Over the last few years, Angela Lee has leapt to the forefront of ONE Championship, as one the promotion’s most talented and marketable competitors. However, her 2019 campaign has cast some uncertainty on Lee’s future as the face of women’s mixed martial arts in the organization. 

On October 12 at ONE: CENTURY, she will return to action to defend her ONE Women’s Atomweight World Title after a disappointing two-bout jaunt into the strawweight division. The biggest day in ONE history could prove a pivotal turning point in her young career. A win solidifies her spot as a top star in the promotion, while a third straight loss could put a “stop” to her “unstoppable” superstardom. 

Since joining ONE Championship in 2015, Lee’s rise to prominence in the organization has been impressive to say the least. A five-bout winning streak—all by submission—earned her a main event spot, and placement in the inaugural ONE Women’s Atomweight World Title bout. 

Although Lee’s submission streak ended that night, her winning ways continued. She defeated Japanese mixed martial arts veteran Mei Yamaguchi, en route to becoming the youngest competitor to hold a major mixed martial arts world championship at just 19-years-old.

Yamaguchi seemed to be the only opponent capable of putting up a fight against the Singaporean’s “Unstoppable” run as champion. 

After defeating the DEEP and Shooto veteran by unanimous decision, Lee racked up stoppage victories over both Jenny Huang, and Istela Nunes, in the first two defenses of her atomweight throne. “V.V” stands out among the rest of Lee’s fallen foes for being able to go the distance with the Asian superstar in both instances.

Lee found herself on an absolute roll. She had yet to taste defeat in nine professional bouts, or even in her three amateur outings before that. Lee had become the face of women’s mixed martial arts in ONE Championship, and one of its brightest stars. 

She has headlined all but one of the events where she entered as a title challenger or defending champion. In just her eighth professional bout, Lee garnered top billing over then ONE Welterweight World Champion Ben Askren — an established star in the promotion, and an athlete who was arguably the pound-for-pound best talent in the organization at the time.

If that wasn’t enough proof of ONE’s belief in Lee as a bankable name and elite star, at the promotion’s massive “A New Era” event, Lee earned a co-main event slot over the debuts of both Eddie Alvarez and Demetrious Johnson, two stars who have the international name recognition, and fighting accolades, to headline an event anywhere on the planet. 

For observers of the sport, the promotions “A New Era” event appeared to be the moment when ONE had truly solidified itself as the world’s elite martial arts organization. With Lee at the forefront of it all attempting to become a two-division champion, and place her name in the discussion as one of the best pound-for-pound female competitors on the globe. That applecart, however, was upset by strawweight champion Xiong Jing Nan in a fifth-round performance that completely changed Lee’s career.

Moving up in weight to challenge an incumbent champion is a bold move. However for an athlete like Lee, who had known nothing but winning, the decision seemed practical. Plus, over the first four rounds of her strawweight title clash with Xiong, the decision looked like genius, especially after a pair of submission attempts in the fourth that Xiong survived with a level of flexibility that would earn Stretch Armstrong’s respect.

Entering the fifth, Lee appeared to be well ahead on the scorecards, and a finish from her opponent was the only way she would not leave the Ryogoku Kokugikan with belts on both shoulders. However, that did not happen. 

Maybe it was competing with more weight on her frame. Maybe it was the pure grit, and endless pressure of Xiong that slowly sapped the atomweight champion’s energy during the bout. Whatever the reason, “Unstoppable” succumbed to the relentless bodywork of the defending champion, and found herself coming up short for the first time.

The loss was a surprise to some, yet there was a good explanation. Lee was competing outside of the weight-class she had dominated for over four years. Not to mention, she lost to the division’s champion in a bout she was leading. 

In sports, there are losses that can be excusable, and don’t damage the psyche and reputation of talented athletes. This seemed to be one of them. Yet, in a turn of events even more surprising than her defeat to Xiong, Lee chose not to return to atomweight, and instead made another go of it at strawweight.

Four months after incurring the first defeat of her career, Lee returned to action against Michelle Nicolini, one of the most accomplished female Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioners to ever compete the sport. 

After early danger in the opening minutes—where Nicolini took Lee down and attained full mount on the Hawaiian based fighter—Lee controlled her talented opponent from top position for the majority of the round, while defending several submission attempts.

The second saw a reversal of roles from the opening round. With the Brazilian controlling most of it from top position, until another Lee sweep saw her take control of the ground battle in the last minute. 

It seemed the bout was an even affair with five pivotal minutes of action left. The final round consisted of several momentum swings, with “Unstoppable” winning early standing exchanges, and stuffing several takedown attempts. Then the multi-time IBJJF world champion was able to land a sweep on the ground, and control the action for a minute’s worth of time, until Lee scored a third sweep from the bottom. 

The pair would exchange top control a few more times before the bout ended with the difference being Lee landing a plethora of strikes during her opportunities with the advantage.

In the end, the judges favored Nicolini, despite the atomweight champion finishing strong in a close contest under international rules. It was a second straight setback at strawweight.

Lee informed Sherdog contributor Jason Burgos in July, before the Nicolini bout, that “if I’m fit, if I’m eating right, if I’m exercising” then her walk around weight is near 130 pounds. Making the weight-cut to ONE’s strawweight limit far easier for her, and lets her compete happier and healthier. 

“[Strawweight] is optimal for me, and it’s where I feel my strongest. I’m not depriving myself. It’s great, I love fighting at [strawweight],” she told Sherdog. 

When any high-level talent endures a losing skid, a step back from the elites of a division is often the path forward. Yet for Lee as the champion of a division, she was bound to defend her throne again at some point, which she will do in another headliner pot at part one of the promotion’s “Century” double header on October 12. 

In her return, Lee will once again face Xiong, who now will be the woman attempting “champ-champ” status, the same Xiong who handed Lee her first loss, and stated after her victory, “I am Xiong Jing Nan – I can’t lose.”

Lee is up against the odds in this one, despite being the unbeaten queen in the division. But if there’s one thing her fans can count on, is that Lee will show up and will compete to the best of her ability. Whether or not that’s enough to finally beat Xiong and earn her first win in over a year remains to be seen.

One thing is for certain, however. Lee’s back is definitely against the wall. But it’s in these instances when the truly great athletes shine the brightest.