If you see a tall, lean “orang putih” ( Caucasian ) whom is a regular at martial arts event. Go say hello. His name is Antonio Battistessa. Antonio is the founder of Sabah Top Team and the head instructor of Brazilian Luta Livre (BLL) Malaysia.

Being an active fighter before, his wide knowledge in martial arts is well acknowledge where many martial arts events here regularly invite him as a referee or judge. He is also a well sought after instructor to conduct striking or grappling seminar.
His itinerary is tight lately. He just finished a BLL seminar at Keningau MMA and is preparing for BLL free seminar / grading tomorrow at Fight Fest 3 @  Suria Sabah and also preparing his team for competition. STT will be sending 8 fighters to compete in Fight Fest

Warriors of Borneo is glad to able to catch up with Antonio despite his busy schedule

Hi Coach Antonio, tell readers a bit about your background
I’m born in Pescara Italy. Currently 36 years young…: )

Pescara is 2 hours drive from Roma in the East Cost. It’s a sea side city and the mountain is only 1 hour drive away and it’s incredible because we can ski in the winter and swim in the summer.

Tell us about your martial arts journey.
In 1997 I have been in Japan for 1 month visiting a friend and I saw the PRIDE (MMA) on TV, it was love at first sight….

Unfortunately I could not find any MMA gym 19 years ago so I decided to start training in Muay Thai. The name of the gym was “Karate Do” it was a Karate Gym and my friend Massimiliano Violante was the Muay Thai Instructor.

How did you came to this part of the world?

I have always been fascinated by Asia especially South East Asia and my dream was to travel to all parts of S.E. Asia. So in 2001 at 21 yrs young, I travel to Phuket. I was there for 2 weeks but soon I come back to Italy after 1 month I fly back to Thailand, I have been there for 4 years.

During these 4 years a lot of things happened, I started my business and I started to seriously train and fight in Muay Thai competition. I had 8 pro fight in Thailand.


At that time, fights in Thailand were not like now. Fighting a foreigner was like a big thing for the local Thai fighters. Foreigners were like meat. The Thais take great pride winning over foreigners 
You never know who you going to meet and how strong your opponent is going to be. It was always a surprise, you may be matched with some one whom has 100 fight records before. It was never easy. 

Now martial art becomes one of the best tourist business in Phuket. And event organizers and gyms are more careful with the match making, so that they won’t scare the foreigners away.
Muay thai is life

So what was your best memories when you were in Thailand?
Among the amazing memories of fighting, I also got few sad memories.

I was living in Phuket when the tsunami hit. It was December 2004…I lost some of my friends and the economy collapsed. 
At that time I was running a bar near the beach and it was completely destroyed by the waves. Luckily I was alive and my fighting spirit help me to overcome the bad situation. So I took over a guest house and I started an Italian restaurant, it was hard for a while but I managed to survived.

Several months after the Tsunami the economy started to pick up so I was able to sell the business and moved back to Italy in 2005.

From 2005 to 2007 I was working and studying and whenever I got few weeks off and enough money saved, I grabbed my backpack and travel to S.E.Asia.

I was working hard and doing 2 or 3 job so I could pay for my studies and afford my holidays.

In that period I was still training Muay Thai but I also started to explore other Martial arts. 

I trained Wrestling with a Ukrainian coach, I trained Kali Arnis / Escrima; a wonderful Philippine Martial arts using knives and rattan stick. 
And I was working out with kettlebell probably the best workout tools I ever used. As well I was doing Parkour and Kite surfing…I was very active as always I have been in my life.

Living an active lifestyle

Finally in 2007 I found an MMA gym and I started Vale Tudo training (traditional MMA from Brazil without gloves and with most of the technique allowed).


The Instructor name was Maurizio D’Aloia. The gym name at that time was Elite Gym now changed to Fight Clubbing.

Since that day, I never stop training MMA and Brazilian Luta Livre and together with my coach and team we join many competitions: Boxing, K1, Muay Thai, Grappling, MMA with great result for the team.

It is consider one of the best MMA gym in Italy with some athlete World and European ISKA pro champion in K1 and several MMA Italian champion titles won, now one of the fighter is been selected for Bellator.

