September 27, 2023
SINGAPORE – In the rough and tumble world of mixed martial arts (MMA), fighters often seem unbreakable and invincible – mean machines who push their bodies to the limits in the pursuit of victory.
But beneath the chiselled abs and muscles are people who are very much like the rest of us – individuals who deal with stress and mental health issues – insists One Championship superstar Angela Lee. And Lee wants to let her fellow fighters, and athletes, know that it is okay to show weakness and ask for help.
Last Tuesday, the 27-year-old sent shockwaves when she revealed that she had tried to take her own life six years ago in a personal essay for The Players’ Tribune, while also confirming that her sister Victoria died by suicide last December.
In an emotional interview with The Straits Times a week later, Lee said: “As fighters, we have to portray this image that we’re the best in the world, where we’re so strong, where we’re on top of the world.
“What I would say to fighters out there is… we have to do this image for our profession. But make sure that you give yourself an outlet to show how you really feel to be who you really are, whether that outlet be through friends or family or coach, or through just journaling, getting those feelings out there. You can’t keep it all bottled up for so long.”
Inspired by late sister and her own mental health struggles, Lee has launched a non-profit charity called Fightstory, dedicated to inspiring hope and building a community for those struggling with mental health.
The current One atomweight champion, who has not fought since October 2022, is in town this week ahead of the One Fight Night 14 event on Saturday at the Singapore Indoor Stadium, where she is expected to make an announcement on her future.
Encouraging others to speak up about their battles is just one way Lee, mother to two-year-old Ava, hopes to help.
She added: “There are many things that can be done to help support the mental health of athletes individuals especially in the fight world. That traditional mindset of pushing hard and doing whatever it takes to win and to not show weakness is good and bad but finding that balance in between is something that I hope we can share and shed some light on.
“Because we do want to see the next world champion, see people succeed and winning. But at the same time, we don’t want them to do that (at the expense of) possibly hurting themselves in the process.”
One chief executive officer Chatri Sityodtong told ST that mental health is not solely a MMA-related issue, but applies to other sports as well. The Singapore-based outfit will engage in various initiatives to support the cause, such as fundraising and having athletes visit schools to speak to children about mental health.
Chatri shared that he has been in constant contact with Lee and her family, who include Christian, 25, the reigning One Lightweight and Welterweight Champion and Adrian, 17, who is also set to follow in the footsteps of his siblings. They were all coached by their father Ken Lee – their mum is South Korean – at their family’s United MMA Hawaii Gym in Waipahu, which was permanently closed after Victoria’s death.
Christian is likely to return to the octagon in early 2024, said Chatri.
When asked if he had any regrets about not being able to intervene before the tragedy, Chatri said: “No, I trust Ken Lee, and this is a family of expert martial artists. And like I said, I don’t think it’s an isolated incident. I think athletes of every sport around the world goes through this at some level.”
Regardless of her decision on her MMA future, Lee, who hold a 11-3 win-loss record, will continue her fight to spread awareness on mental health.
As her thoughts turned to Victoria, Lee struggled to hold back tears as the interview came to a close.
“Victoria has always wanted to use her life to help others to do good. I know that one of the things she’s always wanted to do was to find something that she was good at, something that she loved, that would help others. And I know that’s what we’re doing with fight story.
“I know she would be proud.”