The Rise of Asian-American Martial Arts Athletes in ONE Championship
Asia’s largest martial arts organization, ONE Championship, without a doubt, has the largest collection of Asian martial arts World Champions who are currently employed on its elite roster of talent. The list of legendary figures is long and consists of some of the most iconic names in the history of martial arts.
The roster includes Japanese mixed martial arts legend Shinya Aoki and Yoshihiro Akiyama, as well as Muay Thai legends Nong-O Gaiyanghadao, Sam-A Gaiyanghadao, and Yodsanklai IWE Fairtex. The organization even once held a title defense for former boxing World Champion and pound-for-pound great, Srisaket Sor Rungvisai.
On the other side of the spectrum, however, the recent rise of Asian-American martial arts athletes is sparking a global revolution, placing the spotlight over a talent pool that features the absolute best of both the East and the West.
ONE Championship partnered with American television network Turner to bring ONE’s events to the mainstream via TNT and subscription-based digital platform B/R Live. But while mixed martial arts is already a popular sport in the United States, ONE vowed to bring a unique flavor that American fans have never experienced before.
“ONE is a celebration of Asia’s greatest cultural treasure, and its deep-rooted Asian values of integrity, humility, honor, respect, courage, discipline, and compassion,” says Chatri Sityodtong, Chairman and CEO of ONE.
“I am confident that the American audience will love our formula of values, heroes, and stories. It’s refreshing, unlike anything available in America right now in terms of our values in martial arts.”
Sityodtong believes his martial arts heroes have the power to change the way mixed martial arts is perceived in the United States and across the entire world. By telling the stories of his athletes’ triumph over adversity and tribulation, he hopes to inspire the general audience.
Of course, part of that plan involves bringing the Asian-American community in the US closer to its Asian-American talent, and his athletes have yet to let him down. Let’s take a closer look at a handful of those athletes now.
Here are seven of the most prolific Asian-American martial arts athletes in ONE Championship.
Hawaii resident Angela Lee leads the pack. The 23-year-old was born of a Singaporean father and Korean mother and lives in Waipahu with her husband, BJJ World Champion Bruno Pucci.
Lee has been a World Champion since 2016, when she captured the inaugural ONE Women’s Atomweight World Title with a thrilling five-round Bout of the Year effort over Japan’s Mei Yamaguchi. She is idolized by young girls the world over, and is easily the most recognized athlete in ONE Championship.
Despite her young age, Lee is a two-time World Pankration Champion, a 2013 Hawaii State Wrestling Champion, and a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Her grocery list of accomplishments is extraordinary, and the scariest part about her talent is that she’s only just begun. Lee still has a lot left in her career, and she is certainly destined to accomplish even more.
Angela’s younger brother Christian appears second on this list. Growing up in Hawaii, the Lee siblings have a very close relationship. They basically trained together since early childhood, and have been each other’s chief sparring partner in their family gym for the majority of their careers thus far.
Like his older sister, Christian is also a World Champion. In fact, he is the youngest male World Champion in mixed martial arts history, having captured the ONE Lightweight World Title with an emphatic knockout victory over Japanese veteran Shinya Aoki in 2019.
To add to that, Christian also holds black belts in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Total Defense System and has six world titles across the disciplines of BJJ, pankration, mixed martial arts, and submission grappling.
Although she was raised in Southern California, Japanese-American athlete Janet “JT” Todd would visit Japan frequently with her mother when she was young, and would even spend month-long vacations in the Land of the Rising Sun.
Todd is a relative newcomer to ONE Championship. But despite her limited time thus far in the ONE Championship ring, the former IFMA Pan-American Muay Thai Champion has been absolutely electric in her performances.
Just last February, Todd wrested the ONE Atomweight Kickboxing World Title away from Thai superstar Stamp Fairtex in a close five round title tilt. When she isn’t competing on the world’s biggest global stage of martial arts competition, or training at home on the United States’ west coast, Todd doubles as an aerospace engineer who helps develop equipment for use in space travel.
Vietnamese-American Bi “Killer Bee” Nguyen was born in rural Vietnam, but moved to the United States as a child and has lived there ever since.
Nguyen took up martial arts to empower herself with the knowledge of self-defense, after experiencing domestic violence at the hands of an abusive ex-boyfriend. Toda Nguyen is one of the most popular athletes on the ONE Championship roster, especially in her home country of Vietnam.
At home in Houston, Nguyen would often travel to New Mexico for training camps at the renowned Jackson-Wink MMA, where she developed a close personal relationship with fellow Asian-American star Michelle Waterson.
Fans in the United States may best recognize Nguyen, however, for her time spent as a contestant on the 37th season of hit reality television series, Survivor. Nguyen was forced to pull herself out of the game after injuring her knee in an immunity challenge.
AUNG LA N SANG
A true sports icon, “The Burmese Python” Aung La N Sang is the most prolific World Champion in ONE Championship. He holds two World Titles with the promotion, with the ONE Light Heavyweight and Middleweight World Championship belts draped across his shoulders.
Aung La was born in Myanmar but moved to the United States to study. He began training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and other disciplines while studying Agriculture Science at Andrews University in Michigan. After graduating, Aung La traveled across the continental US as a migratory beekeeper, but soon made the decision to go full-time in martial arts.
Today, Aung La lives with his family in Southern Florida, where he trains alongside other World Champions such as Kamaru Usman, Gilbert Burns, and Stefan Struve, at the world-renowned Hardknocks 365 under highly-regarded coach Henri Hooft.
Whenever Aung La travels halfway across the globe to compete in front of his fans in his native Yangon, he is greeted with a reception befitting that of a national hero.
Vietnamese-American Thanh Le is without a doubt one of the hottest prospects on the ONE Championship roster today. Growing up in New Orleans, Thanh trained in his father’s taekwondo school at a young age, traveling to tournaments with the competition team. However, it was in 2011 that he became intrigued by the sport of mixed martial arts.
Not long after, Thanh tried his hand in amateur promotions and it would become his greatest passion. Thanh would then turn professional in 2013, going 8-1 to start his career while capturing a title in regional promotion, LFA. He joined ONE Championship in 2019, scoring an emphatic head kick knockout over the tough Yusup Saadulaev.
Today, Thanh is one of the promotion’s top featherweights and is getting very close to a title shot against reigning ONE Featherweight World Champion Martin “The Situ-Asian” Nguyen.
Mixed martial arts veteran and reigning ONE Heavyweight World Champion Brandon “The Truth” Vera is arguably the second-most recognizable combat sports athlete next to the legendary Manny “Pacman” Pacquiao.
The Filipino-American superstar has been in the game for nearly two decades. Raised in Norfolk, Virginia, Vera began his career in North America, after earning a wrestling scholarship at Old Dominion University and spending time in service in the United States Air Force. In the military, Vera was a member of the Greco-Roman wrestling team.
Vera made his ONE Championship debut in 2014, stunning Igor Subora by knockout. He then captured the ONE Heavyweight World Title with a KO victory over Paul Cheng in 2015.
Today, Vera splits time between living in Guam, and in the Philippine capital of Manila where he plans to bring his very own Alliance Training Center to the country to help develop the next generation of Filipino martial arts athletes.