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Angela Lee ready to shed ‘prospect’ label at ONE Championship: Dynasty of Heroes

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Angela Lee looks to defend her ONE atomweight title against Istela Nunes at ONE Championship: Dynasty of Heroes.
ONE Championship

Angela Lee is 20 years young, a reigning and defending ONE atomweight champion, and by all accounts, a budding star on the other side of the world — so much so that she admits it’s almost like she’s living a double life when she’s home stateside in quiet Hawaii, away from the lights and crowds and cameras of Singapore.

That’s one heck of a résumé for a fighter still too young to legally drink. But while Lee’s undefeated run has led her to be promoted as one of the marquee faces of ONE Championship, many within the fight game still view Lee to be a prospect due to her youth and experience level. And while Lee acknowledges that she’s still in the beginning stages of her career, that up-and-comer label is one she hopes to shed with her sophomore title defense against unbeaten Brazilian striker Istela Nunes on May 26 at ONE Championship: Dynasty of Heroes.

“It is tricky, because I really am just getting started,” Lee told MMA Fighting. “But already in my career I’ve won the world title, defended the world title, but still I have so much more to go. So I think that it’s really cool and interesting and exciting because right now I’ve already accomplished so much and there’s so much more to go still, so I think that I’m definitely past the prospect stage. I think other fighters and other trainers see me as legitimate.

“And because I got such a head start in the game, I see a really long career for myself. I’m young and hungry to learn, hungry to keep improving and fighting. Fighting is what I love to do, so I’m going to obviously try and ride this wave for as long as I can and make the most of my time.”

Lee is the first person to admit that she still has a lot left to learn. She is, after all, only three years into a cagefighting career that will likely stretch another decade, at minimum. But already she has shown the kind of growth that could one day turn her into a legitimate force in women’s MMA.

After running roughshod over her first six ONE Championship opponents with slick mat work, Lee debuted an evolved striking game to great effect this past March, battering the previously unbeaten Jenny Huang with combinations from distance and crunching knees from the clinch to secure her first victory via strikes.

“I think there is no limit on the potential I have to better myself as a fighter,” Lee said. “Right now is the perfect time for me to just keep upgrading my skills, sharpen my skillset — and I think that’s going to be a huge advantage for me against these other girls, because with each fight, getting more and more confidence, more and more experience, just continuing to sharpen my skills outside of the cage, I’m just aiming to be the perfect fighter. And to be the perfect fighter, you’ve just got to keep improving, keep evolving.

“(Against Huang) I felt very comfortable on my feet. I worked a lot of different combinations, a lot of striking with my dad, and when I went inside the cage, I just did what I was training to do. I let it all flow out and it was great to really get more time on the feet inside of the cage, just building more and more experience.”

For Lee, that in-cage experience is an invaluable part of her development as a young fighter, and it’s the reason why she opted to jump back into the fray for a quick turnaround after her win over Huang. After sitting out nearly a year between capturing the ONE Championship title and defending it, Lee says she wanted to stay busy and keep her momentum rolling — a chance for her to build up further cagetime to comfortably assess her progress and the holes she needs to work on.

And while Lee admits that one day she would like to venture out to one of the big MMA camps like American Top Team or Jackson-Wink to gather more experience, she attributes much of her current success to her small team back home in Hawaii, which is coached by her father and allows Lee to be the focal point at all times in training.

“If you look at a bunch of the fighters who come from small, close-knit teams, you’ll see that a lot of them have success in their fighting careers because of that, all of the attention and all of the training is specifically geared towards what their fight is going to be like,” Lee said. “For me, coming up in my family’s gym here in Hawaii, my dad, he kinda just schedules and makes the gameplan of training and all-around (for my brother) Christian’s and my fights. So I think it’s good.

“Obviously it’s great to train with other people. If you have a bigger gym, you get to train with a lot more different people, get some more different takes. But for us here in Hawaii, what we do is, there’s a lot of fighters in Hawaii who we pull from, different camps and different teams, and we get to work with them. So we are still a small team, but we pull in other fighters to work with as well, so we kinda get the pluses of both.”

Lee says she brought in Hawaii-born Invicta FC flyweight Rachael Ostovich to help with her preparation for this camp, and she knows that she faces a tall task in Nunes. The unbeaten Brazilian proved herself no pushover with a decision win over Mei Yamaguchi last August, and her decorated Muay Thai background is sure to provide a different sort of test than any Lee has faced thus far in ONE Championship — as evidenced by Nunes’ brutal head-kick KO of Karoline Martins last year. But Lee is up for the challenge.

“I acknowledge that she’s a good striker, and that’s where her strength lies as an MMA fighter,” Lee said. “I wouldn’t say that there’s anything she has that worries me, because I’m prepared for anything. I’m prepared for the best she’s got and more, and so we’ll see.

“She’s definitely a big threat to me. She’s a good opponent. She has her credentials and she’s undefeated and she’s probably going to be very confident coming into this fight, training hard, so I’m not taking her lightly one bit. But I know that I’m training even harder and I’m the champion for a reason, so I’m looking to put on a great show for everyone on May 26 and defend my title for the second title.”