In ONE and Across Asian MMA, the Smallest Fighters Still Pack a Huge Punch

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterFebruary 22, 2019

Angela Lee at the 2017 World MMA Awards
Angela Lee at the 2017 World MMA AwardsGabe Ginsberg/Getty Images

On Friday, Asia-based MMA promotion ONE Championship holds its latest event, Call to Greatness, in Singapore. Two fighters compete for a newly minted muay thai title belt in the main event.

The combatants, Stamp Fairtex and Janet Todd, are accomplished women in their field. The American Todd, who was training to be an aerospace engineer before pursuing muay thai, is decorated on international circuits. The clear favorite in this one, however, is Fairtex, who is already ONE's atomweight kickboxing champ. The Thailand native has been competing since age five, racking up plenty of accolades along the way.

As convincing as their pedigrees are, that's not what makes this matchup fun. Todd and Fairtex compete in a division unfamiliar to those whose MMA familiarity ends with the UFC. They are both atomweights, the smallest weight class in MMA. In ONE Championship, the atomweight division is home to some of its most exciting fights and perhaps its biggest star outside of recent UFC transplants like Demetrious Johnson and Eddie Alvarez.

The upper weight limit for atomweights in ONE is 52 kilograms, or about 115 pounds. That's the equivalent of the UFC's strawweight division. Fans and promoters in ONE know smaller packages are harbingers of some serious excitement. In pretty much every other promotion, atomweights compete at or around 105 pounds, which is the true lower limit of competition weight in MMA.

So, atomweights are small, yes. That makes for an eye-catching visual for those accustomed to a steady diet of Francis Ngannous. But if your head goes straight to "novelty," you need a little more schooling, because the atomweights can fight and are some kind of fun to watch. Fairtex and Todd are muay thai competitors, but atomweights are in evidence across MMA. There are thriving atomweight divisions around the world, but Asian promotions like ONE are the real hotbed. 

Seo Hee Ham, a former UFC strawweight and an electric striker, is the current champ in South Korea's Road FC. According to MMA ranking website Fight Matrix, she is second at 105 in the world. Road FC also once employed No. 4 on those rankings, Texas native Jinh Yu Frey, who has since gone on to capture atomweight gold in all-female Invicta FC. She has also built serious fan followings in the U.S. and beyond through her social media presence as well as her talent in the cage.

The rightful No. 1 in the weight class is Ayaka Hamasaki, the former Invicta champ who now holds the atomweight belt for Japan's upstart Rizin promotion. Hamasaki, a judoka with 10 wins by stoppage, trains under legendary submission artist Megumi Fujii. 

Interestingly, the most famous atomweight in the world and the longtime ONE atomweight champ is not an atomweight in the strictest sense of the word. Still, Angela Lee has attracted the kind of global attention that eludes many other top fighters her size, including in the UFC.

The 22-year-old Vancouver native has amassed a 9-0 pro record in three years of competition. She defeated the well-regarded Mei Yamaguchi in 2016 to capture the ONE atomweight strap, and she has since defended it three times. Lee was 19 years old when she first hoisted the belt over her shoulder, making her the youngest fighter to ever hold a title in a major MMA promotion.

What's more, she has clicked with the MMA public on a rarefied level, showing business and social media savvy along the way. The daughter of two martial arts instructors grew up in the sport, and that's evident in her well-rounded skill set. That lifelong exposure to the sport has created a high comfort level in the cage, which translates to a fearlessness that stands in contrast to her wholesome image away from it.

"Growing up with my dad, I was able to learn all those styles and incorporate them into the new style of MMA that is fought today," Lee told Karla Cripps of CNN in 2017. "(I learned to use) everything from striking, boxing, kickboxing and Muay Thai to things like wrestling and judo on the ground. I think that's the beautiful thing about this sport. It's constantly forcing you to evolve and improve in all areas."

Understanding the appeal of the sport's smallest competitors can't begin and end with the stoppage. Given their size, simple physics dictates that big knockouts are not in the cards, at least not to the level they are with the big guys. According to Fight Matrix, which is an unofficial but widely recognized MMA statkeeper, strawweights have the highest rate of decisions among all UFC weight classes, with 68.2 percent of all contests going the distance.

But here's the rub: Speed, quickness and sheer output make up for that. In the simplest possible terms, if you like seeing people get hit, you'll like the atomweights. No one keeps statistics on strikes per minute by weight class, but some things don't require numbers to prove. Top atomweights compete at a level of fast-twitch athleticism that the bigger classes cannot match.

UFC fighters are taking notice. Former strawweight champ Carla Esparza has openly called for a 105-pound division in the world's MMA leader. It's not like the UFC couldn't at least try to populate such a division, as current roster members Michelle Waterson and Jessica Penne both held the 105-pound title in Invicta.

For now, however, the atomweights are in large part the domain of the Asian promotions, with Lee remaining at the top of the list despite recent fights, including a dicey decision win in last year's rematch with Yamaguchi that didn't have quite the steam of some of her earlier contests. Even so, behind their global star and the increasing presence of some of the companies that promote them, atomweights across the world could be poised for a renaissance.

Scott Harris covers MMA and is a feature writer for Bleacher Report and CNN.

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