Angela Lee: From ONE Championship Prospect to Biggest Name in Women's Division

Haris KruskicContributor ISeptember 27, 2019

Bleacher Report

ONE atomweight champion Angela Lee returns to defend the title she's held for more than three years when she takes on women's strawweight champion Xiong Jing Nan on Oct. 12 at ONE: Century in Tokyo, Japan. In the United States, watch her match on Part I of the Century card the night of Oct. 12 on TNT and B/R Live and Part II of the card the morning of Oct. 13 on B/R Live.

     

Angela Lee's story is one of unexpected success, a stratospheric rise to the top, a humbling fall and an opportunity to steer her career back on the right track.

Not much was known about the then-18-year-old Lee when she made her ONE Championship debut in May of 2015. 

"One minute and 20 seconds into the match," former ONE lead commentator Steve Dawson exclaimed after Lee defeated Aya Saber in her professional debut with an armbar early in the first round. "Angela Lee introduces herself to the world!"

Since before she could walk, Angela Lee has been surrounded by martial arts. She was born in Vancouver, Canada, to Ken and Jewelz Lee. The former is a respected figure in the sport's community who previously oversaw the Canadian sports associations for jiu-jitsu and pankration and is now the owner and head coach of Angela's home gym, United MMA, just outside of Honolulu. Meanwhile, the latter is a two-time Canadian silver medalist and black belt in taekwondo who specializes in training young children at United MMA.

Those familiar with her background knew the 2012 world pankration amateur champion had martial arts skill, a good wrestling foundation as a high school champion in Hawaii and potential in the cage after picking up an amateur MMA belt in her home state just two years later.

However, no one could have known how she would handle being under the bright lights of ONE Championship. It turned out the future atomweight champion was just fine.

Following her debut win, the Hawaii resident dropped out of college and moved to Singapore, where she joined Evolve MMA gym to pursue the sport full time. 

Angela grew into a bonafide submission specialist under the tutelage of team members and father Ken. 

The remainder of 2015 saw "Unstoppable" improve to 4-0 in style, as it included a defeat of Natalie Hills by twister in her third bout—the first time in ONE history a competitor was able to utilize the submission hold successfully. The Women's MMA Press Association later named that finish the Submission of the Year. 

Accolades continued to pour in from both the Women's MMA Press Association, who named Lee the Newcomer of the Year in 2015, and the World MMA Awards, who nominated her for Female Fighter of the Year at just 19 years old.

After starting her career 5-0, all wins via submission, Lee earned a shot at the inaugural ONE atomweight world championship midway through 2016 against 24-match veteran Mei Yamaguchi, by far her most experienced opponent to that point.

What followed was ONE's Bout of the Year, as both competitors went back and forth through five rounds to determine a champion. In the end, it was Lee who earned the judges' decision.

After becoming the youngest MMA champion at a major organization, an emotional Lee was comforted by Yamaguchi, who let ONE's newest titleholder know what everyone at Singapore Indoor Stadium was likely already thinking that night.

"You're gonna be a star, girl."

Yamaguchi wasn't wrong.

During the post-match interview, Lee, normally bubbly in demeanor, put the world on notice and reminded the crowd that she was here to stay with an impassioned statement: "I told you guys I was born for this."

The atomweight continued to prove that was true after defending her title three times over the next two years, tied for the second-most defenses in ONE history.

This included a rematch against Yamaguchi that also went the distance and was impressive in its own right considering Lee spent the previous seven months recovering from a serious car crash after falling asleep at the wheel during an early morning drive to practice. The accident resulted in a concussion and bruises.

After clearing out her division, Lee continued to challenge herself by moving up to strawweight last March and competing for a second belt.

A win against fellow champion and knockout artist Xiong Jing Nan would have made Lee just the third ONE athlete and first woman at the promotion to earn a title in two weight classes. However, "Unstoppable" was finally stopped after Xiong earned a fifth-round TKO to hand Lee the first loss of her career.

"First, it was kind of a shock," Lee told Bleacher Report. "Then, it was a big wave of disappointment. Ever since I was young, I always had big expectations for myself, and if I couldn't live up to them, it was very discouraging and disappointing. For me, I've always known how much potential I have. But on the nights that matter most, can it show? You start having that doubt. I think that's a tough thing to deal with."

The doubt grew when she picked up another loss in the strawweight division less than four months later to Michelle Nicolini by decision. Lee's locomotive-like momentum she built over four years came to a grinding halt.

"After the July match, I was just lost," Lee said. "I asked myself, 'Am I doing anything right?' Everything felt like it was falling apart. It was a stressful time for me."

Lee faces Xiong in the rematch Oct. 12. This time, though, The Panda hopes to end another streak of Lee's by stripping her of the atomweight belt she's held for more than three years and hand her a loss in the division she's 9-0 in. With a win, Xiong can do what Lee couldn't: become the first multi-division women's champion in ONE history.

A third straight loss for Lee would put her career at a crossroads. No championship around her waist likely means that the biggest name in ONE's women's division would have to build her credibility back up before getting another title opportunity any time soon. That's quite the contrast in career paths considering where she was just a year ago as an undefeated champion with a scintillating amount of momentum. 

To avoid a major regression in her career, Lee needs a win. If the pressure wasn't already on, she'll have to earn the victory in the main event of the first ONE card to be nationally televised in the U.S.

"It's crazy, you don't really think about how big of a deal this is until someone says it like that," Lee said. "It's a huge honor for me. It's an amazing opportunity for me to defend my title, to get this rematch back, and I'm not going to let this opportunity slip."

Only a couple weeks away from the biggest match of her career, a confident Lee reflects on her preparations for Xiong and how her journey from prospect to champion is a key motivating factor heading into ONE: Century.

"I'm feeling really good about Xiong," she said. "I'm happy and healthy. Everything's falling into place. We've done so much in this camp, probably way more than we've done in the past. I think I've developed more as a martial artist, and I'll bring that confidence with me when I step into the cage.

"I just have stay true to who I am. I think the most important thing is to not get lost in this whole journey. From the day I first got signed to ONE until now, it's been such a crazy ride. Now, I'm just so appreciative for everything that's happened to me. I never want that to end."

With a win against Xiong, the only thing that would end for Unstoppable Angela Lee is her losing streak.

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