ONE Championship is on the cusp of crowning its second 115-pound atomweight titleholder in promotional history.
Reigning undisputed champion Angela Lee’s future is in question after the death of her younger sister Victoria. “Unstoppable” recently opened up about the mental struggles she and her sister dealt with, leading to a new opportunity for top contenders Seo Hee Ham and Stamp Fairtex at ONE Fight Night 14 in Kallang, Singapore this weekend (Fri., Sept. 29, 2023). The interim title will be on the line and both fighters are familiar with combat sports titles and success. However, their journeys to get to this point couldn’t be any less similar.
Fairtex has crafted her developing legacy by starting in Muay Thai where she won and defended the ONE crown. South Korea’s Ham, on the other hand, is one of the most seasoned female competitors on the planet, and one of the sport’s all-time best, having held three world titles with four total defenses to her name. In a way, it’s the past vs. present, fighting for the now.
“I remember feeling a little scared as she had more than double my experience so I knew it was going to be a tough fight going in,” Joanne Wood said. “I knew I’d need to use my size and even though I did have that advantage I hit her with everything. I hit her with a teep to the face that would have sent most people into last week but she kept coming.”
“For me, she always looks better in every fight. She is a true martial artist who is always improving. She never backs down from a fight hence her ever-long fight record.”
Ham entered the UFC in December 2014 with an already established 16-6 resume against the rising undefeated 8-0 Scottish prospect Wood. The fight was also “Dr. Kneevil’s” promotional debut and she’d extend her winning streak with a unanimous decision. Unfortunately for Ham, her UFC stint in the 115-pound strawweight division was a low point when it came to results but ultimately helped her immensely in the latter half of her career.
The 36-year-old has found her best success south of 115 pounds and she returned to 105 and 108-pound competition after departing the UFC. More dominant than ever, Ham hasn’t lost since and rides a nine-fight winning streak.
“My fight with Ham happened when I started my international career,” Alyona Rassohyna said. “I was an inexperienced fighter but this fight motivated me to move forward because I did not see anything I could not handle. Strong sides of her were her patience, endurance, and cold blood. She is a pragmatic fighter and will do what is best for her; wrestling.”
Playing a strong role as an opponent pre-UFC to Ham, Rassohyna also contributed to Fairtex’s journey. To highlight the experience difference, Ham’s unanimous decision win over the Ukrainian happened four years before Fairtex even debuted in MMA.
Thailand’s Fairtex was a clear prodigy, taking to MMA impressively, and is still just 25. With five straight wins under her belt, Fairtex finished four of her first five MMA opponents (three knockouts, one submission) before running into a surprising rival, Rassohyna.
Putting on a striking clinic with evident grappling growth shown, Fairtex got caught in a Hail Mary guillotine choke, suffering her first loss with only seven seconds left in the fight. It was a turning point for Fairtex as the two rematched one fight later in the opening round of the 115-pound ONE atomweight world grand prix tournament. Fairtex got her revenge and righted a wrong in the form of a split decision nod.
“Stamp is ambitious and hot-tempered, also an excellent striker, but she is more emotional and takes risks in fights,” Rassohyna said. “That is why she can miss punches in exchanges or takedowns. She has improved from fight to fight, better wrestling, and takedown defense. I think in this fight [with Ham], Stamp will work as a counterpuncher. Nobody will risk in this fight and it will go the distance and Stamp will win by points due to more precise striking.”
Fairtex carried the momentum of her Rassohyna sequel throughout the tournament, taking out Brazil’s Julie Mezabarba before a stunning armbar in the finals against the talented wrestler from India, Ritu Phogat. As the tournament champion, Fairtex earned her crack at the undisputed champion Lee. This was no longer just a Muay Thai fighter getting into the sport, Fairtex evolved into a feared overall threat.
“Fighting Stamp Fairtex was a big fight,” said Jihin Radzuan. “It was a chance to prove to myself whether I could be next in line for the championship belt. The fight camp might have been the same as it had always been in past fights but the tension, the excitement, and the feeling was just different. I was like, ‘It’s Stamp Fairtex!’ It was a big fight, she’s the top contender in the atomweight division and I knew this was my biggest fight in my career.
