When combat sports fans gather ‘round the water cooler and talk about the seminal moments in mixed martial arts (MMA), you’ll often hear about Forrest Griffin outlasting Stephan Bonnar on the inaugural season of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF), or the rise of heavyweight legend Fedor Emelianeko in PRIDE FC.
You might even get some chatter about UFC loudmouth Conor McGregor.
But long before Griffin and Bonnar ever threw a single punch inside the UFC Octagon, prior to “The Last Emperor’s” coming out party against Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira in Japan, and years before “Notorious” finished high school in Ireland, 24 combatants — most of them Hawaiian — went to war for Rumble on the Rock in “The Aloha State.”
14 years before MMA was legal in New York City.
That’s probably why no one in Hawaii spends much time talking about the rise of MMA. While most of the country is catching up and celebrating what appears to be the newfound popularity of cage fighting, ONE Championship titleholders Christian and Angela Lee are simply picking up where their predecessors left off.
Just don’t expect any of those stateside theatrics along the way.
“The new trend for MMA is to talk, to put yourself out there at any cost, but personally, that’s just not who I am,” Christian told MMAmania.com. “I’m never going to bend to the direction of the sport because that’s not what it means to be a martial artist. I’m just going to be myself. I like to live a very humble life, come in here to United MMA every day to train and teach the kids. That’s what I like to do. I don’t like to talk trash. I just like to train hard and fight against the best fighters in the world.”
No talk about Hawaii would be complete without mentioning its new crop of MMA champions, including UFC featherweight kingpin, Max Holloway, along with Bellator flyweight titleholder, Ilima-Lei Macfarlane. On the surface, that might appear to be fertile soil for growing cross-promotion rivalries.
Instead, it’s given all four champions a stronger bond.
“The way that it is here in Hawaii, the fight community, it’s a very small island,” Lee continued. “We’ve actually gotten together and trained together. Max has come to my gym, we’ve gone to Max’s gym. We’ve cross-trained many times and it’s all good vibes. We’re just helping each other get better. He fights in UFC, I fight in ONE Championship, so there’s no need for any rivalry there, just friendship.”
Lee (12-3) turned the combat sports community upside down with his stunning, second round technical knockout victory over grappling deity Shinya Aoki at ONE Championship: “Enter the Dragon” back in May, his third straight win and third straight stoppage.
More impressive is how the aptly nicknamed “Warrior” didn’t score a fluke finish or win by some unforeseen mishap. Lee was perilously stuck in one of Aoki’s deadly armbar submissions, but calmly worked his way out of trouble before getting their fight back to the feet.
The victory crowned Lee, 21, the promotion’s lightweight champion and carved out a piece of history in the process, making Christian and Angela — the reigning ONE Championship atomweight titleholder — the world’s first-ever brother-sister champions in MMA. But don’t expect any sibling rivalry from either side.
“I don’t really feel it as a competition,” Angela insisted ahead of her Oct. 13 title fight against Jingnan Xiong in Tokyo. “I think we are all extremely proud to represent Hawaii when we go out there and fight. I think it just shows how much talent and how much hard work there is in these islands. I really hope, my dream is to one day fight here in Hawaii.”
Getting a major MMA event in Hawaii has proved to be a challenge. The Hawaii Tourism Authority has already shot down repeated attempts by UFC, despite the fact that promotion president, Dana White, has been trying to cross the ocean since 2008 with former champion and Hilo’s own B.J. Penn in tow.
That’s unlikely to be a deterrent for ONE Championship, no stranger to breaking new ground.
“Angela and I are really proud to be living here and to be from Hawaii and I would really love for ONE Championship to bring an event to Hawaii,” Lee said. “I’d love to walk out with the Singapore and Hawaiian flag, to represent myself and my heritage with pride. Hawaii has been the home for MMA for so many years and deserves the kind of event ONE Championship can bring.”
Don’t call it a comeback, Hawaiian MMA has been here for years.