Asked about the ups and downs of the last year, Andrea Lee let out an exasperated sigh before responding.
“I can’t even believe it’s already been a year,” said the surging flyweight contender, who squares off with Joanne Calderwood early in the next on Saturday at UFC 242 in Abu Dhabi.
Professionally, the 30-year-old has been firing on all cylinders, building on her debut win over Veronica Macedo with back-to-back victories over Ashlee Evans-Smith and Montana De La Rosa to extend her overall winning streak to seven and climb to No. 6 in the rankings, one spot behind Calderwood.
But her personal life has been the exact opposite.
Last August, Lee was involved in a domestic violence incident with her husband and coach, Donny Aaron, with whom she has a daughter. Aaron was charged with one count of domestic battery abuse and one count of false imprisonment by the Shreveport Police Department and after evading police for nine months, he was finally arrested in May.
While Lee admits that training and competing has provided a respite from the familial struggles she’s facing, the reality is that the two will remain intertwined until the legal battles between she and Aaron are over and the timing of her previous fight and Saturday’s showdown with Calderwood underscore that fact perfectly.
“I fought Saturday, June 22, but the following Monday, I had court,” Lee said, referencing her bout against De La Rosa, which she won by unanimous decision. “I knew going into that fight that I had court that following Monday as soon as I got home, so I had that on my mind. And September 7 just so happens to be me and Donny’s anniversary, so I’m fighting on my wedding anniversary.
“I love taking fights because it’s able to distract me from all the chaos that’s going on, but there is divorce and custody and all of that that we’re going through,” added the surging flyweight, who now trains with former UFC fighter Tim Credeur at Gladiators Academy while mixing in trips to the West Coast to get in work with fellow Invicta FC alum Aspen Ladd and the crew at MMA Gold. “I’m not going to lie and say I’m able to just block it all out and just train 100 percent because it does get to me at times, but I’m able to focus on the task at hand.
“I know that winning these fights is what is helping me get through everything.”
So too is the fact that Lee now feels settled and established on the UFC roster, having registered three wins in as many starts and inked a new multi-fight deal heading into Saturday’s bout in Abu Dhabi.
Wildly popular while splitting time on the regional circuit between LFA and Invicta FC, the talented and telegenic fighter’s name was one of the first thrown out on social media when the UFC announced it was introducing the flyweight division and crowning its first champion through Season 26 of The Ultimate Fighter.
Rather than going the reality television route, Lee was signed outright by the promotion, but was required to be enrolled in the USADA program for six months prior to making her debut as a result of her March 2016 positive test for a banned diuretic ahead of her fight with veteran Sarah D’Alelio, which remains the last loss on her resume.
Arriving on the biggest stage in the sport with a loyal following and lofty expectations put Lee in the crosshairs from the get-go, as fans and observers looked on to see if the highly touted newcomer was as good as advertised.
“Coming off my wins and being the LFA champion, I know there has been a lot of hype behind me and I didn’t want to be all hype,” said Lee, reflecting on her transition from regional standout to burgeoning UFC star. “There was a lot of pressure on me to prove myself in that sense.
“I feel like I needed to come out and show what I was capable of and that I needed these wins to solidify myself in the UFC because there are a lot of fighters who get that opportunity, lose a couple and they’re on the chopping block. I didn’t want to be on that chopping block, so coming in here, getting my first couple of wins, performing well was what I was most worried about.”
Having solidified her place on the roster and proven herself to be far more than just hype, the surging flyweight contender is now focused on continuing her climb up the rankings and adding another win to her resume this weekend.
“We were kind of expecting it,” Lee said of the pairing with Calderwood, who enters Saturday’s contest off a decision loss to Katlyn Chookagian in June. “We’ve been tossing names out, wondering who they were going to give me next and Jo-Jo was one of them, so it’s something we expected.
“Because she’s coming off a loss doesn’t make her any less of a fighter in any way,” she added. “She’s still ranked No. 5 in the world, she’s still an incredible fighter and a really big name. Plus I’m very eager for this matchup because I finally get to fight a striker. The last couple fights have been wrestlers and I think it’s going to be a really exciting fight for us both.”
Like Lee, Calderwood arrived in the UFC with a great deal of hype, entering the strawweight competition on Season 20 of The Ultimate Fighter as the No. 3 seed before being bounced in the quarterfinals by eventual finalist and future champ Rose Namajunas. After her time on the show, the Scottish standout struggled with inconsistency and the challenges of making the 115-pound limit.
She looked outstanding in the first women’s flyweight fight in UFC history, a one-off against Valerie Letourneau in the summer of 2016 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, and was quick to relocate to the 125-pound weight class once it was introduced, winning each of her first two starts in the new division.
Despite the loss to Chookagian, Calderwood remains positioned in the Top 5, one spot ahead of Lee in the rankings, and within striking distance of a title shot, which is why the emerging contender with a penchant for donning cowboy hats despite her “KGB” nickname is keen on making a statement Saturday evening in Abu Dhabi.
“I like to start fast and stay on the gas, so I don’t want to take a ton of time feeling each other out — I want to get out there and get going,” said Lee, forecasting how the fight will play out. “I want to get a finish. I would love to be able to finish her decisively because that would put me higher in the rankings, I think. I want to go out there, get the finish, get my hand raised and I think it’s going to be an exciting fight for everyone.
“This win will mean so much, really,” she continued. “I plan on going out there, enjoying the moment and fighting fiercely and getting this win because I need it more than anything right now.
“I hope we get a bonus too,” she added with a laugh.
The last 13 months outside of the cage have been nothing short of chaotic for Andrea Lee, but Saturday night, she will once again get to quiet all the noise, block out all the distractions and channel it all into what she hopes will be another impressive performance inside the Octagon.
“It’s been a whirlwind and it’s constant — it’s always there, it’s nagging — but I’m getting through it one fight at a time.”
Don’t miss a second of one of UFC’s biggest events of the year. UFC 242: Khabib vs Poirier early prelims start at 10am ET on Fight Pass. Prelims, headlined by flyweights Joanne Calderwood and Andrea Lee start at 12pm ET on FX.
At 2pm ET, lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov defends his belt against interim lightweight champion Dustin Poirier.
Watch UFC 242: Khabib vs Poirier live. Find your country’s start time here.