The smile on the face of ONE Championship golden girl Angela Lee says it all.

‘Unstoppable’ has endured a tumultuous 2019. She tasted a double helping of defeat for the first time in her professional career, falling to Chinese phenom Xiong Jing Nan, then suffering a shock upset loss to Michelle Nicolini just three months later.

But Lee responded in the fashion you’d expect from the atomweight queen, submitting Xiong in their hugely anticipated rematch at ONE: ‘Century’ part 1 where she well and truly rediscovered her groove.

As difficult as they were to take at the time, the 23-year-old admits that those losses may have been a blessing in disguise. Lee says they’ve helped her reignite her competitive fire.

“It was a rough start. But I have to say, because of those two fights I went back to the gym and I trained harder than I ever had before.”

Angela Lee and Xiong Jing Nan

Learning curve

Lee says the losses lit a fire in her and helped her recapture the hunger she showed at the start of her career,

“Losses are hard to deal with but they teach you something, and get this fire going within you that you maybe wouldn’t have if you were on a continuous winning streak. It felt like the beginning of my career, when I was so hungry to fight and so hungry to train.”

As they say, winning cures everything, and that’s especially true in Lee’s case. The final round submission win over Xiong in Tokyo helped lift a dark cloud that had been hanging over her head.

“The first loss of my career definitely had a huge impact on me. I went into a bit of a depression and I was upset, and then right after that, the fight in July (against Nicolini) not going my way. That last win was a great feeling especially when all the hard work pays off in the fight, and I’m so proud of how far I came this year.”

Michelle Nicolini ground and pounds Angela Lee

Winning streak

Prior to the start of 2019, Lee had been on a staggering three-year streak of dominance. She tore through all-comers to capture the atomweight title amid a nine-fight undefeated stretch, which makes it all the more understandable when Lee confesses she may have started to take winning for granted,

“Especially when everything is going good for so long. A loss like this kind of shakes things up and says ‘hey, there’s urgency to this and you need to stay on top of it, because there are contenders climbing up the ranks and they’re all gunning for you’.”

While Lee has her sights set on a second strawweight title shot she is also keeping a close eye on the competition at atomweight,

“I’m definitely keeping that in the back of my mind coming into 2020, because I know that the atomweight division has been busy with a lot of new fighters, a lot of new contenders. So, I definitely want to defend my belt but I’m also gunning for the strawweight title.”

To do that Lee will need to get the better of the current holder and nemesis Xiong one more time in a trilogy fight that she hints is close to a done deal. That title was up for grabs the first time they fought in Tokyo but the rematch was for her atomweight strap,

“Definitely. It’s bound to happen (the trilogy fight with Xiong). I can’t say anything more than that, but it’s bound to happen in 2020.”

Most of combat sports’ greatest fighters needed a high quality rival to bring the best out of them, and while Lee acknowledges Xiong as a genuine challenge, she believes the difference between victory and defeat all comes down to whether she puts out her best,

“She’s a great competitor, but mostly I was disappointed in myself. I feel like I didn’t live up to expectations I had in myself and that’s the worst feeling. As a fighter, I’m never scared of my opponents but I’m scared that I’m not able to perform to the best of my abilities, and in the first two fights of the year, that’s what I felt like.”

Angela Lee

Family affair

Lee knows she did not fight to her full potential in the pair of defeats. But behind the scenes a lot of work went in to ensuring the rematch with Xiong turned out differently,

“I wasn’t living up to that potential that I know I have. Whether that’s because of injuries or bad camp or whatever, everything happens for a reason and I got my butt back in the gym and made sure I was gonna kill it in October.”

And that’s been her daily agenda ever since, mixing training and coaching back him in Hawaii at United MMA, where it’s truly a family affair alongside father Ken, brother and fellow ONE champion Christian, and husband Bruno Pucci, another member of the ONE roster.

Lee says it’s a testament to the strength of their marriage that she and Pucci can switch into fight camp mode with one another without anyone’s feelings getting hurt,

“It’s crazy, we’ve been able to train with each other on a daily basis and try not to take anything too personal when he punches me in the face. But in all fairness, we just want the best for each other so we’re willing to put feelings aside and just do what we’ve got to do to help each other improve. I think we’re each other’s number one cheerleaders.”

That said, there’s one situation they try to avoid at all costs.

“We have to take turns with who fights, because we can’t both be training and grouchy and cutting weight at the same time,” Lee says with a laugh.