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The Defining Moment: Xiong JingNan and Angela Lee's ultimate superfight rivalry

MMA history is rich with incredible action and talented individuals who have left their marks. The Defining Moment will provide in-depth looks at some of the sport’s greatest and most important junctures featuring the women who have paved paths to where they are today.

The bell sounds and the action begins. Two champions, one goal, 25 potential minutes to claim supremacy and stamp the history book.

Xiong JingNan’s aggressive striking nature quickly became problematic for superstar submission phenom, Angela Lee. Fists to gut found their mark like clockwork. The bodywork accumulated greatly for China’s favorite fighting “Panda.” Xiong achieved what no one else had prior with an incredible fifth-round finish of Lee, thumping away with punches on the feet after narrowly avoiding breaking her arm in the process.

March 31, 2019, in Tokyo, Japan was the night that the second ever women’s super fight took place. Headlining ONE Championship’s big “A New Era” event, the atomweight champion went up a division to challenge the strawweight champion. The only other time titleholders met in such fashion was a few months earlier when Amanda Nunes fought Cris “Cyborg” Justino in Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).

The biggest difference between the two, however, was that Xiong versus Lee 1 was a vastly more entertaining showcase of sports theater and one that is among the very best between women ever seen.

“Still a lot of people have some kind of stereotype to thinking women are weak, women are not that powerful, but there are a lot of female athletes in MMA and a lot of female champions,” Xiong said. “So I think people will see that even women, we have power and we have a lot of greatness in us. So through the sport, I hope I can help more people, no matter how old she is, if she’s a little girl, they can all join this kind of sport to showcase their power.”

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Each fighter’s story heading into the bout was dreamlike. With Lee, it was the undefeated youngest champion in MMA history seeking dual-division titlist status with a perfect record on the line. Flip the coin and there’s China’s very first champion in MMA — male or female — looking to fend off the face of the promotion and hold her throne.

Any animosity that came from the matchup was purely based on the competitive nature of the superfight’s magnitude. This was something new, fresh, and exciting to see for female athletes and they made sure to leave it all on the line — not once, but twice.

“One thing she said on why she would win is because she fights because she has to,” Former ONE Public Relations Tammy Chan said. “If you know Xiong JingNan, her personality, and her life, everything is MMA only. She has nothing else. Angela has family, she has a husband, she has so many things outside of MMA. Xiong said, ‘I will win because I have to fight, not because I want to fight. Angela has a choice.’ So in that, Xiong feels that she definitely has more willpower.

“I think no one gives her enough credit for being the first-ever Chinese world champion. Because the focus was on Zhang Weili, but Xiong is also very tough and I think people don’t see it just because she’s smaller size? Not as buff and big [looking]. In China, I think the Chinese recognize her. Her heart is the most impressive.”

Superfights historically haven’t been all too competitive in MMA. But this combination was so nice that it just had to be done twice.

After sticking around for one more go at 125-pounds, Lee dropped her second straight fight to Michelle Nicolini via unanimous decision. Therefore, leading her back down to her division of atomweight where it was now Xiong’s turn to attempt to claim a second title.

No one expects the sequel to live up to the original, but that was exactly what happened. In yet another all-out affair, both champions found success once again with their unique striking and grappling strengths intermingling. If a silver lining was to be drawn from each contest, it was that these two were willing to die to prove they were the queens of their divisions.

Ultimately, Lee got redemption and snapped her losing streak with a last-second fifth-round rear-naked choke, a truly poetic follow-up to superfight No. 1. Unfortunately, it didn’t come without some controversy as the final sequence was achieved by a questionably illegal suplex maneuver. Xiong and her team discussed the nature of the rules with the promotion in the immediate aftermath but accepted it just wasn’t her night, in the end.

On Sept. 30, 2022, the MMA world will be treated to a very lucky third installment of this epic rivalry of all-time great clashes.

