16-year-old Pro MMA fighter Victoria Lee balances school work & beating people up

Stories of Us: The younger sister of One World Champions Angela and Christian Lee made her professional debut on Feb. 26 at the Singapore Indoor Stadium.

Andrew Koay | March 06, 2021, 04:47 PM

On Friday, Feb. 26, 2021, as Victoria Lee marched down One Championship’s ramp towards the cage, her usual bubbly demeanour was nowhere to be seen.

Striding to Zayde Wølf’s “Born Ready”, the 16-year-old instead bore a fiery look of intensity.

The task at hand? Her professional mixed-martial arts (MMA) debut against Thai fighter Sunisa Srisen.

Lee would have three rounds of five minutes under the glare of the Singapore Indoor Stadium lights, and the glare of considerable hype and anticipation around this, her debut professional fight — built up partly by her impressive amateur record, but also due to her last name.

The younger sister of One World Champions Angela and Christian Lee, the significance of her family’s legacy wasn’t lost on the teen.

Image of Victoria Lee making her entrance at One Championship Image courtesy of One Championship

“I think it would be impossible to not feel pressure,” said the debutant, in an interview with Mothership one week before her fight.

“But I’m just focusing on my own journey, not trying to live up to any expectations.”

Yet, as the cage door closed and Lee stood face-to-face with Srisen, One Championship’s commentator Michael Schiavello summed up exactly what was at stake:

“A must-win for Victoria, who’s been touted as a potential world champion for the future. It could be written off, in her One [Championship] debut, if she fails.”

Growing up in the gym

Lee — like her siblings — grew up training in martial arts, coached by her Singaporean father and Korean mother at the family’s gym, United MMA, in Hawaii.

“It started off just [as] a part of our daily routine, you know, something we would do after school to build skills,” she explained.

“But I would say I started taking training seriously at about 13 or 14, when we started training for the nationals and world championships.”

Evidently, her focus paid off, with Lee claiming the 2019 International Mixed Martial Arts Federation Junior World Championship, two Pankration Junior World Championships, and a 2019 Hawaii State Wrestling Championship.

Such was the height of her achievements that older sister Angela, in an interview, touted the younger Lee as “a younger, faster version of me".

“She’s (part of) this new generation of MMA fighters that were raised with martial arts as a whole,” said Angela.

In a complex sport that demands its best athletes to have a wide variety of competencies, many end up gaining mastery over just a few aspects of combat.

For example, its not uncommon to find a world champion who is a top notch boxer but is vulnerable to an opponent with solid grappling.

It explains why Lee’s long-time study of the different components of MMA — striking, wrestling, and submission grappling, to name a few — has observers purring at the prospect of a genuinely well-rounded contender.

Too much, too young?

Despite her pedigree, the announcement of Lee’s signing with One Championship as a professional fighter drew criticism and questions about whether a 16-year-old should be engaging in such a brutal sport.

Internet trolls aside, there are legitimate concerns over the long-term effects of regularly taking punches to the head, or getting choked out.

For example, a 2017 study published in medical journal Trauma and reported on by Discover Magazine found that MMA fighters with more fights over their lifetime tended have lower cognitive test scores, processing speed, and increased signs of motor impulsiveness.

Apart from long-term medical effects, incidents of fatalities also pop up every now and then, shining a spotlight on how violent things can get when the door of the cage closes.

When what’s at stake could very well be life or death, it seems prudent to question whether a teenager has both the maturity and mental toughness to deal with the rough and tumble of fighting for a living.

Lee admitted that she did not expect to turn pro so soon and had considered delaying her debut till she turned 18.

But, backed by her family, the fighter nicknamed “the Prodigy” decided that she “just couldn’t pass up” the opportunity presented to her by One Championship.

“I can see why people would be concerned about my age,” she said.

“But I’ve been training every hard and for a very long time, and in the best gym in the world. So I’m confident in my skills, and my team is confident in my ability to compete professionally.”

"I think that’s the only opinion that matters,” she added.

Homework and beating people up

With that in mind, Lee had been gearing up for her debut ever since she officially became a One Championship competitor in September 2020.

