After an impressive debut at ONE Championship: Warrior’s Quest this past May, Angela “Unstoppable” Lee is touted as the next big thing in the world of mixed martial arts. She may hold her own in the ring, but can she measure up to public’s expectations as well as her own?
Watching human beings punch the shit out of each other is a vastly different experience from following a fight from the comfort of your home. Your 51-inch high-definition TV may highlight the glisten of sweat on skin and the vivid blossom of bruises, but sit among the crowd and you’ll find your voice among the bedlam. Your heart rate kicks up, your knuckles go bone-white from holding onto a seat that you’re precariously edged on; it’s visceral. A primal sensation, not felt since the tooth-and-claw days, washes over you like an angry red tide, as you scream hosannas and invectives at the exchange of strikes and kicks. But when a match ends, fighters don cloaks of civility and express concern for the other’s welfare, and you’re reminded that any mixed martial arts (MMA) bout, at the end of the day, boils down to “it’s just business, so no hard feelings”.
Observing an MMA match live also reveals much of what a camera cuts out, as the night of the ONE Championship: Warrior’s Quest held at the Singapore Indoor Stadium bears witness: in the blue corner is Aya Saeid “Sheklsa” Saber, 24. Standing at 1.71m, her dark hair tied back, Saber looks stoic. Her high cheekbones, strong nose and arched eyebrows add to her gravitas as she makes her way to the ring. For show, she shadowboxes with the camera that follows her.
Then the lights dim and “Hall of Fame” by The Script blares. Fog belches in the red corner as 1.65m tall Angela “Unstoppable” Lee, 19, springs out, her hands making contact with the rest of audience’s.
The camera cuts to a mid-shot and she’s… smiling. She’s goddamn beaming at the audience, like she’s giddy at the sight of the crowd. This is unorthodox, contrariwise to the usual intimidation game. Is this some sort of psychological warfare?
Lee laughs it off. “Just before I walked out, I was nervous. It was the most nervous I’ve ever been in my life. All the pressures and meeting people’s expectations… I didn’t want to let anybody down. But as soon as my song came on…”
That song was used in a video that her friend made when they travelled to Greece for the [World Pangration Athlima Federation] championship (Lee holds two WPAF crowns) and listening to it puts her in a good place. Bolstered by happy memories, coming out and seeing the throng cheering for her, what could she do but smile?
“I just had a good feeling. Why do I need to be angry? I love this. That moment just enforced that this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”
She, of course, dropped the grin when she got into the ring. Prior to this pro-match, Lee had three amateur fights, all three of which she won in the first round. No drawn-out battles for her. The faster she can finish a match, the less of a chance for injuries to occur. That and she wants to give the audience something exciting to watch.
And boy, did she give the audience something to talk about as she took down the veteran Saber via submission with an arm bar in one minute and 20 seconds.
Lee and I are talking at Evolve MMA Singapore, where the sound of sandbags being pummelled mixed with the exhalation of grunts can be heard from a class that’s in session in the next room. Dressed in an Evolve Fight Team top and shorts, up close, Lee has small eyes whose corners crinkle when she smiles, which is often. Even though she and her younger brother, Christian, 17, were signed on to the Evolve Fight Team, and Lee recently became Under Armour’s first sponsored female MMA fighter, you’re reminded that underneath the white-hot streak that is the launch of her career, she is still only 19. At the time of the interview, she’s in the middle of training for her next match with Elena Pashinina at ONE: Dynasty of Champions in Shanghai.
ESQUIRE: Did you expect to emerge as the winner in the match with Saber?
ANGELA LEE: They [her coaches and her father] wouldn’t put me in the cage if they didn’t think I was ready.
ESQ: So all doubt flees your mind?
AL: With a doubtful mindset, you won’t fight properly. You go in there and do what you are trained to do, and that is to win. Every fighter needs to have that confidence when they step into the cage.
ESQ: Does that confidence spill over into your life away from the cage?
AL: Well, yes. It’s not overconfidence, but I do have a certain assurance about myself. I’m not an introvert. Since young, I’ve always been outgoing and that’s carried through the years, especially in martial arts, where you’re humbled in training. It reminds you what you are capable of.
ESQ: Are you a tomboy?
There’s a slight blush to her cheeks at that question.
AL: I guess I’m pretty tomboyish.
AL: Well, I didn’t wear a dress until I was 17. I mean, I refused to wear dresses and skirts, but I get it; I sorta have to act like a girl.
ESQ: And what’s your feeling towards dressing up now?
AL: I dress up every now and then. I just don’t know how to do my own make-up and hair so I get someone to help me with that.
“Martial arts runs in our blood”
It’s odd to think that it has taken her that long to grasp the concept of getting dolled up, but we have to understand her martial arts pedigree. From the age of six, her father, Ken, trained with his uncle. Her mother, Jewelz, whose father is a taekwondo grandmaster, was trained in various types of martial arts. Her parents opened the first of three MMA schools in 1995, in Canada, where Lee was exposed to the martial arts world from the age of three. Then the family moved to Hawaii, where they set up United MMA, a 12,000-foot facility with an octagon cage and a gym. Her dad taught her self-defence, and Lee took to it quickly. “Martial arts runs in our blood,” Lee offers by way of explanation. There was seldom room for anything else, and even if there was, it paled in comparison to the fights on the mat.
