In the world of professional Mixed Martial Arts, there are 13 different prominent weight classes for fighters to compete in … 14 or 15 if counting the rare exceptions that are women’s lightweight and super heavyweight. The point is that fighters come in all shapes and sizes. Whether that be from their absolute heaviest at the heavyweight limit of 265 pounds, or their very lowest at 105.
With the latter having the appropriate title of “atomweight,” it’s accustomed to seeing many of the world’s most technically skilled fighters competing within it. Particularly amongst the female fighters.
Like all weight classes, they’ve, for the most part, had their growing periods where fighters bounced around to see where they would fit and fill things out. Still somewhat newer, especially in terms of popularity, atomweight has slowly blossomed into quite the talent-rich division throughout the concluding decade.
Sitting comfortably right atop them all at atomweight is conceivably Korea’s all-time best, Seo Hee Ham.
“I started fighting to get into the army, and I kept going on like I was addicted to getting in the cage,” Ham told The Scrap, “I am proud of being a Korean female fighter, and now I have a lot of confidence [compared to the past]. I always take pride in fighting. I am always thankful.”
For the 12-year veteran in Ham, she began her professional fighting career at the age of 20. And like her division itself, she has really come into her own and is now competing at a higher level than ever before. But she didn’t get to this point without some learning curves.
Originally starting out as a strawweight at 115-pounds, the Gangwon Province native got off to an active start as she fought frequently in both MMA and kickboxing.
Having amassed a record of 11-5, in 2013 Ham would decide to make the drop to atomweight thus beginning a new and rather successful chapter in her career. Five straight wins resulted in her getting the call up to the UFC. Unfortunately, the UFC at the time only housed fighters in the divisions of strawweight and the 135-pound bantamweight class.
It was back to 115 for “Hamderlei Silva” as she made her promotional and US debut against an also debuting bright prospect. That being none other than The Ultimate Fighter season 20 contestant, Scotland’s Joanne “JoJo” Calderwood.
Despite putting up a much better effort than the general UFC audience anticipated her to, Ham wouldn’t be able to come out with the victory. A bloodied currently ranked 125-pound flyweight contender in Calderwood was announced the winner by unanimous decision.
Although Ham had fought almost exclusively in Japan prior to her UFC debut, she prefers to fight in cages. An enclosure that often comes second to the ring in the East. And, obviously, an opportunity on the world’s largest MMA stage isn’t just something to pass up when you’re still trying to make your name.
“I think it is a big experience whenever I go to fight, every moment.” Ham expressed. And so, it was onto the next like always.
The Team MAD representative would successfully rebound in her sophomore appearance inside the Octagon with a Fight of the Night bonus to boot. But two more close and arguably controversial losses would follow. Therefore spelling the end of Ham’s run with the promotion.
Since then, she’s been reignited and never looked better as she returned to atomweight. Now 22-8, Ham is on a five-fight streak of wins once again and has won four of them by TKO. Those being the only four TKO wins of her 30 fight career.
Even more telling, they all came over four of the very best fighters that atomweight has to offer.
“I think it’s an experience that never comes again,” she said of her time in the UFC, “Now I have confidence in all the upcoming matches. I got used to MMA a lot [after], and I think the results have been so good because I improved my skills compared to the past.”
Ham’s first fight post-UFC was a homecoming that saw her fight in one of Korea’s most notable promotions, ROAD FC. It would be here that she took out the then champion Mina Kurobe to claim the title. Adding two title defenses to her resume inevitably led to her arrival in the RIZIN Fighting Federation ring.
When it comes to the atomweight division, RIZIN homes a majority of the very best fighters in the world. Including the undeniable top of the food chain. That, in turn, meant Ham had to step foot in their ring sooner rather than later.
Admittedly always excited and nervous to fight on a stage like RIZIN presents, the 32-year old is looking forward to her battles ahead as per usual. But for this upcoming clash at RIZIN 20 on New Year’s Eve, there has been none greater.
In such an excellent year for the division, RIZIN provided us with atomweight’s biggest matchup in its history. That being a rematch of champions in RIZIN titleholder Ayaka Hamasaki and Invicta FC queenpin Jinh Yu Frey.
Already considered the greatest atomweight to ever do it, Hamasaki would pick up her second career victory over Frey to remain unbeaten in the division. Now as the year comes to a close, she’s competing in the next biggest fight in divisional history when she meets her clear top counterpart in Ham.
However, this won’t be the pair’s first time trading leather.
Throughout Ham’s MMA journey, she’s encountered and fallen to some of the best. One of those happening to be Hamasaki who holds two wins over her dating back to 2010. Excluding the stint at strawweight in the UFC, Hamasaki is the only fighter to have bested Ham in the last 10 years.
As they’re set to meet again for their trilogy bout with the RIZIN title on the line, the stakes couldn’t be any higher.
It’s the top two fighters in the world today, and perhaps ever, in their weight class. Both are a perfect 10-0 in bouts below 115-pounds and each has improved immensely since their second fight in 2011. Whoever walks away the winner will have very supportable claims for the female fighter of 2019 and even more blatantly, the best atomweight.
With so many legacy and redemption implications along with further cementing of her status as a Korean MMA legend, Ham couldn’t be treating it any more humbly. One of the biggest fights of the year, her division’s history, and her career is simply just another fight.
“There is no special meaning,” Ham said of a potential first win over Hamasaki, “To me, victory and defeat are all the same. I don’t think [I deserve to be called the best atomweight ever with a win]. I just like fighting. If I’m not the best, I am happy just to be a fighter. I will always have the same fun and exciting fights.”
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The Scrap’s Drake Riggs is an MMA writer and YouTuber based out of Brush Prairie, Washington who specializes in feature pieces, the women’s fight scene, lists, news coverage, and rankings. Riggs has been a passionate MMA fan since 2009 and has written for various news sources. You can follow him on Twitter (@Dre_Kriggs).