Father First, Coach Second: How Ken Lee Turned Angela And Christian Into Superstars
Behind every great fighter is a great coach. For 20-year-old ONE Women’s Atomweight World Champion Angela Lee and her 18-year-old brother, featherweight prospect Christian Lee, that also happens to be their father, Ken Lee.
Lee, a Singaporean based in Hawaii for the past 15 years, has practiced martial arts ever since childhood. He holds black belts in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, pankration, and taekwondo. He is also a sixth-degree hapdosool master black belt.
In addition to that, he owned a couple of gyms in Vancouver, was the head coach of the Canadian Sports Jiu-Jitsu Association, and served as President of the Canadian Pangration Federation.
With so many ranks and achievements, it is not any surprise that along with his wife, Jewelz Lee — a two-time Canadian Silver Medalist who also holds black belts in taekwondo and hapdosool — the Lees introduced their children to martial arts at an early age, and made it a family affair.
“Family is everything to us. My wife and I, fortunately, are on the same page. We put our family above everything else, and it has helped in the martial arts because my wife and I have been lifelong martial artists,” Lee says from the lounge of Evolve MMA’s flagship location in Singapore’s Far East Square. Both Angela and Christian split their time training at Lee’s United MMA and at Evolve.
“It just became a way of life. We do it together, it is how we spend time together, and it was very important for us to educate our kids with martial arts as well. So, from a very young age, maybe three or four years old, every one of my children trained in martial arts.”
Originally, the Lee patriarch introduced Angela and Christian to the martial arts for self-defense purposes. As part of their training, he taught them a wide assortment of effective techniques in multiple disciplines. In theory, and in practice, he was mixing the styles before MMA was truly even considered a sport.
“Individual styles like taekwondo or boxing are very limited in overall self-defense, so what we did was we made sure they learned various types of martial arts,” Lee explains. “Pankration was natural because if you are doing martial arts for self-defense, you can use it in a functional manner with all ranges combined.”
Soon, that self-defense training quickly elevated to the competitive level. Both Angela and Christian are passionate about the martial arts, and they wanted to test their skills on the national and international playing field. It was a gradual process, as Lee recalls.
In 2012, the Lee children got that opportunity in a major way. After qualifying in Las Vegas, Nevada, for the World Athlima Pangration Federation Championships, Angela and Christian traveled to Greece to compete in the finals. Under the guidance of their father, Angela won gold in two divisions for pankration and MMA, while Christian won gold in pankration.
Upon their return to Hawaii, the two older Lee siblings decided they wanted to take their martial arts passion to the next level and fight professionally. Ken obliged, and in April 2013, he re-opened his United MMA gym in Waipahu.
However, he makes one thing absolutely clear: it was their decision to pursue a career in mixed martial arts, not his.
“This is something they love and something they want. It is not something I push on them. I have told everybody that if they tell me this is not what they want to do, then that is it. You have to love what you do,” says Lee.
“Anything short of that is going to create problems in this industry. You have to be all in, and they are really committed and really passionate about it, so my wife and I support them to the best of our ability.”
Under Lee’s tutelage, his children continued to experience success. Angela has won all seven of her MMA fights, capturing and defending the inaugural ONE Women’s Atomweight World Championship along the way. Christian won his first five bouts in just a year, finishing all of his opponents in the first round, but experienced his first loss last August.
There are certainly times, however, when it is difficult for Lee to stand on the sidelines. For instance, it was particularly excruciating to watch Martin Nguyen put his son to sleep with a modified guillotine choke at ONE: HEROES OF THE WORLD.
“As a parent, you are going to feel it first. You absolutely want to be in there to protect your kids, but also when I am coaching them, I am there as their coach first. It is part of the game. We understand that,” Lee states.
“We prepare them as much as possible. They have taken a couple of bad hits and I have seen it before in training. It is never good. You never like it, but that is part of the sport they are in. If you are in American football, you can get some bad hits and that could be heart-wrenching as a parent, too.
“Because I am in their coach, I have to hold back sometimes, as much as I can. You can never really separate yourself. You can try your best, but the reality is that those are my kids.”
Lee, being the devoted father that he is, does his best at all times. Even during this interview, while Angela and Christian train inside the cage at Evolve MMA, He looks over his shoulder at his wife and their two younger children, who are calmly lounging on the lobby’s chairs with their iPads, and smiles.
“It goes back to our family values,” he says, proudly, as he glances at his younger children. “Since they were born, they realized we are a unit and we function as a unit, and so it is normal to them. If it wasn’t, you would see it. They would be going crazy.
“Sitting here for two or three hours, they are used to it. And when we are done here, we will pack up and the kids will do jiu-jitsu tonight, so I will take them to Evolve Orchard Central, and the big kids will watch their younger siblings do their class. That is just how they do it.”
At the end of the day, Lee has a lot going on, but manages it all with relative ease. Besides his day job as the Principal Broker of Asian Pacific Investments, he runs a fully-operational gym, all while managing the careers of his superstar children, training them for their upcoming bouts, and being the head of the household.
Still, even with so many responsibilities, he has not lost sight of what is most important.
“Those roles sometimes contradict each other. Sometimes as a coach you push them harder than a father would want to see. However, at the end of the day, I am a dad first and foremost, so that will trump everything else.”