Zamboanga, Lee trade barbs as ownership of ONE Atomweight title in limbo


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ONE Championship reigning atomweight world champion Angela Lee’s comments on Denice Zamboanga’s not proving herself enough to contend for the title she is unable to defend due to pregnancy has hit the nerve of the Filipina and an irked Zamboanga fired her own shots at the champ.

The 24-year old Lee revealed in an Instagram post last October 1 that she and her husband, fellow mixed martial arts exponent Bruno Pucci, 30, are expecting their first child and she is 11 weeks pregnant. The couple tied the knot more than two years ago in a ceremony held in Hawaii where Lee is based.

She is due to give birth in April next year. The gender of the baby is not known yet.

Lee described becoming a mother has always been a dream come true of hers, worth more than any amount of championship gold. She also said the timing couldn’t be any better as she is in the best shape of her life.

Inside the ring, the “Unstoppable” is one of the most called-out champions on the ONE because of her dominance since capturing the inaugural belt in 2016. It seems everyone wants a piece of Lee, and a crack at her title.

The expected long hiatus from competition to focus on motherhood forced the hand of ONE Chairman and CEO Chatri Sityodtong to announce plans to hold a tournament, the ONE Atomweight World Grand Prix Championship.

“I think that hosting a Grand Prix for the atomweight division is the perfect way to truly determine who deserves the next shot at the title. This tournament will be the ultimate test of who’s the true number one contender,” said Lee.

Lee is cool to the idea but fired a shot at the top contender. The incumbent queen doesn’t believe Zamboanga has done enough just yet, and feels the Filipina should continue to prove herself and cement her spot in the rankings.

“Honestly, even though Denice beat Mei Yamaguchi, I don’t think that alone qualifies her to be the number one contender. The other girls that she fought were not even ranked. The atomweight division is stacked with at least 10 top talents,” said Lee

This is notwithstanding the rankings and the announcement of Sityodtong earlier in the year, that Zamboanga had earned a title shot following her incredible performance over former ONE World Title challenger Mei Yamaguchi.

The latest ONE Official Rankings showed Zamboanga as the top contender followed by (2) Meng Bo, (3) Lin Heqin, (4) Yamaguchi, and (5) Gina Iniong

Ironically, a streaking Iniong earlier left competitive MMA due to pregnancy.

“I think that Denice should have to face the top 10 girls first to truly prove herself as the number one contender, and the ONE Atomweight World Grand Prix Championship is the perfect way to do that.”, concluded Lee

The top-ranked contender was not happy with the champion’s comments and issued a unique challenge of her own, the champion should voluntarily vacate the title and let the other contenders slug for it.

“Angela is the world champion, she should do the right thing like all great champions do. She should give respect to other fighters who deserve it and most importantly, should vacate the championship belt since she cannot defend it.”, Zamboanga told the media in the Philippines.

“Most great champions would have done this straight away, as soon as they know they won’t be able to defend their belt for personal reasons.”, she continued.

Zamboanga also defended her selection as top contender by beating a fighter that is better than Lee.

“I have proven myself to the world. I am the number one contender. I earned it through beating world-class opponents. I have already faced Mei Yamaguchi, the fighter who almost beat Angela, in a fight I believe Angela was very fortunate to win. She was in trouble most of the time during that fight. I was never in trouble against Mei. Mei is a great fighter, and I have a lot of respect for her. In my opinion, she is a better fighter than Angela.”, she said

Zamboanga is currently on a three bout win streak which includes victories over Malaysia’s Jihin Radzuan and Thailand’s Watsapinya Kaewkhon. She is also undefeated and quickly pulling together a massive fanbase.

Their much clamored showdown was expected to happen late this year or in early 2021 for the belt until Lee’s unclear return timetable put kibosh on the bout.

With the new developments, Zamboanga should be an automatic entrant to the grand prix and will need to face many of the division’s top talents to make it through to the end.

Thing is, winning the tournament still doesn’t satisfy her, or any of the other participants’, title aspirations as Sityodtong says the tournament protagonists will not be competing for the atomweight belt, but for a chance to face Lee down the line for the title.

Zamboanga obviously feels slighted by the ruling and didn’t mince words of what she thought about the whole ordeal.

“She made her choice to become a mother, which is great and I am very happy for her. However, she has to do the respectable thing and vacate the championship belt. She shouldn’t wait for the organization to ask her. I am surprised that she hasn’t made that decision to vacate the belt,” said Zamboanga.

“In a world-class organization, when the champion is unable to defend their title for any personal reason, that title will become vacant and the top fighters will get the chance to compete for that title. Otherwise, fighters in that division will become discouraged because they won’t be able to compete for the title.”

“I hope she does the right thing and makes the announcement herself. Be the respectable champion as I’ve always known her to be. When she’s ready to come back, I will be waiting for her.”

Zamboanga, nevertheless, paid tribute to her rival for her becoming a mother.

“I would like to say big congratulations to her. I am very happy for her. Motherhood is a very special experience for every woman. I believe Angela will be a great mother,” said Zamboanga.

ONE Championship has held multiple Grand Prix tournaments over the past year, which have been well received by fans and media alike. The announcement of an atomweight Grand Prix will likely gain immense interest.

Lee is excited to see all of her former foes, as well as some fresh new faces battle it out to be the last woman standing. She also believes that if her younger sister, recently-signed 16-year-old talent Victoria were to join the tournament, it would be a positive learning experience for the rising young star.

“ONE Championship recently revealed the Top 5 rankings in the atomweight division, which had Denice Zamboanga, Meng Bo, Lin Hequin, Mei Yamaguchi and Gina Iniong. I also think that Stamp Fairtex, Itsuki Hirata and Jihin Radzuan should be in the mix,” said Lee, probably unaware that Iniong is in the same booth as her.

“I think that Victoria would do very well if she entered the atomweight Grand Prix. Her skill level is world class, and this tournament would give her the experience she needs to get to the top. My bet would definitely be on her.”

Sityodtong says ONE Championship is slating the ONE Atomweight World Grand Prix Championship to commence in early 2021, with further details to come later this year.

By Armando M. Bolislis
Photo by ONE Championship