‘While my friends partied, I was at the gym’ – sacrifice pays off for history-making Hong Kong shooter
The 22-year-old became the first non-Japanese practitioner to compete in the All Japan Amateur Shooto Championship
While his high school classmates were up to their usual teenage hijinks, American-born Hongkonger Max Hunter Leali was busy fulfilling his dream of becoming a lethal mixed martial artist.
“My parents were happy because I was doing that instead of partying and drinking,” recalled the 22-year-old Brazilian jiu-jitsu specialist and professional shooto and muay Thai fighter. “I avoided all that teenage angst because I was at the gym most of the time.”
Leali (with a professional mixed martial arts record of 1-1-1) is fine-tuning his skills ahead of local promotion Just MMA’s event on March 16, where he will fight China’s Cao Zhenhai (3-2-1).
Leali has a wealth of experience in different combat sports, not least of which is the Japanese combat sport of shooto, where his dominance at the 2016 Hong Kong Amateur Shooto tournament caught the eye of legend of the sport Rumina Sato.
“[Sato] invited me to the All Japan Amateur Shooto Championship, where the best amateurs in Japan fight each other. They all won at least one tournament to be there,” said Leali, who was the first ever Hong Kong competitor to feature.
Leali finished third – the first non-Japanese competitor to do so – and recently became Hong Kong’s first professional shooto fighter, having travelled to the renowned Shinjuku for his first pro bout. It ended in a draw.
With the Hong Kong Shooto Association praising Leali’s historic feats, the Ohio-born fighter – who moved to Hong Kong with his family in 2006 – reflects on what the city means to him.
“I call Hong Kong home,” said Leali, who has a tattoo of the Hong Kong Bauhinia. “When I was a kid in the States, I never seemed to fit. I remember when my family moved here it clicked immediately. It’s where I was raised and I often ask myself if it wasn’t for this, would I have even found martial arts?”
After realising he “liked the contact but not the team aspect” of rugby – he briefly played rugby for Valley Fort when aged 13 – Leali naturally gravitated towards martial arts. He attended kick-boxing classes before what appeared to be a life-defining moment.
“It was like a mind explosion. I watched [retired MMA fighter] Forrest Griffin fight Stephan Bonnar and ‘Rampage’ Jackson and I got so excited. The elbows, the knees, the takedowns ... training very quickly went from being every other day to every day after school.”
The Hong Kong Academy student soon paired up with Hong Kong-based South African MMA fighter Quinton Arendse, who would go on to be “a mentor and second father” to the then 14-year-old.
And while Leali was never an underperformer at school, coach Arendse set a very simple rule: no grades, no training.
“He also said if he ever found out I was drinking or getting into fights, he’d kick me out. I was on a tight leash,” recalled Leali.
“I mean, I wasn’t the bad kid in school – doing academic work was much easier than being an athlete – but I was the kid at 15 with tattoos, dyed hair and went to the gym ... as you can see, not much has changed!”
It took years of disciplined fitness training before Leali eventually started hammering home specific techniques and movements. He now sets his sights on upcoming opponent Cao before continuing to help lay the ground work for the Hong Kong MMA scene.
“I’m far from a natural,” he chuckled. “But I fell in love with the sport and it has kind of turned into my career.
“The local scene is small and my goal is to help build it up. Any ceiling in Hong Kong can be broken and built upon.
“Representing Hong Kong is incredibly personal. I know I wasn’t born here or may not have the heritage, but I love this place and want to carry it with me wherever I go.”