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Angela Lee giggles the sort of laugh you’d expect to hear from a shy college student who is too polite to say something that could come off as boastful.
But while she’s just two years removed from high school, the 20-year-old Hawaiian also happens to be a butt-kicker of the highest order, the youngest mixed martial arts world champion for a major promotion in the sport’s history.
If you ask Lee, the 115-pound champion of Asia’s largest promotion, the Singapore-based ONE Championship, how she’d fare against some of the best fighters in the world’s most visible strawweight division, the UFC, she won’t quite come out and say what’s on her mind. But you also don’t have to read too deep between the lines in order to understand what she’s thinking.
“I keep up with all the fighters,” Lee told Yahoo Sports. “Every league, every promotion, you want to see what the best competitors are capable of doing and measure yourself against them. And, I mean, they’re great, but … (Lee pauses and laughs) … yeah … (laughs again).”
Since she doesn’t want to come right out and say it, we’ll say it for her: It’s entirely possible the next big thing in women’s MMA is this mild-mannered, thoughtful competitor who is currently tearing things up on the other side of the world, outside of the view of most U.S. fans.
“If this was a perfect world and there were no considerations for which fighter is under contract to which promotion, and anyone could fight anyone, then yeah, I’d love to test myself against all of them,” said Lee, who is 7-0 with six submissions. “Of course, I respect people like [UFC strawweight champion] Joanna [Jedrzejczyk], but I came into this sport to be the best.”
Lee, who is of Singaporean and Korean ancestry, was born into a martial arts family. While she was born in Vancouver, Canada, she moved to Mililani, Hawaii, about 30 miles north of Honolulu, at age 7. She traveled the world competing in tournaments throughout her childhood and is a taekwondo black belt and a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt.
It was only natural, then, that mixed martial arts would catch her eye, especially when the women’s side of the sport started to break through to the mainstream. It was just over four years ago that Ronda Rousey made her UFC debut as a legion of detractors claimed there would never be an audience for women’s MMA.
But there was also a new audience of young women who didn’t care what cranky old men thought, and who were destined to become the next wave of fighters who helped continue building what Rousey established.
“I can’t tell you how grateful and appreciative I am for what Ronda did for the sport,” Lee said. “People who say bad things about her now should remember everything she did to build up the sport. I was 16 years old when Ronda started to become big and her success and her accomplishments were such a huge inspiration. That was when I got serious about focusing on becoming a mixed martial artist.”
Lee showed a flair for versatility from the outset, as she not only won her first five pro fights via submission inside two rounds, but won them via four separate finishes: an armbar, two rear-naked chokes, a neck crank and a rare twister.
But it was a fight last May which really caught the MMA world’s attention. Lee went a full five rounds with Japanese veteran Mei Yamaguchi at Singapore Indoor Stadium to win the first ONE atomweight championship. (ONE refers to its 115-pound women’s class as atomweight; the division is referred to as strawweight in North America.)
Lee gutted her way to a split-decision victory in an exciting matchup, which made her the sport’s youngest champion at age 19. Then she watched as word spread back home about a must-see fight, which had taken place while most Americans slept.
“Word kind of got around that there was this fight people were saying was a Fight of the Year candidate and sending the link to the video around,” Lee said. “It was fun to see that, and it was a real confidence builder to know that I had the stamina to go all five rounds and keep my composure when things got tough. Winning fast is one thing but knowing you can do your best under pressure was good, too.”
Lee, who splits her time between her Hawaiian home and Singapore, has pledged to be an active champion, and thus far she’s doing the part. She defended her title with a third-round finish of Jenny Huang on March 11 and will return to action on May 26 in Singapore against unbeaten kickboxer Istela Nunes.
The way she sees it, there’s no better way to get people’s attention than to fight so often that people have to take notice.
“You have a limited time in this sport,” Lee said. “I have things, goals, I want to accomplish in and out of the cage. I want to be able to make a difference in people’s lives. The best way to give myself that type of a platform is to fight as often as I can, get people watching my fights and leave no doubt that I’m destined to be the best.”