MMA Champion Angela Lee On Being The Underdog And Preparing For Her Upcoming World Championship Fight

By Karen Tee

The Gen.T honouree is set to headline mixed martial arts organisation One Championship’s 10th anniversary fight card alongside Thai MMA champion Stamp Fairtex

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Cover  Angela Lee wears an A.L.C. top, Brunello Cucinelli trousers, both available at Neiman Marcus Hawaii. (Photo: Tatler Singapore)

The tension is rising. The stakes are high. One is a defending mixed martial arts (MMA) champion looking to make her comeback after a more than two-year absence following her marriage and motherhood. The other is on a hot streak with two world titles to her name and her star on the ascendant.

Meet Angela Lee and Stamp Fairtex, two athletes who have experienced meteoric rises to the top of the women’s division at One Championship. On March 26, the duo, both hugely popular in their own right, will face off for the first time as they battle it out for the women’s atomweight world title, which Lee currently holds.

“I do feel there is a lot more pressure on my shoulders and a lot more expectations after going through a lot in the past two years of not fighting, getting pregnant, giving birth and recovering,” says Lee candidly in a Zoom interview from Hawaii, where she is currently based.

Lee, who is of Singaporean and South Korean descent, shot to global fame in 2016 as a 19-year-old MMA athlete when she inked a lucrative One Championship contract, which catapulted her to the ranks of the organisation’s top five earners.

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Above  Angela (left) wears an A.L.C. top. Stamp Fairtex wears a Vvon Sugunnasil turtleneck. (Photos: Tatler Singapore)

“I am the champion of this division—and I have been since 2016. I know what it takes to capture the belt and I have defended it multiple times so this is no different,” she states with confidence.

The contender for the title is Nanthawan Panthong, better known as Stamp Fairtex, who currently holds the women’s atomweight world grand prix title. Stamp, who has been practising Muay Thai since she was five, was discovered by One Championship vice president and MMA legend Rich Franklin during the One Warrior Series try-outs and showcased her mettle by winning two One Championship world titles in Muay Thai and kick-boxing in less than a year.

For the upstart, the upcoming bout is not just an unprecedented opportunity to become the first three-sport champion in the organisation’s history, it is also a hard-won chance to go head-to-head against someone she personally considers a role model in martial arts.

“This is one of the most important bouts in my career as this is the best opportunity for me to prove myself to fans around the world. It is an honour for me to compete with Angela, and I want this to be an amazing fight,” says Stamp, via a translator.

And to add to the excitement of it all, they will do so in grand style as the headliners at One X, the organisation’s 10th-anniversary extravaganza at the Singapore Indoor Stadium, its first full attendance event since the pandemic.

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Above  Stamp wears an Asava top and trousers. (Photo: Tatler Singapore)

Chatri Sityodtong, the founder, chairman and chief executive officer of One Championship, is certain this match-up will draw crowds.

“This match is obviously super interesting on paper because of the clash of styles. You have Stamp, who is the most dangerous striker in the atomweight division bar none. There aren’t many fighters who can stand up to her, punch for punch or kick for kick,” he observes.

“Then you have Angela, who is just as dominant on the ground. When she gets an opponent to the canvas, she is unstoppable. It’s only a matter of time before she finds a weakness and exploits it. What I’m looking forward to the most is watching these fighters overcome each other’s strengths.”

Being the underdog, for me, is not a problem because I love proving people wrong. It is going to fire me up that much more
Angela Lee

Motherhood as motivation

While their styles may be different, what is immediately clear is that both women are driven by a deep passion for the sport—while empowering others along the way.

“I have goals that I would like to accomplish in the sport and now that I am a mum, I have so much more to fight for. My daughter is an even bigger motivation for me, as I want to be a good example to her and be someone she can look up to and be proud of,” says Lee.

When Ava Marie, who turns one next month, cries somewhere off-camera, Lee showcases a flash of her uncanny ability to stay laser-focused by staring straight into the camera, her eyes never drifting off in the direction of her baby.

“I tell myself she is in good hands as my husband and mother take turns to watch her. But I’m always going to have that motherly instinct and sometimes when I am in the cage, I’m like, I have to get this round done so I can attend to my daughter,” she quips with a chuckle.

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Above  Lee wears a Rick Owensgown, available at Neiman Marcus Hawaii, Tiffany & Co cuff. (Photo: Tatler Singapore)

It took her about six months post-partum to “feel like I was able to train normally”, she says. Besides her physical health, Lee emphasises that it is equally important to maintain a healthy state of mind—perhaps one of the reasons why she declined the request for a joint interview with Stamp.

Nevertheless, she is relishing the opportunity to face a worthy opponent and to show the world that she still has the fight in her. “I do feel that Stamp has a lot of momentum going into the fight because she has been so active,” she observes.

Sityodtong has no doubt Lee will bring her A-game on the big day. “Everything she does, whether it’s in or out of the circle, is of the highest calibre. But what I am most impressed by is her championship heart—her ability to come through when faced with adversity.”

Lee asserts, “Being the underdog, for me, is not a problem because I love proving people wrong. It is going to fire me up that much more.”

Taking on her hero

On the opposite end of the world in Thailand’s Pattaya, Stamp, too, is riding a wave of anticipation at finally having the opportunity to stand on the same global stage as her “One Championship idol”.

“Mentally, I am 100 percent ready, but physically I am training even harder than all my previous fights because Angela is not just a general athlete. She is a champion,” says Stamp, whose life story was chronicled in the Muay Thai documentary Buffalo Girls, which is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

Hailing from a family of Muay Thai fighters, Stamp first began learning the martial art at her uncle’s gym to protect herself from bullies in school. The young fighter was unstoppable, defeating both male and female opponents over the years that she almost stopped training at 18 because she ran out of competitors. It was only when she discovered that the Fairtex gym in Pattaya was recruiting female athletes in the male-dominated sport that she decided to return to the Muay Thai ring.

See also: Meet The Thailand Honourees On The Gen.T List 2021

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Above  Stamp Fairtex is a Thai Muay Thai kickboxer and mixed martial artist

When she was subsequently talent-spotted to join One Championship, she jumped at the opportunity to showcase her skills to a global audience.

“I want to prove myself and take my career to the next level so that I can be a role model for the next generation, and for girls around the world. I want to empower others to see the value in themselves,” says Stamp. 

Unlike Lee, who has been an MMA athlete her whole life, Stamp only began training in the sport about four years ago when she joined the organisation. To prepare for her clash with Lee, her gruelling daily schedule includes some nine hours of training, six days a week.

Sityodtong expresses his faith in Stamp’s capabilities, saying, “She is a natural athlete—she was born to fight. She also has an incredible work ethic and pours her heart and soul into training and adding new tools to her arsenal. Stamp is a monster every time she steps inside the circle.”

Ultimately, even though there can only be one winner, it is still heartening to know they are united in a common goal to grow the sport as they challenge each other to greater heights.

With the hard-earned wisdom of a veteran titleholder, Lee sums it up best, saying, “With each opponent, you grow that much more and learn things about yourself. At the end of the day, it is about evolving to become a better version of yourself. And that is what mixed martial arts is—a journey of self-development.”

This interview was first featured in the March 2022 issue of Tatler Singapore. See more honourees from the Sports category of the Gen.T List.

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