One of the best fights of 2016 happened halfway across the world, far from western audiences, at an hour when most of the west coast was still wiping the bleary crust from its eyes.
Over nine months have past since then, when Angela Lee announced her presence on the global stage with a spellbinding win over Mei Yamaguchi, and much has changed. At the young age of 20, ONE Championship’s inaugural — and thus far only — female titleholder has risen to become one of the leading faces of the company, and on March 11, she will finally return to make the first defense of her strap against unbeaten Taiwanese prospect Jenny Huang.
“I feel like I learned more in that fight, that five-round fight with Mei, than I did in all my other fights combined,” Lee told MMA Fighting ahead of ONE: Warrior Kingdom.
“Just because having that much pressure on your shoulders and learning to deal with it, and really work through it and push through — I gained so much knowledge and so much experience from that fight. So I’m really grateful. Although I did try to finish the fight, and even though it didn’t happen, I wouldn’t have changed anything about it, just because I think it was an amazing experience that I’m so glad I went through.”
Lee’s clash against Yamaguchi was everything a trial by fire should be for an young prospect: five full rounds of all-out action and adversity, a smorgasbord of wild swings in momentum that culminated with the sort of testing of wills that few athletes ever understand until they experience it. And for Lee, the act was even more impressive given her age. She was just 19 years old when she faced Yamaguchi — a young woman with barely two years of experience trading cannon fire with a battle-hardened 10-year veteran.
Not surprisingly, the standout performance prompted ONE to immediately double down on Lee. Days after the fight, ONE inked Lee to a new contract that a press release claimed made her one of the “top-five highest paid fighters” in the organization. Lee has since received a major marketing push throughout Asia, traveling across the continent to promote the ONE Championship brand, her popularity buoyed by her parents’ dual roots in Singapore and South Korea.
For someone who still isn’t legally old enough to buy a beer in her own home state of Hawaii, it’s all come together quickly for Lee. And although she grew up surrounded since childhood by the martial arts, even she can’t help but be blown away by how her MMA career has played out thus far.
“It’s crazy just to think about all that’s happened in this short amount of time,” Lee said. “Going into becoming a professional fighter and being with ONE Championship, obviously this was my goal, to reach the top and become the champion, however I did not think that it would come this quickly. I’m so grateful for everything.
“It’s a lot, but with the help of my family — I’m very, very close to my family, and to have them around me constantly, one, helps to keep me humbled and keeps me from getting big-headed, but also, two, they’re my support group. My dad is my head coach. They’re what keeps me grounded and they keep it real for me, so I’m really grateful to have them on this journey.”
While it would be easy for Lee to let the success of 2016 go to her head, especially under such unusual circumstances, she generally seems to be the first one to admit how green in the game she truly is. Her potential is evident, but her skills are still in their embryonic stages, and she considers herself a student of the game who studies the mistakes of figures like Ronda Rousey, whose stubbornness towards change ultimately caused her to pay a significant price.
“As brutal as it is, that’s the fight game, and that’s how things go down,” Lee said. “This sport is full of ups and downs, highs and lows. For me, I think that it’s just incredibly important to surround yourself with people who are going to be honest with you. You need to be honest with yourself. I think the most important thing is just to keep learning and keep improving. That’s the whole thing about martial arts, just improving yourself as a person.
“Since the title fight, I’ve just been going nonstop, really training hard, improving my skill set in all areas, from the striking to the takedowns to the grappling and such. I think that, for me, as a champion, it’s really important how I look at things and how — I don’t want to become complacent. I want to stay hungry, continue learning and striving to just improve in martial arts. I can’t wait to get back in the cage, really. It’s been awhile for me, so I’m really excited about this one.”
It’s still far, far too early to call Lee one of the best female fighters in the world. But the path is there for her to one day reach that stage, and in Huang, she faces a worthy next test.
A 26-year-old challenger, Huang holds an undefeated 4-0 record in the ONE cage, with the last three of those victories ending in submissions. Last December, she twisted April Osenio into all sorts of devilish knots en route to winning with the rarely-seen gogoplata finish.
So while Lee’s future in ONE may be bright, she knows that nothing is guaranteed unless she gets by the next foe standing in her way in Bangkok.
“Obviously any champion’s first title defense is crucial,” Lee said. “I’m really looking to make a statement with this fight. Jenny, she’s had really great fights and she’s earned her shot at the title. I’m taking her very seriously, but I think that this is my time to really show the world who I am as a fighter and solidify myself as a champion.
“This time off has really given me time for everything to sink in. I’ve been able to do a lot of traveling, meeting a lot of new people. All these new experiences have been just amazing for me, but all the while, still training hard, harder than ever actually, just because I know how important this first title defense is.”