The news that Li Jingliang vs Dwight Grant had to be scrapped from the UFC 256 was unwelcome for fight fans in the moment, but from that fallout came the ultimate silver lining: Li is now slated to face Santiago Ponzinibbio on Saturday’s UFC Fight Night: Holloway vs Kattar card.
“I was very happy and excited,” Li told UFC.com via interpreter about getting the call. “I was going to accept, no matter who they offered me. Me and my team overcame a lot of difficulties to cross half the planet, coming to the U.S. from China. We came here for a fight. I kept training all the time, just waiting for the opportunity to fight.”
Health issues have kept Argentina’s Ponzinibbio out of competition since his 2018 TKO of Neil Magny, while “The Leech” had the momentum of a three-fight win streak halted by the aforementioned Magny last March.
It's hard to imagine a bout with a higher guarantee of fireworks. Both men have built their reputations by consistently bringing the goods inside the Octagon. And both men are eager to reclaim some ground in the welterweight division.
Saturday's Main Card Airs Live & Free On ABC, As Well As ESPN+ Starting At 3pm/12pm ETPT
Top 5 Moments: Li Jingliang
Top 5 Moments: Li Jingliang
UFC: Welterweight is possibly the most intriguing division in the whole UFC right now. What do you see when you look at the landscape?
LJ: If we consider the global distribution of men’s bodyweight, 155-lb to 175-lb might be the range which has the highest percentage. So it makes sense that my division, welterweight, is one of the most competitive divisions in the UFC. The bar is very high in every aspect in this division — skill, strength, speed, agility...everything.
UFC: You mention 155-lb, which is lightweight. Is that something you would ever try?
LJ: Each division in the UFC is highly competitive; more stress, more motivation. If I can get an ideal result from this fight, I will consider going down to lightweight, another very challenging division.
UFC: Of course your last fight didn’t have the outcome you’d hoped for. How did you put that behind you and keep pushing?
LJ: I learned a lot from that loss. As a professional athlete, we have to know how to face failure and learn something from that. I don’t fear loss; the key is to figure out the reason for the failure and then learn a lesson from it. Each failure helps me and encourages me to be better. I was out of the shadow of that loss very fast.
UFC: What keeps your motivated?
Family is always what I am fighting for. My parents, my wife, my daughter and my son who was just born a few months ago; each time when I am thinking about them, I am encouraged and motivated. I also have a very solid team backing me - my coaches, management team and many friends. All of these people give me energy every single day and make me feel that I am not fighting alone.
UFC: Your opponent, Santiago Ponzinibbio, has been out for a couple years. Does that make him more dangerous, or does his layoff favor you?
LJ: I don't think the two-year gap is a big issue for Santiago Ponzinibbio. What I know is that he had some health issues in the past two years. He is a very experienced fighter; he knows the business and knows what he is doing. If he is confident enough to return and get a green light, I think he is still dangerous. He is a superstar from Argentina, on a seven-win streak, and used to being top 15 in this division. I am very happy to fight him and I’m expecting a very exciting fight.
UFC: Who were some fighters you admired when you were younger?
LJ: When I started training in MMA, my idol was Zhang Tiequan, the first Chinese fighter in the UFC. It was about 2005 to 2009, and we trained together every day. To me, he was definitely another level fighter at that time. I was already walking around at 77-80 kg but he was only about 70 kg and I had no chance beating him when we were sparring. He was better than me in all ways - wrestling, jiu-jitsu, boxing and kickboxing. Every day I dreamt that I could be as good as him someday.
UFC: How long do you predict before the world understands how much MMA talent will be coming from China?
JL: I think everyone who follows MMA has been aware of the appearance of Chinese fighters in the UFC. MMA is developing so fast in China. We have one UFC champion now and I believe this is just the beginning. There are more and more young talents starting to engage in this sport. I am very confident of the future of MMA in China.
Nothing could make me prouder than representing my country. Each time when I fight or watch UFC fights, I do hope to see more Chinese athletes. We have three Chinese fighters on Fight Island this time. Let's show the world the power of Chinese MMA on this big stage!
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