ONE Championship’s first event in Thailand was such a success that the second had to be a big one, and they don’t come much bigger in global mixed martial arts than a popular female fighter defending her championship belt.
No other sport has elevated sportswomen to prominence in the same way as mixed martial arts. For all the personalities and the money they make in tennis, golf, and athletics, no group of women are viewed as being so far up the promotional and ability ladder as women’s MMA.
Undoubtedly, Ronda Rousey was instrumental in developing that unique position in the west, while in the east under the ONE banner, that honor went to Ann Osman. With Rousey on a dramatic downward curve and Osman having lost a few key bouts, Angela Lee is primed to ascend the throne on a global level.
Footage of her thrilling title win over Mei Yamaguchi made its way around the world, far beyond the 118 countries to which ONE gets beamed directly. The acclaim has been unanimous, and the clamor to see Lee’s first defense is likely to be significant.
The honor of making that first challenge falls quite properly to Jenny Huang, the stylish combatant from Chinese Taipei, who apparently springs straight out of the Street Fighter video game to light up arenas across the continent.
This is not grappler versus striker, but submission ace versus submission wizard. It is Lee, the woman who brought the twister to life, versus Huang, the woman who pulled off a gogoplata when nobody saw it coming.
Huang comes out in a cheongsam and strikes a pose that exudes confidence and style. Her 5-0 record promises substance, and Lee has never faced a woman who is at such a career peak.
Huang’s record looks better the further you scan through it. She started with two decision wins, the second of which was her ONE Championship debut against Elena Pashnina.
The third contest saw her register a first inside-the-distance win – a round two submission of Amira Badr. She then submitted Jeet Toshi, the first woman ever to step into a ONE Championship cage. But the win that secured the title shot was that famed second-round gogoplata submission of April Osenio, who had dismantled both Natalie Gonzalez-Hills and Osman herself.
Lee’s ascent has been steep and impressive. Always promising, her rite of passage came in submitting the very tough Lena Tkhorevska in two rounds, before another second-round win, this time over Rebecca Heintzman, which propelled her into the Yamaguchi fight.
That breathtaking and emotional contest with the Japanese veteran Yamaguchi is the only fight on either woman’s record that hasn’t ended by submission.
And that is the obvious key to this fight. For her age, the 20-year-old Lee is phenomenal on the mat. If that development continues, and if she’s still fighting at Huang’s age of 26, she could perhaps become the best pound-for-pound female mixed martial artist in the world.
Steve Dawson is ONE Championship’s lead commentator, a Fox Sports presenter and an author of sporting biographies. He can be found on Twitter & Instagram as @Gulasahi and on Facebook as Steve Dawson.
The Thai went from helping his mother pick rice for a lowly wage to becoming one of the best featherweight boxers on the planet, and is now a striking coach for one of Asia’s leading fight gyms. But in addition to improving his lifestyle and providing him with a stellar professional career, martial arts also gave him a sense of humility.
“It has taught me to be resilient, disciplined, and have respect for my opponents. I learned not to take advantage of people or bully anyone. It truly has made me a better person,” the 42-year-old states. “In my role as an instructor at Evolve MMA, my boxing and Muay Thai knowledge has enabled me to help people and teach them the art, as well pass on these values.“
Now, the Evolve MMA instructor will get the opportunity once again to demonstrate his skills, and showcase those values, to fans all around the world as he graces the ONE Championship cage once again.
On Saturday Night, 11 March, Sityodong returns to his home country to fight Filipino Kyokushin Karate Champion Ramon “The Bicolano” Gonzales at ONE: WARRIOR KINGDOM, which broadcasts live from the Impact Arena in Bangkok, Thailand.
Gonzales, a 29-year-old who has an even 1-1 record, last appeared inside the cage two years ago when he lost to Kun Khmer specialist Chan Rothana. Even in defeat, he demonstrated an improved ground game, a ferocious stand-up attack, and devastating spinning kicks.
“He is a karate-style guy with some interesting karate techniques,” the Singapore-based Thai says of his rival. “I have seen him fight in ONE, and I believe he is a strong fighter and a dangerous opponent. I am not taking him lightly. That said, I feel that I have the advantage in all areas — on the ground and standing.”
