United MMA: The Family Gym Churning Out World Champions

Ken Lee, Angela Lee, and Christian Lee demonstrate martial arts techniques to students at United MMA

Martial arts has always been a family affair for World Champion siblings “Unstoppable” Angela Lee and Christian “The Warrior” Lee, as they were bred for success from a young age under their parents’ tutelage.

Father Ken and mother Jewelz are both lifelong martial artists, and they ran their own gyms as a vehicle to help others for decades. But their current set-up at United MMA in Waipahu, Hawaii was born out of a desire to see their offspring flourish.

Angela and Christian were prodigal talents, and it was clear that they needed the right facilities to cultivate their burgeoning careers.

Now, the patriarch talks about how their family gym originated and how it grew into the hub for elite talent that we see today.

United MMA’s Predecessors

Angela Lee with her brother, Christian, her dad, Ken, and her mom, Jewelz

Martial arts are in Ken and Jewelz’s blood. It is who they are.

Both grew up training in taekwondo, which was passed down from their own parents. Over the years, Ken began to cross-train in both striking and grappling arts to grow his knowledge base and skill set.

In 1996, the pair opened their first gym in Canada. The business grew to three locations, and Ken took the reins of the Canadian Pankration Federation in 2002.

Despite the prosperous business and international success of their students, the Lees moved to Hawaii in 2003, where Ken focused on building his real estate company, Asian Pacific Investments.

“At first, I was taking a break from teaching, but I wanted my kids to keep training in martial arts,” he recalls. “I was unable to find any academy to teach mixed martial arts as a whole, so I just ended up teaching them at home and building a home gym.”

Ken Lee teaches children at United MMA

A natural progression followed as Ken began instructing other family members before he branched out with small public classes. The growth did not come without its struggles, as Hawaii posed unique challenges due to its rich warrior culture.

“In Hawaii, it’s a little bit different. The culture here [of training in martial arts] is everywhere,” he reveals.

“As soon as they can walk, they’re in judo class or wrestling. They’re real big on boxing and kickboxing, so it’s everywhere. You can learn from aunties and uncles in the backyard.

“The economy was a challenge, too. People weren’t as accustomed to paying for martial arts instruction as they were in the mainland [of North America].”

Ken and Jewelz’s expertise offered a unique opportunity to train the various arts together, under one roof and under their watchful eye. To quell concerns from parents about teaching mixed martial arts as one style, Ken branded his own system.

“A lot of parents thought it was about fighting,” he says. “So, we tried to label our own system and called it Total Defense System (TDS) because we wanted to create an emphasis on self-defense. That’s where our system was born.”

Striking It Big In Mixed Martial Arts

Christian Lee, Ken Lee, and Angela Lee

The Lees may have wanted to serve the Waipahu community, but their main focus was on elevating their kids’ skills to new heights.

“When we had the gyms in Canada, it was more on a commercial level,” Ken offers. “In Hawaii, it was all for our children.”

Angela and Christian were eager to train in martial arts and test their skills against the best possible competition, and both Ken and Jewelz did everything they could to help make that a reality. The two adolescents performed well in regional competitions, and they even won national pankration titles and qualified for international tournaments.

The family traveled to Athens, Greece for the 2012 World Pangration Athlima Federation World Championships, where Angela claimed gold in two divisions for pankration and mixed martial arts. Christian also won gold in the pankration division.

Following their dominant showings, it was time to develop a more suitable environment to cultivate their talents.

Though they had already moved their gym to a larger warehouse, the family decided on another location to cater to the needs of their World Champion kids.

“They talked amongst each other – they were always best friends – and they decided, ‘This is what we want to do,’” Ken remembers.

“That was the time in which my lease was expiring on that warehouse, and we decided, ‘Okay.’ We talked to them like adults and said if this is what you want to do, then we’re going to invest in that. We’re going to create a facility to support that.”