“In the circle against her, I think I can say I’ve never felt so pressured. The adrenaline was different. The fight itself, you know, it was a nice experience. I think I did well against her, but as everyone saw, her striking, which makes her a Muay Thai and kickboxing champion, determined the outcome of the fight. I would probably say that I’ve never felt a fight that special.”
Lee was welcomed back to action by Fairtex after becoming a mother during the grand prix. Though she fell short after early success, hurting the champion to the body, Fairtex continued to level up as seen against her now-teammate Radzuan in her rebound effort.
The second-round submission loss against the champion is comparable to Ham for the career of Fairtex. Thrown to the wolves in a relatively early fashion, it was sink or swim as they both took on titlists and legends in their youth.
“With Stamp Fairtex, I don’t really need to tell you what makes her stand out,” Radzuan laughed. “You can see how good she is at what she does. Inside the circle or the ONE ring, she has entertained people who are and are not fans of hers. That makes her unique. As an opponent, I think she’s someone you cannot take for granted, you know what I mean? She will always come prepared everywhere. As her training partner and friend now, I have really found out that her dedication is like everywhere. Not only in martial arts but in everything she does.”
The upcoming title tilt could have happened sooner than it is as both were participants in the grand prix. An injury, unfortunately, took Ham out of the tournament, leading the stars to align in the final quarter of 2023.
Ham arguably deserved an immediate title shot upon her arrival in ONE, entering as the unbeaten RIZIN super atomweight queen. Instead, she had to prove she was still the best around by handing Filipino superstar Denice Zamboanga her first two losses in succession.
“Fighting Ham twice is like fighting a really well-experienced MMA fighter,” Zamboanga said. “It’s a good experience for me too to improve and develop.
“I would say her body condition [was her best trait]. I made a mistake on cutting my weight during those camps. But right now after the fight with Ham, I learned how to condition my body and not cut too much weight during camp, but still no excuses. No one beat me in our division except Ham. I just keep working hard to reach my goal.”
The initial Zamboanga bout was Ham’s return to 115 pounds following her UFC run and it showed in some ways. Nearly two years of inactivity was shaken off in the split decision nod. In part two, Ham’s veteran prowess shined as she decisively shut down her opponent’s game.
Delays in her title shot kept presenting themselves afterward for Korea’s all-time best. Matched with Japan’s Itsuki Hirata, Ham declined the bout after Hirata missed weight. Rebooked a few months later, Ham cruised to a victory by out-landing the judoka and defending any grappling exchanges.
“As I expected, she’s a striker,” Hirata said. “So my impression of her before the fight and after the fight was kinda same. But she doesn’t have high-level ground techniques. I wish I had more experience in the ground game though.
“I guess it became her aggressiveness. She keeps pushing forward. That makes her stand out. But I predict this fight will be a knockout by Stamp. She’ll destroy Ham with her strikes.”
In some cases with fighters who come from strong bases like Fairtex and her Muay Thai, they can fall in love with their new skills learned. The most common reoccurrence is wrestlers who find a striking game. In the case of Fairtex, she hasn’t made an overwhelming shift to becoming a grappler. Her past opponent Alyse Anderson found that out via a vicious second-round body kick this past May.
“I would say fighting Stamp was not only a physical challenge but mentally too because of how big of a name she is and how much the promotion promotes her,” Anderson said. “I see it even with the Ham fight coming up. Ham is going to have to block out all the social media because I think it can be challenging mentally too. At least it was for me. Stamp also likes to draw fighters in so I had to be wary of that but push the pace at the same time. I think what makes her stand out is that she is harder to take down than opponents think because she is good at timing her striking.”
Ham’s career started with one of the most underrated upsets in MMA history when she debuted against the legendary atomweight knockout artist Hisae Watanabe. The cheetah-print-wearing warrior entered the contest with a 17-4 record but found the youngster to be too much on the night. It was a sign of what was to come and off to the races for Ham.
The upcoming interim title tilt is like looking into a magic mirror. The legend wants more gold as she fends off a younger version of herself, who is strong in the striking department and rapidly improving her ground elements. In the end, only one can walk away as the new champion.