No athlete on the positively stacked UFC 267 card has gone about this fight week with more chill than Li Jingliang.
It’s great to be back in Abu Dhabi. Here it’s really like my hometown Xinjiang, China. The environment feels very familiar. It just feels so good.”
Laughing, smiling, joking and visibly enjoying the proceedings at every turn, you would scarcely guess the man has a fight in a few hours.
“Whether it’s my age, my physical conditioning or mental (game), I just feel so good.”
It doesn’t hurt that Etihad Arena has already been good to “The Leech.” It’s the building where he scored a first round KO against Santiago Ponzinibbio just last January. Saturday, he’ll look to replicate that success against one of the sport’s most highly touted competitors: Khamzat Chimaev.
Much of the hype surrounding Chimaev is well-deserved, and by now you know the résumé. Through three UFC fights, the Chechnyan set the modern-era record for the fastest 3-0 start, needing just 66 days and less than one total round of combined Octagon time to do it. Undefeated in nine professional fights overall, “Borz” has never needed the judges’ scorecards. In fact, he’s never seen a third round, and the ruthlessness of his finishes dissolve any last arguments that he’s a fleeting talent.
“This is mixed martial arts. Anything can happen,” says Li, neither dismissing nor glossing his opponent. “The fight will be boring if I don’t have a good opponent. You have to know your opponent before you defeat him. Me, I’m just being the best of myself. I know his striking is good. I know his grappling good. But this is mixed martial arts. Let’s find out.”
Li seems amused by the whirlwind surrounding his opponent, and it’s easy to see when he speaks how much he’d love to derail this particular hype train.
“We all have weaknesses. You guys only pay attention to him. Did you guys find anything on me? It’s me vs him. We’re on the same level in the Octagon.”
Adding a wrinkle to the equation is the fact that it has been over a year since we’ve seen Chimaev in the Octagon. A brutal case of COVID-19 not only kept him on the sidelines for an extended period, but also found him publicly contemplating retirement. Fighters and fans have been debating the impact of ring rust for as long as the sport has existed, but whether Chimaev will return at the level of his old self will be of interest to anyone who has been paying attention.
Despite enjoying an enviable welterweight career in the UFC since he joined the promotion in 2014, Chimaev remarked this week that he was unaware his No. 11-ranked opponent was even on the roster. Perhaps it was just gamesmanship, but Li is calling his bluff.
“Of course he knows me,” he laughs. “But whether he knows me or not, I know him. I know he did three UFC fights, and so many media [outlets] want to know about him. But all in all, only my fists do the talking. Let us see on Saturday.”
The pre-fight banter has indeed entered some strange territory. Chimaev promised to eat his opponent and take his head. Again, Li laughs.
“He is thirsty and I’m also thirsty. I’m going to drink some blood.”
Ok, guys, we get it. Most of us already had this one circled as a frontrunner for Fight of the Night, and with both men oozing this level of certainty, it feels like they’re about to prove us right.
“I think my biggest weapon is my confidence…I’m confident and I have faith in myself, because it’s teamwork. My team, my coach, my family, my children…they all give me power.”
And then, just for a moment, Li stops speaking his native Mandarin and yells in perfect English:
“Ok. Fine. It’s the Leech vs the Wolf. Let’s see who eats who. Come on, baby. Let’s go!”
Don’t miss the ESPN+ special presentation of UFC 267: Blachowicz vs Teixeira on Saturday October 30th, 2021. Please note special broadcast times — prelims begin at 10:30am ET/7:30am PT, with the two-title fight main card starting at 2pm ET/11am PT.
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