In particular, Sityodong has been developing his striking craft ever since he was a child, and the hardships he encountered along the way only strengthened him spiritually and emotionally.
The youngest of six children, Sityodong grew up in the northeast Thai province of Sisaket. His father passed away mere weeks before he was born, and though he was raised in poverty, his mother and other siblings worked in the rice fields to provide what little they could for the family.
Although it seemed very likely he would follow the same fate, he dreamed about being a Muay Thai fighter. He even made a homemade heavy bag so he could practice his kicks.
Despite not having any formal training, he had his first match when he was 13. Sityodong convinced fight organizers in a nearby village to let him compete. He won that match, and he kept compiling victories over the next four years until a policemen approached him, and arranged for him to train at the legendary Sityodong camp in Pattaya.
“Enduring poverty as a kid was extremely hard, but the hardest thing I was able to overcome was making it to a Muay Thai camp,” he explains. “I did not have anyone to take me to fights when I was younger, so I often went on my own to small temple festivals and fights in the countryside to compete. Through perseverance, I was able to meet the right person, who helped me get into the Sityodtong camp.“
At 18, just one year into his training at the legendary camp, he filled in as a late replacement for an injured teammate and represented the team for a Muay Thai fight. He won via first-round knockout.
That is when his reality was altered once again. The camp’s famous trainer, Kru Yodtong, recognized his colossal punching power and convinced him to become a boxer instead.
“Little Tyson”, as Sityodtong would later be nicknamed, became one of the most dominant boxers of his generation. In his storied boxing career, he accumulated a marvelous 58-3-1 record with 47 victories by way of knockout, and claimed the prized WBA World Super Featherweight Championship, a belt he held from 2002 through 2005. At one point, there were even rumblings of a superfight with Manny Pacquiao.
However, after winning the IBF Australasian Light Welterweight Title in 2009, he hung up the boxing gloves and relocated to Singapore to teach the sweet science, and the art of eight limbs, at Evolve MMA.
Sityodong enjoyed instructing at the Singapore-based mega gym, but admittedly, he was getting more and more attracted to this growing craze called mixed martial arts. It intrigued him so much, he decided to try it out himself.
“I wanted to keep fighting, since my body still allowed me to,” he says. “Despite a long boxing career, I still had the hunger for competition.“
After spending two years training in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and wrestling, and further cultivating his top-notch striking skills, “Little Tyson” made his debut at ONE’s inaugural show CHAMPION VS. CHAMPION in 2011. He knocked out Daniel Mashamaite 14 seconds into the second round with a flying knee.
Sityodong would fall to Longyun Jiang in his follow-up match six months later via rear-naked choke, and unexpectedly disappeared from competition for four years. However, it was not because he was disheartened over the loss or that he lost interest in the sport, but rather, he was focused on teaching.
“I was dedicated to my work as a boxing and Muay Thai instructor at Evolve MMA. I did not have much time to commit to competition, and I just could not give my all.”
In 2016, he got the hunger back. Sityodong, as he puts it, “wanted so badly to fight again, and in Thailand,” that he returned to ONE: KINGDOM OF CHAMPIONS for the company’s first-ever Bangkok show last May. He smashed through Chrech Kosal in the first round without breaking much of a sweat.
Ten months removed from his last bout, his fledgeling mixed martial arts career will continue when he faces Gonzales, a 29-year-old Filipino Karate Champion with some of the most devastating spinning kicks in the game.
While all signs point to a thrilling, yet calculated stand-up catchweight battle, the Manila native has proven to possess improved grappling and could very well take the match to the ground. But that is more than fine with the Thai warrior, who has been training with multiple BJJ World Champions, and is constantly building upon his submission techniques.
A victory will undoubtedly add another exclamation point to the storied career of the boxing great, and though he has dreams of winning a championship belt one more time, he is more than satisfied on being a positive role model to a new generation of martial artists.
