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At just 16, Victoria Lee has been hailed as the next big thing in mixed martial arts (MMA) and “arguably the single greatest pound-for-pound female prospect in the world today” — high praise from One Championship’s head honcho.

She may be an absolute beast in the MMA cage, but when we meet over Zoom, we’re greeted by a soft-spoken, chipper teen.

Even as she takes a second or two to ponder over some of our questions, her cheery smile never leaves her face.

We nearly forget that this is the same girl who fielded fierce punches and kicks from Thai fighter Sunisa Srisen without flinching, before submitting the latter to emerge victorious in her professional MMA debut just over a week ago.

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Martial arts prodigy

Of course, her prowess in the cage is no surprise given her long list of titles.

Victoria, who tells us she started competing in martial arts when she was just about six, is a 15-time North American Grappling Association Expert Champion, International Mixed Martial Arts Federation Junior World Champion, Hawaii State Wrestling Champion and a two-time Pankration Junior World Champion.

For her, martial arts isn’t just a sport, but a lifestyle.

“I don’t remember, but my parents tell me I’ve been training since, like, four years old on the mat,” shares Victoria, who’s currently a junior at Mililani High School in Hawaii.

Some 12 years on, not much has changed.

She trains for two hours in the morning at the family gym owned by her dad Ken Lee before breaking for school and lunch. After that, it’s another two hours of training in the afternoon before she takes another break and helps her family out in the kitchen (chores are chores, even if you’re a star athlete, we guess).

The teen also signed with One Championship, Asia’s biggest mixed martial arts promotion, last September, cementing her path as a professional fighter.

This means she’ll be jetting to stadiums around the world and fighting in One’s MMA events, all while juggling her studies.

It’s a lot to handle for any 16-year-old, but Victoria is taking it all in her stride.

“Becoming a professional MMA fighter has always been my dream. When I had this opportunity to (do so), a once in a lifetime opportunity, I just couldn’t pass it up,” she says.

“And although I wasn’t expecting to start my journey this early, I do feel that I’m prepared, and it’s just exciting.”

Dealing with the spotlight

In fact, she tells us she’s not too bothered by the hours of training, nor the risk of injuries.

What she finds toughest is the pressure from social media and having to field media interviews — an uncharted territory for her.

“I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it,” she laughs shyly as we ask her what it’s like to be in the spotlight and get recognised by MMA fans.

“It’s strange, but I appreciate all the support because there are so many people out there, and for them to recognise me, it means a lot.”

Fortunately, her close-knit family has been by her side through it all.

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Fighting is in her DNA

“I’d say our family’s a family of martial artists. We’ve been doing it our whole lives,” she shares matter-of-factly, as if that isn’t one of the coolest ways one can describe their family.

Her dad and coach Ken, and her mum Jewelz, both grew up practising taekwondo. Elder siblings Angela and Christian are also professional MMA fighters and One world champions. Although they’re currently living in Hawaii, the siblings fight under the Singapore flag (Ken was born here).

Leading up to her debut fight, she struggled with the inevitable nerves and had “so much going through [her] mind”.

Fortunately, her family kept her settled with their advice to “breathe a lot” and “try and think straight”, she says.

And it’s her mum’s advice that she keeps the closest to heart.

“There are many women fighters who are doing a lot of good for the sport. But the person that I respect the most is my mum. She’s the strongest person I know,” she says, adding that the most important lesson her mum has imparted was to live life with gratitude.

“Be grateful for all the opportunities you receive, and be grateful for all the people who are with you along the way, like your family.”

She also counts her paternal grandmother as one of her biggest role models, her face lighting up as she describes the delicious, healthy meals that she serves up.

Besides Korean fare like japchae (stir-fried glass noodles and vegetables), the family loves cooking Singaporean dishes like fish porridge and making youtiao (dough fritters) from scratch — the ultimate treat after a long day of intensive training.

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But more than the food, it’s her grandma’s work ethic and unconditional love for her family that she looks up to the most, says Victoria.

Following in her sister’s footsteps

Her sister Angela, 24, is another one of the many inspiring women in her life, she shares.

Angela — no doubt a familiar face to most MMA fans — made history when she became the youngest-ever MMA world champion and One’s inaugural atomweight champion in 2016.

“I really do think that women’s MMA has come a long way from even when my sister started. And I feel like she’s been a big part of growing that community,” Victoria adds, describing her sister as a pioneer.

“She’s really helped to grow the sport and this division, and there’s so many little girls that look up to her, myself included.”

But as Victoria follows in her sister’s professional footsteps (she too aims to win a world championship title one day), she admits that gender inequality is still an issue in sports.

“Whether it be unequal pay and unequal opportunities to compete. I do think that is a big issue that should be addressed.

“And I think that if more people who have a platform speak out, hopefully we can gain support and make the issue more known.”

This article was first published in AsiaOne.