You never forget your first.
For Christian “The Warrior” Lee, it came at the tender age of 17.
The younger brother of mixed martial arts (MMA) sensation Angela Lee made his professional debut in the sport whilst still a high school student and remembers having to ask his school for permission mid-semester.
“There were 20,000 people in attendance that night, and I believe I was the very first fight of the night,” he told Mothership.
“I was so nervous all that nervous energy translated to just aggression in the cage.”
29 seconds was all it took for Lee to violently finish the fight.
A hard kick to opponent David Meak’s left leg sent him scurrying to get out of the firing line. Lee, in pursuit, clocked the Cambodian with several shots to the face and that was all she wrote.
Moments after his spectacular victory, Lee was joined in the cage by Angela and his father and head coach Kevin Lee.
For the now-21-year-old, cage fighting has always been a family affair.
Deciding to become an MMA fighter at the age of 13
Born in Vancouver, Canada and raised in Hawaii by a Singaporean father and Korean mother, Lee said his parents — both martial arts instructors — introduced combat sports to him at a young age.
“Growing up my sister and I would just train — it was just a part as part of our daily routine,” he said.
It wasn’t just training for the sake of it though, Lee took part in jiu jitsu tournaments, wrestling competitions, and boxing and kick-boxing matches; for the young prodigy, it was a natural progression to test his skills in real life scenarios.
By the age of 13, Lee had made up his mind — he wanted to be a professional MMA fighter.
“That’s when I really started to enjoy it,” he recalled.
“I started to, you know, crave the competition. I enjoyed competing and testing myself, and of course, winning. So from there, I just got hooked in.
That’s when I really decided I wanted to make it a career around 13.”
Student by day, professional fighter by night
As a high schooler, Lee said that his focus was completely on fighting and that he had little time for the frivolities his peers might have been involved in.
A typical day involved heading straight to the gym from school. Once his professional career got underway, he’d have to regularly request leave from his school in order to travel for his fights in Asia.
“I’d just try to finish all my homework, then go and fight and come back to school.”
The frenetic pace of his early career saw Lee fight four times before finishing high school, with his fifth fight coming days after his graduation.
“It was very crazy for me,” said Lee.
“All I was thinking about is just the next thing, the next fight, and the next opponent. And I really didn’t have time to think about it or take it all in.”
When I ask if he regretted not savouring his days as a student, Lee paused for a second to consider what he might have missed out on.
“Um,” he began slowly, "I didn’t really have the same goals, same mindset as my peers around me.”
“I didn’t care much about anything else other than fighting. And so I’m sure I did miss out on a lot. But you know, looking back, I have no regrets.”
Enduring his first set back
On Aug. 13, 2016, Lee stood in the ONE Championship cage eyes fixed on his opponent, Australia’s Martin Nguyen.
Nine years his senior — and perhaps a little more wily — Nguyen largely sat back looking to counterattack as Lee played the aggressor throughout the fight.
The back-and-forth affair saw Lee stun Nguyen in the fourth minute of the fight with a fierce right hand, prompting the younger fighter to swarm on his opponent.
However, in the ensuing flurry the Australian fighter nicknamed The Situ-Asian caught his onrushing opponent with an overhand left — a punch whose powerful downward trajectory sent Lee crashing to the canvas.
Sensing the moment, Nguyen immediately dived on the downed fighter and within seconds was tightening his arms around Lee’s neck, applying what’s known as a guillotine choke.
Soon, Nguyen was celebrating his victory as Lee’s limp body was attended to by the officials.
In the fight game, losses present athletes with a crossroads of sorts. Unlike football or basketball, where a match the next week may offer an opportunity for the defeated to avenge themselves, fighters are left with months to dwell on the result, replaying every misstep in their minds.
Many once-promising and talented prospects have seen their growing star extinguished upon their first loss, and careers can take a sharp nosedive from there on out.
“It was very upsetting, of course,” said Lee, reflecting on the night of his first professional loss.
“But I feel that it allowed me to take a step back and break my whole skillset down — break my career down. and just kind of reevaluate everything and recuperate.”
Taking the rematch with a broken hand
After eight months away from the cage — Lee’s longest break since his career began — The Warrior returned to spotlight as a martial artist “evolved”.
Against the shorter but beefed up Chinese fighter Wan Jianping, Lee cut a much more patient figure.
Biding his time even in the face of taunts, Lee measured his shots, eventually scoring a spectacular takedown and bloodying the outclassed Wan with slicing elbows and vicious punches.
That win triggered a run of four consecutive victories, including a first-round knock out of former ONE Lightweight World Champion Kotetsu Boku.
Right after dispatching Japanese contender Kazunori Yokota, Lee was offered a rematch with Nguyen, except this time, it would be a contest for the Australian’s ONE Featherweight World Championship belt.
The only problem: Lee had just broken his hand in the fight.