“I will take it fight by fight. If I do well, I would love to fight for a title, but I am really taking it one fight at a time,” he says. “I want to show that even though I might be older, I can still compete at the top and be a good example for younger fighters.“
The Malaysian will fight in enemy territory when she makes her promotional debut against fellow newcomer Rika “Tinydoll” Ishige at ONE: WARRIOR KINGDOM, which broadcasts live on Saturday Night, 11 March, from the Impact Arena in Bangkok, Thailand.
However, she is used to dealing with high-pressure situations. Outside of the cage, she is Dr. Boniface to her patients and co-workers. Boniface, by trade and training, is a medical doctor who works in the Emergency & Trauma Department at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Kota Kinabalu, the capital city of Sabah in Malaysia. It is a highly-stressful job that consistently keeps her on her toes.
“I have to manage a lot of pressure and quick thinking there, especially working in emergency,” the National University of Malaysia graduate explains.
As for the circumstances surrounding her professional MMA career, Boniface actually stumbled onto MMA by accident three years ago. At the urging of a friend, she attended a class at ONE fighter AJ “Pyro” Lias Mansor’s gym, the Borneo Tribal Squad MMA & Fitness Factory. She fell in love with MMA that very day upon stepping into the gym.
Boniface did not walk into the gym as a total novice, however. The eldest of five children already had an extensive history with martial arts.
“My first martial art was taekwondo, which I practiced when I was a student and earned a black belt in,” she explains. “I started training martial arts initially for self-defense. As time went by, it helped me a lot in so many ways, be it self-confidence, stress management, honor, discipline, love, trust, loyalty, and respect.”
Though the atomweight thoroughly enjoyed training in the various martial arts, it was also an escape for her to de-stress from the rigors of working inside the hospital. After all, being a medical doctor can be a very demanding occupation. In fact, it kicked her training into overdrive. That is when Mansor made her an offer she could not refuse.
“Coach AJ (Mansor) offered me a golden opportunity to become a professional fighter. I thought it would be fun and challenging. Without hesitating, I just said yes,” she recalls. “At that time, I was actually struggling with the stress in my workplace and wanted something to channel it the right way. I think I made the right decision!”
The doctor got some crucial experience before making the jump to professional MMA. She earned a couple of gold medals in regional BJJ competitions and gained a pair of quick submission victories in One Silat, a Malaysian promotion rooted in the national martial art of silat. By doing so, she won over one skeptical face in the crowd.
“At first, my mom was not very happy with me getting involved in this rough sport,” Boniface admits. “When I competed in One Silat, her heart opened, and now she is my number one fan.”
In July 2016, Boniface made her official pro MMA debut at Thai promotion Full Metal Dojo’s show in Bangkok, where she took on Sunisa Srisan. The “Ice Comet” would lose the fight in the second round via TKO, but that night, she learned some of the biggest lessons of her young fighting career.
“I learned to trust myself, as well as my corner and coach. I learned how important it is to have faith and always believe in my own ability 100 per cent, all of the time. I have so many people around me, who love me and support me, but in the end, it is always only going to be just me, myself, and I,” she states.
“I am in charge of my life and I am going to make myself proud of what I do — with my career, sports, and with family, friends and the community. Fighting teaches me to work hard, push what I believe my limits are, be proud of what I accomplish, and stay humble.”
Boniface’s limits will be tested at ONE: WARRIOR KINGDOM. With the grains of sand in the hourglass quickly draining until her promotional debut on the biggest MMA stage in Asia, she is making her final preparations before she stands across the cage from Ishige.
Ishige, who will be making her professional MMA debut, trains out of Bangkok Fight Lab and has worked extensively with her boyfriend, surging lightweight and Thai MMA pioneer Shannon “OneShin” Wiratchai. Although the “Ice Comet” may have a slight experience advantage, she is not taking her opponent lightly by any means.
“She looks like a well-rounded fighter. This is going to be an awesome fight,” the Malaysian says. “I feel proud representing my team, my family, my state, and my country. I feel nervous. I feel excited.”
Boniface may be experiencing lots of different emotions, including a bit of pressure. But those are the situations she has always thrived in, and will continue to do so in the future.