The Canadian fighter is a heart-pounding talent, and could become a huge star in countries where martial arts are a huge part of the culture
Angela Lee wants people to think of her as a typical young woman, but thats difficult to accept considering what shes already done.
Im a normal person who happens to be a fighter and a world champion, Lee, 20, tells the Guardian. The Canadian-born, Hawaii-raised fighter says this with a giggle and undeniable sincerity. Many people in her life, including those who make money off her, paint a picture of an athlete poised to breakout big in Asia her father is from Singapore and her mother is South Korean at a time when the continent is beginning to follow mixed martial arts in ways it was unable to before.
Asian audiences are just now starting to engage in Asian content. All weve ever had access to was North American and European content. We were not prolific in producing quality Asian content. Im talking world-class content. Sports or soap operas, its very new, said promoter Victor Cui, the CEO International of ONE Championship, an MMA promotion focused on building stars such as Lee in Asia. The way I look at it is this: Asia is very used to seeing global icons in martial arts, like Michelle Yeoh in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Seeing a talented female martial artist is not something foreign in Asia, which is why I think Angela is so readily accepted.
I dont think theres a ceiling to Lees potential, added Cui, a former ESPN executive.
Lee, who is unbeaten seven fights into her professional MMA career, deserves at least a mention alongside the most heart-pounding prospects in the sport. Lee captured the championship belt in ONEs atomweight division last year, and after defending it for the first time in March she is positioned to become the first breakout fighter of Asian descent in many years, with the potential for widespread fame looming.
At the start of Lees career in Asia she was quizzed on her background and heritage. Soon she learned how to respond. She was half-Korean, half-Chinese Singaporean, she told people, born in Canada and raised in Hawaii. Thats kind of a mouthful, Lee explained, but as the media and fan bases in different parts of Asia began to understand her story they quickly accepted her. Im a mix of everything and I think thats a plus. It gives me more experience culturally knowing that Ive been to these different places around the world.
Lee was also shaped by the women pioneers who came before her Gina Carano, Cris Cyborg and Ronda Rousey. It made me want to pursue this even more, Lee said. I was training and competing and seeing them do their thing on TV and being able to travel and do what they love, it just really inspired me. I never had a thought in my mind that I wasnt going to make it.
My great grandma actually watches the fights. Shes not scared of anything. I think thats why it kind of runs in our blood in my family. Were all fighters in some sense.
Unlike Carano, Cyborg and Rousey, from her earliest experiences in martial arts Lee was molded as a competitor with a full arsenal. That foundation produced a dynamic and aggressive fighter, who to this point has sought to finish her opponents in a variety of ways.
Coming from a martial arts family and being introduced to the sport at such a young age, I just kind of grew up in it, Lee said. This is all I kind of knew. Martial arts is a huge part of my life it always has been. I didnt have a second option when it came to career choice. I didnt see myself being a teacher or a doctor or something like that. I knew I wanted to do something MMA related.
Observers of mixed fighting have anticipated an emergence of young competitors who would be well versed in all aspects of MMA from striking to wrestling from the moment they first stepped into the cage. Lee is certainly an example of that, and her talent has been a boon to ONE Championship. The promotion, a partner to the Singaporean government, signed Lee ahead of her professional debut in 2015 and quickly doubled down with a contract that made Lee among the highest paid female fighters in MMA.
My advantage is that from the beginning I learned mixed martial arts as a whole, Lee said. You can see it from the transition from the standup to the ground and everything in between.
Because of Lee and their stable of 450 fighters, ONE has experienced explosive growth over the past five years, claiming between 10 to 50 times the exposure in Asia compared to the industry leading UFC.
We have been more fortunate in that there is one common denominator in our world, which is martial arts, said Cui. Its the only sport that is truly Asian. Its been the home of martial arts for the last 5,000 years. Every country we go to at its core has some form of martial arts that theyre fiercely proud of.
So we actually go into a country and we dont need to teach anybody that sport, whereas if we were bringing ice hockey to every country we would need to teach them who the Edmonton Oilers were everywhere we go. But whether youre a five-year-old kid or a 105-year-old grandmother you know what the best martial artists are like and when two people come together theres nothing to explain.
Considering MMAs business model is less than a quarter century old, the potential for Asia to challenge UFCs dominance should not be dismissed.
Were at the very early days, literally scratching the surface of what the opportunity is, Cui said. I think youre going to see more and more our content and TV ratings starting to dominate because of the combination of our live broadcast, the sport, our local heroes and the simplicity of the rules. If we continue to to exponentially grow on social media with content, man, for us to hit a billion impressions in the first quarter and it took us a year last year I was really shocked.
The potential audience in Asia has Cui most excited. During a panel discussion on Asias entrepreneurs earlier this month in Los Angeles, Cui noted that China was poised to spend $18tn on sports in the next 20 years. In 2016, Cui moved his office from Singapore to Shanghai to focus on developing their Chinese business.
The advantage with Asia is the rest of the world does want to see who the next Bruce Lee is, Cui said. They want to see who the next Asian athlete is [in combat sports]. There is a legitimate interest among fans to see what Asians are going to be the best in the world. Thats not common in any other sport. No one is waiting for the next Chinese champion in tennis.
In March, Lee visited Shanghai to conduct a workshop with Nike. Unlike in the US, where big brands have remained reticent to fully support MMA especially after embarrassing mishaps with the likes of troubled former UFC champion Jon Jones that prompted Nike to pull back from MMA in North America the Asian side of the business has been ripe for promotion. Disneys Marvel, for example, partnered with ONE Championship to launch its films to Asian audience.
Lee is also a big plus for any promotion intending to make inroads in Asia. [Brands] are much more inclined to have an Angela Lee working with them, said Cui. If she was fluent in Chinese that would be amazing.