She does get out of the gym, though. For God’s sake, they live in Hawaii—blue waters, clear skies—it’d be a cardinal sin to stay indoors in paradise. That is why the whole prospect of primming herself up or window-shopping for that next perfect outfit isn’t a priority for Lee. What free time she has is used for something more ephemeral: she’ll head to the beach with the boyfriend; hang at the movie theatre; spend time with kin.
ESQ: Did you have any inkling that your upbringing would lead to you fighting professionally?
AL: Even though I have been training since I was a child, I had no idea that I would become a professional fighter. That takes time.
ESQ: So, how did your debut at ONE Championship occur?
AL: It was through Dad’s friend, Matt Hume (Vice President of Operations at ONE). My dad used to train with Matt when we were based in Canada. Dad would take my mum and me, and we’d drive five hours down to Seattle for the training and back again. They kept that friendship up over the years, and when we found out about ONE, that it was based in Singapore, and that Matt was involved…
ESQ: Everything fell into place.
AL: It was perfect! I’d finished high school, I’d completed three amateur fights, and I was starting my fighting career, so dad gave Matt a call, told him he might wanna take a look at me and sent over some of my fight tapes.
Reviewing the tapes gave Hume some sort of impression of Lee. Never mind that she’s the daughter of a friend, he saw potential in the way that she fought in how she moved. Hume signed her up for the match with Saber. That is how it started.
It’s a misnomer to think that for someone this determined to make a mark on the world that she won’t acknowledge the possibility of giving up, but there were times when that almost happened. Six hours in the gym, sweating it out, knuckles raw from contact and muscles feeling like lead weights are enough to nudge you towards the edge. “I feel that way sometimes,” Lee says. “And then, after a long day, Dad comes up to me and says, ‘So you want to be a fighter?’” He wasn’t being callous; he was reminding her of the sacrifices needed for sparring in the ring. No shortcuts. The world is unconcerned with human frailties. And just like that, it draws her back into the game.
AL: Martial arts motivate me. Without it, I would be a total bum. I’ll probably be the laziest, fattest person in the world because I love to eat.
ESQ: So the training negates the eating.
ESQ: What’s a pet peeve for you?
AL: Excuses. They get on my nerves because it’s linked to laziness.
ESQ: How so?
AL: Well, I was raised to be disciplined. So, when someone says they can’t do this because of that or they can’t be there because of this, they’re just coming up with reasons that limit themselves. I don’t like that because that kills your dream. Everybody have the potential to do stuff.
ESQ: But it could be factors that are beyond their control.
AL: I feel that it’s usually from other people putting them down: ‘Oh, you can’t do that.’ Who are they to say you can’t? If it’s negative comments and there’s nothing inherently constructive about them, toss them out the window. You determine where you want to go in life.
ESQ: Do you get that in a male-dominated industry like MMA?
AL: I hate being put down. The opposite gender has no right to say a woman can’t do this or that.
"I hate being put down. The opposite gender has no right to say a woman can’t do this or that."
ESQ: Ronda Rousey has a lot to say about that.
AL: That’s why I love her. She’s such a strong, opinionated woman and clearly paved the way for a new generation of women in MMA. Thank God, she started this revolution. We would never have had a chance before, especially in Asia. In the US, woman MMA is seen like a joke or something.
ESQ: Do you think it’s because people do not understand what a woman has to go through to fight in the ring?
AL: The boyfriend knows what I’m going through when I’m training or cutting weight. It helps to have someone with a martial arts background because sometimes people are like, ‘Why ain’t you talking to me?’ ’Cos I’m training man, gimme my space.
ESQ: Let’s talk about your heritage.
ESQ: You’re fighting under the Singapore banner, but you’re not Singaporean.
AL: Well, there’s chatter about me not truly being Singaporean, because I wasn’t born or raised here, but being Singaporean is in my blood. I was born in Canada, raised in Hawaii. I’m half- Singaporean-Chinese and half-Korean. I’m not just one thing, y’know?
Lee pauses like she’s weighing what she’s going to say next.
AL: Look. I associate myself with Hawaii because that’s where I was raised. I also associate myself with Singapore, not because I’m based here, but because I’m close to my dad’s side of the family. They are all Singaporeans, I know a lot about Singapore. My grandma and grandpa lived with me, cooked for me. They speak Singlish and I’ve visited the country many times.
ESQ: What of your Korean side of the family?
AL: I’m more in tune with my Singaporean side than my Korean side; we’re just not as close to my mum’s family as I am to my dad’s. We’ve never even been to Korea, so it’s not like I’m jumping onto the Singapore train. It’s hard to explain that to people sometimes.
ESQ: Do you feel angry?
