After re-affirming his spot atop the lightweight mountain, Lee is now set to embark on an active campaign in 2021. As new contenders line up to take their shots at the divisional king, the 22-year-old takes pride in being the man they aim to topple.
Meanwhile, life outside of the Circle is just as sweet, as “The Warrior” and his wife are expecting a new addition to their family in early 2021.
Now, the Hawaii-based Singaporean reflects on 2020 and shares his lofty goals for the new calendar year.
ONE Championship: How do you encapsulate the year that was for “The Warrior?”
Christian Lee: I came off of a great 2019, winning the World Title and also winning the ONE Lightweight World Grand Prix. So, I was very excited coming into 2020, looking to get three-to-four title defenses in. And then, the pandemic hit.
Things were just different. You had to wear a mask every time you went out. For a while, everyone was wearing gloves when they went out to grocery stores. It’s new times for all of us. It just took some getting used to.
As far as how the year went, I’m very grateful because I know there are a lot of people struggling out there trying to make ends meet and took a really big hit from the COVID lockdowns and everything. For me, I’m just grateful I’m doing well in my career thus far, spending a lot of time at home with my family, spending a lot of time with my wife, and appreciating the quality time that typically you wouldn’t be able to spend.
Before the lockdown, I was working 12-hour days from training to teaching classes. We went from that to having a lot of free time to enjoy with loved ones. 2020 was a great year for me, all the way from the start of the pandemic until now.
I would say that I’m blessed because nobody in my family has gotten sick from COVID, thankfully. And I’m just trying to stay safe and do everything necessary so nobody in the family gets sick.
Heading into 2021, I’m very excited to defend my belt some more. And, of course, for my baby girl to come into the world in April. There’s a lot of great things to look forward to.
ONE: How did the extended layoff affect your training? Did you see it as a positive, or did it frustrate you?
CL: For me, I just look at it as a positive. As an athlete, a martial artist, I never stop training. I’m always in the gym.
The fight getting pushed back from May to June to July to, eventually, October when the fight happened, it was no different. I train year-round, and training continued as normal. I always knew they were going to make the fight happen, so I was just staying ready.
Once we signed the contract, once we got the date set, that’s when the real fight camp goes in. That’s when we start doing two-to-three sessions a day and the intensity picks up. But it’s always a positive when you have more time to train.
ONE: At ONE: INSIDE THE MATRIX, you defended the ONE Lightweight World Title for the first time. How did it feel to face Iuri Lapicus, win the fight, and even overcome some early adversity?
CL: Going into the match, I was very excited.
I just wanted to go in there, get the job done as quickly as possible, get my paycheck, and go home – and that’s exactly what I did. I brought the fight to him, just like I said I would. We had a bit of a clash. We both traded punches. His head slipped to the side. His [punch] landed, mine didn’t. Then from there, there was just a scramble.
I was able to keep my composure, win every scramble, and that’s how I ended up in the position to land those ground-and-pound shots to finish the match. For me, that was a great feeling. I trained so hard.
Even though 2020 was a year of rest and downtime, I was in the gym every single day training. It all paid off when I was in there, and thankfully, I was able to get the job done in under two minutes.
The first World Title defense is done. I’ve already taken out the former lightweight champ, the #1 contender, “Dagi,” and the next top contender, Iuri Lapicus. I’ve taken out three of the top lightweights already, and I’m just looking forward to knocking them down.
I know there are a lot of hungry contenders who are very worthy of a title shot. I just invite them in to give themselves a shot because I’m very hungry and excited to defend my belt many more times in 2021.
ONE: What was the importance of that World Title defense for you?
CL: That fight was the most important fight of my life. The reason is, every time you step in there, you’re putting it all on the line. My job – being a fighter, being a champion – requires you to be at the top of your game every single time you step into the cage.
The MMA game is not a forgiving one. You can be on top of the world and lose one fight, and people forget your name, and you no longer get paid. That fight meant everything to me. It meant keeping my paycheck. It meant being able to provide a great life for my family. There was no way Iuri Lapicus was going to get past me on that night. It meant everything to me.
ONE: As we enter 2021, how do you see the lightweight division as a whole, and who are you looking to face in the Circle?
CL: I see the lightweight division as the most stacked division in the world. It really is full of the most killers out there. We got Shinya Aoki. Timofey [Nastyukhin], who is a very dangerous contender. We got Eddie [Alvarez], who’s going to be working his way up as well. Marat [Gafurov], who’s coming off his first win at lightweight. There are many killers out there who are just waiting for their shot at the belt.
That’s just great for me because that means I’m always going to stay active. I’m always going to have excellent fighters to push myself and test myself against. I just see the lightweight division as the most stacked division out there. That makes me feel even better about being the champion of the division.
ONE: ONE Featherweight World Champion Thanh Le has said his goal in 2021 is to move up to lightweight and take the title. What are your thoughts on him calling you out for a super-fight?
CL: I think Thanh Le is a good fighter and had a good performance against Martin [Nguyen]. He’s explosive and he’s got a good killer instinct, but he just won the belt at featherweight, a division below me.
He’s got a little bit of work to do in clearing out that division before he thinks about moving up. Like they say, you’re not a true champion until you defend the belt. We’ll see how he does in his first few title defenses.
If eventually he clears his division out and wants more, then I welcome that. But as for me, there’s a lot of hungry contenders who have earned their shot at the belt before he has, so I’ll be looking to them first.
ONE: What are you looking to accomplish in 2021?
CL: My main goal in 2021 is to continue defending my belt and clear out the rest of my division.
The way I see it, there are only a few key players left that I haven’t already beaten. I want to knock them off the list. I see Timofey as the first guy, and I feel like he’s earned his shot. He’s taken out Eddie Alvarez, and he just beat Pieter Buist as well. I feel like he’s definitely in line. Of course, the final call is up to ONE Championship.
I know there’s another big match in the works with Eddie Alvarez. If he [wins], he could very well earn himself a shot as well.
I see those two fights are going to be in the works for 2021, and the next guy is a wild card. My plan is just to knock off three more top contenders in 2021, continue defending my belt, and maybe even take a crack at the welterweight belt. We’ll see how 2021 goes and how things line up, but I’m definitely trying to stay active.
ONE: You and your wife are expecting a baby girl in the spring. How are you feeling about becoming a “girl dad?”
CL: Oh man, I’m just overwhelmed with joy and extremely excited. My wife and I have always talked about it and always wanted to have a baby. It’s so great that we’re going to be having a baby girl coming up so soon, in April.
I don’t know what it’s going to be like just yet, but I know she’s going to be the best thing that has ever happened to both of us. I’m just so overwhelmed with joy, and I can’t wait until she’s born. I can feel her kicking on my wife’s belly more and more every day.
It’s definitely the best thing that’s ever happened to my wife and me. I’m grateful to be having a baby girl.