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I was lucky to grown up in a great gym with a great coach. my experience definately recieved a great boost.



So how did you end up in Sabah?
During this period in 2006 I met my wife Barbara, she is Sabahan. Her mom from Kota Belud and father from Kampung Kiau at the foothills of Mountain Kinabalu.

I meet her online first using skype because I was collecting info about Sabah for my next travel. We met up in Kuala Lumpur and my stay in KL from 3 days planned was extended for 10 days. That was the beginning of our life together, she become my life partner and we shared many good memories and many wonderful travel together.

In 2007 I started my own business in Italy and I took over a restaurant / club named “Hosteria del 3° Cerchio” , I had this business until 2 years ago 2014.

I usually close for summer break with 3 months holiday since during Summer in Italy the night life move to the sea side only, so from June to Aug, I have nearly 3 months off, that I could spend travelling.

So you took that time to travel to Sabah?

Yes, I came to Sabah for Holidays with Barbara in 2007

How did you got involve with the local martial arts scene?

I was looking for a place to train MMA to keep active, and I found Trinity Self Defense.  When I introduce myself to ask the permission to train in the gym, the owner Mr. Faresh Onn ask me if I could teach Muay Thai, so I accepted and for 3 months I teach Muay Thai, it was the first Muay Thai class in all Sabah, there was no Muay Thai trainer and class that time, we were the pioneer.
Teaching at Trinity Self Defense in 2007

Among my students at that times there was few name that become icon in the martial arts scene in Sabah some of them become pro fighters and coaches with great result, so proud of them.

Some of the names: AJ Pyro, Azrin Kadri, Genn Lai, Faresh, Neil Stephen among the first batch of around 15 students.

At Trinity Self Defense. Among the pioneers. AJ Pyro (left), Genn Lai (2nd from left), Azrin Kadri ( 3rd frm left) 

So you didn’t want to go back Italy?
Since 2007 I always spend at least half of my holiday period in Sabah . Between 2007-2014 I was a roving trainer. I taught in various gym around KK, giving seminars, PT, Muay Thai and MMA classes.

In 2014 finally I moved to Sabah and for 1 year I had the pleasure to work with some of the best gym ie; Kuda Hitam, Kinabalu Fighters, BTS, Alpha MMA, Karabaw, Cruz Fitness etc

Giving training and seminar during his days as a roving trainer

What about Sabah Top Team, when did this came to fruition?

In 2015, I decided to open my own gym, I scouted a few place and discussed with a few potential partner, but in the end I decided to do it on my own and got a venue in Taman Millenium, on top of CKS Supermarket. That’s the birth of SABAH TOP TEAM.
Sabah Top Team at Plaza Grand Millenium

How was the response when you first open?
The response of the people was quite good since the beginning and in 1 year of activity we were able to double the number of the members. What makes me really happy was, that we were able to create a community of family.

Now we have around 100 active members but when we organize a party even the non active members will come back to have fun together.

I see that now STT even offer dance class.

2016 July after the first year, STT got a boost and we decided to open a studio next door so we can perform some extra classes base on the high demand of the people. So we started Yoga, Zumba, Piloxing, Hip-Hop dance and Latin Dance.

What does the future hold for STT?
SABAH TOP TEAM now is at only 50% of my vision and soon as I can I will push the gym to the next stage

You went to Brazil to learn more about BLL, share with readers the experience there.

I start practice Luta Livre since I start to train in Vale Tudo / MMA so back in 2007 but I was more active doing MMA, not as a grappler.

So in 2011 I went for the first time in Brazil, Rio de Janeiro…..it was amazing! There are so many gyms and the level is so high. I was there for 3 months and I had the pleasure to train with the fathers of Luta Livre “Roberto Leitao” and “Joao Ricardo” owner of Academia Budokan RJ

with Roberto Leitoa of Academia Budokan

Even with my 4 years experience, in Brazil it was like being the last of the class but I love the feeling. I love being a white belt forever because I want to learn as much as I can. The learning process never ends, this is what I love about martial arts.

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That period in Brazil was the beginning of a great relationship with the fathers of Luta livre…it was amazing! I trained in the best LL gym in RJ and I meet many extraordinary fighters/grapplers.

