MANILA, Philippines -- Denice Zamboanga had expected to fight Angela Lee for ONE's atomweight championship in 2020. Instead, she has to go through the wringer just for a shot at the champion.
Lee, who has been the ONE atomweight champion since 2016, did not defend her title in 2020 due to pregnancy. Still, she held onto her belt, much to Zamboanga's chagrin.
Instead of challenging Lee outright, Zamboanga now needs to win the ONE Atomweight Grand Prix in order to get a title shot.
"Kailangan ko pagdaanan lahat bago makalaban 'yung champion," Zamboanga said during the Philippine Sportswriters Association (PSA) Forum.
Zamboanga, the top-ranked challenger in the atomweight division, will have to get past South Korean veteran Seo Hee Ham in the quarterfinals on September 3 -- a tough assignment given Ham's experience and skills.
If she gets past Ham, Zamboanga will be up against either Ukrainian fighter Alyona Rassohyna or Thailand's Stamp Fairtex in the semis -- another difficult proposition especially if she takes on Fairtex, who is one of her close friends.
The tough draw does not faze Zamboanga, however, insisting it's exactly what she needs in order to prepare for Lee.
"Siguro, 'yung Grand Prix, 'yun 'yung way para talagang mas mag-improve pa ako, para mas mag-ready ako kapag nakalaban ko na 'yung champion," said Zamboanga, who will carry an 8-0 record into the ONE Circle. She is currently 3-0 in ONE Championship.
"Actually, lahat naman sila, delikado," she also pointed out.
On the other side of the bracket, are matches between Itsuki Hirata and Alyse Anderson, and Meng Bo and Ritu Phogat.
"Siguro, sa akin lang talaga napunta 'yung pinaka-experienced fighter, most experienced fighter. Siguro kasi dahil ako 'yung No. 1 ranked sa division, or talagang gusto nila ng challenge," Zamboanga added.
Her coach at Marrok Force MMA, Fritz Biagtan, assured that Zamboanga will be well-prepared for Ham, even as they keep their ultimate goal -- the Angela Lee bout -- at the back of their collective minds.
Zamboanga and her brother, Drex, have been training in Thailand since last year.
"Ngayon, we're focused on Denice," said Biagtan. "Every month, every week, everyday talaga, we work hard and then nag-improve talaga ng maigi 'tong si Denice. So, ma-expect niyo talaga na ibang Denice 'yung lalabas ngayon sa ONE Championship."
The quarterfinal matches of the atomweight grand prix will all take place on ONE: Empower, the all-women's fight card set for September 3.
The Zamboanga-Ham bout has been set as the co-main event, with the showdown between ONE strawweight champion Xiong Jing Nan and Michelle Nicolini headlining the card.
For Zamboanga, this is another source of motivation as she vowed to prove that she deserves to be in the main event.
"Sobrang magiging sobrang gandang laban 'to. Bibigyan ko sila ng parang, the best fight, sa buong card," she vowed. "Kahit ako 'yung co-main event, papakita ko talaga na pang main event. 'Di magsisisi 'yung mga fans na panoorin 'tong laban namin."