Li JingLiang 李景亮 debuts in the UFC on May 24, 2014 in Las Vegas. The stand out Chinese grappler has excelled in Asia, and now tests deep international waters.
“The Leech”, as he’s known for sticking to opponents just like the fearsome bloodsucker, has worked his way up to a brown belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, a feat not yet common among Chinese athletes. He excelled in his MMA career from the early days in Art of War, where the Chinese audience got to witness triangles and slams for the first time. Li had excelled in wrestling to begin with so being off his feet in the MMA game was not foreign to him. And it was a huge advantage.
The Leech signed with Legend FC in Hong Kong where three wins in a row earned him a shot at the Welterweight Championship in early 2012. While Li had dominated previous opponents, many saw the fight with international prospect Bae Myoung-Ho far more one-sided than it turned out to be. Li showcased a very different game and dogged the Korean with takedowns and pressure like nothing ever seen before.
The scorecards were not in his favor that night, but a year later he was given a chance at the vacant title, and an even more well-prepared Leech showed up to choke the belt definitively in his corner. Post-Legend FC, Li was one of the highest-demand fighters in China. He bided his time through the UFC’s introduction to China in the form of TUF, and his offer finally rolled in.
As only the second fighter to directly sign to the UFC after Zhang TieQuan, it must also be noted that both fighters come from China Top Team, one of the first non-government sponsored sports teams aiming for world competition. Li will face David Michaud in his debut, a TUF 16 cast member who was eliminated in the opening round. Michaud has a well-rounded record of finishes, so a competitive fight should be expected from both men making their UFC debut.
MMA-in-ASIA interviewed Li prior to his fight about MMA in China, his debut, and how his US training differs from home. Much gratitude goes to David Stern for not only facilitating the translation of the interview, but for supporting Li during the US leg of of his camp.
MMA in ASIA: Where have you been training for this fight? Who are your sparring partners?
Li: I started this training camp in Beijing. I trained at China Top Team where Wu Hao Tian, Song Ke Nan, and Zhang TieQuan were all helping me prepare. I worked on my strength and conditioning with China’s number one fitness instructor, Ruben Payan at IHP China, and Vince Soberano was helping me with my Muay Thai at his gym called Black Tiger MMA. Half way through my camp I left to continue my training in Las Vegas where I have been working with my boxing Guru (Jimmy Gifford) and Ricky Lundell who is a living legend in wrestling. Todd Prace and Zhang Tiequan are here to help me with sparring.
MMA in ASIA: What do you think about the US? How is training different from back home?
Li: The main difference is just the style of coaching. I also have great coaches back home, but the coaches that I’m working with here are very special. I’m very lucky that they are available to work with me and very grateful that they are willing to spend so much time on me.
MMA in ASIA: How has the level of BJJ increased in China?
Li: It is growing a lot and very fast. When we opened China Top Team we were pretty much the first school training BJJ for MMA in China, now there are schools all over the big cities.
MMA in ASIA: How do people perceive UFC in China?
Li: Those who know about it think it’s great. MMA is also growing so fast in China, UFC is the best MMA promotion so of course people like it. I also think there will be a lot of Chinese fighters in the UFC in the future.
MMA in ASIA: In Legend, you had a cocky attitude outside of the ring that a lot of people liked. Are you the same person, or have you changed or matured in any way?
Li: I don’t think I was ever cocky. I am confident in my abilities, my achievements, and my team. As a fighter you have to have confidence.
MMA in ASIA: What is your walk out song and why?
Li: I am walking out to the same song that Zhang Tiequan does which is a Mongolian song. This song carries a lot of meaning to me not only because Tiequan is a fighter that I really look up to, but also because when I hear this song I feel as though I am walking out there alongside all my teammates and brothers and they are fighting with me.
MMA in ASIA: What are your feelings about being in the UFC, only the second Chinese fighter directly signed?
Li: I feel like it’s only the beginning for me. Now that I’m here I feel like the real work starts. I need to buckle down and keep getting better to show everyone that I’m here to stay. I want the fans to know who I am and that there are great fighters in China coming from China Top team. But I know I still have so much work to do so that I can one day win that UFC belt.
MMA in ASIA: Who are the fighters you look up to?
Li: Bruce Lee, does he count? I look up to a lot of the trailblazers in China like Bao Li Gao and Zhang Tiequan. For me those guys are more than just great fighters because they have done so much for the growth of the sport in China and to teach and support younger athletes.
MMA in ASIA: Have you studied your opponent, and what are your strengths versus his?
Li: I’ve watched his fights. Basically I think I’m more well-rounded than he is.
MMA in ASIA: What areas have you improved since your last fight? Will the layoff be a problem?
Li: You’ll see in the fight where I’ve improved. I don’t want to give up all the secrets now, but I will tell you that I’ve been working hard with the best trainers in both China and the US so I’m very confident.
MMA in ASIA: How do you think fighting in the cage, in front of so many people, will feel? Do you feel pressure to represent China, or do you feel like you are leading the way?
Li: I don’t have any extra pressure for that. I’m excited to face the best in the world, but I also think I’m one of the best in the world, so right now it’s just excitement, not really pressure. Of course I want to see other Chinese fighters in the UFC because I believe there are a lot of talented Chinese fighters out there, but I don’t need to open the door for them because I feel like Zhang Tiequan already did that by being the first Chinese fighter to make it to the UFC.
MMA in ASIA: Are there other Chinese fighters who should be in UFC?
Li: There are so many good Chinese fighters. The UFC just signed a few so I am excited to see them all fight and I will root for all of them.
MMA in ASIA: Has your diet changed in the US? What kind of foods are you eating, and what do you enjoy?
Li: I’m eating clean and healthy we’re cooking at home, but I don’t really want to talk about food until after my fight.
MMA in ASIA: Is being in a new country distracting?
Li: A little bit, also language is a problem, but I am really enjoying my time here in Las Vegas which is a great city. Also, David (Stern) put together a really great camp here for me so between him, Zhang Tiequan and my coaches they are making sure that I have everything I need.
MMA in ASIA: I know your family supports you, how do they feel about your chance? Are many Chinese excited about your debut? Do you have a lot of fans waiting?
Li: My family is doing the best possible thing. They are trusting in me and trying not to add any pressure. I couldn’t ask for more. I know they are worried about my health and don’t want me to get hurt, but they being very supportive. My fans and friends are all sending me their best wishes and motivating me. I want to thank them for that and I will definitely do my best to put on an exciting fight with an even better finish so that I can gain some new fans and friends both in China and also in the rest of the world. Also I thank people like you for supporting me; I won’t let you down!