The 27-year-old, who sports a trendy beard and an obligatory singlet from the gym’s range, parks his motorbike in front of the facility’s health-conscious café. The bike is fitted with a surf rack with two puppies, Chewy and Ollie, in tow.
Upon first glance, Leone does not look any different from the hundreds of other young foreigners vacationing, enjoying life, or ‘figuring it out’ in Canggu, a part of Bali famous for its ocean breaks, surf bars, and hip crowds. Yet, he is not your typical tourist.
The American runs two of the most prominent gyms in Indonesia, Bali MMA and Jakarta Muay Thai & MMA. He holds a professional mixed martial arts record of 8-2. Most impressively, Leone is scheduled to challenge ONE Bantamweight World Champion Bibiano “The Flash” Fernandes (20-3) for the title on Saturday, 5 August at ONE: KINGS AND CONQUERORS in Macao.
However, there was once a time when Leone was just like many of the other young foreigners in Bali trying to find themselves.
Wrestling With Waves
Leone may be preparing for the biggest match of his career in a funky, graffiti-decorated gym in beautiful Bali, but his journey to ONE Championship started halfway across the globe on the sandy shores of Long Island, New York.
Along with his older brother Anthony, who also competes and co-owns Bali MMA, they grew up in a hamlet called Center Moriches. “We lived right next to the water, about 200 yards from the bay where the boats were,” he recalls.
Naturally, he and his neighborhood buddies took advantage of their proximity to the beach. “I had some close friends,” he continues. “Two of them took us out surfing with their families when I was about 14 years old.”
The Leone brothers were quickly hooked, and surfed every chance they could get. Not even the frigid Northeast winters could stop them. “We would put on 5 millimetre wetsuits, boots and gloves, and sometimes head to the ocean when there was snow on the ground.”
Surfing was one of their shared passions. The other was wrestling.
Although Leone started training in the sport when he was 5 years old, he took it more seriously when he was 12, and would spend a couple of summers away from Long Island’s south shore for the landlocked Midwest, where the most prestigious wrestling camps were held. Those summer camps away from home paid off, as he became a two-time All-State wrestler, and received a partial scholarship to Missouri Valley College in 2008.
Nearly a year and a half into his collegiate studies, however, he wanted a change. “It was a great opportunity, but in the end, I dropped out,” he confesses.
Leone tried transferring to another school, but couldn’t. At the same time, he lost interest in pure wrestling. Much like his brother, he was more enthralled by mixed martial arts, and even participated in a couple of unsanctioned bouts in New York.
The Asian Connection
That led to the start of his grand plan. He saved US$2000 and relocated to Bangkok, Thailand, to embark on a true martial arts adventure. The American’s inspiration for the leap of faith came from his brother, who was training with the famed BJ Penn and experiencing success on the North American scene, and a booked called A Fighter’s Heart: One Man’s Journey Through The World Of Fighting.
“It was about a guy who travelled the world to learn different martial arts,” Leone says. “He went to Brazil to learn jiu-jitsu and to Thailand to master Muay Thai.”
Just like his brother and the book author, it was time for his martial arts journey to take shape.
In 2010, Leone arrived in Bangkok, where he taught English and wrestling for a year and a half. From there, he moved to Singapore for a year, where he coached the Singapore national wrestling team and headed the wrestling program at Juggernaut Fight Club. Eventually, that led him to Phuket Top Team in 2012, where he was reunited with his brother.
Despite experiencing some homesickness, he adjusted to life in Asia quite well, mainly thanks to the internet. “It is not like twenty or thirty years ago, when you hop on a plane and say goodbye to people, not knowing when you can talk to them again,” he explains. “Now, we can stay connected easily.”
Leone was also making a name for himself on the Asian circuit.
Following a loss in his professional mixed martial arts debut at the third Martial Combat show, he bounced back strongly by winning five consecutive matches. Of note, he defeated the previously unbeaten, and future inaugural ONE Bantamweight World Champion, Soo Chul Kim.
Soon, he was contacted by his old Martial Combat promoter Victor Cui, who had launched ONE Championship. He was offered a contract to compete, and made a thunderous promotional debut by decisioning Geje “Gravity” Eustaquio in May 2013. He followed that up with another unanimous decision win over Shinichi Kojima ten months later, and turned his attention to another life goal.
Bringing A Dream To Life
In the summer of 2014, Leone grew as a businessman. He and his brother previously had a partnership in Jakarta Muay Thai & MMA, but they began to focus on their dream project, that being Bali MMA. Having lived and trained in Thailand, the center of combat sports tourism, the Leones realized that they too could enjoy a lifestyle of training, surfing, and owning a business in the tropics.
Along with their partners Steve Suryadinata and Don Carlo-Claus, they took over a former warehouse in Canggu, set up a ring, hung heavy bags, and matted a room for jiu-jitsu and mixed martial arts training. By October, Bali MMA opened its doors.
With his dream gym up-and-running, it was time for him to refocus on his dreams of becoming a world champion. Following a two-year absence, he had his first official training camp in Bali MMA, and then returned to competition at ONE: TRIBE OF WARRIORS in February 2016. He would prove successful with a unanimous decision win over former Shooto Featherweight Champion Koetsu Okazaki.
“I was nervous,” he begins, “but confident at the same time after a fight camp in my own gym. There are so many tough guys on the mats here, and tons of high level strikers and mixed martial artists. I had no reason to go anywhere else.”
Now recovered from a debilitating back injury, he will attempt to become the ONE Bantamweight World Champion when he meets reigning kingpin Fernandes at ONE: KINGS AND CONQUERORS, live on 5 August from the Cotai Arena in Macao.
As he enters Bali MMA with Chewy and Ollie in tow, Leone has a firm grasp on his goals moving forward.
“I want to keep doing what I am doing right now, and continue to grow, and help reach all of our team’s goals in professional competition and in life. I am undefeated in the ONE cage, and I plan to keep my record like that. It is all about winning fights, not losing fights,” he says. “After I win the world title, I plan on defending it many times, and staying in ONE till the end of my career.”
More than 10 years later, it sounds like Leone has it all figured out.