Anthony has his sights set on a forthcoming Bellator tournament. | Keith Mills/Sherdog.com
Andrew’s first stop was Bangkok. For a year and a half, the 20-year-old taught English in three different schools to students only two years his junior, all the while trying to fit in as much jiu-jitsu and boxing training as he could. The break came through a job coaching wrestling. One of his students was on the Singapore national wrestling team, which promptly invited Andrew to help train its juniors. Soon, the Juggernaut Fight Club took notice and offered him a full-time coaching job, so he stayed for a year.
“That’s how I got my big foot in the community,” Andrew said.
Since then, the Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt has established himself as a solid grappler and mixed martial artist in jiu-jitsu competitions and MMA fights across Asia.
“My favorite place to fight is Korea,” Andrew said. “Road FC is on live; they have a reality show and a great community of fans. It’s awesome to go there and be part of that.”
Surely it helps his enthusiasm that he has beaten two of the most prominent Korean fighters. In 2011 in Taiwan, he defeated Soo Chul Kim -- now the One Fighting Championship bantamweight titleholder -- in less than 30 seconds.
“He was number 72 in the world at the time, undefeated and had all this hype behind him,” Andrew said. “He went for the takedown, I caught his chin, choked him out and it was over. That’s when the Koreans brought me over to fight their number one guy, because they wanted to beat me up.”
In February 2012, he won a decision against Kyung Ho Kang, who recently signed with the UFC, only to lose a rematch a few months later.
Just as Andrew was getting on a roll with his career in 2010, Anthony began to struggle. The bout against Barao at WEC 49 did not go as planned. Halfway through the third round, Barao submitted him by armbar. The WEC did not retain his services, and it touched off a string of four losses in a row over the next year.
“It was just a really bad downfall for me that year,” Anthony said. “I think I was really unconfident, and I wasn’t training as a true professional would. I was in the wrong weight class [at 145 pounds], I was taking short-notice fights and all this led to not fighting at my best level. I wasn’t sure what direction I was taking with this career.”
Six months away from fighting put him back on track. Anthony used this time to train hard to improve his standup -- and his confidence.
“Anthony has really good standup,” said Jeremy Bellrose, a former Team Bombsquad muay Thai coach who still works with the bantamweight. “He just didn’t have confidence in it. He’s a real thinker, and when he lost those fights, he was overthinking. There was always a moment where, no matter how well he was doing standing up, something in his head said, ‘Get a takedown,’ and then he lost those fights. But I have confidence in his stand-up, and that gave confidence to him.”
The challenging physical and mental work has paid dividends. Since the middle of 2011, Anthony has won four of his five fights. His surprise split decision victory over Makovsky in December earned him a spot in this summer’s Bellator bantamweight tournament.
Anthony will prepare for that competition at Team Bombsquad, but in the meantime, he has made the move to join Andrew at Phuket Top Team. After five years apart, the Leone Brothers are reunited again.
For the brothers, life in Thailand has been a fighter’s dream.
“We live in the mountains, and there are waves here,” Andrew said. “It’s really convenient and cheap, and that makes it a lot easier for a professional MMA athlete, especially at the low and medium levels, where the money isn’t the highest. I know lots of high-level fighters in the U.S. that are struggling financially because as soon as they get paid, they have bills to pay, and the money is gone. Here, there’s less stress.”
With only a few hours of coaching duties a week -- Andrew teaches wrestling, Anthony strength and conditioning -- the Leones have been able to concentrate on training with third-degree Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt Olavo Abreu and the procession of Russian, Australian and Asian fighters that come through Phuket Top Team.
“You don’t always know these guys,” Anthony said, “so it’s like a tournament every time you roll.”
It figures to provide some excellent preparation for forthcoming fights. Anthony, the more seasoned of the brothers, has his sights set on the Bellator tournament, the winner of which receives a six-figure payday and a shot at the promotional championship.
“He’s at a point in his career where he’s ready to take advantage of opportunities coming to him, physically and mentally,” Bellrose said. “There isn’t anything or anyone that he can’t beat right now or eventually.”
For his part, Andrew was dismayed to learn that an opportunity with Bellator will have to wait until next year. Although he was offered a three-fight contract, he remains signed to One Fighting Championship, where he is slotted to compete in May for the number one contender’s spot.
“He has so much inside but is still young to the sport,” Clarke said. “I see some more big wins in Asia, and I can really see Andrew in Bellator or the UFC.”
No matter the fight, the Leones will be helping each other to the best of their abilities as they train together for the first time since they began their MMA careers. Despite Anthony’s experience advantage, their interaction is not a one-way street. They benefit from each other.
“Andrew’s still young in his career,” Anthony said, “so I can give him pointers, tell him what to do and not to do. My brother’s a really good wrestler, so I learn from him, and he also helps me with BJJ.”
Thus the bond between the brothers -- Anthony, analytic and relaxed, and Andrew, naturally funny and, according to his brother, “the loudest guy in the room” -- has changed and matured from when they were an explosive duo of children.
“Our relationship has built so much while we’ve been here,” Andrew said. “The athletic friendship ... it’s different than just seeing each other all the time. Maybe someday we’ll open up a school together. That would be down the line. First, we need to earn black belts and win some big fights.”
There is one certainty as they move forward. The Leone brothers will be training together, improving their skills and providing support for one another: “In the last year, that’s all we’ve done.”