At 31 years old, Li Jingliang may be too young to be described as a pioneer of mixed martial arts in China, but that’s exactly what he is. And though “The Leech” has important business to tend to this weekend against Brazilian contender Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos, he has had a moment to reflect on how the sport has grown in his home country.
“Chinese MMA is growing fast at the moment and I am very proud to see everyone doing so well,” said Li through a translator. “Not long ago, my coach Zhang Tiequan was the only Chinese fighter in the UFC, and now we have many fighters that are not just fighting but fighting the best in the world and showing the China Power.”
In 2011, Zhang made his UFC debut and submitted Jason Reinhardt in just 48 seconds. He wouldn’t hit those heights again in his next three Octagon appearances, but a statement had been made that Chinese MMA was on the rise.
Three years later, it was Li’s turn, and he immediately proved himself to be a fighter to watch with a hard-fought split decision win over David Michaud. He would lose two of his next three, but beginning in 2016, he won six of his next seven bouts, a stretch that includes four knockouts and four post-fight bonuses.
“I have improved a lot in the past five years,” he said. “I have fought all over the world against great opponents in the UFC. I have gained a lot of experience, but I feel for the next five years I will keep getting better and achieve my dream of being the UFC champion.”
So what’s the secret of his success from 2014 to 2019?
“There is no secret, I just work so hard with my team, China Top Team, focus on my training and fight as hard as I can every time.”
That attitude has endeared him to fans not just at home, but around the globe. It was at home in Beijing, though, that he scored one of his most important victories last November, as he knocked out David Zawada in front of family and friends that cheered his every move. If you’re looking for a career highlight, that was probably it.
“It was a very tough fight, but I was very happy to get a great finish in round three in front of my home crowd,” said Li, who also picked up a Performance of the Night bonus for his efforts. “I love fighting in China and this was very special for me to win in front of my family, friends and the Chinese fans.”
This Saturday, Li will be competing in China again, this time in Shenzhen against Zaleski dos Santos, and when the two all-action fighters collide, expectations are high, and neither welterweight is shying away from the prospect of an epic battle.
“He is a very strong opponent with a great style,” Li said of his Brazilian foe. “We were matched to fight last year in Beijing before he got injured, so I have been focused on him for some time. He also likes to be aggressive like me, so this will be an incredible fight for the fans.”
When their co-main event is over, Zhang Weili will face strawweight champion Jessica Andrade in the night’s main event, becoming the first Chinese fighter to challenge for a UFC world title. It’s a historic night for MMA in China, just the way Li Jingliang pictured it.
“I always knew Chinese MMA would be like this,” he said. “We have been working so hard for many years and now the sport is really exploding. I look forward to even more success for Chinese MMA in the future.”