Christian Lee is the reigning ONE lightweight champion. He wasn’t invited to be part of the lineup for the original lightweight Grand Prix, possibly because he was competing at a lower weight at the time.

But when the 21 year old received an offer to face Saygid Arslanaliev at just two week’s notice he didn’t need to think twice. For Lee, stepping up to face challenges like this comes with the territory when you call yourself a champion,

“There are not a lot of world champions who will take a fight on two weeks’ notice, I can tell you that. I took it because I believe a champion should be ready to fight anyone at any time. I love to test myself. For me, it’s just another challenge, and I’m looking forward to overcoming it.”

ONE Championship CEO / Founder Chatri Sityodtong admitted that his first choice replacement for the injured Eddie Alvarez was Eduard Folayang. Lee thinks the list of lightweights who turned down the fight is even longer,

“Last week, my dad got the call saying Eddie Alvarez was injured. They called everybody they could who could possibly be in line to take his spot, but there was no one. There were visa issues and other issues with some of the fighters they called so their last resort was to ask me.”

Family fortunes

It would have been easy to say ‘no’ to the fight at ONE: ‘Century’. But Lee says his main concern was how it would affect his sister, who is defending her atomweight belt on the same card

“I couldn’t turn it down. I said, ‘Of course I will take it.’ From the time we got the call to me accepting was about four hours. I just wanted to double-check with Angela to make sure she was okay with everything. I didn’t want to put too much stress on her for this event. As long as she was good with it, it was a go for me.”

He had been in the gym regularly. But those sessions were not geared towards going up against a Dagestani who is, to all intents and purposes, undefeated,

“I do train year round and I try to stay in good shape. However my whole focus was on Angela’s camp (and) I was just coming in, working with her, watching her sessions and really I wasn’t focused on fighting at the time.”

But while Lee wasn’t preparing meticulously for a showdown of his own on October 13th, he wasn’t out partying every night either,

“They gave me the call, and I knew the shape that I was in was good enough to take on anyone.”

Big advantage

Lee might be three years younger than Arslanaliev but he has had more fights and his career has certainly had more ups and downs. He thinks this experience could make the difference on October 13th,

“I think that’s going to play a big advantage to me. I have championship experience, and I’ve faced adversity.”

Incredibly Lee beat Shinya Aoki in his lightweight debut. Seldom in the history of combat sport can a young fighter have moved up a division so seamlessly and the 21 year old feels he has found a new home,

“Ever since I made the move up to lightweight, my body just naturally adjusted. I feel like this is my optimal weight. I feel stronger than ever.”

There are some big names in the lightweight division. None bigger than Alvarez but Lowen Tynanes, Timofey Nastyukhin and Ariel Sexton are all in the mix.

Either now or later

Having won the title Lee wasn’t expecting any easy fights and this is his attitude towards accepting the matchup with Arslanaliev,

“I’m going to have to beat everyone in the lightweight division anyways. It’s either now or later.”

However Lee was not surprised when Arslanaliev reached the final. He had the Dagestani down as the favourite right from day one,

“I did think he was going to win (because) he’s a dangerous opponent. He’s finished every single one of his fights.”

But Lee is not reading too much into that because there is one vital factor that he feels is in his favour,

“I know that I’m the toughest opponent he’s faced.”

Young lions

The final of the ONE Lightweight Grand Prix was expected to serve as the grand coronation of Eddie Alvarez. It hasn’t exactly worked out like that but what the fans have been left with is a fascinating fight.

It pits two of the best young lightweights on the planet together. While the likes of Alvarez and Aoki are surely coming towards the end of their careers Lee and Arslanaliev could be at the top of their games for another decade.

It is unlikely that this will be the last time the two men will face each other. But this lightweight bout looks set to be an intriguing addition to the historic ONE: ‘Century’ card.