A December fight had been discussed behind the scenes and though it never materialised, Lee had been training in preparation for it.

It was only in January 2021 that Srisen was confirmed as Lee’s first opponent and the family began putting together a game plan for the fight.

Lee had the benefit of being guided by a two-time championship coach — her father, Ken.

Ken had previously masterminded the ascendency of Christian and Angela to the pinnacle of their respective weight divisions.

That run included Christian’s defeat of MMA legend Shinya Aoki.

Image of Victoria Lee and her father Ken Lee Lee and her father, Ken. Image courtesy of One Championship

Lee clearly has a close relationship with her father:

“My relationship with my dad and my coach — very close. Everything that I’ve learned has come from him...I would not be here without him and my mum.”

Ironically, a boost to her fight preparation was provided by the suspension of in-person classes at Lee’s school — due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

She worked with a flexible schedule as she prepared for her pro debut, watching pre-recorded classes in between sessions at the gym.

A typical day would started with two hours in the gym in the morning, before Lee heads home for lunch and school work.

Another two-hour training session would take place in the afternoon, followed by more school work in the evening.

“It was a nice balance,” said Lee describing the time spent between doing homework on one hand, and practicing beating someone up on the other.

The biggest thing in her life

Yet, with hours to go before her big debut, Lee couldn’t be in worse shape.

A bout of food poisoning threatened to undo months of work and spoil her coming out party.

Ken later revealed that his daughter had still been vomiting right up to the start of her warm up for the fight.

The illness was yet another weight on Lee’s shoulders, along with the pressure of living up to the family name.

“I felt so much nerves,” a reflective Lee said after the fight.

“This was the biggest thing I’d ever done in my entire life and I felt all of it when I was walking into the arena.”

While some may argue that Lee had been gifted her spot in One Championship on the merit of her last name, once inside the cage, any such privilege she might have been afforded evaporated.

Her opponent, Sunisa Srisen, had already fought professionally five times, losing only one of those matches.

The Thai fighter warned Lee in the build-up to the fight that she was unwilling to play the role of stepping stone.

“Victoria, please prepare well. I will take away the win from you and take it back to my home country,” Srisen said.

When the bell finally rang to signal the start of the bout, Srisen welcomed Lee to the world of professional fighting with a hard kick to the latter’s lead leg.

Early in the first round, the Thai’s aggressive hooking punches seemed to stymie Lee, who also found herself grounded by a well-executed Judo-style arm and head throw.

However, when Srisen attempted to execute the throw a second time, Lee took control and countered by furiously tossing her opponent to the ground.

Lee dashed in for a choke but couldn’t quite get her hands in the right position.

Image of Victoria Lee fighting with Sunisa Srisen Image courtesy of One Championship

The round ended with the 16-year-old raining blows on Srisen, who retreated into a turtle-like position.

A huge relief

In the breaks between each five minute round, athletes get one minute to gather themselves; “I cleared my mind and just remembered the game plan,” Lee recalled.

Less than a minute into the second round, Lee once again scored a takedown.

Amid the ensuing scramble, Srisen’s head popped up, leaving her neck vulnerable.

In a flash, Lee slipped one arm under her opponent’s chin.

“I was able to fully sink in the choke this time, then I just squeezed.”

Srisen was left no choice but to tap out, ending the fight.

Lee spun around and flexed her biceps triumphantly, her visage still carrying the same look of intensity seen during her walk-in.

Image of Victoria Lee celebrating her win over Sunisa Srisen Image courtesy of One Championship

However, by her post-fight interviews, the bubbly teenager had returned.

“Oh man, when I first got on the stage and they were announcing my name, it was crazy. It was a really cool experience,” said a wide-eyed Lee with the same enthusiasm as a kid in Disneyland.

She admitted that getting her career off to a winning start was a “huge relief”.

“There so much was building up to this fight. So much pressure, so much emotions and as soon as the fight was over, everything was just a huge —“

Lee let out a big sigh and flashed a smile.

“It felt great.”

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 Victoria Lee's Instagram and courtesy of One Championship