I trained in RFT with Master Cromado, in Rio Fighters with Milton Vieria, Hugo Duarte (the General of LL) and Master Joao Ricardo (Academia Budokan RJ). He rewarded me with the brown belt in LL. It is an honor receiving the belt from Master Joao and to represent LL in SEA.

Can you share with readers on BLL so that they understand more about it.
BRAZILIAN LUTA LIVRE is an independent martial arts with origin, history and roots back to the Greek Pankration and wrestling, unfortunately it get often confused and simplified with BJJ NO GI, generalized and call it BJJ NO GI. This makes years of history disappear.

This is a common mistake and a wrong interpretation of the martial arts. BJJ is a great arts. Complex and beautiful but it was born with the GI and the GI is part of their roots. As for Luta livre, it was born with NO GI and it is a false saying I can do Luta Livre with GI as much as you can say BJJ NO GI.

Back in the past there was a war between BJJ and LL…politics killed the sports, luckily now there is a great respect from both side. To be a black belt require a lot of sacrifice and training in any martial arts.

What is your aspiration for Luta Livre?
My mission is to teach and develop LL in all SEA. Since 1 years ago we made huge steps towards this.

Now we have 2 black belts directly from Brazil, one is Afonso Cego in Manila Philippines(Extreme Martial Arts) and Gustavo Muniz in Sibu, Sarawak (Borneo Top Team)
Plus we have a brown Belt in Saigon, Vietnam, a brown belt in Hong Kong, 2 purple belts in Jakarta, several blue belts.

In Sabah there are 2 blue belts: Matt Buvvart of Keningau MMA, Julian Lee in Kinabalu Fighters, and Orange belt Ricky Cheong from Karabaw Sipitang and Rodzaimi from Karabaw Papar.

LL is growing up fast and strong. The reasons behind it in my opinion is the effectiveness of the arts, simple, sharp and aggressive.

We prefer to play on top the opponent instead to keep our back on the ground, we train our wrestling and plus all our technique can easily been apply even if the opponent is extremely sweaty, slippery and hard to control, so you can see why it’s very suitable for MMA; and MMA now is the fastest growing sport in the world, so LL really fit into the need.

Recently in early August, we had a Brazilian Luta Livre Summer camp for 1 week with 2 LL black Belts: Afonso Cego from Brazil and Nicholas Renier from France (World Champion) and The former coach of Philippines National Wrestling Team Violeto Agustin.

We had nearly 30 people joining from all over S.E.Asia and also from overseas (USA). We had a great impact and a wonderful feedback, next year will be even bigger.

If you want to learn more about LL, I will be conducting a  FREE LUTA LIVRE SEMINAR on 28 OCTOBER FRIDAY just before Fight Fest. It’s free, so will be a good occasion for those interested to come and try LL.

Coming from your fight days in Thailand and Italy and surviving the tsunami, what is your principle on life? 
My moto is LIFE IS A FIGHT and even our Sabah Top Team T-Shirt got this sentence on the back. I believe Life keep giving us tests and obstacles and it’s like a fight. If you give up, you will lose So you have to keep fighting always.

Aside from your wife…hehe, what in Sabah that makes you like this place?

Sabah is a wonderfull place, full of nature with a good lifestyle. I am not comfortable in busy and chaotic metropolis. I prefer smaller cities and Kota Kinabalu is perfect for me. Furthermore local Sabahan are friendly and open minded and I feel more comfortable than when I was in Thailand.

You promote Italian food a lot through your cafe….do you yourself cook? What do you think of the standard of Italian food in Sabah?

We close the cafe because the commitment was too high and with 2 kids everything become more complicated. We decided to focus on the gym.

I can cook, but the real chef is Barbara. She used to work as a chef in Italy so she knows perfectly how to cook Italian food. I am so lucky I can have it every day at home, that’s why I never eat Italian food out so I cannot judge the local standard.

What about local Sabahan ethnic food? Do u like it? What Asian food do you like why?
Yes I do I love it, I like noodles most; and among the ethnic food I like is Hinava.

Thank you sir for your time.

All the best for the seminar and STT’s participation in Fight Fest 3