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Levi Jones-Leary stunned the jiu-jitsu world by beating veteran lightweight and 2018 world champ Lucas Lepri in the European lightweight final.
We already knew the 21-year-old Australian black belt was one of the new crop of competitors to keep a close eye on in 2019. But few people bet on him to go through to the final of the stacked lightweight division, let alone beat the multiple-time world champion Lepri in the process.
Jones-Leary, a native of Sydney, only received his black belt in 2018, promoted by Murilo Santana of Unity Jiu-Jitsu in New York shortly after winning Worlds in June 2018.
As a wayward teenager, Jones-Leary was introduced into a program that offered martial arts classes to kids excluded from school. He discovered grappling was a positive outlet for his energies, and after dedicating himself to the training found that he had both the desire and talent to succeed in competition.
Coming from a small team in Sydney, he found his way to New York and began training under Murilo Santana. There he shares the mats with the Miyao brothers, and hyper-talented brown belts such as Italo Moura, Thalison Soares and Jonas Andrade.
Jones-Leary never stays longer three months at a time in the U.S., the maximum allowed by immigration laws. He returns to Australia to save money for his return stays, teaching jiu-jitsu seminars to fund his training during intense periods of competition.
As a brown belt, Jones-Leary had an outstanding run from January to June in 2018. He racked up an impressive series of titles, including gold medals at the European, Pan and World Championships.
Much of his success has been because of his excellent De la Riva guard game and berimbolo attacks, something he used in all of his Euros matches this year.
Jones-Leary had one of the toughest championship runs of the tournament, beating the very capable Kevin Mahecha in his opening match 6-4. Next up was the 2018 Pan champion Gianni Grippo, who Jones-Leary beat 4-2.
Finally, Jones-Leary had to face one of the best lightweights of all times. Admittedly Lepri was drained from the absolute the previous day but the young Australian played a smart and aggressive game that earned him the win via split decision after it ended as a draw (2-2, 2-2 advantages).
The immediate future for Levi Jones-Leary involves competing at the IBJJF Pans and, of course, Worlds. With a gold medal in the bag from his first black belt run in a major IBJJF tournament, this will give him a huge confidence boost for the rest of the year and serve as a warning to those who maybe didn't know who he was: don't sleep on Levi Jones-Leary.