By his own admission, Andrew Leone’s life in mixed martial arts seems a bit turned around.
While the MMA scene on Long Island thrives with former UFC champions and contenders using newfound fame to open gyms and build the sport locally, Center Moriches native Leone has remained abroad, building his own grassroots legacy — in Indonesia.
“We kind of got it backwards,” said Leone. “We got the gyms, now we’re fighting for the belts. Usually it goes in the other direction.”
Leone (8-2) will fight for the ONE Championship bantamweight title on Saturday, facing longtime champion Bibiano Fernandes (20-3) in Macao. Based in Singapore, ONE Championship has emerged as the top Asian MMA promotion since its founding in 2011, and it’s a fitting home for Leone. After wrestling in college, Leone moved to Thailand in 2009, spending some time in Singapore before settling in Phuket, Thailand, with his brother Anthony, also a professional fighter.
“We stayed there for like three years, we were training and coaching with a team called Phuket Top Team,” Leone said.
Eventually, Leone and his brother had a chance to become partners at a new gym in Jakarta, the capital and largest city in Indonesia. That led to a chance at opening a facility of their own.
“From there we saw an opportunity to open a facility in Bali and we kind of jumped on it,” Leone said. “The Jakarta gym has been open for about 3 ½ years, four years, and Bali has been open about 2 ½ years now, and it’s going good.”
Leone said the sport continues to grow across Southeast Asia, thanks to facilities like his and the efforts of ONE Championship.
“They’re doing really great things over here, growing grassroots heroes, really building up these different audiences. They go into Myanmar and Cambodia, they have a good market in the Philippines, they have a lot of fans in Singapore and Malaysia,” Leone said. “It kind of trickles into what we’re doing in Bali, too, because we have a lot of Malaysian fighters who do their camps with us that fight for ONE FC. We’ve got a lot of Indonesian fighters that are signed with ONE FC that fight on their local shows when they go to Jakarta and stuff. It’s pretty awesome, ONE FC is doing something special over here.”
Leone signed with the promotion in 2013, but has been in just three fights since, winning each time. He was scheduled to fight for his first title last August in a flyweight title bout against Adriano Moraes, but pulled out because of injuries to his lower back.
“After my last fight against Koetsu Okazaki last year, it was just a build up to having to take some time off. I really just spent six months stretching and doing yoga. We have a yoga program at our gym and I was in it every day, I wasn’t even training,” Leone said. “About a week or two before the fight, I was sparring and my legs went numb.”
Leone called the experience “scary.” After having some tests done, he looked to be headed for surgery, but he said a doctor in Bali with experience in back issues gave him a path to clean health without going under the knife.
“There’s rice farms everywhere in Indonesia, especially in Bali. There’s so many of these really old farmers with these permanent back issues from picking rice all the time, literally like folded tables,” Leone said. “So with his experience, he dealt with a lot of serious lower-back problems. He said, ‘In some other countries they’d tell you that you need surgery, but I’ve seen much worse. Do yoga, stretch.’ He gave me some B12, some other good tips, and he was right. It got better just with some consistency.”
Leone once again is confident in his body. He’s looking forward to getting back into the cage and competing again, but he doesn’t exactly enjoy getting into a brawl.
“There’s a lot of things to enjoy. I enjoy some good food. I enjoy hanging out with my buddies, drinking some beer. Fighting? You want the rewards. We’re all fighting for the rewards of the ‘W’ and it’s a weird thing, it’s just become a lifestyle now,” Leone said. “I don’t think anybody is telling the truth when they say they enjoy getting punched in the face or something. It’s a tough one, the words to describe it aren’t ‘exciting and fun’ for me particularly. The idea of competition I love, though, competition is everything. Going out there and rising to an occasion, that’s everything.”
It would be quite the occasion if Leone could beat Fernandes. The Brazilian is regarded as one of the best bantamweights in the world, regardless of promotion. A jiu-jitsu world champion, Fernandes has held the ONE Championship belt since 2013 and has not lost a bout since 2010.
“It’s a good fight. I’m excited for the opportunity. I see a lot of different positions coming up. I’m going to go out there and try to win every minute of the fight. Whether it’s standing, on the ground, I’m just going to be winning each position,” Leone said. “I have a couple different positions in my head that are probably going to come up, and I end up on top in all of them. I’m not trying to fight for 25 minutes if I don’t have to. Whatever comes up.”
Being champion would be the biggest accomplishment of Leone’s career in the cage, but his continued work building the sport in his adopted home is his true prize.
“I’m really thankful to be part of it, but just to have our two gyms and to continue this road of growing with them and growing with our team, that’s what’s really exciting, just to be a part of that,” Leone said. “That kind of was the dream since the beginning, to have a good team, to have a good support system, that’s what it’s all about.”