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 is at a crossroads for the first time in her career ahead of her much-anticipated rematch against Xiong Jing Nan.
"After last July's match, I was just lost," Lee told Bleacher Report. "I asked myself, 'Am I doing anything right?' Everything felt like it was falling apart. It was a stressful time for me."
The match Lee references is her most recent bout against Michelle Nicolini, to whom she lost by unanimous decision. Lee has now lost back-to-back matches after starting her career as a 9-0 phenom at ONE Championship, being named Newcomer of the Year at the World MMA Awards in 2015, and becoming the youngest MMA champion in history at a major organization.
In fairness to the ONE atomweight champion, both losses came in a strawweight division she moved up to in an attempt to become the first two-division women's champion in the organization's history. It's not an easy task to go up against competitors that are naturally bigger.
However, what many expected to be a celebratory evening in Tokyo last March against strawweight champion Xiong turned into the "Unstoppable" Lee's first setback.
Toward the end of their back-and-forth bout, which could be named ONE's match of the year, Xiong landed a wicked punch to Lee's body. Clearly in pain, the 23-year-old was forced to retreat in an attempt to recover. Xiong didn't let up though, and the knockout artist continued her onslaught to force referee Olivier Coste to stop the match.
"First, it was kind of a shock," Lee said of her first professional loss. "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? I think that’s a tough thing to deal with."
The doubt grew when she picked up a second straight loss less than four months later to Nicolini.
Lee's locomotive-like momentum she had built over four years withered, and she needed an escape to get her head right. It came from a familiar place.
The Waipahu, Hawaii, resident is a coach at her family gym, United MMA, just outside of Honolulu. Angela trains alongside ONE lightweight world champion and brother Christian Lee, and fellow ONE athlete and husband Bruno Pucci under the tutelage of their father, Ken.
Part of their training includes coaching children of all ages who are there for recreational and/or competitive purposes. It was while training an exceptional group of students that Lee found new inspiration for her rematch against Xiong.
"This is a huge job," Angela said. "For me, I started in martial arts growing up as a young kid learning self-defense. Now, it's my profession. I think it's really important to pass on this knowledge I've developed to the next generation of kids because it develops so much not only physically, but mentally, emotionally and spiritually. It's amazing watching them from the first day they step into training and how they grow so much.
"What really lifted my spirits after the July loss though was accompanying a youth team from this gym halfway across the world to Europe to compete in a tournament."
The inaugural edition of the Youth MMA World Championships took place last August in Rome, Italy, and featured 269 competitors from 12 to 17 years old representing 90 different nations. One of those nations was the U.S., coached by members of the Lee family including Angela. Two of the competitors on Team USA included her younger siblings, Adrian and Victoria, the latter of whom was named the most outstanding fighter in her division.
The U.S. earned 27 medals at the competition, 16 of which were gold. Both results topped the tournament's standings.
"To see them so bright-eyed, hungry and excited to compete, it reminded me of my younger days when I started," Lee said. "To coach them to victory was amazing and reignited a hunger in me. They’re a huge motivating factor for me in my next fight."
After that successful coaching experience, Lee returned stateside and continued what she described as the most in-depth training camp she's had yet in preparation for her rematch with Xiong.
"The preparation for Angela’s camp has been amazing," Christian Lee said as he prepares for his own match at ONE: Century alongside his sister. "I've seen how hard she's worked for this. I've seen how many miles she's put on the treadmill and the hundreds of rounds she's put in the cage. I know come Oct. 12 that she'll be ready."
In their rematch on Oct. 12, Xiong looks to become the first multi-division women's champion in ONE history by knocking Angela off the atomweight throne she's sat on for more than three years.
A third straight loss for Lee would be devastating. No championship around her waist likely means that the biggest name in ONE's women's division would have to start from scratch and build her credibility again before getting another title opportunity. That's quite the contrast considering where she was earlier this year as an undefeated champion with the most momentum on the ONE roster.
Lee needs a win. If she wasn't already feeling the pressure, she'll have to earn a 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."
Christian Lee believes this is the most determined Angela has ever been as she attempts to steer her career back on the right track.
"She has to defend her belt and she's taking it very personally," Christian said. "There will be fireworks. It's more than the belt on the line for her. It's her legacy."
Not often is the legacy of a 23-year-old on the line, but this must-win match bodes long-term consequences, win or lose, for Angela Lee.