How burgeoning MMA superstar Angela Lee handles success by staying in the moment

One Championship’s 20-year-old world champion hopes to inspire Asian women by being true to herself and her sport

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 February, 2017, 3:42pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 February, 2017, 7:10pm

There is a reassuring normalcy about Angela Lee.

Fresh and buoyant, athletic and photogenic, she walks through your world in a pleasant and unthreatening manner. Sporting the standard millennial fitness uniform, workout tights with a loose fitting training top, she could easily pass for a modern day yoga or Pilates junkie. But then she snaps on a pair of open finger grappling gloves and everything changes.

Attacking a heavy bag with vicious kicks and rapier blows, she quickly becomes Angela “Unstoppable” Lee, One Championship women’s atomweight world champion and, according to group founder and chairman Chatri Sityodtong, not only the youngest MMA champion ever but “one of the world’s highest paid female-athletes in the entire sport of MMA for any organisation.”

Throw in her 50,000-plus Instagram followers as well as her multi-ethnic background – born in Vancouver to South Korean and Singaporean parents, raised in Hawaii, now fighting out of Singapore – and this 20-year-old phenom is any marketer’s dream, particularly with a career record of 6 and 0.

It’s a fact not lost on Sityodtong. “Not only is she the best women’s world champion on the planet right now,” he says, “but she exemplifies everything One Championship stands for. She is humble, kind, courageous and inspirational.”

Lee will be defending her title against Taiwan’s Jenny Huang when she headlines One Championship’s upcoming card at Bangkok’s Impact Arena on March 11.

A Thai native, Sityodong speaks in reverential tones about a sport whose ancestral roots can be traced to his home country. “There is true beauty and transcendent life lessons in martial arts and Angela represents all of that better than anyone,” he says.

She’s the One: Angela Lee turning heads and empowering women in MMA

Founded in 2011 and headquartered in Singapore, One Championship claims to be Asia’s largest sports media property with global broadcasts to over one billion homes in 118 countries. As the American-based UFC continues to make incursions into Asia, Sityodong believes it can only help to grow the sport. “There are four billion people in Asia,” he says. “I don’t think this is a winners-take-all market.

“The UFC has taken a different approach, which is more brash and bravado and rightfully so for their market. They have a 90 per cent market share in the western hemisphere and we have 90 per cent market share in the eastern hemisphere. Asia has a five-thousand-year history of martial arts and we are all about celebrating and honouring the true spirit of our sport.”

Angela Lee to defend One Championship title against Taiwan’s Jenny Huang in Thailand

He cites a number of Asian action and sporting heroes, like Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Manny Pacquiao, who are as popular for their physical feats as they are for their gentle and giving nature, and claims Lee is a natural successor to that enviable lineage.

For her part, Lee remains firmly grounded and grateful for the opportunity. Trained by her father, she comes from a martial arts family and her younger brother Christian Lee is also an MMA fighter. Because the roots of modern MMA are so young, social media is ingrained in its DNA and Lee is no exception. A recently posted picture of her during a morning swim at her Bangkok hotel instantly attracts more than two thousand likes.

Soaking it all in

A post shared by Angela Lee (@angelaleemma) on Feb 5, 2017 at 8:23pm PST

“This is so cool what I am able to be doing,” she says. “So I appreciate every one of my fans.” She blushes when asked about some of the more bizarre requests she has received before admitting that, “for the most part my fans are respectful and not too obtrusive. But there are occasionally some weird things.”

When asked how many marriage proposals she gets a day, she again blushes before adding, “My brother and my dad tease me about this all the time.” But, please, how many marriage proposals a day? “I don’t count,” she exclaims with a shy smile. More than one? “I think so,” she says. Trust me, it’s more than one.

Singapore’s MMA bombshell Angela Lee determined to avoid Ronda Rousey’s fate as she gets ready for first title defence

Lee has the kind of crossover appeal that can launch a sport. She could easily become an industry unto herself but all of the grandiose predictions will mean nothing if success in the ring diminishes. When I mention that five years from now I may not be able to get near her because of entourages and handlers, she quickly dismisses the notion. “I do have dreams and aspirations,” she says. “But right now there is so much good going on, it’s important to embrace that. I really do just try to live in the moment.”

And there it is, the enviable and elusive quality of being in the moment. It really is the true spirit of martial arts and one that can carry Angela Lee wherever she wants to go in her life.