With her sunny smile and sun-kissed tan, Angela Lee could be mistaken for any carefree 21-year-old if you just glimpsed her out and about in Singapore. Except, of course, this young woman already has some formidable achievements under her belt—at age 19, she became the world’s youngest mixed martial arts (MMA) champion when she defeated Japan’s Mei Yamaguchi to win the One Championship women’s atomweight title, and subsequently defended that title successfully twice.
Born in Canada to a Singaporean father and a Korean mother, she was raised in Hawaii and “I’ve been in the gym environment since I could crawl”, she says matter-of-factly. Both her parents, who were high school sweethearts, are highly skilled martial artists who used to compete professionally; when they decided to start a family, they launched their own gym. “The majority of my childhood was spent in the gym. I don’t remember when I started, honestly. I could have been tumbling and rolling around on the mats at two years old.” Her parents never forced her or her three younger siblings to compete, but “we had to learn how to defend ourselves. That wasn’t an option. Like if there was a life or death scenario, my parents wanted to be able to pass down their knowledge of how to protect ourselves”.
Angela took to the sport of her own accord, and by her own admission was a very competitive child. By age six, she was entering children’s martial arts competitions, “and I loved it”. Sometimes she would face off against her brother Christian, because there was no gender separation for divisions below a certain age. Today, he is a fellow One Championship fighter and still one of her training partners, while her parents help to coach her.
The family is obviously tight-knit. In a video clip of her 2016 championship fight, both Christian and her father can be seen beaming proudly next to her as she was announced the winner, while her mother fixed her gaze on her from just outside the cage. Everyone looked like they were on the verge of crying except Angela, who openly wiped away tears even as she burst into an elated smile.
“My mum and dad are my biggest heroes,” she tells us without hesitation. “They’re the ones who taught me how to dream, how to take risks, how to work hard and achieve the ultimate success, which is finding my passion and my purpose.”
Her mettle was put to the test last November in Hawaii, when she fell asleep at the wheel while driving to a training session in the wee hours of the morning, and her car hit a guardrail on the highway and flipped several times. Angela emerged from the accident with a slight concussion and minor burns, and a few weeks later attended the One Championship event at the Singapore Indoor Stadium where her third title defence match would have taken place if not for the crash. She had her championship belt on her shoulder, and the crowd greeted her with a roar, but it wasn’t an easy night, she remembers. “I wasn’t fully in the right mindset yet, I was still very emotional. When I walked in and saw everyone, I was trying to act like I was ok. That was kind of a tough moment. There was just a lot going on, I was still shaken up about the accident. I did the best I could that night.”
That title defence match, once again against Yamaguchi, will finally take place this month, and thanks to her family, she is ready to re-enter the cage. “If it was just me facing tough problems by myself, I don’t know if I could do it. Because I can lean on my family and go to them for support, love and advice, they really helped me pull through. When that accident happened to me, it affected my whole family as well and we all really banded together. It took some time, and it was definitely something we overcame together.”
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Being the youngest and first female champion in One Championship is obviously very meaningful to her. “It’s something that will go down in the history books. I can add that to my legacy.” Even without seeing her in action, this unabashed, even-keeled pride in her hard-won achievements makes it clear that she is no ordinary twenty-something. As a female Asian athlete competing in a sport that is still gaining mainstream acceptance, the easy confidence with which she owns her excellence is refreshing, and Angela knows that young girls are watching.
“I want to encourage them to dream big and have the resilience to see those dreams become a reality,” she says firmly. “I want to give as much support as I can to young girls and women who are aspiring to not just pursue MMA, but anything really. Achieving your dreams takes so much sacrifice, and a strong support system around you, be it your family, mentors or good friends. I think it’s really important to surround yourself with good people.”
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