The last few years of MMA fighter and the current (and youngest ever) ONE Championship Women's Atomweight Champion Angela Lee's life has played out very much like the early parts of a stirring Hollywood biopic.
In 2014, at just 17 years old, the American-Singaporean blazed onto the fight scene with a successive series of victories that saw her eventually defeat Japanese veteran Mei Yamaguchi at the inaugural ONE Championship Atomweight Women's Title in 2016. Since then, she's successfully defended her title twice, and has remained resoundingly undefeated. She was the talk of the town, a media darling, a teen wonder.
And then, just when she was due for her second One Championship bout with Yamaguchi in November last year, she got into a car accident in her hometown of Hawaii after falling asleep at the wheel on her way to training. She escaped mostly unscathed, albeit badly shaken. "For the longest time, it was hard to talk about it without crying," she tells us. "I kept asking why something like that had happened to me."
"I wasn’t upset about not being able to fight; I just couldn’t get happy," she recalls. "I always felt down, and I didn’t understand why I felt that way. When something like that happens, no one knows what you’re going through except for you, like how many steps there are [in the recovery process]. Sometimes it’s one step forward and two steps back."
It was her mother's reassurance that her lingering feelings of depression were completely normal and part of the recovery process that reminded her that she had to take her time to completely heal mentally and physically.
"I didn't rush the recovery at all - I took all the time I needed. You would think it'd bother me after being so active all the time, but I felt I needed that break after the last two whirlwind years of crazy events, traveling and fights."
For the three months following the accident, Lee spent quality time with her family back home in Hawaii, "not doing anything and eating a lot of junk food". "It's the first time I really spent more than a month at home, and it felt really good to just be back and have a normal routine."
"I got a lot of self-reflection in, and a lot of downtime. I didn't have any fights lined up, because it was time for me to remember why I do what I do, and why I loved it." She spent a lot of time hanging out at the gym with her family of fighters while they trained, and it would be another two months before she stepped back onto the mat.
"February [this year] was when I wanted to fight again. I was inspired by my brother [fellow fighter Christian Lee] who was competing at that time, and the whole process of watching and supporting him got me pumped up." In two months, she was back to peak fighting shape, and raring to get back into the ring. This Friday, her rescheduled match with Yamaguchi will finally proceed at the One Championship Unstoppable Dreams event at the Indoor Stadium. It's one that fans have been salivating over since its announcement, but Lee insists that she's just looking forward to "going out there and having fun".
On hindsight, Lee says that the accident "happened for a reason", citing a belief in a greater purpose for things in life. Knowing that she can touch others who have been through similar cases of physical turmoil has also made her open to sharing her story.
"I’m happy because I feel I’m in a much better headspace than I ever could be," she explains. "I have this renewed outlook on life, and it's helped me find my passion and fire in competing and inspiring others."
"I have all the confidence in the world, knowing that I went through so much to get to where I am today, Once you've put in all the work, that gives you such a huge advantage, [believing] that there’s nothing that can stop you. It’s a champion’s mindset."
On Fri, 18 May from 10pm, catch the ONE Championship matches LIVE on oktoSports and Channel 5. Download the Toggle app to watch it LIVE from 8:30pm.
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