Lunch With Sumiko

Lunch With Sumiko: Don't mess with 'Twister Girl' Angela Lee

MMA star Angela Lee says there's 'some beauty in all the madness' of the sport

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ONE Championship World Champion Angela Lee has lunch with Straits Times executive editor Sumiko Tan.

When Angela Lee goes into the cage, she's in for the kill and will choke, punch and kick her opponent to get the job done.

But the mixed martial arts fighter is not as fearless as you might think.

Some things really scare her.

Like insects. Especially cockroaches. In particular, flying cockroaches.

"In Hawaii, the cockroaches are like this big and they fly," she says, eyes widening.

"There's been times late at night where I'm just going to bed and I see one of them and I'll scream so loud," she continues.

"One time, my brother Christian, he came downstairs and went 'What?' and I was like, 'It was a cockroach.' He was so mad at me. He was like, 'I thought something bad happened'."

She giggles at the memory and dimples appear on her cheeks.

Lee, who turned 21 in July, is one of the biggest names in the regional mixed martial arts (MMA) scene.

The Chinese-Korean, who was born in Canada, grew up in Hawaii and has a Singapore link, is a member of the Evolve fight team and competes in ONE Championship, a Singapore-based sports media group that organises martial arts events.

Since turning professional at 18, she has had eight wins and no losses. In May last year, she won ONE Championship's women's atomweight world champion title, beating Mei Yamaguchi from Japan.

She has since successfully defended her title twice, each time to roaring crowds of thousands.

Last week, it was announced that Lee and Yamaguchi will face off in a rematch on Nov 24 at the Singapore Indoor Stadium.

SHE'S decided to have lunch at Jin Fine Dining, a Japanese restaurant in Far East Square, which is also where the Evolve gym is located.

We've been given a private room and she arrives before me. It's a bit echo-y in there and her clear, loud voice bounces off the walls.

She's just returned from a holiday and is trying to maintain her weight of 52kg - she's about 1.63m tall - and so orders just soup and salmon spring roll. I get the unagi set.

She carries herself with the aplomb of someone much older and answers questions like a pro, articulate and confident.

When I remark that I've not met a 21-year-old who seems so together, she smiles and says thank you.

She and Christian - who's 19 and also a fighter with ONE - have had to mature at an earlier age than others because of their sport, she explains. "Even in high school, I felt like we couldn't really see eye to eye with our peers. We were really focused on what we wanted after high school, what career we wanted to be in," she says.

"Yah, I feel like I'm 28 sometimes," she adds. "But I'm like, oh yah, I'm just 21. Just like a couple of months ago, I couldn't drink in Hawaii. My dad is like, 'see, you're just a baby still'."

It's through her dad that she has a link to Singapore.

Ken Lee, 45, was born in Singapore but migrated to Canada with his family when he was four. His father opened a beef jerky factory there.

The family later settled in Hawaii where his parents had a restaurant. In high school, he met Jewelz, an American born in South Korea.

The high school sweethearts got married and moved to Canada where they opened a martial arts school. Ken has black belts in jiu-jitsu, taekwondo and pankration, while Jewelz, 44, has a black belt in taekwondo and was twice a Canadian national silver medallist in that sport.

Lee is the eldest of four children. Besides Christian, there's Victoria, 13, and Adrian, 11.

Angela Lee, with dad Ken, siblings Christian, Adrian and Victoria, and mum Jewelz. When she fights, the whole family is in the audience.

When Lee was seven, the family moved back to Hawaii and she now holds an American passport. Her father went into the real estate business, but after she and her siblings got serious about martial arts, decided to open a gym again. United MMA & Fitness Centre is on the island of Oahu.

She practically grew up in the gym. "I always had so much energy as a kid, running around everywhere, climbing stuff. Yah, I'm not afraid of too many things," she says, sipping her soup.

By her late teens, she had earned a brown belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, was a Hawaii state wrestling champion and a two-time pankration world champion.

Her father has been her one and only coach and "he raised me as a tough girl".

She started fighting as an amateur when she was 18 and after three matches - she won all three - decided to turn professional.

She stopped her business studies at the University of Hawaii-West Oahu. "I had to fully commit to this if I want a future in it."

She and her parents were searching on the Internet for an MMA organisation for her to join when they stumbled upon ONE Championship. They liked that it was based in Singapore where they have relatives and visit often.

She shuffles between training in her parents' gym in Hawaii and in Singapore. When here, she lives with her paternal grandparents - who also travel between Singapore and Hawaii and Canada - in an apartment in the east.

Christian trains in Hawaii but comes to Asia for his fights, and her parents visit too. "Yah, we're pretty, like, world-wide cultured," she says when I remark that they travel a lot.

