Andrew Leone's claim to fame used to be being the younger brother of WEC and Bellator featherweight Anthony Leone but 2011 has been a breakout year for the Singapore based New Yorker.
In mixed martial arts he put in one of the most impressive and emphatic performances of the year in Asia to choke out unbeaten Korean prospect Soo Chul Kim in less than 30 seconds. In BJJ the blue belt excelled himself by not only finishing first in the >65kg blue belt category at the recent ADCC trials in China but also winning the >76.9kg advanced category in no-gi grappling.
Amongst the opponents which Leone, who normally fights at 135 lbs, defeated that day was Andy Wang a BJJ black belt and TUF veteran who normally competes in the lightweight division. It was a remarkable achievement for someone who only received their blue belt, awarded by Professor Adam Kayoom, last year.
Leone's story is in many ways unremarkable up until the point he decided to walk away from his college wrestling scholarship and relocate to Asia to pursue a career as a fighter,
"I started wrestling around 3, but didn't take it serious till about 12. Parents put me in the kids program and then when I was 12 I started taking the school program and it went from there. I was a County Champion, and a 2 x All-State wrestler out of New York. My brother and I joined our first MMA fight team when i was 15 and he was 17 but I couldn't do it full time as my wrestling coaches wouldn't let me."
Anthony burst onto the scene between 2009 and 2010 winning eight straight fights before being offered a spot in the WEC which at the time was the pinnacle of competition for a 145 lbs fighter. Four days before Anthony made his WEC debut in Canada his younger brother was making the first professional appearance of his career 8,000 miles away in Singapore.
"I was wrestling in college and i was getting bored of where I was and the situation I was in, so I saved up a couple of grand and moved to Bangkok. Anthony has been a great influence in my life, seeing him take it to the high level and compete with the top 10 in the world and do well shows me I can do the same. He also moved to Hawaii to train with B.J. Penn right after he graduated so seeing him make the leap gave me the confidence to try something and leave as well."
It was not a great week for the Leone brothers as both were submitted. Andrew falling victim to a rear naked choke early in the opening round of his Martial Combat 3 fight against highly rated Filipino Jasor Ablasi while Anthony was armbarred by Brazilian Anthony Renan do Nascimento Mota Pegado in round three of their contest at WEC 49.
The younger Leone brother bounced back to post the first win of his professional career a couple of months later, defeating Korean Sang Il Lee by unanimous decision at PRO Fighting 4 in Taiwan. Since then he has been on a tear, winning gold at both the Thailand Open and the Pan Asian BJJ Championships.
His ground fighting credentials are impressive but it wasn't until he came up against Soo Chul Kim at PRO Fighting 5 that he really demonstrated just how dangerous a mixed martial artist he had become. You can see that fight in its 28 second entirety here:
Kim subsequently signed a multi-fight contract with ONE Fighting Championship but the promoter in Taiwan didn't send the PRO Fighting 5 results to Sherdog and there was virtually no English language coverage of the event meaning that the Korean continued to be incorrectly promoted as being an unbeaten fighter.
It was frustrating for Leone who had to endure the indignity of being in the crowd at One FC 1 and hearing the announcer proclaim to the 7,000 people present that Kim had a perfect professional record of 4-1,
"Ha ha that was a bit frustrating. From all the articles about Soo Chul being undefeated to being there live and still having him promoted as the undefeated Korean... I felt like I stripped him of that and it was going unrecognized. I was a little bit mad, it was kinda funny but I was definitely frustrated. This was 6 weeks after I fought him!"
The results from Pro Fighting 5 belatedly made their way onto Sherdog and the video was uploaded onto YouTube so Leone did eventually get the credit he deserves. His performance against Kim was in many ways rendered even more impressive as the tough young Korean went three full rounds against BJJ world champion Leandro Issa before dropping a unanimous decision,
After bouncing around various camps in Thailand Leone is now based full time in Singapore where he works as the wrestling instructor at the Juggernaut Fight Club,
"I had worked for the Wrestling Federation of Singapore a couple of times and Arvind, the Juggernaut owner, heard about me from some other guys I had coached so he brought me over to run their wrestling program. Being in Asia has helped me in many ways, from training in Bangkok to coming here to Singapore I've learned many things from great instructors all over. I don't think it will be a permanent move though, i will return to the States sometime!"
There is not such a strong wrestling pedigree in Asia as there is in the US and Leone's skill set makes him a serious contender in a 135 lbs division which contains a lot of local talent. He has already fought for Martial Combat, which was the brainchild of One Fighting Championship promoter Victor Cui, and now has his sights firmly set on a contract with the biggest MMA promotion on the continent,
"One Fighting Championship is a great promotion with a big future. I was at the first show and I couldn't believe how many people were there. I've always wanted the opportunity to fight for a huge crowd like One FC has to offer, it would be a dream come true."
At 22 years old time is very much on Leone's side and having wrestled extensively in the US, studied Muay Thai in Thailand and worked on his ground game with some of the best BJJ exponents in Asia he looks set to make a big impression in the world of mixed martial arts.
If the opportunities do arrive, and it would be a surprise if a contract offer from One FC didn't materialize, it will be a real vindication of Leone's brave decision to leave his friends, family and education in the US behind in order to pursue his dreams of becoming a professional fighter in Asia.
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