When Angela Lee steps into the cage for her next fight, it will be to defend her ONE Championship atomweight title. And when she next steps into the cage, it will be in the midst of the first losing streak of her career.
Both of these statements are true. It seems like a contradiction, given the 23-year-old Lee still holds the atomweight belt. The setbacks were borne of ambition.
Lee most recently competed at strawweight, which tops out at 125 pounds, or 10 pounds heavier than the 115-pound atomweight limit defined by ONE. In March, she moved up to fight strawweight champ Xiong Jing Nan for the title. Xiong overcame that challenge by stopping her in the fifth round. Four months later, she fought again at strawweight, and again, she lost, falling short on points against Brazilian jiu-jitsu ace Michelle Nicolini.
Lee remains a champion. But she’s also on the comeback trail.
She’d never dealt with defeat as a pro. The thought of back-to-back losses would have been unfathomable a year ago. But here she is, on the cusp of a rematch with Xiong at ONE Championship: Century in Tokyo on Saturday (Sunday in Japan), and her atomweight belt is on the line. She has a shot at ultimate redemption, or she risks dropping to 0-3 in 2019.
She’s dealing with it.
“It’s all part of the game,” Lee told MMA Fighting. “You’ve got to take the good with the bad, and I know that now. When I first was dealing with the losses, it was fresh, it was painful. But these kinds of things, they happen to the best fighters, and you can either quit, give up, or you can learn from it.
“I chose to definitely not have those losses be in vain. I wanted to fix my mistakes right away back in the gym, training hard, and just kind of searching to get fired up again and to go out there. I think I’ve been training so hard for these past few weeks that I’m just ready to show all the improvements I’ve made and to just go out there and do my best.”
Lee didn’t have to stew on her losses alone. Her younger brother, Christian, is the current ONE lightweight (170-pound) champion, and he’ll also be competing this weekend as a late-notice replacement for an injured Eddie Alvarez in the finals of the ONE Lightweight World Grand Prix. Her husband, Bruno Pucci, is also a member of the ONE roster.
The Lees train primarily out of United MMA in Hawaii, and they recently had the opportunity to take some of their younger students on a European trip to participate in youth MMA tournaments. This experience went a long way towards helping Lee move past the Nicolini loss.
“I wasn’t happy about that fight,” Lee said. “I was frustrated about it, because it’s never easy to have a loss and then to have a second one right after that after I was looking to get back on track. It’s frustrating for me. I think I needed a little break and what helped me to get my mind straight, (and) was I was able to accompany a team of kids from our gym to compete in Europe for the Pankration world amateur MMA.
“To see them go out there, travel, do their best, (with) no fear of losing, just go out there and have fun, that was very inspiring to me. And that kind of helped me get out of this funk. So I came back from that trip ... super motivated, and I headed right into this camp. I think that definitely (helped with) all of the frustrations, (and) all of the things that I’m feeling about those losses, I’m going to try and redirect them into positive energy and get that W on October 13.”
Still just 11 bouts into her fighting career, Lee has been under the microscope from day one. Her exploits have been broadcast to millions of viewers, a stark contrast with the level of exposure that most prospects are expected to deal with.
At first, it was one high after another: Five submission wins in her first five fights, an atomweight championship victory, three consecutive title defenses. But now Lee, and all of those watching her, have seen the lows too, though her record at 115 pounds remains unblemished.
Even if that remains the case after her next fight, Lee isn’t done chasing a second division title, especially because she believes she’s cleared out the atomweight ranks.
“I think that the atomweight division that I fought in, I fought so many contenders already and I know that the division is growing,” Lee said. “There’s a lot of new up-and-comers, but I think that there’s not going to be anyone in title contention at the moment. So that’s why I moved up to strawweight, because I wanted to keep myself busy. I wanted to be able to fight three times a year. Being able to bounce between divisions allows me to do that.”
So far, Lee’s strawweight ventures have been fruitless. But for the woman nicknamed “Unstoppable,” setbacks are temporary. A win over Xiong will even the series at 1-1, and a trilogy bout will be all but written in stone.
If it’s up to Lee, the fight will be at 125 pounds, which is where she’s still determined to make her mark.
“It’s still on my mind,” Lee said. “After I get my hand raised October 13, I want to head back to the strawweight division. I think that I’m gonna go in there with a new kind of fire, and I know that I haven’t shown my potential yet in that division. I’m looking to climb back up the ranks, and eventually, I think everyone after this fight is gonna want to see a third matchup with me and Xiong.
“But that’s later on in the works. Right now, we’ve got a big fight ahead of us.”