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Martial arts

Rising star Max Leali helping put Hong Kong on fight map with Just MMA bout and Asia MMA rookie of year vote

Bantamweight features on promotion’s Friday night card, with city to host Asia MMA Awards on September 14

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 September, 2018, 8:04am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 September, 2018, 9:45pm

Max Leali is looking to cement his place among a rising generation of Asian mixed martial arts stars when the Hong Kong bantamweight returns to the cage as part of Friday night’s Just MMA card.

“I’ve been living and breathing the gym for six to eight weeks. I’m focused,” said Leali. “I feel like I have done everything I need to do.”

The timing of the bout could not be more perfect for Leali, whose MMA record now stands at 2-1-1 and who will be facing fellow Hong Kong-based fighter Roberto Medalla (3-5-1) as part of a 12-bout card at Southorn Stadium in Wan Chai on September 7.

The emergence of the Just organisation over the past 12 months has reinvigorated the local MMA scene, while news that refinancing will soon bring the Legend circuit back to life has the sport’s faithful around the Pearl River Delta buzzing again.

Major players from across the region also will converge on Hong Kong next week as the city hosts the Asia MMA Awards for the first time.

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Leali, 23, has picked up a nomination for Rookie of the Year – and victory come Friday (along with a red carpet appearance at PMQ in Central the following Friday night) will certainly put his talents in the shop window. The people have certainly rallied behind him, with Leali pulling in the most votes from the public in his category.

“I was taken aback when I heard about the nomination,” said Leali. “In terms from MMA I am coming from the smallest brand. I think there was lots of rallying the troops from my family and my girlfriend, to be honest.

“But it’s a thrill and it will be a great night. There will be some big names and we can mix with the fans. It’ll be great for the sport here in Hong Kong.”

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Leali impressed on his last appearance for Just, monstering China’s Cao Zhenhai (3-3-1) early before finishing him off with a rear naked choke at 1.47 of the second round. The move played to the obvious strengths of a fighter whose game has been built on a stand-out junior career in Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

But Leali has continued to expand his skill set through his association with the Japanese mixed martial art of shooto, turning pro this year after becoming the first Hong Kong fighter to be invited to the All Japan Amateur Shooto Championship last year. He finished third. There’s also a pro Muay Thai career where he is built a 7-4 record to factor in.

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“Last time out I had a three-month fight camp and two fights during that time,” said Leali. “My first professional shooto in Japan [a draw] and then that fight with Just. The win was good enough to get some attention, which I am grateful for. I have just got to keep on working at my game.”

With the support of his family and friends, Leali has been able to turn his attention on to combat sports full-time – somewhat of a rarity in a city that may have been home to the “Grandfather of MMA” in the great Bruce Lee, but has yet to really produce a fighter who has been able to consistently mix it with those at the top of the sport. Nor to dip into the riches that sport across the region now offers.

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“I definitely want to be independent as soon as possible,” said Leali. “But I still have some work to do. But I’m embedded – this [training and fighting] is all I do. I have the coaches that raised me, and have seen me through everything. They know everything.

“We have complete training here so now it’s a matter of taking that next step. The scene has gone through phases – it has seemed like it has been growing before but then it has dipped. But things are looking up again. It’s still really young in terms of a sport, but it’s definitely not where it could be here.”

Leali may be Ohio-born but is as Hong Kong as a man can get – for proof of that look no further than the bauhinia etched into his chest. And he hopes to play his part in lifting the profile of the sport local, and the profile of Hong Kong fighters across the globe.

“No matter where I fight, every win and every fight is for Hong Kong,” said Leali.

“Hong Kong is my home. It’s where I was raised and it was where I started my journey. I want to give back in some way and building up mixed martial arts here is one way I can do that.”