Christian and Angela Lee spar

In April 2013, Ken opened United MMA at its current location in Waipahu, and this served as the family’s ultimate training ground.

Just four months later, the family traveled to Split, Croatia, so the two could compete in the International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles (FILA) World Championships.

Christian ripped through the field, winning five titles in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, pankration, amateur mixed martial arts, and submission grappling in two separate weight classes.

Angela, who had also become a Hawaii High School State Wrestling Champion earlier in the year, managed to pick up titles in pankration and amateur mixed martial arts.

The feats were even more impressive because she claimed the championships despite suffering an injury to her shoulder and previously fractured collarbone.

“Because of their fighting spirit and ability, they both received Most Outstanding Athlete of the whole tournament for boys and girls,” Ken says.

“I’ve always known they were special, but that’s when people started really taking notice. We’d have coaches from other countries come over with camcorders filming their matches.”

Angela Lee and Christian Lee with their ONE Championship belts at ONE: CENTURY

After a few amateur bouts in Hawaii when Angela turned 18, Ken reached out to an old acquaintance, ONE Championship Senior Vice President of Operations Matt Hume, to see if there was an opportunity to showcase her talents on the global stage.

Shortly after her promotional debut in May 2015, both Angela and Christian tried out for the Evolve Fight Team. Christian, 16 at the time, impressed with his heart to earn his spot despite his young age.

Now, they are both at the top of their respective divisions.

Angela is the reigning ONE Women’s Atomweight World Champion, and Christian is both the ONE Lightweight World Champion and the ONE Lightweight World Grand Prix Champion.

However, they have remained humble through success, and their father believes it is because they have stayed true to themselves.

“Obviously, there was an influx of people who wanted to come and train with them after their wins,” he adds.

“Sometimes you can take advantage of that, but the more you play the part, the more people want to be there. They don’t play up that superstar status at any time with anyone. They’re just themselves.”

United MMA Today

Ken Lee teaches a class at United MMA

Some dojos and academies are just learning institutions. But for Ken and the rest of his family members, United MMA truly feels like something much more.

“A gym is just a gym. I’m proud of the environment that we’ve created. It’s like a house is just a house, it’s the people that make it a home. That’s the same feeling I have toward the gym,” the Lee family patriarch offers.

Maintaining that environment is vital. It has led Ken to turn away athletes who come to the gym with the wrong mentality. Being engaged with what martial arts is truly about is a key component to success at United MMA.

“I’m very happy with the right mix of people we have, with the right heart and attitudes toward martial arts development,” he says.

The Lees have established their presence in the community with that philosophy. They make training fun for their thriving kids’ program, which sees more than 50 percent of their children train five days a week.

This has brought out the best in the young students, as well as their World Champion coaches, and Ken is thrilled that his children have been able to do good in the world through their commitment to martial arts.

What’s more, Angela and her husband, ONE Championship bantamweight athlete Bruno Pucci, are opening a sister school – United BJJ Hawaii – in the months ahead.

“Angela and Christian are very keen on creating a platform to reach out to the community. It’s their way to give back. Everyone is very grateful that martial arts has given them the ability to do that,” Ken states.

“I’m really proud of all four of my children, regardless of their accomplishments. My youngest two (Victoria and Adrian) are multiple-time World Champions, and they actually have more titles than Angela and Christian. But we’re proud of them because of the people that they are, and not because of the medals or trophies they’ve won.”

United MMA is now firmly supplanted on the global stage thanks in large part to Angela and Christian.

The gym is now a top destination for many who hope to achieve their own dreams of becoming a World Champion. But at its heart, United MMA has stayed true to its roots.

“It’s a martial arts academy, and we teach self-defense. We have the added bonus that we do have a competitors’ program. We have fighters that train in all the different organizations, but that’s secondary. People coming here should want to learn self-defense and improve themselves before they can be fighters,” Ken says.

“At the end of the day, it’s a family gym for us. It’s not a fight club.”

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