In 2014, Li Jingliang made his UFC debut in Las Vegas as a relative unknown, decisioning David Michaud at UFC 173.
Two years later, he was back in the “Fight Capital of the World,” knocking out Anton Zafir in the less than three minutes. It was International Fight Week and his profile was growing, but there was still work to be done.
On Saturday, China’s Li faces Neil Magny on the main card of UFC 248, and with a 6-1 record since his last appearance in Vegas, things are a lot different for “The Leech” in terms of notoriety, but the same when it comes to his comfort level in this home away from home.
“I love Las Vegas, this is like the Mecca of MMA,” he said. “Las Vegas if very similar to my hometown in Xinjiang, China, and I think this time the victory belongs to me. I will show the world ‘China Power’ again, and the audience will remember me.”
Remembering Li shouldn’t be a problem, considering he has shown that ‘China Power’ in scoring knockouts of Bobby Nash, Zak Ottow, David Zawada and Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos over the last three years. If you’re keeping score at home, that three-year stretch has also seen him earn three Performance and two Fight of the Night bonuses, making him China’s most notable fighting export not named Zhang Weili.
“It is my pleasure to fight in both China and the United States,” Li said. “I know that I don't have a big fan base in the states, but I have my power, I have my strength and I will do my best. With my strength, no matter where I go it feels like fighting at home.”
And speaking of Zhang, the UFC strawweight champion is in this weekend’s co-main event, making this an even more notable event for fans back home.
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“Zhang Weili is the first Chinese UFC champion and the first Asian champion,” he said. “She has inspired an entire MMA nation in China. I feel really happy for her and I hope she can protect her title.”
Seeing representatives in the UFC not a small thing for a nation not known as an MMA hotbed. But with the success of Zhang and Li, China is starting to produce world-class fighters and the UFC 248 also provides a needed distraction as news of the coronavirus dominates the headlines.
“Yes, the virus was massive in China, but the government is handling it well and we have talented medical teams there,” said Li. “I wish I could use my victory to inspire everyone that ‘Chinese Power’ can beat all odds.”
Not that any time is a good one for a medical crisis such as this to hit the world, but it was particularly inconvenient for those preparing for fights outside of China like Li and Zhang. But in a sport where making adjustments on the fly are necessary, Li and his team acted accordingly when the news hit.
“We went to Thailand because the U.S. shut down all the flights that were coming direct from China,” he said. “My team came to Thailand with me to hold the fight camp for 21 days, so the virus didn't have a huge impact on me.”
With that stress lifted, Li could concentrate on the task at hand, which is beating one of the top 170-pounders in the world in Magny.
“Magny has a long reach, he's very tall and very tough,” said Li. “We know that it's going to be a tough fight.”
The tougher the better apparently for the 31-year-old, who always seems to rise to the occasion when the pressure is at its highest. That’s something Li owes to experience and his opinion that he has never been better than he is right now.
“After so many years of fighting, I have gained a huge amount of experience,” said Li, who turned pro in 2007. “Right now, my physical condition, my mental condition, and my team are all at our prime right now. I will continue to get even better in the future.”
He even has the black belt in jiu-jitsu he received from longtime coach Ruy Menezes to prove it.
“I feel so honored to have received my black belt,” said Li. “I have been training with my jiu-jitsu coach for over ten years. I think receiving my black belt will allow me to help other fighters and MMA practitioners study BJJ, and help people fall in love with this sport. I feel very honored and happy about that.”
BJJ black belt, knockout power and a three-fight win streak. Finally, is it going to be Li Jingliang’s year?
“Our wishes and our agenda for the year is that 2020 is our year,” he said. “And we want to start 2020 with a win.”
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