Angela Seung Ju Lee is the Canadian-American MMA athlete of Singaporean, Chinese, and Korean heritage who became the youngest person ever to win a mixed martial arts world title at age 19. Having dominated in pankration before moving into professional MMA, where she is the ONE Women’s Atomweight world champion, Lee took a temporary break from competition, so that she could start a family.
Now, at age 26, Lee is back in action, feeling the best she’s ever felt since winning her first title seven years ago. Lee spoke to M&F from her Hawaii home to discuss her origins in martial arts, approaches to health and fitness, and how being a mother has brought greater enlightenment.
‘Unstoppable’ is an apt name for a warrior that has been competing in martial arts from the age of 6, but where did the moniker come from? “In high school, being a teenager, on Facebook and Tumblr, I was always looking at inspirational quotes and new wallpapers,” says Lee. “I stumbled on this picture, it was all black and had the bold word ‘unstoppable’ and it caught my eye.” Lee talked with her mentor and father, Ken and the two agreed that ‘Unstoppable’ would be the perfect nickname for a fighter, and it stuck. She won her first three amateur MMA bouts in Hawaii after she turned 18, balancing her mat work with her homework, soon discovering that she was more taken with MMA than math. Lee just wanted to travel, meet other fighters, and chase her dreams.
Angela Lee Has an Unstoppable Bond With Her Family
Parents, Ken and Jewelz Lee, who were martial arts competitors and coaches themselves, had first passed their knowledge on to Angela and her other siblings (younger brother Chris also now competes in ONE Championship) as a means of self-defense, but it was clear that the skills were in the bloodline. “Training was non-negotiable,” says Lee, who recalls that growing up in a family of martial artists meant that she would have to do her chores. “Mom was very organized. Definitely, the discipline aspect of martial arts carried through to our lives.”
The loving and productive relationship with her parents is evident even now, perhaps especially during title defenses in ONE Championship, where her father is always close at hand with some much-valued advice. “It’s definitely a unique bond and relationship that we have,” shares Lee. “Aside from him knowing me, my whole life, teaching me not just martial arts but to just growing up to be a decent human being, we connect on a different level I guess, because he knows me inside and out, it’s great that I can trust that he’s always going to be looking out for my best interests. I feel very grateful that we’ve gone on this journey together.”
As with many female martial artists, Lee, who holds a black belt in Brazilian jiujitsu, would often be forced to compete against boys and later men, since female students are still in the minority, but instead of complaining, she used this challenging situation to her advantage. “I didn’t mind it,” she says. “It made me not have any excuses for myself. It made me better and taught me to be smarter and use my skill.”
Lee feels that the experience made her tougher and more resilient. “The unstoppable mindset, you know? It doesn’t matter if they are bigger, older, whatever. I’m just going to go out there and do my thing.” These days, Lee is also a Jiu-Jitsu coach, along with her husband Bruno Pucci, and they are keen to bring more females into the sport. “We see boys signing up for the classes and trying them out, while their little sisters are on the side,” says Lee. “Eventually we can pull them in and they have a blast. They love it.”
Angela Lee Has an Unstoppable Attitude to Competition
Lee’s lifetime in martial arts has seen her pick up all kinds of varying styles. “I’ve done grappling matches, kickboxing, boxing, judo, and then pankration,” says Lee. “With the pankration, because of the way that dad taught me; to be prepared for a self-defense scenario where the fight could go anywhere, from the feet to the ground, I feel like pankration really translated well (to MMA) because I felt comfortable striking on the feet and using my judo and wrestling for takedowns, and then obviously grappling, and doing jiu-jitsu. Nowadays, everyone is a really well-rounded mixed martial artist, but in the early days of MMA, everyone was really stylistic.”
This unstoppable attitude to competition, and being a rounded fighter, has forged a storied journey that saw Lee inking her first contract with ONE Championship in 2014, submitting Aya Saber with an arm bar in the opening round of her debut there. She was then victorious in Evolve MMA before heading back to ONE Championship and racking up a string of successes that led her to a unanimous decision win against Mei Yamaguchi in a fight of the year contender, making her the youngest ever champion at just 19.
In October of 2020, Lee entered another exciting phase in her life when she announced that she would be temporarily stepping away from MMA in order to start a family. In a welcome and progressive move, Lee was not forced to vacate her title, something that was seen as an important statement by ONE Championship, in allowing females the right to be pregnant without being stripped of a title. And, if justification was ever needed that Lee was a legitimate champion, she made that statement loud and proud when she returned on March 17 to defend the gold against Stamp Fairtex via a second-round submission.
Balancing MMA and Motherhood
Did Lee ever doubt that she could return after the great milestone of having baby Ava? “In MMA, in combat sports, in sports in general, I really think that it’s 90% mental,” says Lee. “This past fight camp, I struggled so much with that. Just gaining my confidence back, because it had been a while since I stepped out of the cage. A lot happened in that time, and more than anything it was [about] just proving to myself that, ‘Yeah, I still got it’ and I’m not just the same, I’m better than I was before. You could really see my whole shift in mindset from the beginning of camp, to the mid-camp, to the end of camp, and then when I arrived in Singapore on fight week there was no doubt in my mind that I knew what I was there to do and I knew that I could do it.”
Indeed, Lee withstood a devastating liver punch and still managed to defeat Fairtex with a rear naked chokehold to mark her successful return.
“Being a first-time mom, I did not know what to expect,” says Lee. “How would my body be after I gave birth? How much time would it take to get back into the swing of things? I was trying to research other fighters that were moms as well … but it’s different for each and every person. I gave birth to my daughter in April and it wasn’t until a good 6-months after that [when] I really felt like everything had healed and I felt strong. But during the six months, I did step on the mats and train but I had limitations. It was very frustrating for me because before I was pregnant, I had defended my title for the fourth time. I’m so glad I didn’t push things and rush things too quickly because there was a really high chance that I could have injured myself and pushed [my progress] back many months.”
Thanks to a combination of stretching and light training, eventually followed by strength conditioning, Lee began to gain confidence in her ability to pick back up where she left off. “From the moment I gave birth, I was already planning my comeback,” shares Lee. But how has caring for a baby changed Lee’s life and work balance? “Nowadays, I train in the morning,” she shares. “Then I have a break, and I get to take care of my daughter all day. I’m really just enjoying this time with her, to be a fulltime mommy, and I love seeing her grow.” And when it’s time to get to work, little Ava, who has recently tuned 1 year old and is beginning to walk, is still close by. “Other professional fighters are looking at me, and they’re like ‘you’re crazy’ for bringing your daughter to a fight week, but, luckily, she’s amazing. She does really good with travelling and sleeping through the night. It’s so different now being a mom, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world!” There’s no doubting that Ava has a very inspirational mother to look up to.
Angela Lee now says that she is excited to get back into the cage once gain and defend her championship, and is also eyeing up Xiong Jing Nan’s strawweight gold. In the meantime, ONE Championship is growing from strength to strength with the recent announcement that they have signed a multi-year deal to provide live coverage for streaming on Prime Video later this year.
Before then, ONE Championship’s next show will see a featherweight Muay Thai world championship clash between Petchmorakot Petchyindee and Jimmy Vienot, on May 20. For more information visit: https://www.onefc.com/.
ONE 157: Petchmorakot vs. Vienot will air Friday, May 20 with the lead card beginning at 4:30 a.m ET, followed by the main card at 8:30 a.m ET on watch.onefc.com.