“Fighting her in March 2019 and losing, that was my first loss in my entire career and that really just made me take a moment to reflect on everything and it definitely made me a better fighter,” Lee said. “Fighting her about six months later that year in October, I knew that everything was on the line for me. I knew I had to defend my belt with everything I got. So since then, it’s been three years and of course, you learn about your opponent each time you fight them. This is the third time around and I feel like I have a very good sense of her style and her method of fighting and of course, I’m also going to give her credit because she’s also improved over the years. But I think judging by our last two fights and her previous fights since then, she has a very specific way of fighting people. She’s a striker, she likes to point them and try to take them into deep waters and take them out there.

“I have her figured out and for her, she doesn’t know what to expect from me because in my last fight with Stamp [Fairtex], I’m a completely different fighter than when I first fought her. So, I’m really excited, she’s not gonna know what’s gonna hit her.”

Xiong and Lee are designed for each other at this point. All others have come up short when the stakes are highest. Wildly different in their mentalities, Xiong’s laser focus on herself contrasts with the family woman, Lee, who has become a mother since their last encounter. The new label has only significantly boosted motivation levels for the 26-year, which was evident in her first win back, beating Stamp Fairtex this past March 2022.

China’s champion has defended her title thrice since the rematch. In doing so, Xiong’s been met with critique from her rival — and ONE President, Chatri Sityodtong — who hasn’t been too impressed. The 34-year-old titleholder admits to having learned to be kind and have an open heart, letting go of the ego under such fire. Lee once again is prepared for any version of Xiong, aggressive or cautious, and she knows that belt in sight will be tough to pry from her enemy’s clutches.

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“I think she’s been fighting not to lose, there’s a difference when fighting to win,” Lee said. “I think she’s playing it safe, but sometimes that happens. It’s not gonna win you fans or any bonuses.”

“If this happened five or 10 years ago when I was still young, I might get very angry and fight with her on social media,” Xiong said in response. “But with my experience of my career and life right now, I know that this is all hype. I’m still keeping the hunger and anger, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to lose myself. It means I’m going to be more calm, more clear with my mind, and I also think what she’s been doing is childlike. She’s not acting like a mother, I don’t know what she’s doing, but when we step in that cage, I’m going to teach her a lesson about what respect really means.”

As MMA continues to grow, the prestige of holding two divisional titles has become almost a must to get oneself in the greatest of all-time conversations. The aforementioned Nunes has been the most popular and successful of the few women to simultaneously hold two belts and is the only one to defend both.

The Lee family has played such a significant part in ONE Championship’s history by itself that Angela’s success leads to a lot of interesting possibilities down the line. Her younger sister, Victoria, is currently rising through the atomweight class and it only feels like a matter of time before the current champ moves on. “Unstoppable” is undecided just yet if she’ll leave the division behind with another win over Xiong. She feels it’s doable to juggle both, but wants to climb the mountain ahead first.

In the case of the dynamic being again in favor of Lee having the best outcome, Xiong didn’t quite agree when initially presented with the trilogy.

“When I first heard about it, I kind of got a little bit unhappy because if you count our records, the only one I lost to at atomweight is her and she’s lost to me and Michelle Nicolini at strawweight,” Xiong said. “When I first heard about it, I didn’t think she deserved a title shot right away. But then I sat and thought about it and told myself, ‘Hey, Xiong JingNan, don’t be cheap. Your job is not to say in what division what works out. Your job is to defeat her, keep the belt.’”

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Xiong versus Lee 3 is as great as a rubber match could be. The solid foundation leaves room for them to collide, making even more incredible moments later on depending on how the trilogy shakes out. Judging by the 10 rounds of action up until this point, there’d be no reason for fans to not want more.

The pair’s legacies will forever be tied and their battle-tested wills have acted as great goals for any aspiring athlete to reach. Though only one can walk away victorious, they’ll walk away together having made numerous great memories in MMA history.

“We know each other very well and for me, it’s a very good process to learn from such a tough opponent and I believe this third one’s going to be the greatest one of our rivalry because we know each other so well,” Xiong said. “We’ve been learning, everything can happen in this trilogy.”

“I think this definitely is the biggest fight of my career so far,” said Lee. “This is for champ-champ status and to go through this now while being a mom, it’s just something I never would have predicted. But I think everything happens for a reason, maybe I wasn’t meant to win the title in 2019 because I was meant to do it now as a mom.”

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