel he'd been double-crossed.  JV called M ike and after hemming and hawing, Mike said he decided to go a different way with the book.  After weeks of promoting Johnny as "Cowboy Rocky Valentine" to challenge Tolos and rekindle their Houston feud, Johnny said that he told Mike to stick it up his a--, and he called Charlotte where he was offered the book instead. He took that job, and made history.   ANd unfortunately, we got stuck with the first in a series of crappy bookers in Louie Tillet.  Mind you Louie was a sweet guy, he just didn't understand Los Angeles.  Leo Garabaldi was  a genuis, but said Chavo and his dad were constantly after him, micromanaging and trying to do their own thing to where he left. Then Tom Renesto came in and nearly destroyed the territory with horrendous booking.  Why no one warned our L.A. office that Tom was allegedly the Trojan Horse "rat" sent by the Atlanta NWA office to double-agent/double cross  Ann Gunkle in that city's promotional and territory war is still mind-boggling. 

Actually our once great Los Angeles/Hollywood Wrestling Office died a long, slow death from 1974 until '82 when Mike shut down and sold it.  Unlike Shire who retired the same year,  at least Mike wisely got some money for is circuit.  And sure at times there were brief, shining moments like anytime Fujinami or Backlund came to town.  Or Inoki, Sakaguchi, Chosu, spectacular Alex Wright, Mil, Sheik, Firpo, Blassie's occasional visits to L.A. family and friends, or Chris Adams very first American territory.  We won't even get into the infamous Frankenstein monster year.  Or Pete Collins or Renestro trying to manage.  At the bitter end when the office was closed, if memory serves; Gene Lebell turned heel on Peter Maivia to take the America's title and I believe he was our last America's champ.  Oh well.  I still remember the riots, the sellout crowds, the Black(Josephine Gerr) and Hispanic(Rosie) ladies sitting at ringside, waving their rubber chickens.  Our deaf-mute timekeeper at the bell...Jack Smith.  Jimmy Lennon announcing anything in that remarkable, beautiful voice of his.  African-American longtime Lebell fan at KCOP Nellie Roades who if legend serves, is where Dick Lane came up with his catchphraise "Whoa Nellie!" years before ABC's Keith Jackson stole it for college football.  Mike Lebell indeed left wrestling with some kind of legacy and magic.  Even if unintended serendipity.

Valentine's comments were from my many 80's taped interviews with him for my planned book(
RIB: The Johnny Valentine Story)
from hours of tape actually.

The author and syndicated radio host Mike Lano(who's shot and written about wrestling since 1966 for the newstand magazines)
received calls on Tuesday Nov. 24, 2009 that Mike LeBell had indeed passed away at 3:50 PM PDT of an apparent respiratory failure in Los Angeles.   A post-mortem reportedly is being done to determine exact cause of death(but again, Mike had complained to me about his lungs and heart acting up after many years of smoking like his friend, Vince Sr).  Mike Lebell was 79 years old.  Mike's widow, Molly confirmed Mike Lebell "had cancer and for some time."  But It had only recently spread rapidly. He woke up Tuesday unable to move or speak and died at home hours later, and was cremated the next day.  At his own request there will be no service of any kind. To send a sympathy card to Molly or the family:

Mrs. Molly LeBell & Family
75 Fremont Place
Los Angeles, Calif 90005

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