“I had a cast on and the match was scheduled for eight weeks from then. I just thought: ‘Man, I don’t want to miss out on this opportunity. I don’t want to lose this title shot, and I definitely don’t want to lose the chance of getting this rematch.’
So I took the fight with a broken hand.”
To say that Lee’s preparation for the biggest fight of his career was less than ideal is an understatement.
Unable to spar or punch a boxing bag with a cast on his hand, Lee was confined to going on runs to maintain his fitness and completing hand-safe drills to keep his fight-sense sharp.
Knowing this makes Lee’s performance in the close five round affair in front of a sell-out crowd in Singapore’s indoor stadium even more impressive.
In the end, neither fighter was able to finish the fight and decision on who won was placed in the hands of the judges.
One judge scored the bout in favour of Lee while the other two saw it going the other, handing Nguyen a razor thin split-decision victory.
Bouncing back from consecutive losses
Eager to bounce back from his second loss, Lee soon took the cage with Edward Kelly from the Philippines.
The fight was stopped in the first round with Lee seemingly the victor, after he slammed Kelly to canvas with a belly-to-back suplex and followed it up with punches to the head.
Yet, minutes later, the referee — upon watching a replay of the takedown — deemed that Lee had used an illegal technique and reversed the decision, disqualifying the young fighter.
Perhaps it was bizarre circumstances of both fights that allowed Lee to brush off the back-to-back losses when I asked him about it.
Another factor, he explained was the support he had around him.
“I feel like it should have. It should have affected me, it should have brought me down, and it would have for a lot of people,” he said.
“But I feel like I was just in such a good place in life. You know? I had the whole support of my family, had the full support of my wife, who was my girlfriend at the time. And you know, they were just there to support me every step of the way, through all of my my losses and setbacks.”
As I said earlier, fighting — with all its ups and downs — is a family affair for the Lee family.
Besting a legend to become world champion
It was no surprise then to see older sister Angela ringside in tears when Lee finally accomplished his goal of becoming world champion on May 17, 2019.
Facing his most daunting task in MMA legend Shinya Aoki, Lee survived an early scare in the first round when he was caught in an armbar to knock his opponent out in the second.
Stalking a retreating Aoki, Lee caught the Japanese submissions specialist with his left fist and followed it up by brutalising the champion in the corner of the ring.
Visibly emotional as he heard his name announced as at the winner and new Lightweight World Champion, Lee described the moment as one “overly filled with joy.”
“There was just so much pressure leading up to that moment. It was something that I’ve wanted my whole life — to win the World Title.
Just so many things coming together all at once. I was just just overfilled with emotions. I had my, my wife there, my whole family there. My grandparents flew in to see that match.”
Barely out of his teenaged years at the age of 20, Lee now stood at the pinnacle of the sport. The passing of the torch between legend and phenom was made all the more poignant by the surprisingly warm embrace shared by Aoki and Lee after the fight.
The pair — who’d trained together in the past — hugged while Aoki playfully slapped Lee’s face.
“He told me: ‘You’re the future of this division, and you earned this belt’,” said Lee.
“I’m just so grateful that he had those kind words to say, you know, after such a tough fight between the two of us. That really meant a lot.”
His return to Singapore
In a day's time (Oct. 30), Lee will once again return to the Singapore Indoor Stadium to defend his belt against the undefeated Iuri Lapicus.
The event — titled ONE Championship: Inside the Matrix — will mark the first live sporting event with fans to be held in Singapore since the Covid-19 pandemic struck.
250 spectators will be allowed inside the venue with tickets going for S$148, a safe seating plan in place, and rapid Covid-19 testing to be conducted.
Lee, however, isn't fazed by the prospect of suddenly having to fight in front of a live audience.
"I was fully prepared to fight with an empty crowd at an empty stadium."
"I'm excited," he added.
"I think [Lapicus is] going to have a lot of momentum behind him because of the fact that he's never lost," Lee said, assessing his opponent.
"He's finished every single one of his opponents. His last two wins in ONE were very impressive — he finished both of them."
Lee, on the other hand, will be looking to leverage on his advantage of experience — a seemingly ridiculous thing to say at the age of 21.
But when the door to the cage slams shut and Lee is standing directly across from his opponent, The Warrior will be drawing on the lessons he's learned from his losses — the over-eagerness in the first loss to Nguyen and the survival instinct honed in the five-round rematch-come-war.
He'll also be counting on the hours of sweat he's poured into the mats of United MMA — the Lee family's gym in Hawaii where Lee trains under his father and alongside his siblings.
"I'm fully prepared to bring him five hard rounds — just push him and break his will.
But I do feel that I've trained so hard for this matchup, and my skill is so much greater that I'm going to be able to finish him earlier than that."
Stories of Us is a series about ordinary people in Singapore and the unique ways they’re living their lives. Be it breaking away from conventions, pursuing an atypical passion, or the struggles they are facing, these stories remind us both of our individual uniqueness and our collective humanity.
Top image from Christian Lee's Facebook page and courtesy of ONE Championship