Mixed martial arts champion Angela Lee’s girlish demeanour belies her prowess in the ring. By John Lui
The Singaporeand Hawaii-based Angela Lee has more than 66,000 Instagram followers. Photo: Ong Wee Jin
Mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter Angela Lee is a sports figure who many have seen or heard of, even if they know nothing about the sport.
She has more than 66,000 followers on her Instagram account (angelaleemma). A Facebook follower wants the champion to play Mulan in the live-action remake of the Disney animated movie.
Sports writers gush about her status as a “teen sensation” and “poster girl” for the sport, describing her public appearances as events that attract selfie-takers.
And there is the looks factor. The fighter, ranked 15th in the world in her weight class by independent ranking body Fight Matrix, is attractive in a way that is rare for a woman in a sport that favours muscle strength as much as skill.
Last year, a story broke about how Lee, a Canadian-American with a Singapore-born father and a Korea-born mother, is now one of the most highly paid women MMA fighters in the world, out-earning top-ranked female fighters in larger, more established leagues in the West.
Lee, who is based in Singapore and Hawaii, is not only youthful-looking. At 20, she is also young – she was the youngest champion in a major MMA organisation after winning the inaugural One Championship atomweight title last year.
In Asia, the Singapore-based One Championship league is dominant. Elsewhere, especially in the United States, the more established UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) is the leading MMA promotion company.
On Web forums, her Instagram pool and beach shots are shared for mild leering, but that banter is sometimes followed by questions about her credibility as a champion.
Social media users chat about how she is untested, that she is a pretty face pushed up the ranks for public relations.
“Critics say, ‘She wasn’t a real champion.’ But what matters to me is that I earned it,” Lee says.
The 1.65m-tall, 52kg fighter won her One Championship title by beating Japan’s Mei Yamaguchi, who had more than a decade’s professional experience, against Lee’s two years, in a nail-biting five-round match at the Singapore Indoor Stadium, which had fans and commentators on the edge of their seats.
Lee survived a punch to the face which sent her to the floor. Yamaguchi also applied two armbars – locks of her arm designed to cause pain – but Lee went on to beat her opponent by a unanimous decision.
“From here on out, every time I go out to fight, I have a bigger reason for fighting. There is so much that comes with each title defence,” she says.
Last month, she had her first shot at such a defence by defeating Taiwan’s Jenny Huang in a technical knock-out – a term that masks the fierceness of the match – in which Lee leapt on a fallen Huang to pummel her opponent’s head in a winning “ground-and-pound” move.
On May 26 at the Singapore Indoor Stadium, she will hold her second defence against Brazil’s Istela Nunes de Souza, ranked No. 42 in her weight class by Fight Matrix.
Lee says those who find it odd that she has come so far in only two years as a professional do not realise she has been training in martial arts since she was a child.
“I’ve been doing MMA my whole life. That is the one thing that makes me unique. My parents are martial arts instructors. My family shares a martial arts background,” she says.
Her younger brother Christian, 18, is also a professional MMA fighter in One Championship.
MMA’s mix of cool technique and naked aggressiveness is driving the global popularity of the sport around the world and, along with it, stars such as Lee.
But she is aware that those watching the sport for the first time are often shocked by the violence – especially when it comes from a girl with a toothy grin, who on Instagram, is often seen with a frangipani flower in her long hair. People on her photo feed these days include her sweetheart, Bruno Pucci, 26, also a fighter with One Championship.
“I can understand how it can look from a third-party perspective,” Lee says, referring to the punishment she delivered to Huang’s head with her fists.
“If she was in my position, she would do that same thing. Not everything is gory. I’ve won fights in the past by submission,” she says.
Five of her seven fights so far have been won by submission, in which she locked her opponents’ bodies in a painful, though bloodless manner.
Sports writers are in no doubt about her talent, especially in grappling and how fast she switches from one move to another. She has won every one of her seven professional fights thus far.
But now, it is all about the cheesecake. We are doing the interview at The Straits Times office with Lee, fresh from her title defence in Bangkok.
