There are no shortage of contenders for Christian Lee‘s crown. The likes of Timofey Nastyuhkin, Shinya Aoki, Marat Gafurov and even Thanh Le are queuing up for a shot at the reigning lightweight champion.

Lee, who successfully defended his belt for the first time at ONE: ‘Inside the Matrix’, sees plenty of potential successors out there,

“I see the lightweight division as the most stacked division in the world. It really is full of the most killers out there. We got Shinya Aoki. Timofey (Nastyukhin) who is a very dangerous contender. We got Eddie (Alvarez) who’s going to be working his way up as well. Marat (Gafurov), who’s coming off his first win at lightweight. There are many killers out there who are just waiting for their shot at the belt.”

Staying active

He does not intend to hand over his title any time soon but sees the surplus of contenders as a good thing because it means he is likely to be busy this year,

“That’s just great for me because that means I’m always going to stay active. I’m always going to have excellent fighters to push myself and test myself against. I just see the lightweight division as the most stacked division out there. That makes me feel even better about being the champion of the division.”

That wasn’t the case in 2020. Lee was only able to get a single fight in and says the year did not pan out the way he had hoped,

“I came off of a great 2019, winning the world title and also winning the lightweight Grand Prix so I was very excited coming into 2020 (and) looking to get three-to-four title defenses in. Then the pandemic hit.”

Privileged position

Since making his ONE Championship debut in 2016 Lee has never fought less than three times in a year. But his status as champion means he will never be short of fight offers and the 22 year old knows he is in a privileged position,

“As far as how the year went, I’m very grateful because I know there are a lot of people struggling out there trying to make ends meet and took a really big hit from the Covid lockdowns and everything. For me, I’m just grateful I’m doing well in my career.”

The bout with Lapicus was postponed several times but Lee says the additional preparation time came as a bonus,

“For me, I just look at it as a positive. As an athlete, a martial artist, I never stop training. I’m always in the gym. The fight getting pushed back from May to June to July to, eventually, October when the fight happened, it was no different. I train year-round, and training continued as normal. I always knew they were going to make the fight happen, so I was just staying ready.”

No doubt

He needed less than three minutes to hand Lapicus the first loss of his career. The Moldovan had won 14 fights in a row heading into their title bout but Lee never doubted he would finish the fight,

“I just wanted to go in there, get the job done as quickly as possible, get my paycheck, and go home and that’s exactly what I did. I brought the fight to him, just like I said I would.”

Lee came charging straight out of the blocks and was stopped in his tracks by a Lapicus right hand. But the Hawaiian kept his composure and says the hard work he put in during training paid dividends,

“We had a bit of a clash. We both traded punches, his landed (and) mine didn’t. Then from there, there was just a scramble. I was able to keep my composure, win every scramble, and that’s how I ended up in the position to land those ground-and-pound shots to finish the match. For me, that was a great feeling. I trained so hard.”

Hungry contenders

Lee has already beaten three of the five fighters on the official ONE Championship lightweight rankings. He is happy to face anyone but there is one name he is particularly interested in,

“I’ve taken out three of the top lightweights already, and I’m just looking forward to knocking them down. I know there’s another big match in the works with Eddie Alvarez, he could very well earn himself a shot.”

However he played down the  title credentials of Thanh Le. Lee feels that the newly crowned featherweight has business to attend to in his own division,

“He’s got a little bit of work to do in clearing out that division before he thinks about moving up. If eventually he clears his division out and wants more, then I welcome that. But as for me, there’s a lot of hungry contenders who have earned their shot at the belt before he has, so I’ll be looking to them first.”

Moving up

Lee clearly feels a champion has to earn the right to move up in weight and challenge for a new belt and this is very much on his agenda for 2021,

“My plan is just to knock off three more top contenders in 2021, continue defending my belt, and maybe even take a crack at the welterweight belt. We’ll see how 2021 goes and how things line up, but I’m definitely trying to stay active.”

Two year’s ago he was competing in the featherweight division, avenging a dubious loss to Edward Kelly. No-one could have predicted Lee would prove such a devastating force at lightweight and if he wants to move up even further it would be a mistake to write him off.