Angela Lee has been living the dream in the eight months since she became the youngest world champion in the history of mixed martial arts (MMA).
But the 20-year-old says she knows how quickly her sport can bring a fighter crashing back down to reality. Lee was among millions around the world who looked on as Ronda Rousey, the one-time queen of MMA, was battered senseless, and maybe even out of the sport, in her 48-second loss to Amanda Nunes at UFC 207 last month.
“Yeah, I watched and as brutal as it is, that’s the fight game,” Lee said on Tuesday. “And that’s how things go down. The sport is full of ups and downs, highs and lows.
“For me it’s just incredibly important to just surround yourself with people that are going to be honest with you and you have to be honest with yourself.
“I think the most important thing is to just keep learning and improving.”
Taking in as many fights from the spectator seats when she’s not under the spotlight herself is all part of the game, said Lee.
“As a normal fan, of course I am watching all the fights,” she said. “It’s something that I love to do. I watch and I analyse to help me with my training as well. I like to break down the fights with my dad and my brother and learn from [other fighters’] experiences.”
Lee’s own dose of reality is now looming large on the horizon – she’s set to make the first defence of her ONE Championship world atomweight title against Taiwan’s Jenny Huang in Bangkok on March 11. And the young star said she was looking forward to being back in the limelight.
“It’s been a little while out of the cage, something I’m not quite used to,” Lee said over the phone, as she begins to pump up the promotion for her return to battle. “Since the title fight I’ve just been training hard [and] improving in all areas, from the striking to the takedowns to the grappling. I can’t wait to get back into the cage.”
The Canadian-born Lee, who lives in Hawaii, in the US, but fights out of the Evolve MMA gym in Singapore, was still 19 when she claimed the atomweight crown with a unanimous decision over Japan’s Mei Yamaguchi last May.
Lee at times looked done and dusted but fought her way out of trouble, and overwhelmed the 33-year-old Yamaguchi in what proved to be one of the best women’s bouts of the year. Little wonder they call her “Unstoppable”.
“Going the full five five-minute championship rounds was a first for me,” said Lee. “It didn’t take so much out of me physically, more mentally and emotionally. There was a lot of pressure going into that fight and the training was rigorous. So I really appreciated the time off but I’m really excited to get back.” That victory took Lee’s record to 6-0, and it made her a superstar at the same time. She became the poster girl for the sport in Asia as it rapidly spreads its influence across the region.
Huang, 26, the first Taiwanese to fight for a world MMA title, has won all of her five bouts so far. In December, she scored a first-round victory over April Osenio of the Philippines.
Lee vowed she would not fall into the trap of taking her lesser-known opponent lightly. “Obviously any champion’s first title defence is crucial,” said Lee. “I’m really looking to make a statement with this fight. Jenny has had really great fights and she’s earned her shot at the title. I’m taking her very seriously. But I think this is my time to show the world who I am as a fighter.”