Suddenly, her posse – her mother Jewelz, a videographer making a documentary and other officials – halt for food. A slice of cheesecake has caught her eye and a snack break happens.
“She loves to eat,” says her mother.
Role model to draw women to mixed martial arts
It is not just MMA nerds who have trouble aligning Angela Lee’s looks and upbeat demeanour with stereotypes of females in the martial arts.
On her way to The Straits Times newsroom, the taxi driver asked if the championship belt she was wearing for the photo shoot was really hers.
“I’m testimony that not all fighters look a certain way or act a certain way. I have a big personality and I want to share it with everyone,” she says.
She sees a growing number of women spectators at fights, a sight that makes her happy. Lee, the eldest of four children born in Vancouver, Canada, is naturally an advocate of women learning to defend themselves through martial arts, a skill she likens to swimming in its ability to protect one’s life.
Mixed martial arts fighter Angela Lee with her family – her mother Jewelz, father Ken, brother Christian, sister Victoria and youngest sibling Adrian. Photo: Courtesy of Angela Lee
Her parents, Ken and Jewelz Lee, own a martial arts studio in Hawaii. Her father, 45, has a black belt in jiu-jitsu, taekwondo and pankration (a form of MMA), while her mother, 44, has a black belt in taekwondo and was twice a Canadian national silver medallist in that sport.
The family sold their gyms in Canada and moved to Hawaii when she was seven. By then, Angela had already trained and competed in children’s matches.
“I was exposed to every style of martial arts,” she says. Coached by her parents from the age of three at the family’s United MMA gym in Honolulu, Hawaii, she started out in MMA and, by her late teens, she had earned a black belt in taekwondo, a brown belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, was a Hawaii state wrestling champion and a two-time pankration world champion.
Mrs Lee says her eldest daughter, from a young age, “had so much energy and she was a natural leader”.
“She would help babysit the younger cousins and she would lead the children’s classes,” she says. Angela’s other siblings are sister Victoria, 12, and brother Adrian, 11. They are also in martial arts training.
In 2015, Angela and brother Christian signed up with One Championship, with Angela dropping out of her business administration degree course at the University of Hawaii- West Oahu.
That year, she said in an interview with The Straits Times that she was serious about being a prizefighter.
“My parents have been funding me and my brother’s training since we were young, so I’m really glad we can take that weight off their shoulders now,” she said at the time.
In another interview, she said she could return to her studies at any time, adding that “this is what I’ve always wanted to do and I want to put my all into it”.
She now makes an income from her prize purses, which is said to run into six figures, and from sponsorships and endorsements. She was recently in a Milo commercial, for example.
Mr Arvind Lalwani, 37, head coach and owner of Juggernaut Fight Club in Hong Kong Street, says Lee is a down-to-earth person who can kick a** as well.”
Mr Lalwani, who is president of combat promotion company Singapore Fighting Championship, has met her professionally on a few occasions.
He is struck by what he calls her “crossover appeal” – her ability to reach people outside the sport.
“She’s a superstar. She’s the total package,” he says. He had heard some buzz about her when she was first signed and wondered if the hype was true.
“I saw her fight Yamaguchi and it was one of the best MMA fights I’ve seen, for men’s or women’s matches. It went to and fro, attacking, defending. Angela got knocked down, but she stayed in the fight. I was really impressed,” he says.
And Lee has only just begun, because fighters peak after the age of 25, he says. Until then, he sees her as an empowering role model who will attract more women to the sport.
Show business would seem like a natural path to follow and Lee says she is open to offers. It is a path that former UFC champion Ronda Rousey has taken, to action movies, for example.
For now, at least, her mind is on MMA. That includes pacing herself while she is still at the start of what might be another decade of competition.
“My father plays a pivotal role in keeping me grounded…Yes, championship and consistent wins in this sport are overwhelming.”
She adds: “He constantly reminds me to exemplify the real nature of martial arts. I thank my dad for being the epitome of a true martial artist.”
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 03, 2017, with the headline ‘Sweet fighter’.