The disarming smile only tells half the story when it comes to Angela Lee. So it’s best – for her opponents at least – not to be fooled. Lee comes across for all the world like your regular 20-year-old, enjoying to its full a life spent with family and friends and trips to the white sand back near her home in Hawaii. It’s when Lee sets foot inside the Singapore gym she fights out of – or the cage in which the sport of mixed martial arts (MMA) is played out – that things change. There, she transforms into the warrior who last year became the youngest world champion in MMA history.
With victory over Japan’s Mei Yamaguchi 12 months ago, Lee claimed the ONE Championships’ world atomweight title. She followed that up this March with a three-round demolition job over Taiwan’s Jenny Huang in Bangkok.
In the course of 12 months, Lee has become the undisputed star of the sport in Asia, with advertising contracts and a salary to match. She’s back in the cage on May 26 in Singapore for her second title defence – against Istela Nuñes of Brazil – as the headline on ONE’s Dynasty of Heroes card.
When we caught up with her in between bouts, Lee explained what it means to be world champion, and how she hopes to be a role model for young women across Asia – and beyond.
How did it feel to claim the title?
Incredible. I couldn’t believe it at first, because it was such a tough fight. But I kept coming back, and all the hard work was worth it. It comes back to all the drills you do and the hours you spend in the gym and with your support team. To have your hand raised [in victory] – there’s no other feeling like it.
Your father Ken and your brother Christian train you, and they’re in your corner for your fights. How much does family mean to you?
Everything. My brother is my best friend and Dad and Mom are my heroes. They brought me up loving martial arts and loving this life we live.
You guys train a lot of kids. Is being a role model important to you?
I have a younger sister so I know how important it is to have someone to look up to, like I look up to my mom. Women are a force in MMA and that’s great, and I hope to continue showing the way – by the way I fight and by the way I live my life outside the cage. The kids bring so much joy into my day. It’s so good to be able to give something back to the sport and train them and be with them. Of course, when I’m training for a fight I can spend some time with the kids and they make me laugh, and it helps keep everything light hearted.
You’ve been touring a lot, and getting intense media attention, so getting back home to Hawaii must be nice.
I love it. It’s like dual life that I’m living because I can just go back home and I can chill. Everyone in Hawaii keeps it real – they’re not star-struck about anyone, they’re just really cool. That keeps me grounded as well.
When you won the title you had the exact time tattooed on your arm. How did you celebrate your first title defence?
The day after the fight I headed over to The Siam hotel and got a traditional Thai tattoo. It took about four hours. So now I have a beautiful phoenix on my left shoulder.
It was 10 months between fights. Was it a different feeling defending the title?
Initially, right after a fight you have so much adrenaline pumping, you’re just so happy it feels like you’re on another planet. This time, in the end we just came back to the hotel with my family and ordered room service, and I celebrated with some ice cream. Actually in the middle of the night I woke up thinking, “Did that really just happen?” I got up and saw the belt on the table and then I could finally have a really good sleep.
Do you have any downtime or does the training continue year long?
You have to keep the momentum going. It’s early in the year and there’s much more to go. The plan was never to take a long break. I want to get back in the cage as many times as possible this year.
What was going through your mind before the final round in Bangkok?
I was listening to my cornermen – my dad and my brother. I was feeling great. They were saying, “OK, it’s time to take her to the ground and finish this.” And that’s what I did. I was happy with my striking but she was tough, she just wouldn’t quit. When I saw the opportunity I brought her to the ground, and once she was down it was all about bringing it home with the ground and pound. I did what I do best, and I finished the fight.
How does it feel to get punched in the face?
Well, the idea is not to, of course! But fighting is my life and it’s just what I love to do, so you take it as it comes.
Run us through your average day.
My days are packed with multiple training sessions. I wake at 5am, I go to the gym at six. Four or five training sessions and I don’t get out of the gym until about 10. I’ve upped the cardio in between training sessions, too – running and on the bike. This year I’ve never felt better.
How will you prepare yourself mentally for your fight in May?
When you have a fight lined up, it becomes the only thing on your mind – from the moment you wake up, to when you get on the mat to train, until you go to sleep. There’s been a lot of publicity and I understand that and I appreciate that. But I’m not letting it get to my head one bit. My focus is on my next fight and on my opponent.