Andrew Leone has the biggest fight of his life coming up on September 13th when he takes on Japanese mixed martial arts (MMA) veteran Shinichi Kojima in the main event of ONE FC: "Champions and Warriors" at the 15,000 seat Istora Senayan Stadium in Jakarta.
It's an incredible opportunity not least because the 23 year old could move into contention for an immediate flyweight title shot with a win over the former Shooto Champion. Leone, who holds a 6-2 record, will also become the first American to be handed a headlining slot by Asia's biggest MMA organization.
It is a far cry from the day Leone arrived on the Asian MMA scene in June 2010. His pro debut didn't exactly go according to plan as he was submitted by Team Lakay bantamweight Jazor Ablasi barely a minute into the opening round of their encounter at Martial Combat in Singapore.
An inauspicious start to life in the cage for a fighter who comes from a strong wrestling background and is primarily a grappler, but Leone registered his first win in Taiwan a couple of months later and went on to claim five straight victories, a couple of which came over highly ranked bantamweights in the shape of reigning ONE FC champion Soo Chul Kim and former Road FC champion Kyung Ho Kang.
That run of fights saw Leone reach the final of the inaugural Road FC Bantamweight Grand Prix in June 2012. After winning his semifinal match up by split decision, the American was submitted in a rematch with Kang and will never forget having to take on two tough Koreans in the space of a few hours.
"I fought Min Jung Song and I did not think he was going to be that tough but it went to a split decision, so that's 15 minutes of fighting and then I fought Kang again afterward and I got beat so I couldn't even be happy about winning the first fight! Fighting for Road FC was amazing though and I'm so grateful I got the opportunity."
After that fight, Kang vacated the belt and signed with the UFC while Leone dropped down to his natural weight of 125 pounds and was snapped up by ONE FC. He made his promotional debut against top Filipino flyweight Geje Eustaquio and won by unanimous decision in front of 20,000 fans in Manila.
"I was really excited to make my ONE FC debut, it felt good. It would have been cooler to get the finish, but I'm grateful I won and now I got the Kojima fight, so I'm happy."
Leone is not short of confidence and has been calling out Kojima ever since the Shooto veteran submitted Rey Docyogen in Kuala Lumpur earlier this year. There is an 11 year age difference and the Japanese fighter has been in with the likes of Jussier da Silva, Mamoru Yamaguchi, Eduardo Dantas and Yasuhiro Urushitani, but the New York native relishes a challenge.
"He's been around for a while and I think he was ranked number one in the world a couple of years ago, but he's a southpaw and I feel really strong on that right leg, so I think that really works out for me, I think it's going to be a great fight, he's a tough dude, he's pretty well rounded, he's got a strong guillotine he caught Rey with. He's quick, he's strong and he's patient."
Coming from a strong wrestling background, he was a state champion during his high school days. Leone unsurprisingly tends to try and get fights to the ground but says he is hoping to show a different side to his game at ONE FC: "Champions & Warriors."
"For the past three or four fights, I've always wanted to use my hands more and be more patient during the fight, but it never goes that way. I always move forward and then you go to your instincts, but hopefully this next fight is the one where I will get to showcase my stand-up because I've put so many hours in. The takedown is always going to be there but it would be cool to use my hands."
The Leone name is ringing out loud in the MMA world right now because older brother Anthony is on a rich vein of form having won three straight fights under the Bellator banner and booked himself a spot in the final of the 135-pound tournament.
While one brother has his eyes firmly set on the ONE FC belt, Anthony, who is three years the elder, is gunning for Bellator gold. The two train together at Phuket Top Team where Andrew is based full time and he hopes that both will be wearing belts before too long.
"Anthony's got a good record and I was pleased when he got the stoppage against Baca because I think in the Makovsky fight he settled for the decision when he could have finished it in the second or third round. Hopefully he's going to do wonders in this tournament and then face Dantas who has the belt next year."
In order to earn a title shot himself, Leone will need to beat the best flyweight in Asia on September 13th. It's a big step up for the young New Yorker but he fervently believes that he has what it takes to beat the Japanese veteran and go on to become the inaugural ONE FC 125-pound champion,
"BJ's a legend, it's an honor to fight him, but this is my time and I'm coming for the belt!"