Angela “Unstoppable” Lee was only 20 years old when she defeated veteran MMA fighter Mei Yamaguchi, a woman nearly twice her age, making her the ONE Women’s Atomweight World Champion and the youngest female MMA world champion.
I made sure to remember this when I walked up the steps of her family’s MMA gym in Waipahu, Hawaii to meet the Lees for the very first time.
Previously, I’ve only been able to watch Angela fight through the many YouTube videos recapping her best submissions and notable victories. Watching the fierce look in her eyes as she took on her opponents through my small screen only made me more curious to meet her in person. What is the real Angela Lee like?
As I entered the lobby of the United MMA & Fitness Center, I locked eyes with a young woman with a bright smile. “Welcome!” she said to me excitedly as she gave me a warm hug, putting a beautiful, pink lei around my neck.
I had many adjectives running through my head that could be used to describe Angela: “competitive,” “strong,” perhaps even “intimidating.” Admittedly, “bubbly” and “warm” failed to ever cross my mind. However, there she was, smiling and joking with me as if we had known each other for years.
“You know it is kind of crazy because people who have never met me before and have only seen me in these YouTube videos think I’m so intimidating and they don’t always want to say hi, but once they get to know me they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh you’re a completely different person,'” she told me as we sat across from each other at a small coffee table in the corner of her family’s gym.
As I looked around the impressive establishment her family had built, I could see just how wrong the misconceptions surrounding MMA were. Everywhere I turned, I saw how her parents had proudly displayed their children’s accomplishments.
This was a family-focused establishment — young boys and girls giggled as they ran up to me in between their classes and soon their parents came to pick them up while some of the family members even stayed to attend classes themselves.
This is exactly how Angela and her siblings discovered their passion for MMA. While some children grow up attending gymnastics or swimming lessons, Angela’s home was always in her parents’ gym.
“We just had fun learning how to break fall, learning different positions, so we didn’t start out as little MMA fighters, we just started out as kids learning the basics of self-defense and martial arts,” Angela says.
“Following them to the gym every day was just something fun for us, it was something natural.”
Quite obviously, her experiences strayed quite a bit from what many would consider the classic Asian childhood. Growing up with martial arts instructors as parents in their family’s MMA gym is hardly a path written in the Tiger parenting manual.
I thought back to when I was in elementary school: dance, piano, tennis. Of course, I was terribly hopeless at all three and eventually stopped taking lessons. Meanwhile, Angela had been training to become a warrior at the same age when I was being scolded for accidentally hitting the wrong piano notes and falling asleep during classes.
As we talked about our very different childhoods, Angela admitted she certainly shared similar moments as a child: “I used to want to go out and try different things, try different sports… and I did, but I was never really good at it and I just come back to martial arts.”
“I find that very hard to believe,” I replied as we both laughed.
“I tried soccer and I couldn’t kick the ball for the life of me so I was the goalie, but honestly, if I wasn’t doing martial arts, I don’t know what I would be doing,” she said.
Fortunately, with all of her phenomenal accomplishments, she certainly won’t have to worry about alternative career routes any time soon.
However, the start of Angela’s MMA journey began with slightly different intentions. “My parents just wanted me to learn martial arts so that I would know how to defend myself and that’s the whole reason.”
“They told us, ‘I don’t care if you’re going to be a fighter, we’re not gonna push you towards that. But if you get into a situation, god forbid, we want you to have the tools to be able to defend yourself,’ and I think that’s such an important skill.”
Watching Angela train in the family gym, I realized for the first time how training in mixed martial arts could have real-life benefits. This was not just a sport for men and it certainly was not about releasing aggression.
Every move Angela made during her training was calculated. It wasn’t just about hitting her opponents as many times as possible to cause the most damage. It was about entwining her legs and arms and knotting them in a way that would put her at a physical advantage over them.
“Especially in this day and age, you see all of these stories on the news and it’s so scary — kids being taken, women being abused — and it’s real life,” she told me as she watched the other female students in the room.
Three years ago, this very reason inspired Angela to create a series of self-defense tutorial videos for women on YouTube, hoping to inspire people of all ages, genders, and backgrounds to become involved in MMA and learn basic self-defense techniques. Even today, these videos remain just as relevant and essential as when they were first published.
“Do people ever underestimate you?” I asked her. While Angela is unbelievably toned and undeniably in peak physical shape, she was still quite slim, petite and feminine, which made her skills and strength all the more impressive.
After pausing to think, she replied, “I feel like I’m one of the lucky ones, that this time, this era that we’re in has changed so much and there’s so much female empowerment.”
“Because people look at you as a martial artist, a fighter, even though you’re a female doing this, you get some sort of extra recognition and they see you for your skills and the techniques that you have like, ‘Wow she’s a girl and she’s fighting in the cage?'”
For women, there seems to be an extra layer of passion surrounding MMA. There’s something quite admirable and inspiring about women choosing to turn what is often categorized as a masculine sport into a unique way to empower themselves.
In less than a month, Angela will be entering the cage again to face off against Xiong Jingnan in a rematch fight to defend her Atomweight (115-pound) title in Tokyo.
“October 13th, that’s the date. Everything’s going into this fight,” she said passionately.
And to prepare, she has been working tirelessly to perfect every technique and “get the job done.”
“Throughout even fight week and fight camp, there are moments when you can feel that build up. You’re anxious to fight and you have all these emotions, but I just have to remind myself that it’s not time yet and I have to save all my energy for those 25 minutes inside of the cage and that’s when it’s time to…” Angela paused to think.
“To unleash the beast?” I filled the silence.
“Exactly!” she replied, showing off her bubbly smile again.
As Angela walked away to put on her gloves and continue her training for the day, it was as if she had suddenly transformed into her own alter ego. Her own version of Sasha Fierce, if you will.
Never in my life did I think I’d find myself so fascinated with the craft of mixed martial arts, but within just a few short minutes of chatting with Angela, she had me hooked. Because that’s what the real Angela Lee is like — she’s relatable, passionate, fierce, and impossible to root against.
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