Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC)

Bring it on: ‘The Leech’ Li Jingliang stakes a claim for greatness after devastating UFC win

Chinese fighter could be destined for big things after his stunning win over American Bobby Nash in January

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 February, 2017, 11:02am
UPDATED : Thursday, 09 February, 2017, 10:37pm

There was a hero’s welcome waiting for Li Jingliang when he returned to his Beijing base last week.

Rightly so, too.

The 28-year-old from Xinjiang had travelled halfway across the world to stake his claim in the UFC’s cluttered welterweight division, currently ruled by Tyron Woodley but with any number of challengers to the throne. Li returned from UFC on Fox 23 in Denver, Colorado a winner after recording a second-round KO of American Bobby Nash, a victory that took his own record with the organization to 4-2 (and to 12-4 overall in MMA).

The result resounded loudly across Xinjiang – “It was Chinese New Year during that time. My family, friends, and fans all celebrated my win – it has been so exciting,” says Li – while reverberating across a Chinese MMA market that is crying out for a champion.

The Post tracked Li down as he kicked back with family and friends from Beijing’s China Top Team gym and found the fighter very much in a contemplative mood in terms of where his own career might be headed, and indeed the sport in China.

“I am the best welterweight fighter in China, what I need to do is show what I’m capable of in every fight,” says Li. “I knew a lot of fans and athletes who want to be a pro fighter through Weibo and Wechat – they ask me many questions and are interested in everything I do. MMA grows everyday in China.”

‘Korean Zombie’ Jung Chan-sung KOs Dennis Bermudez on return from UFC hiatus at Fight Night

The UFC is banking on the fact. The rise of Asian fighters has continued over the past few months – alongside Li’s efforts in Denver, last weekend saw the triumphant return of “The Korean Zombie” Chan Sung-jung at UFC Fight Night in Houston (with a first-round KO of Dennis Bermudez ) after three years in the military, while Choi Doo-ho (aka The Korean Superboy) helped produce what many claimed was the fight of 2016, losing on points UFC 206 to Cub Swanson but launching himself as a bone-fide international star.

The UFC schedule is packed with events across 2017 – next up we have UFC 208 in Brooklyn via Fox Sport on Sunday morning (HK time) – and rumours abound that dates for events in Asia are soon to be announced by the organisation.

“Bring it on,” says Li.

“Asian and Chinese fighters need more time to develop our techniques for the sport but one day we will win the UFC title, and this day is not very far away,” he says.

Manny Pacquiao willing to take on Conor McGregor should Floyd Mayweather superfight fail

The build-up to the bout with Nash handed Li a lesson in patience as, first, The Ultimate Fighter winner Chad Laprise, and then Hawaiian Medeiros were lined up – but succumbed to injuries during training. “I wondered whether my opponents were made of paper,” says Li. “I felt irritated and it took me a while to get back in the right mood.”

What helped was that both those opponents are noted for their punching power, and Medeiros for having a chin made of granite. So Li worked away on his own power – as Nash can now testify.

The punch that ended the argument – a loud right – certainly laid the American down and out, and while there were some murmurs from his camp that the ref had waved the bout away too quickly, the reality was Nash was done.

“I landed a few hard punches, and he stepped backward, then I landed a clear right straight on his chin,” Li explains. “He was trembled, and my overhand right hit him so hard, I felt the pain on my right hand. The referee stopped the fight, I won.”

Li had Zhang Tiequan in his corner in Denver and says the spread of the sport across China has been helped by the fact that the likes of Zhang, the UFC’s first Chinese fighter, have made themselves available as coaches to the new generation looking to make their mark on the global stage.

“You need to find a good team, having good coaches and teammates around you,” he says. “You need to believe them, especially in the fight. With their support behind, you fight like a wolf pack, you are not alone. I now have a great future in the new year. More people will soon know who The Leech is.”

Ah yes. The Leech.

That’s the ring name the fighter has chosen and it’s worth letting Li finish this chat off by telling the story behind it, in its entirety.

“I got into a guillotine choke in a fight once, and squeezed my opponent’s neck bit by bit,” he recalls. “My friend shouted out ‘Leech’ from his mouth, saying I was like a leech sucking the blood out of the guy’s neck. It sounds scary, and most fighters’ nickname have that style, but MMA fighters are always very kind and friendly – don’t judge us by our nicknames.”