AL: I understand where people are coming from. I think it is what’s inside you that is most important. I’m proud of who I am, and that’s Singaporean.
Lee’s father, Ken, was born in Singapore, but his family uprooted to Canada for a new start. This is where he met his wife—they shared a similar interest in martial arts, married young, opened their own martial arts school, and shuttled between Canada and Hawaii before finally settling in Mililani on the island of Oahu, Hawaii.
They buckled down to raise a family of four kids. Broad-shouldered and stocky, Ken resembles local ex-national swimmer, Ang Peng Siong, only tougher-looking. He’s surprisingly soft-spoken, and talks in measured tones. But any more pressure on the handshake and my fingers risk being crushed. “Angela was very strong for a child, and for a woman too,” Ken says. “We encouraged her, but we never pushed her beyond what we felt she could not accomplish.”
He stresses this a lot—“they never pushed her”—it’s as though he has been through this line of questioning before. Given their social circle, people assume he and his wife are taskmasters for having their child—O Lordy! And a woman, no less—compete in cage fights, but Ken waves it off; he’s always worried about her safety. “It’s never a father’s dream for his daughter to grow up as a cage fighter. It’s not what I’ve planned. My dream is for her to be happy. “I’d be more worried,” Ken adds, “if she couldn’t defend herself.”
AL: There’s good and bad in having your dad as a coach. It’s hard taking criticism from him, but I know what he tells me is usually for the best.
ESQ: Can he be overbearing?
AL: I can get emotional at times. When I do something wrong, he will scold me for that. ‘Work on this,’ he’ll say. And I’ll be like, ‘Why are you yelling at me for?’ He’s telling me as a coach, so he can’t sugarcoat it. After a while, when my head clears, I’m like, ‘I’m sorry.’ I have to take it as a student, not as a daughter. You can’t take it too personally.
ESQ: Is he different on and off the mat?
AL: He’s both dad and coach 24/7. My dad isn’t a super-tough guy. He’s a family guy. Family is a priority in life. He believes in…
Lee looks unsure.
"I know there are parents who are really strict, but he has a good balance."
AL: It’s hard to say. I know there are parents who are really strict, but he has a good balance. He’s traditional yet modern. He thinks outside the box and is understanding about what we [teenagers] go through today because times are different. He’s very fair and loving.
Ken believed the only way to further develop his kids’ skills was to test them in competition to make sure that they could “apply [self-defence] in high-stress situations.” Lee and her brother enjoyed the competitive side of things and wanted to participate in other matches. They went through the amateur ranks all the way to the world level, and naturally, wanted to turn pro.
And with her and her brother joining the Evolve Fight Team, it means that they will be based here. Evolve will take care of their training and other fightrelated expenses, which will alleviate the financial burden from their parents’ shoulders.
AL: I like to think of myself as a good daughter. I had my years when I was a little troublemaker, but now, I’d like to give back to them because they have given so much to me. If I make it big one day in my fighting career, I can give back everything to them for what they’ve done for me.
ESQ: What are you afraid of?
AL: The biggest fear is letting my dad down. I try so hard to make him proud…
At this point, her defences fall and I notice cracks in her voice. Her eyes mist, and she sniffs as she turns her head away from me. She smiles apologetically.
AL: Oh my God. Sorry. I mean, basically, I don’t want to be a disappointment.
ESQ: Does he know how you feel?
AL: I don’t know if he knows. I mean, he’s always going to be, ‘Oh, you make me proud; I love you so much.’ He’s like that, but I owe it to him because he trained me a lot over the years so… ugh. Emotions, right?
She rubs the corners of her eyes and breaks into a laugh.
“I think it’s natural for her to pick that up from her parents,” Ken says in response to his daughter’s fear. “As a coach, it’s all about the team; you burn for the team. As a player, it’s all about you; it’s about your own personal development. Angela knows that. She saw the sacrifices that we made for her. It’s not pressure from us that she must win for us; it’s more of her wanting to give back. It’s how she shows her appreciation for doing well. We supported her and she wants to show that she can excel at [MMA].”
AL: I’m going to take this [MMA] as far as I can go. I’m going to invest in it fully. It’s my dream right now, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Not everybody can be a world champion. Of course, if it doesn’t work out, I can go back to school or help out at my family’s gym, but for now, they are supportive of me. I’m lucky that I have their support because other parents won’t understand.
ESQ: Well, not every parent runs a martial arts school.
Right. We know what you’re thinking: “She knows nothing.” She’s only 19, with her whole future ahead of her; she can’t really fathom the depths and the breadth of existence. Despite her optimism, life happens, and by that, life brings with it its victories and its disappointments. Who knows? With all her training and preparation, how will she manage when she come to terms with a loss, a heartbreak, a death?
However, that’s the thing about youth; it’s a bitch to start with if you’re on your own without a whit of guidance, but Lee is backed by her family, knit-tight and present. Regardless of the outcome, when she returns to her corner, they will be there and that’s what makes her “unstoppable” That’s the real triumph.
First published in Esquire Singapore's October 2015 issue.