How Bali MMA Became A Surprising Mixed Martial Arts Powerhouse
With a roster chock-full of international talent and an elite training staff teaching various disciplines, Bali MMA is widely regarded as one of the premier mixed martial arts gyms in Asia.
However, it might be surprising that this renowned training center in the heart of an Indonesian paradise was founded by a pair of Americans – ONE Championship star Andrew Leone and his older brother, Anthony.
The Leones, who grew up in Long Island, New York, were natural athletes who shared a passion for surfing and wrestling.
That passion soon extended to other martial arts, but options were extremely limited.
“We started training at first at a karate school,” Andrew says.
“That was the only thing in our town that was outside of wrestling, and I remember going to wrestling practice, and my coach would laugh at me because I would leave 10 minutes early to go to karate practice. That was when we were 14, or 15 years old.
“Then Anthony got a car, so slowly we started driving to other places. Anthony has been a big inspiration since the beginning, just pushing me to that level.”
While Andrew was exploring a wide range of disciplines, he was experiencing the most success in wrestling. He became a two-time All-State wrestler, and he received a partial scholarship to attend Missouri Valley College and join the school’s wrestling squad in 2008.
However, just a year and a half into his collegiate studies, Andrew started losing interest in pure wrestling and began falling in love with mixed martial arts. He was especially motivated by his older brother, who had turned pro in the sport and was racking up victories across North America.
Ultimately, Andrew dropped out of school and shifted his focus to this burgeoning new world of mixed martial arts. The youngster was driven, and he became even more inspired after reading a book called ‘A Fighter’s Heart: One Man’s Journey Through The World Of Fighting.’
“It was about a guy who traveled the world to learn different martial arts,” Andrew says. “He went to Brazil to learn jiu-jitsu and to Thailand to master Muay Thai.”
That resonated with the Long Islander, who wanted to embark on his own great martial arts journey. He saved up US$2,000 and relocated to Bangkok, Thailand, in 2010.
After arriving, he taught English classes and wrestling. He also continued training and started competing professionally in mixed martial arts later that year.
Then in 2011, Andrew moved to “The Lion City,” where he helped coach the Singapore national wrestling team and worked with the wrestling program at Juggernaut Fight Club. A year later, he left to join the famed Phuket Top Team as a wrestling coach.
It was in Phuket where he reunited with Anthony and began to make his mark as a rising star on the Asian circuit.
A Big Opportunity
By 2014, the Leones had really begun to immerse themselves in the world of professional mixed martial arts.
That May, the duo moved to the Indonesian capital, when Steve Suryadinata offered them co-ownership of Jakarta Muay Thai & MMA. Upon accepting, the brothers developed the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and mixed martial arts programs at the academy.
“[Steve] contacted myself and my brother,” Andrew recalls. “Eventually, we were offered a partnership. Jakarta Muay Thai and MMA was our first foot in the door.”
That relationship with Suryadinata ended up being incredibly fruitful. Knowing the Leones’ love for surfing, the co-owner took them for a quick trip to Bali, where he suggested they build a training center in the heart of paradise.
“We saw an opportunity here,” Andrew says. “There was clearly a market in Bali for people who wanted to do training vacations, but there was a lack of high-level facilities. Nobody at the time could offer the world-class, international training that we [could ultimately offer].”
So, after thinking the idea through, the brothers were hooked.
“Since we were very young, we kept wrestling and surfing together,” the 30-year-old adds. “When Steve brought us to Bali, we saw that miles away from our native Long Island, such a place existed. So we stayed.”
In August 2014, the brothers, Suryadinata, and coach Don Carlo-Clauss bought space in an old warehouse and began to build their new home.
One month later, the team was ready to open its doors. And while that early version of Bali MMA lacked the facilities seen in high-profile training centers, the opening was met with incredible early success.
“When we opened up our doors, we didn’t even have a ring. We didn’t even have mats on the ground,” Andrew says. “But we had people show up on the first day – that day, we had like eight people from Australia. They had planned their trip right when we announced it.
“VICE’s fight branch, FIGHTLAND, put out a cool article about us opening [a gym in Bali], and we had a few people because of that article show up when we opened. It was pretty crazy.”
By January 2015, the guys constructed the ring and added the finishing touches to the facility. They even had a graffiti artist make some cool murals. With that, the big names followed.
“Ev Ting came on over in the beginning,” Andrew says. “We had Tiffany van Soest join our team – she wanted to be a part of what we were building. The Subba brothers (Gianni and Keanu) came, and my brother was fighting all over Europe, so we had a little trampoline effect. That kind of got the ball rolling.”
Another key piece of the puzzle was head coach Carlo-Clauss, who’s been a longtime inspiration for the brothers.
