Anthony Leone (left) file photo: Joe Harrington/Sherdog.com
It was a baptism by fire in the purest sense. Nearly 5,000 miles from home, Anthony Leone wandered into the B.J. Penn Mixed Martial Arts academy in Hilo, Hawaii, and spent 11 months training alongside a man many view as the greatest lightweight in MMA history. Leone was 20 years old.
A former high school wrestler with only sporadic MMA training under his belt, he became one of Penn’s primary sparring partners in the weeks leading up to the Hawaiian’s lightweight title defense against Sean Sherk at UFC 84 in May 2008. The experiences, valuable though they may have been, were not always pleasant.
“At the time, it was horrible,” Leone says. “I was getting beat up every day. I just got the s--t kicked out of me every day. There were times when the bell would ring that I’d go hide behind the bag because I didn’t want to get punched anymore.”
Now 23, Leone has forged his own career in MMA. He recently agreed to a six-fight deal with World Extreme Cagefighting and will make his promotional debut against Brazilian prospect Renan Barao at WEC 49 “Varner vs. Shalorus” on Sunday at the Rexall Place in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Spawned by Team Bombsquad in New York, Leone wants a piece of the WEC pie: fame, fortune, all of it.
“If it were up to me, I’d fight at every WEC,” he says. “It means so much. Now, I have that certainty. The WEC can tell me six, seven weeks ahead of time when I’m fighting. I know when every WEC card is in advance. I get to compete against the best in the world now.”
One of five children born to a doctor and a chef on Long Island, Leone’s parents separated when he was 3 years old. One of his four brothers was born with severe autism and still cannot speak. The trials he faces on a day-to-day basis keeps life in perspective for Leone, a World Championship Fighting veteran who made his professional MMA debut a month after his 21st birthday. Convenience lured him into the sport.
“I don’t have to get up every day and go to a normal job,” Leone says. “I love the lifestyle, the amount of freedom I get. I travel almost every weekend. I had my first amateur fight in 2006, and I wasn’t even training. It always interested me.”
He has his hands full with Barao, who lost his first professional fight in 2005 and has not stumbled since. A training partner of reigning WEC featherweight champion Jose Aldo, he has pieced together a streak of 12 consecutive victories since his December 2007 encounter with Claudemir Souza ended in a no contest. Polished by Nova Uniao, one of the top schools in the sport, Barao has delivered 14 of his 20 career wins by knockout, technical knockout or submission.
“He’s a huge challenge,” Leone says. “I’ve got to fight my fight and give him a little dose of American MMA.”
Leone thinks his most recent outing -- a five-round split decision victory against Tateki Matsuda in a bantamweight title bout under the Xtreme Championship Fight League banner -- prepared him for Barao.
“I’m thankful for my last fight,” Leone says. “He’s got a similar style. Both are really good muay Thai fighters, and I went in there and beat [Matsuda] at his own game. I took some shots that I never would have known how I’d react to, and I never got rocked.”
A late replacement for the injured Clint Godfrey, Leone did not hesitate when he was offered the fight on short notice. He had waited a long time for the phone call.
“We kind of knew it might happen,” Leone says. “It’s still overwhelming. This has been a dream of mine for two and a half, three years. I knew I would get there, but it’s still amazing.”
Perfect in eight professional bouts, Leone, a Center Moriches, N.Y., native has delivered half of his wins by submission. He understands the importance of making a positive first impression on WEC officials in an effort to establish himself as part of their burgeoning bantamweight stable.
“I want to show the WEC that they made the right choice,” he says. “I’m not in there to be just another fighter. I’m in there to compete against the best.”
Soon, Leone will find himself swimming with the sharks in the WEC’s 135-pound division, which includes champion Dominick Cruz and former featherweight titleholder Urijah Faber. Still, he maintains the highest of expectations. His plans include an eventual move to 145 pounds.
“There’s money to be made,” Leone says. “Right now, I want to be a world champion. I want to be the number one fighter in the world. I wouldn’t be in the sport if I didn’t believe in myself.”