Rewind the clock back to New Year’s Day 2020, when Seo Hee Ham was fresh off the biggest victory of her MMA career.
A day earlier, in Saitama Super Arena in Japan, Ham had ascended to the top of the atomweight division with a split decision victory over Ayaka Hamasaki, finally securing a win over the top-ranked rival who had beaten her twice before nearly 10 years earlier.
And until this week, when she will compete in ONE Championship’s eight-woman atomweight grand prix on Friday (7:30 a.m. EST, YouTube) in the Singapore-based promotion’s ONE: Empower event, that momentous super atomweight championship victory while competing under the Rizin banner was the last time fans had seen her.
It was nearly the last time — period.
“To be honest, as I ended my time in Rizin, I was actually thinking about retiring also because I felt like I didn’t have much time left in my career,” Ham recently told The Post through a translator via Zoom.
After weighing retirement and her other competitive options, including a return to Rizin or UFC — where she went 1-3 but came out on the wrong side of two close decisions while fighting 10 pounds heavier than her natural 105 pounds — or wrapping up her career close to home in Busan, South Korea, Ham (23-8, seven finishes) settled on a move to ONE because it represented a fresh challenge.
But even in her new home promotion, Ham is approaching her career as if it is wrapping up. It’s a sober approach for a 34-year-old who turned pro in both kickboxing and MMA in 2007. Heck, she didn’t think she would have been fighting this long.
“When I first started MMA, I told myself that I would retire at the age of 30,” Ham said. “When I reached 30, I said I’m gonna retire at 33. When I reached 33, I told myself I would retire at 35. And [as I approach 35], I signed a 27-month deal with ONE Championship, so I have around two years left with ONE Championship.
“So that’s another two years that I’m thinking about. And who knows; I might do well, and I might feel better than I expected, and maybe I might continue my career until 40 years old,” she added with a laugh. “So, who knows. I can’t really say when is my retirement date because it kept getting extended.”
Now committed to making a run at ONE atomweight champion Angela Lee — the grand prix winner will challenge Lee at a later date — Ham begins her quest in the quarterfinals in Kallang, Singapore against Denice Zamboanga of the Philippines. Zamboanga (8-0) is 10 years her junior and coming off a submission victory last August.
Based on ONE’s promotional contender rankings, Zamboanga is the No. 1 contender at atomweight. Data-based rankings at Fight Matrix list her at No. 27 in the world at strawweight (ONE’s weight management program has fighters compete at 10 pounds over the typical divisional limit). Ham, who had been No. 1 at atomweight on Fight Matrix before her removal due to inactivity, respects her opponent’s ranking and names her as the “toughest opponent” in that regard, but she isn’t sure the skills match the status compared to the six other women in the tournament field.
“Based on skill sets and experience and all those together, I don’t know, it’s really hard to say [if Zamboanga is the toughest in the field] because I think everybody has their own strengths and weaknesses, and everybody out there in the atomweight grand prix are great athletes,” Ham said.
The Empower event is a first for ONE: an all-women fight card topped by a strawweight title fight between champion Xiong Jin Nan and Michelle Nicolini. Ham said she’s “grateful” and “honored” to be a part of it.
“After this, if ever there is another all-woman event from ONE Championship, I would like to be part of it again,” she said.