SINGAPORE — She was arguably the biggest star of ONE Championship - a young but dominant champion, blessed with photogenic looks and charming personality, who played a crucial role in putting the women's division of the mixed martial arts (MMA) company into prominence.
Angela Lee exploded into public consciousness in 2015 as a talented 18-year-old, and went on a winning streak which landed her the women's atomweight title a year later. Her unbeaten run lasted until 2018, when she made an unsuccessful foray into the strawweight division, but she managed to hold on to her atomweight belt after beating top rival Xiong Jingnan in October 2019.
Then, a long pause.
Amid the uncertain initial months of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Lee married fellow MMA fighter Bruno Pucci and welcomed baby daughter Ava Marie in April 2021. With the couple enjoying their blissful marriage life, many fans wondered if Lee would ever make a return to the grind of the MMA arena.
But return she will, as she prepares to defend her atomweight title at long last on 26 March at the ONE Championship: X event at the Singapore Indoor Stadium, which will celebrate the MMA company's 10th anniversary with a star-studded fight card.
It has been a long two-and-a-half-year absence for the Canadian-American amid a major change in her personal life. As Lee prepares to take on Thailand's Stamp Fairtex in her comeback bout, how have her career priorities changed following her marriage and the birth of her daughter?
"When I first joined ONE Championship, I was a wide-eyed teenager, eager to fight and take on everybody," the 25-year-old told Yahoo News Singapore in an online interview earlier this month.
"In these past two years, I've grown to be a wife and a mother. So much has happened, and obviously I feel that there's so much more to life than fighting.
"But I feel that everything is truly aligned for me now, everything is going well and I'm in the best place. So I'm going to channel this positive energy and let it shine through on 26 March."
Tough journey back to competitive fighting
To make a comeback from pregnancy in any sport is always a huge challenge, let alone in a high-intensity, bruising sport such as MMA.
For Lee, it was no different, as she admitted that it had taken about six months post-partum for her to "feel like myself again". For someone eager to get back into ring action, she said it had been difficult for her to be patient and not rush her return to competitive fighting.
However, there is one giant motivation: her daughter Ava Marie, whom she brings along for her training sessions.
"Whenever I'm going through the tough ground-sparring, I just look over the cage and I see my daughter there. She's a big motivating force for me," she said.
"Before I had Ava, I was motivated in training by the pressure of wanting to win my fights. Now, I feel an even bigger drive during training, because I want to make sure that I'll be the best example for my daughter, and be at my best for fight night."
Having a supportive family has also made Lee's comeback trail much easier. Her husband, her mother, even her siblings - fellow ONE Championship fighters Christian and Victoria - help out in taking care of Ava and planning Lee's daily routines and schedules.
Formidable opponent on her comeback fight
She will be needing all the help to get into tip-top condition to face Fairtex, a fast-rising MMA talent who clinched her shot at facing Lee for the atomweight title after going through the gauntlet of beating three rivals to win the grand prix tournament late last year.
The 24-year-old Thai has held both the ONE women's atomweight muay thai and kickboxing titles, and will be a formidable opponent with her winning momentum.
"She's a very tough opponent, and has grown a lot in the past few years. Even though she is striking-based, she has shown she could win by submission too," Lee said of Fairtex.
"She relies a lot on her physicality, being able to muscle a lot of her opponents around. So my team and I are making sure we are 110 per cent ready to be able to match up with her - technique-wise, strength-wise and conditioning-wise."
There was controversy over Lee holding on to her ONE atomweight title during her absence from competition, with some fans arguing on social media whether she should have relinquished the title to other active fighters amid her pregnancy.
ONE Championship chief executive officer Chatri Sityodtong has since defended his decision to keep the title on Lee, saying that it was not right to strip a female fighter of her title just because she became pregnant.
But does Lee feel that having to defend her title on her comeback match is adding unnecessary pressure on her to win, especially after such a long hiatus?
"There is a lot at stake, but once you're at the top, every fight is going to be the biggest fight of your life," she said.
"There's a lot of weight on my shoulders, and I feel it, I do get nervous a lot. But I have to overcome them and just do what I do best. And, you know, I've been the champion of this division since 2016, and that's what I'm out to prove to everybody."
Stepping into the unknown, but with family support
Fighting words from an MMA athlete who has never shied away from the challenge of being the best and staying at the top. Lee admits that she is stepping into the unknown - being unsure of how her body will hold up to the intensity of training and competition, of how she deals with new fighters eager to dethrone her, and of how MMA fans would react to her after such a long absence.
However, with the support of her family, she is eager to test herself back at her old stomping ground - and continue her outstanding MMA career.
"I feel like I have this 'mom strength' now. I feel like I can endure so much more after giving birth," she said with a laugh. "Now that I have my daughter, I'm willing to go through even more. I can't wait to be back fighting again."
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