How the love of combat led Seo Hee Ham to a rare career
“I can say this with confidence; I never said no to any fighter.
Seo Hee Ham from South Korea didn’t always want to be a professional fighter. In fact, she intended to be a soldier as an adult. Instead of fighting for her country, she went to represent it proudly with a carefully crafted legacy as an all-time great athlete.
Around 2004, Ham was enrolling in Taekwondo at a gymnasium near her home. She quickly discovered that the gym wasn’t just about one art, but taught kickboxing, Muay Thai, and MMA itself. Starting with taekwondo, Ham honed her skills enough to eventually impress the gym owner so much that he told her that she was able to do whatever she wanted in combat sports.
To start her MMA career, she had this opportunity with greater effect than many have ever dreamed of – most often, for good reason.
During Ham’s first three years as a professional mixed martial artist, she was in charge of a handful of the most important founders of the atomic and strawweight division. It all started with his debut in February 2007 against Japan’s Hisae Watanabe.
At the time, it was clearly problematic matchmaking and meant to be a walk in the park for 17-4 Watanabe. Known as the most devastating knockout artist in 105-pound weight class history, Watanabe came fresh after her career-biggest win in what is arguably still the biggest fight in the division.
In a way, Ham’s ignorance was truly blissful. Still completely new to MMA, the Taekwondo specialist had nothing to fear and everything to gain – and that’s exactly what she did.
The best of Korea pulled off what is arguably the most underrated upheaval ever in MMA. Winning the unanimous decision, Ham went on to face even more iconic characters like Miku Matsumoto right after, Yuka Tsuji, and even Megumi Fujii.
“I wasn’t really surprised because I went over there to win,” Ham told MyMMANews on BROADENED HORIZIN of his debut. “But I was very happy. This was the time in my career when I didn’t know what MMA really was. It was MMA and I didn’t even know what “M” was. It’s time. But I was happy because I got to travel and experience new things in my life and win the fight, so it was a good and happy experience for me.
“Every fight is a tough fight. I don’t believe there is an easy fight there. It’s MMA, it’s a fight where you only know what’s going to happen when you step into that ring, cage, or circle against your opponent. That’s what I did. I went there and I didn’t care their name, their record, none of that. It was just a fighter against a fighter, a human being against a human, and that is exactly what it is. So maybe that’s why I’ve come this far so far, I’m not sure.
Currently, Seo Hee Ham holds a 23-8 record which sees her undefeated south of 115 pounds. The last time fans were treated to a “Hamderlei” performance came at the legendary RIZIN 20 event which closed the year 2019. In addition to ending the year, it was a milestone and a bump overcome for the 34-year-old player. she has defeated her fiercest rival.
RIZIN’s first atomic weight title holder was another legend, Ayaka Hamasaki, who had already won two victories over Ham earlier in their illustrious career. With Ham looking better than ever after the UFC, she was leading the table in putting together a five-game winning streak that included four knockouts from some of the best in the division.
The trilogy fight between the two undeniable best fighters their weight had ever seen was unsurprisingly an instant classic as it peaked at each of their heights. In the end, Ham got his redemption and his last world title in a very slim affair by split decision.
“The only thing I can say is that I treat all my fights the same and I’m never happy with my fights,” Ham said, wondering if Hamasaki’s victory was the most satisfying of his. career. “I always wanted to do more and I always wanted to be better than that. So I can’t say it was the most satisfying victory for me, it was just another fight in my career and it was just one fight in all of my fights. But it’s true it was a fight in a whole new promotion, a whole new stage, it was fundamentally still new to me. It was a good experience that I finally beat her, yeah, but it wasn’t the most satisfying win or anything like that.
“At RIZIN, I love Japan. So it was good. Because it’s the biggest organization in Japan, I’ve always wanted to experience the scene there and can’t say anything bad about it. It was a good experience.”
Starting with the historic DEEP promotion, to SmackGirl, Jewels, ROAD FC of South Korea and even the UFC, Ham has been there and done it in his weight classes. Although she won the RIZIN crown on her last outing, another change of scenery has materialized.