LEARNING martial arts started as a form of self-defence for her, and this has influenced her fighting style of going out hard and finishing off quickly.

"Some people prefer to stand up and feel their opponent out for a round or two, but for me and my brother growing up and learning MMA, my dad focused a lot on self-defence," she says.

"So like in a real fight, you defend yourself at all times and also try and finish the fight as quickly as possible, so you take the least damage."

I wonder if she's ever afraid of breaking her nose or some other body part. She laughs and says no. "I've always been like pretty fearless when it comes to things like that. I just do it and deal with the consequences later."

She has been lucky on the injury front. The worst was a fractured collarbone, but that was during wrestling practice in high school.

She points out that MMA is unlike boxing "where you're just standing up and punching for like 10 rounds". Other movements are involved.

But what about choking, where one fighter armlocks the other's neck to the point that he passes out? That looks pretty dangerous.

"I think choking someone and punching them or knocking them out is a lot safer because afterwards, the referee will wake them properly, as opposed to, like, you know, breaking someone's jaw or eye socket," she says, not batting an eyelid.

She acknowledges that to those new to the sport, MMA can seem violent. She, too, feels it when she sees a fighter get bloodied.

But there is meaning and beauty to the sport, she believes.

"MMA is the closest thing you have to what happens in the world today. It's a dangerous place, and I think that as a parent, you want your child to be able to know how to defend himself than walk around clueless," she opines.

MMA is also about "an exchange of techniques and there is some beauty in all the madness".

"From the outside looking in, it can be like, oh crazy, it's brutal, these two girls are just punching at each other.

"But if you take a step in and really try and change your mindset, you can see that, okay, she's trying to impose her will on the other girl and to do that, she's got to take her down and she's going to try and close the distance. So, yah, it's all how you look at it."

Sounding almost weary about having to address detractors of the sport, she adds: "At the end of the day, no one's forcing us to step in that cage. We're in there because we love to do it."

I ask if she has a favourite move and she recounts how she once pulled a twister submission. That was in 2015, in a fight against Natalie Gonzales Hills.

The rare manoeuvre was a first for ONE Championship, and something she had practised a lot. After that, some called her "Twister Girl". Her official nickname, though, is "Unstoppable".

When she started her fighting career, each match went by in a blur. Now, time slows down in the cage. "With more fights, I feel I'm able to stay more calm in the moment and make better decisions."

Amid the roar of the crowd, she is always able to discern the voice of her coach/dad. "Sometimes he'll be screaming something and I don't think I can hear it, but I'm doing what he's saying."

The biggest pressure for her is living up to expectations. "I would just hate to disappoint my dad because he's my coach and, yah, that's always what I worry about. Like after a fight I'm like, 'Did I do good? Was I good enough?' I'm like pretty hard on myself too."

HER family crops up a lot at lunch. She says the children were brought up to be close and when she fights, the whole gang is in the audience.

"The other fighters look at us funny because my entourage is like my parents, my little siblings running around, and my grandparents come sometimes. It's funny. I love it though. They are like my rock, they are what I can count on and keep me not so nervous."

She says her father will always be her coach. He is a strict coach and they do argue, like over her diet.

She recalls how they were in Malaysia to watch Christian fight. "I wanted to make a bad food decision and he was like, 'Hey, you've to eat healthy.' And I was like, 'Dad, this is just one cake.' He's like, 'I'm not dad, I'm coach now'. He'll play that split personality with me."

She's equally close to her mother because "some things only she'll understand".

She feels lucky to have started so young in MMA and intends to make the most of her career. Her contract last year reportedly made her one of the world's highest-paid female MMA athletes. She doesn't see herself going back to university unless it is relevant to her post-fighting career.

The best part of being a champion is being able to inspire others and she remembers how she was in a park in Changi when a mother with two young kids came up to say hello. It was a surreal moment for her because just a couple of years ago, MMA - let alone female fighters - was frowned upon in Asia.

"I want to encourage people to go after what you want to do. MMA is a really hard sport, it's tough but it's what I love to do. You go find what you love to do, and you do that."

I wonder if men are intimidated by her and she giggles. Some fans are shy. "They see me only at my fights, right? But I tell them, hey, I'm actually a really nice person outside of the cage. You don't need to be like intimidated and scared."

She has nibbled at her food and is ready to head back to the gym. Her Brazilian boyfriend, Bruno Pucci, is also a ONE Championship fighter and based here.

There's a lightness and happiness about Lee, maybe because she comes from a close-knit family, or does it have to do with love? Her Instagram has many photos of her and Pucci in blissful poses.

I see her walk off, haversack slung over her shoulders and water bottle in hand, and I think - ah, to be young, in love, and to have the world at your bare feet.


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