ONE Championship’s Angela Lee chases MMA stardom outside UFC

Angela Lee is a citizen of the world. Born in Canada and raised in Hawaii by her South Korean mother and Singaporean father, the 20-year-old has lived her short adult life in constant movement around the Pacific Rim and to innumerable points beyond.

When asked how she defines herself geographically, Lee can’t pick just one identity.

“I feel like I’m comfortable in any of those areas, any of those countries,” Lee said. “I think it’s a blessing to have so much mixed culture.”

Lee also doesn’t fit into any particular box as one of the world’s most intriguing up-and-coming mixed martial artists. The daughter of two martial arts instructors is a gifted wrestler, a strong striker and a prototype for the next generation of well-rounded MMA prospects.

And she didn’t need the UFC to reach the precipice of international stardom, either.

Lee (7-0) fights for ONE Championship, a Singapore-based promotion that dominates the burgeoning Asian market for professional MMA. She defends her 115-pound title for the second time Friday in a headlining bout against Istela Nunes at Singapore Indoor Stadium.

Lee’s fame is already remarkable around Asia, where her combination of talent and charisma has inspired comparison to Ronda Rousey. In just two years as a professional, the former Hawaii state wrestling champion is building buzz while expanding non-Asian MMA fans’ UFC-centric perception of the sport.

“I’m maturing as a fighter, but I still have so much to learn,” Lee said. “That’s the exciting part. I feel like I’m not even close to my peak or my potential yet.”

Lee was the first woman to headline a ONE Championship show last year when she won the promotion’s atomweight — called strawweight by the UFC — title. Her show this week is the second ONE event headlined by a woman, and she praises both her promotion and Asian fight fans for embracing the women’s game so quickly.

“When I first started my fighting as an amateur, there were still a few critics saying women shouldn’t be fighting, this and that,” Lee said. “Just in these two years, it’s really been amazing to see the mindset change for people, and how they’re looking at these women who are stepping into the cage. We definitely get a lot more respect now. We’ve come a long way, and I’m excited for all the progress that is still to come.”

The UFC has never found a solid foothold in the Asian market despite numerous attempts over the years. The promotion is trying again next month with a show at Singapore Indoor Stadium featuring several Asian contenders on a card headlined by former champion Holly Holm and ex-title contender Bethe Correia.

Lee isn’t sure whether she will attend the UFC show next month, since she might be home in Hawaii.

“I’m curious to see what the turnout is going to be like in June,” Lee said. “I don’t know too much about how dominant they (could be) on this side, but I know for sure that ONE Championship sells out stadiums every single time they host an event here. So definitely, I’d say ONE Championship has a lockdown on Asia and the Asian market.”

To answer a question posed to her almost weekly for the past two years, Lee thinks she could handle herself against anybody on the UFC’s 115-pound roster. That includes long-reigning champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk, widely considered the top pound-for-pound fighter in the women’s game.

“I would be so game to fight Joanna or any of the UFC girls,” Lee said. “I’m very confident in my skill set against theirs. I have no problem stepping into the cage with any of them.”

But ONE is building a stable of world-class talent to compete with Lee, and she intends to keep up her pursuit of stardom and sponsorships from her home base in Singapore.

There is a major downside to pursuing a professional fighting career in Singapore, however: One of the world’s greatest food cities isn’t a great place to be in the final days of a weight cut. She believes she can fight off her current cravings for a huge burger until after her bout.

“It’s definitely a struggle for me, especially when my family wants to go out to eat, and of course I’m not going to make them suffer with me,” Lee said with a laugh. “I’m like, ‘You guys go ahead.’ It’s very torturous for me to be eating my salad and then having them feasting in front of me, but it’s just more motivation for me to get the job done on fight night.”

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