Singapore MMA star Angela Lee is hungry to be a champion

With her soaring popularity, Singapore's MMA star Angela Lee accepts that she is fighting for several causes, such as growing MMA in Asia, and furthering women's rights with her exploits in a male- dominated sport.
With her soaring popularity, Singapore's MMA star Angela Lee accepts that she is fighting for several causes, such as growing MMA in Asia, and furthering women's rights with her exploits in a male- dominated sport.ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Fast-rising MMA star hopes to be among its youngest champions come Friday fight night

In a quiet Japanese restaurant, nestled cosily in a corner of Far East Square, Angela Lee, wearing a white dress and a mysterious smile, is showing me a very private list on her phone.

The 52kg, 1.65m-tall mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter calls it her "hit list". Not of fighters she wants to beat. Not of fight moves she has to master. Instead it reads: laksa, steak, bak kut teh (pork rib soup), and hei mee (prawn noodles).

Angela, who turns 20 in July, explains: "Dieting has always been difficult. My family will go eat at these places and I usually can't eat what they're having, so I'd write it down on my phone... and after the fight I hit (the list). But (dieting) has got better over the years. I know it's just a matter of time before I can have whatever I want."

 

As if to cement her foodie credentials, Angela suggests trying the restaurant's fresh oysters after placing our orders. Unfortunately they are unavailable. "It's okay," she assures me. "Enduring makes me appreciate things a lot more."

This appreciation extends beyond gourmet pursuits. In between sips of yuzu tea, the fighter says she is grateful for her meteoric rise to fame over the past 11 months.

Since making her professional debut with Singapore-based MMA promotion One Championship last May, Angela can boast an unblemished 5-0 win-loss record.

She is also the reigning Asian MMA Awards Female Fighter of the Year. And in January, she was a Female Fighter of the Year nominee at the World MMA Awards, alongside names like Ronda Rousey and eventual winner Holly Holm.

On Friday at the Singapore Indoor Stadium, she will take on Mei Yamaguchi for the women's atomweight title in Ascent to Power - the first women's title fight in One Championship's history.

Despite her whirlwind success, Angela insists she is still the bubbly girl who giggled in front of cameras after taking a mere 1min 43sec to win her first bout in May last year.

"Less than a year ago no one knew who I was," she says. "I had to beg them to get me on local TV and news. So I'm really appreciative of everything that's happened and I'm lucky to be surrounded by really great people."

Much has been made about how close her family is and Angela, the eldest of four children, says that it is what keeps her grounded.

It helps that parents Ken and Jewelz are also martial arts exponents. They run a gym in Hawaii, aptly called United MMA, where Angela and her brother Christian, 17, sometimes instruct at. Victoria, 11, and Adrian, 10, make up the Lee pack.

"They are my reality check. If I didn't have my family, my head could've been this big by now," she says, her hands wide around her head for effect.

Singapore-born dad Ken, who holds black belts in three martial arts forms, first taught his daughter the basics - stretching, punching and tumbling - when she was three. At six, he entered her for her first competition.

Angela is now a two-time Pankration world champion, a Hawaii state wrestling champion, and holds a black belt in taekwondo and brown belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

Citing her ability to switch between styles as one of her strengths, Ken points out: "You can learn many forms, but the key is to transit quickly in the ring and she does that well."

Angela's wealth of competitive experience also makes her a formidable fighter, says Heath Sims, her coach at Evolve Fight Team.

"She's also got a great work ethic and great athleticism," he says. "In my mind she is already one of the top women fighters in the world and she can only get better."

This work ethic comes through in her training. Despite arriving from Hawaii on Wednesday morning, Angela jumped straight into training. On some days, she can hit the bag over a thousand times.

Although One Championship markets her here as the hometown girl, she acknowledges the irony of it, for she holds Canadian and American citizenships.

Born in Canada where her parents represented the Canadian national taekwondo team, she lived in Vancouver until she was seven, before moving to Hawaii. She shuttles between Hawaii and Singapore, training at both Evolve and United.

"It is not all about the passport, is it? The truth is I'm more in touch with my Singapore roots," muses Angela, who lives in a condominium in the East when she is in town.

She is also honest about her future. While the US-based Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) may be a more recognised brand, she says she is "extremely happy" at One Championship, especially with the inroads it is making in Asia.

She says: "I get a little annoyed when people say, 'I can't wait for you to make it big and go to the UFC.' There is so much potential with One Championship, it's going to be huge in the next three to five years."

No doubt, some of that has to do with Angela's rising popularity. Since her first fight, her Instagram followers have jumped from just over 1,000 to more than 19,000.

The promotion has seized on her fame, showcasing its prized female fighter in Jakarta and Manila where she was well-received. Getting US-based MMA websites to feature Angela has also become easier.

She now accepts that she is fighting for a bigger cause - growing MMA in Asia, as well as furthering women's rights with her exploits in a male-dominated sport.

She recalls a comment on Facebook which questioned One Championship's decision to make her fight the co-main event on Friday's fight card.

"Sometimes it's sad to see, especially coming from the States, where there's a greater push for gender equality. It's something I want to help push for by doing whatever I can," she says.

Should Angela beat Yamaguchi this Friday, she will become one of the world's youngest champions of a major MMA promotion.

Her fight strategy is simple - finish her opponents early. Of her past five bouts, Polish fighter Lena Tkhorevska lasted the longest before succumbing to a neck crank 3:26 into the second round.

"The longer you stay in the ring, the (greater the) possibility of getting injured," she explains. "It's also for my parents because, every minute I'm in there, they're totally freaking out and worried about me.

"Anyway I like to go for the kill, that's just my fight style."

Fifteen slices of sashimi later, Angela takes her leave - she has to appear on a morning talk show the next day. As fight night approaches, her appetite for food diminishes. But her hunger for success remains, and it is what could hopefully propel her to the top of her sport.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 01, 2016, with the headline 'Hungry to be champion'. Print Edition | Subscribe