There are many adjectives to describe Angela Lee but the most appropriate would be ‘excitable’. When you’re watching her fighting in the cage, either on your television screens or live while sitting in the stands, it’s hard to see this cold-blooded fighter gushing over animals. So, as I was sitting across the Evolve MMA fighter, listening to her getting animated about a kitten that she saved during a particularly violent thunderstorm, I was feeling a strange sense of cognitive dissonance. 

“And then the kitten started mewing in the middle of the night in my room, and I’m like a really heavy sleeper, so I was sleeping through it, but my parents heard it and they were burst into my room and were like, ‘Oh my God Angela did you bring a cat back? You know your mother is allergic to cats’, and I’m like, ‘But it was such a poor thing,’ but they were right of course, so the next day, I brought it to the pet shop and was telling the staff, ‘Please let someone adopt this kitten,’ and someone walked in right at that moment and saw the kitten and thought it was so cute and wanted to adopt it and I was like, ‘Whew!'” the 20-year-old says in one excited breath.

She leans back on the chair. She needed to catch her breath. That was when I noticed the new tattoo on her right forearm. It’s a drawing of a pocket watch, surrounded by a lotus (“my favourite flower”) and a bunch of peonies that the tattoo artist suggested “to fill up the space”. The time on the analogue timepiece reads 11.17pm and five seconds, representing the exact time Lee was crowned the ONE Championship women’s atomweight champion back in May this year.

Now, Lee wants to legitimise her reign. She wants to defend her title, hopefully in the first half of the year. But before that, Angela chats with us about everything under the sun, from objectification in the sport to trash talking in MMA.

You left school to fight profesionally full time. How did your parents feel about that decision leaving school?
Ever since I was small, my martial arts training and school have gone hand in hand. Obviously my parents are quite Asian and studies mean a lot to them, so when I graduated, I enrolled into university full-time and I did that for two semesters, and I was doing that while preparing for my amateur MMA fights.

Just that alone was hard. Going to school in the morning, then training in the afternoon, then studying, then training some more. So when I got my contract with ONE Championship, I had a really big decision to make and I talked about it so much with my parents.

This has been something that I’ve always really wanted to do and they’ve always been a big supporter of “if you want to do something, then do it 100 per cent.” I didn’t want to do anything halfheartedly. So I took a break from school. I still have my credits so I can go back but I just think that especially with the travelling and all that has happened, I don’t think I could ever have gotten this far if I had still been in school.

When I got signed, my total focus shifted 100 per cent to fighting and training. This is like any other professional career, you have to put in the hours, 6 to 8 hours of training throughout the day. I think my parents saw that I had a talent for it since I’ve been competing at a young age but the reason why they were more supportive of me doing it because they saw how passionate I was and how much time I invested into it. If I didn’t have enough confidence in myself they would have even less confidence in me.

Personally for me, women in MMA tend to be objectified for their bodies. What are your thoughts about that?
It’s definitely gotten a lot better. It’s actually a lot less problematic in Asia. I want people to go, “I want to watch Angela because she’s a bad ass and she’s really really good at what she does.” And not, “I want to watch Angela because she’s super hot.” I never wanted to be like that, especially because I have a 12-year-old sister and I don’t want her growing up and feeling the need to show off her body just to please people or gain attention.

I struggled with this in the beginning. I got a lot of comments that came with body image and how people view female fighters, and how they should look a certain way. If they’re too skinny, that’s not good. If they’re too muscular that’s not good. There was a time when I really could look at my phone. I turned it off. People don’t realise what they say really affects people. They just say things absentmindedly. They don’t even know these people personally and they’re judging them and making comments about how they look or how you think they should look.

How did you overcome it?
It clicked in my head when I thought that this person doesn’t know who I am and what I can do. You have a choice to believe it or not. I just keep the ones I love close to me, and I don’t let other people’s comments bother me because I know they don’t care about me.

I realise even the trash talking is different here than in the US.
It’s a whole different market. In the UFC there’s the whole good guy and bad guy and Americans tend to root for the bad guy. Here in Asia, it’s a totally different culture. If you had half the amount of trash talking that you get in the UFC, everyone would look down on you and you would be a disgrace. That’s why I really like fighting over here because I’m not a big trash talker. I just do all the talking in the cage.

Yes, trash talking definitely makes it a lot more entertaining. I think it’s entertaining to watch Conor and the lead-up to the fight. But at some point, it becomes so much that you know they’re only doing this to sell more tickets. People aren’t stupid.

Okay, have you heard of James Lipton?
Is that the dude who founded Lipton tea?

Oh God I feel so old… no, he hosts Inside the Actors Studio.
(Laughs) no I’ve never heard of him. What about him?

So he always asks his guests a list of questions. Shall we do it?
Go for it!

What is your least favourite word?
Weight. My dad is always going “weight check.” Actually the words “weight check” together. After I’m done fighting I’m going to throw away all the scales in my house! (laughs)

What sound or noise do you love?
The ocean.

Sound or noise you hate?
When metal rubs together, or when a fork rubs on a plate. Uurgh. I hate that sound.

Favourite curse word?
(Laughs) I’m a good girl, I don’t curse (laughs). I have a bad habit of saying “Shit”.

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
You know the people going around the world tasting different foods? Yeah, is there a name for that? I would love to do that. But then I have to write about it and I’ll probably be so terrible at describing it. “The food was amazing.” Yeah, very descriptive (laughs).

What profession would you not like to do?
I don’t mind working hard or a job that’s really tiring but those jobs that you have to get really dirty, shovelling poop or something.

What turns you on?
Food.

What turns you off?
People that can’t hold a conversation, people that are hard to talk to.

If Heaven exists, what would you like God to say to you when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
I would like to hear Him say, “What’s up Angela? Welcome to Heaven where everything is happy and you can eat all the food in the world.” And he has to do the hang loose sign. This is my imagination guys! (laughs) I love to eat.

Thoughts on Rousey vs Nunes at UFC207?
Oh that’s going to be a really interesting fight and I’m really excited. I like both of them and they have really explosive styles. I’m all for fighters that work to finish. Yeah, I don’t know… fighting is mostly a mental game.

I’m thinking of all the different possibilities. Rousey has a good ground game but Nunes is a black belt… I think Nunes through TKO even though I really like both of them as fighters.

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