Angela Seung Ju Lee is the Canadian-American MMA athlete of Singaporean, Chinese and Korean descent who became the youngest person ever to win a mixed martial arts world title at the age of 19. After dominating in pankration before moving into professional MMA where she is ONE Women's Atomweight World Champion Lee took a temporary break from competition to start a family.
w at the age of 26, Lee is back in action and feeling her best since winning her first title seven years ago. Lee spoke to M&F from her home in Hawaii to discuss her martial arts origins, her approach to health and fitness, and how motherhood has led to greater enlightenment.
"Unstoppable" is an apt name for a warrior who has been involved in martial arts since the age of 6, but where did the nickname come from? "In high school, as a teenager, on Facebook and Tumblr, I was always looking for inspirational quotes and new wallpapers," says Lee. "I stumbled across this picture, it was all black with the word 'unstoppable' in bold and it caught my eye." Lee spoke to her mentor and father Ken and the two agreed that 'Unstoppable' was the perfect one nickname for a fighter, and he stuck. After turning 18, she won her first three amateur MMA fights in Hawaii, balancing her work on the mat with her homework and soon discovered that she was more attracted to MMA than math. Lee just wanted to travel, meet other fighters and chase their dreams.
Angela Lee has an unbreakable bond with her family
Parents, Ken and Jewelz Lee, who were martial arts competitors and trainers themselves, had initially passed their knowledge on to Angela and her other siblings (younger brother Chris is now also a ONE Championship participant) as a means of self-defense, but that was it clear that the skills ran in the bloodline. "The training was non-negotiable," says Lee, who recalls growing up in a family of martial artists meant she had to do her chores. “Mom was very organized. Definitely the discipline aspect of martial arts that impacts our lives.”
The loving and productive relationship with her parents is still evident today, perhaps especially during the ONE Championship defense where her father is always on hand with some valuable advice. "It's definitely a unique bond and relationship that we have," Lee shares. "Aside from the fact that he's known me all my life, not just teaching me martial arts but just growing up to be a decent human being, we bond on a different level I think because he knows me inside and out it's awesome that I can trust that he is always concerned about my well-being. I am very grateful that we have walked this path together.”
Like many women martial artists, Lee, who holds a black belt in Brazilian jiujitsu, has often had to compete against boys and later against men as female students are still in the minority, but instead of complaining, she used this challenging situation to her advantage. "I didn't care," she says. "It made me have no excuses for myself. It made me better and taught me to be smarter and use my skills.”
Lee feels that the experience has made her tougher and more resilient. "The unstoppable mindset, you know? It doesn't matter if they are bigger, older or whatever. I just go out there and do my thing.” These days, Lee is also a jiu-jitsu instructor along with her husband Bruno Pucci, and they're keen to get more women 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 bring them in and they have a great time. They love it."
Angela Lee has an unstoppable attitude towards competition
Lee's life in the martial arts has led her to embrace all sorts of different styles. "I did grappling competitions, kickboxing, boxing, judo, and then pankration," says Lee. “With the pankration, because of the way papa taught me; To be prepared for a self defense scenario where the fight could go anywhere from feet to ground, I feel Pankration translates really well (in MMA) because I felt comfortable punching the feet and using my judo and wrestling for takedowns, and then of course grappling and jiu-jitsu. Everyone is a really versatile mixed martial artist these days, but in the early days of MMA everyone was really stylistic.”
This unstoppable competitive spirit and her character as a well-rounded fighter have led to a storied journey that saw Lee sign her first contract with ONE Championship in 2014, armbaring Aya Saber in the opening round of her debut there. She was then victorious in Evolve MMA before returning to ONE Championship and racking up a string of victories that led her to a unanimous decision win over Mei Yamaguchi in Fight of the Year, making her the youngest-ever winner at just 19 years old.
In October 2020, Lee entered another exciting phase in her life when she announced she was temporarily retiring from MMA to start a family. In a welcome and progressive move, Lee was not forced to vacate her title, which was seen by ONE Championship as an important statement in allowing women the right to be pregnant without having their title stripped. 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.
Balance between MMA and motherhood
Did Lee ever doubt she might return after the big milestone of having baby Ava? "In MMA, in martial arts, in sports in general, I really think it's 90% mental," says Lee. “In this past fight camp, I struggled with it so much. I just wanted to regain my confidence because it's been a while since I got out of the cage. A lot has happened in that time, and more than anything it has been [about] I just proved to myself, "Yes, I still have it," and I'm not only the same, I'm better than before. You could really see my whole mindset from the beginning of the camp to the middle of the camp to the end of the camp and then when I arrived in Singapore for fight week I had no doubt that I knew what I was to do and I knew I could do it.”
In fact, Lee withstood a devastating liver punch and still managed to defeat Fairtex with a naked chokehold from behind to mark their successful return.
"As a first-time mom, I didn't know what to expect," says Lee. “What would my body look like after giving birth? How long would it take to get going again? I've tried researching other fighters who have also been mothers...but it's different for each person. I gave birth to my daughter in April and only after a good 6 months [when] I really felt like everything was healed and I felt strong. But during the six months I stepped on the mats and trained, but I had limitations. It was very frustrating for me because I had defended my title for the fourth time before I got pregnant. I'm so glad I didn't push things too fast and rush because there was a very high possibility that I could have hurt myself and pushed [my progress] many months back.”
Thanks to a combination of stretching and light exercise, eventually followed by strength conditioning, Lee began to gain confidence in her ability to pick up where she left off. "After I was born, I was already planning my comeback," says Lee. But how has caring for a baby changed Lee's life and work? “Today I train in the morning,” she says. “Then I have a break and can take care of my daughter all day. I'm really just enjoying this time with her, being a full-time mom and loving watching her grow.” And when it's time to go to work is little Ava, who just turned 1 year old and starts to run, still near. "Other professional fighters look at me and say, 'You're crazy' for bringing your daughter to fight week, but luckily she's amazing. She's really good at traveling and sleeping through the night. It's so different being a mom now, but I wouldn't trade it for the world!” There is no doubt that Ava has a very inspiring mother to look up to.
Angela Lee now says she is excited to get back in the cage once she has won and defended her championship and also has her eye on Xiong Jing Nan's strawweight gold. Meanwhile, ONE Championship continues to grow 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 that, the next show of ONE Championship on May 20th will see a Muay Thai Featherweight World Championship match between Petchmorakot Petchyindee and Jimmy Vienot. For more information, visit: https://www.onefc.com/.
ONE 157: Petchmorakot vs. Vienot will air Friday, May 20 with the main card beginning at 4:30 p.m. ET, followed by the main card at 8:30 a.m. ET on watch.onefc.com.