High School Fighter no more: Lee Ye-Ji returns to the cage all pumped up

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ROAD FC atomweight prospect Lee Ye-Ji
ROAD FC atomweight prospect Lee Ye-Ji

Once known as the “High School Fighter”, Lee Ye-Ji broke onto the scene with her professional debut at just 16 years of age. At ROAD FC’s mega-event in Japan, she faced MMA Princess Satoko Shinashi and lost by ground and pound late in the second, but her nascent abilities shined through.

That was three years ago and a lot has transpired since in the fiery prospect’s life. Ye-Ji’s second bout was none the easier as she faced former DEEP champ Hisae Watanabe in her comeback fight. Even en route to another TKO loss, Ye-Ji displayed made a showcase of herself. Her striking and intelligence in the clinch caused the fans – and all atomweight fighters – to sit up and take note.

Next, Ye-Ji was given a breather and faced two opponents more at her level. They were wildly different performances, with a first round armbar then a lagging unanimous decision. However, Ye-Ji was showing sides to her game that indicate what she’s developing into.

Ye-Ji’s third win in a row came in the form of brilliant revenge against Shinashi. She demonstrated much better grappling defense and her strength was finally starting to become a huge factor. The decision victory firmly cemented her prospect status.

Ye-Ji’s last fight, which drew her record even to 3-3, was against experienced grappler Tomo Maesawa, and while she lost by a narrow split decision, Maesawa exposed holes in her skill set. Ye-Ji would then end up on a year-long hiatus.

“In that fight with Maesawa, I had a lot of plans that I just couldn’t execute,” she said.

“I had a lot of injuries, so there were limitations on my movement, on what I could do. Now I’m all cured. Looking back on that fight, I’ve been working on improving my skills in every area.”

Returning after a year, Ye-Ji has gone from “High School Fighter” to a young woman with a big future in MMA. She’s maintained a youthful vigor, but admits she is insistent about asserting her adulthood.

“I want to be seen as an energetic fighter. Energetic and pumped up,” she told Asia MMA.

“I want to keep that kind of image. But now I’m an adult, so I wanted to change my style. I’ve always had straight hair, because back then I was a high school student, so I changed it – I did it myself.”

Ye-Ji’s goals in MMA are simple. Stay focused. At her young age she is attending university and maintaining a strict training regime. While this can be a huge change in a person’s life at this age, Ye-Ji’s circumstances are quite fortunate and allow her to seamlessly continue her career.

“I’m going to a local university. Sports and leisure is my major. Since I’m still going to school and taking classes, there are not too many changes. Korean high school has long classes. In university, sometimes I finish early so I can go back to the gym. I still teach kids. And as always I participate in training.”

As a South Korean fighter, there is a clear role model for Ye-Ji.

“I respect Ham Seo-Hee. If she wasn’t here, women’s MMA in Asia wouldn’t be this big. I look up to her. She opened the way for all the female fighters. I have great respect for her.”

Lee Ye-Ji vs Arai Mika at ROAD FC 48
Lee Ye-Ji vs Arai Mika at ROAD FC 48

Ironically, Ye-Ji’s next opponent is a hot rookie prospect with a 3-0 record who made an impressive pro debut in ROAD FC a year earlier, Arai Mika. She’s tough, aggressive, and has all of the fire to be expected from a surging young fighter, exactly like Ye-Ji herself 2 years ago.

Ye-Ji’s candour as a 19-year old still makes her sound cute.

“I think Mika has a big spirit, I can feel her energy. She’s a rookie, so of course she gives off that vibe. My condition’s good and I feel good, except that it’s really hot. But everybody feels the same so it’s OK. I feel excited but I’m also calm. I have to get into the cage to find out how I really feel.”

ROAD FC’s women’s divisions are deepening and there’s pressure on female fighters to perform. Female atomweights in Asia have a particularly well-established status and Ye-Ji has a firm opinion about where and how she expects her career to go.

“I won’t betray ROAD FC. I’m going to stay here and try everything that I can. I want to build up strength, add more techniques, and have many experiences. I’m just 20. Compared to other fighters who are a little bit older, I have a lot of time to enjoy my prime. I have a bright future.”

Lee Ye-Ji faces Arai Mika in an atomweight bout at ROAD FC 48 in Wonju, South Korea.

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