“Donnie is somebody I looked up to when I was younger,” Andrew says.
“He was a two-time New York State Wrestling Champion. He was undefeated in his senior year [of high school], the fourth-ranked recruit going into the University of Virginia, and a two-time national qualifier. That is the kind of guy that is in the room every day giving directions and telling us what we have to do.”
The gym also added a number of other top-level trainers, including BJJ coach João Paulo and striking coach Mike Ikilei.
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Carving Out A Niche
With strong guidance from its top-level coaching staff, Bali MMA continued to skyrocket in popularity and developed into a unique training center within the Indonesian martial arts landscape.
“There were a lot of gyms in Indonesia that had been doing their thing, but there wasn’t too much investment in international experience or international coaches to come and teach the Indonesians,” Andrew explains.
“People were doing jiu-jitsu – there was a big no-gi jiu-jitsu community here before we got here, but there wasn’t much success on the international stage. I think when we came in, we had a lot of guys, right away, put their trust in our team.”
That trust came from the likes of Stefer “The Lion” Rahardian, Mario Satya Wirawan, Anthony “The Archangel” Engelen, and the late Casey Suire, all of whom Andrew met and trained with the first day he arrived at Jakarta Muay Thai & MMA.
More soon joined the fray, as the gym’s stable of international talent grew to include competitors like future ONE Women’s Strawweight World Champion “The Panda” Xiong Jing Nan, “Jungle Cat” Muhammad Aiman, Gianni Subba, and his brother, Keanu.
Meanwhile, martial artists like Ting continued to visit the gym as part of their training camps.
That set Bali MMA apart and allowed it to compete for elite athletes with the best gyms in other countries – even the birthplace of Muay Thai.
“Around Southeast Asia, Thailand was known as a better country for doing martial arts training,” Andrew says.
“Clearly, with Bali MMA, we started a new thing down here. Before us, no one thought of Bali as a place to learn martial arts at a high level.
“You’re always going to have people going to Thailand. Muay Thai is such an attractive thing to be a part of, and you want to go to the roots, so I think those gyms will always have success. [Getting people to] come to Indonesia was one of the bigger challenges.”
Of course, there were other challenges for Bali MMA, but the owners have continued to meet them head-on by committing to the gym’s long-term success.
“I think building trust from the international community is the most challenging thing for any training camp,” Andrew says.
“It’s not a usual thing to have the coaches as the owners, so [most gyms] get a lot of coaches coming and going. To have long-term success, that’s one of the harder problems because everyone wants to set up their own thing. Everyone wants to live the dream, but when the coaches are the owners, you can really set a strong foundation. We got the trust of the international community, and it’s been a domino effect from there.”
The rise of the gym has also coincided with the rise of martial arts talent in Indonesia, where many locals are finding their way into competitions across the country and internationally. Furthermore, Carlo-Clauss and the Leones hold Canggu Fight Night, an event series in which their pupils compete in the gym to show their growth.
“We have many Indonesians training with us, both in Jakarta and in Bali who are learning, growing, and training hard for their personal goals in fitness and martial arts,” Andrew says. “The gym organizes regular events in Bali to give our students an opportunity to compete and test their skills. Our team has big goals, and I believe we are on the right path.”
Bali MMA is certainly on the right path – and a lot has changed in the short amount of time since the gym opened.
What was once a warehouse with cool graffiti featuring the likes of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is no more. The leadership team renovated the facility, expanded the venue, and gave it a modern flair.
“Some would say it’s a more corporate look, but I would say it’s a much cleaner look,” Andrew offers. “We’re really happy with it. It’s a huge renovation that took a long time, but we’re happy with where we’re at right now.”
These days, the athletes who represent Bali MMA in ONE Championship include Nyrene “Neutron Bomb” Crowley, “Jungle Cat” Muhammad Aiman, Zechariah Lange, Punnya Sai, Bozhena “Toto” Antoniyar, and Kristy Obst, among others.
The gym also continues to get regular visitors from countries all over the world, including Australia and New Zealand. In fact, reigning ONE Middleweight World Champion Aung La “The Burmese Python” N Sang has encouraged some of his compatriots to seek out the training center if they are looking to take their game to the next level.
“We have a good relationship with Aung La N Sang, who sends us a lot of these athletes that are diamonds in the rough,” Andrew says. “They already have the striking, and we are able to give them the grappling they need, so it comes back to trust from the community.”
The Leones are now living the dream on their own terms, and they are just as thrilled to be giving back to both the local martial arts community and the international athletes who come to Bali MMA.
“We really appreciate being a part of this,” Andrew says. “It’s exciting to be on these kids’ journeys with them and help them get the success they are dreaming about.”
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