Ham is 12-0 since 2011, ruling out his UFC run, his current form arguably his best. The Gangwon Province native will now wear her six-game winning streak at the ONE Championship along with a load of experience.
“It’s very simple. After living the UFC, I learned that there was nothing to be afraid of. That’s what made the difference,” she began.
“I have been through a lot of promotions and I can say that each promotion is very different. They have their own style, you know? But if you look at my career, every time I sign with this new organization it was when this organization was at the top or when they had the most spotlight for this division. Like right now ONE Championship and atomic weight, I think ONE Championship atomic weight is the deepest, it has the most spotlight. So every time I moved to this organization I believe this organization got the most spotlight, it was the hottest for my weight.
“When signing a new promotion, I don’t treat it the same, I tried to fit everything in.”
Things will be new in some ways for Ham, but familiar in others. Entering ONE, Ham will do so as a participant in their eight-woman World Atomic Weight Grand Prix tournament which will decide the next challenger to current champion Angela Lee.
During Ham’s 14-year career, she fought every year except 2020, making it her longest layoff. While that wasn’t the plan, Ham used the extra time to her advantage by doing things she might not have been able to do when she was so constantly active. But there was still a lot of development done in preparation for the comeback.
Ham competed at 115 pounds as a strawweight in the UFC, the same weight she will return to in ONE’s atomic weight division. With three losses for just one win in this relay against all of the current 125-pound flyweight, Bec Rawlings, Cortney Casey and Joanne Calderwood, Ham looked to make a significant physical change for this final run of his rich career.
“I can tell I’m excited, but maybe that word isn’t right,” she said. “It’s like when you meet your loved one or someone, that’s how your heart beats, right?” This is how I feel right now. This is my debut in ONE Championship… and my debut is for the Grand Prix. This Women’s Grand Prix is the first time in the history of ONE Championship, so it’s something very new.
“[Gaining muscle] is something I planned. After signing with ONE Championship, and having secured my debut date, I already knew I would be fighting someone taller than me. So what I did was deliberately enlarge my body. Then, I took more muscle so that my opponents did not outdo me. It was planned and I think my plan is going well.
“During my time at the UFC, I tried to enlarge my body, but failed every time,” Ham added. “My normal walking weight never increased. It has remained the same, I don’t know why. But while preparing for ONE Championship I changed my method and my body started to gain weight and my walking weight is much heavier than my usual walking weight. For this reason, I’m very convinced that I’m going to be a different Seo Hee Ham than when I was in the UFC.
Ham will have to defeat three of the best fighters ONE has to offer 115 to take on “The Unstoppable” Lee – a fight she very well could have had immediately upon arrival. It all starts with undefeated 9-0 Denice Zamboanga for Ham – it’s just a matter of when COVID-19 postponed the initial May 28 fight date.
Already considered by many to be his country’s greatest fighter and arguably at an atomic weight of 105 pounds, to say that Seo Hee Ham would solidify his legendary status by capturing ONE gold is an understatement … but don’t think for a second that ‘she will feel it very the same way.
“In my entire career, I never really expected a result or said I would do this or that,” Ham said. “I’m doing my best in that circle or that cage, you know?” But for this fight, my preparation went so well. For the first time, I can say that I would like to knock him out. Most people know I’m a fighter who likes to go all the way. As if it was a five-round fight or a three-round fight, it doesn’t matter. I like to use all of this time. I like to go the distance. But for this fight, I don’t know why, I really can’t explain because I don’t know either. I really wanna finish her, I wanna knock her out.
“I never thought once in my life that I was a legend. To be honest, I believe there are so many fighters who are better than me. It’s just that they haven’t had a chance to beat me before. There are also fighters far more talented than me who have yet to make their debut. That’s what I think. I’ve been in the sport for a long time and just got lucky to have a lot of fights. It is true that most of the fights went well, the results were good. But I don’t think I am a legend. I never thought about it.
“I’m just happy to have been able to continue in the sport and if I feel there is a new challenge for me, like ONE Championship right now, I think it was a new step to challenge myself” , she continued. “I’m just lucky enough to be able to do what I love and try to live as much as possible until I can’t anymore.