EXCLUSIVE: Li Jingliang relishing spotlight against Khamzat Chimaev at UFC 267

The Underground
li jingliang
Mar 7, 2020; Las Vegas, Nevada, USA; Neil
Magny (red gloves) fights Li Jingliang (blue gloves) during UFC 248 at T-Mobile Arena. Mandatory Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Li Jingliang has had what could be considered an underappreciated run in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. He has won 10 of 14 fights in the Octagon and scored finishes in eight of them. Yet, he is not marketed as the promotion’s top male star out of China. Maybe, that could change with a win over the new UFC golden child Khamzat Chimaev at UFC 267.

In January, “The Leech” surprised many when he blasted through a former top-10 talent in Santiago Ponzinnibio in 35 seconds at UFC on ABC 1. He was a sizable better underdog to the Argentinian, despite Ponzinibbio returning to the Octagon after two and half years away.

Li Jingliang talks UFC’s missed marketing push

However, the betting line may have shown two narratives about that fight. First, that ring rust isn’t taken seriously by Las Vegas oddsmakers. Second, the oddsmakers may not have been taking Li, 33, serious enough either. Looking back on the fight, he sees his win as proof that when an opportunity is there the righteous go out and take it. As well as the fact that maybe some folks are still sleeping on talent from the middle kingdom.

li jingliang
Aug 31, 2019; Shenzhen, China; Li Jingliang (red gloves) defeats Elizeu Dos Santos (blue gloves) during UFC Fight Night at Shenzhen Universiade Sports Centre. Mandatory Credit: David G. McIntyre-USA TODAY Sports

“Opportunity belongs to those who are ready to capture it,” Li told MixedMartialArts.com. “It’s not about how long [of a break] you take. You gotta be ready for fights … I think people underestimate the power of Chinese fighters to some extent, as well as our hearts to become champions.”

The success of Chinese fighters in the UFC has been a mixed bag so far. However, there is no doubt that former women’s strawweight champion Zhang Weili has stood head and shoulders above many of her native contemporaries because of her rapid success in the MMA world leader. It’s the sort of success that has even overshadowed the accomplishments that Li has had during his seven-year stint in the promotion. Yet, the man from Xinjiang understands it and welcomes the chance to continue to climb the ladder of relevancy in the UFC’s welterweight division.

“She’s the [former] champion, so she deserves it. Some fans are not familiar with me that much, and it’s okay. I will prove myself step-by-step,” said Li.

The UFC has made no secret about their interests in mining the revenue from the one and half million people in China. Yet, the promotion has not tried to market Li in his homeland as a superstar the nation can rally around, like Zhang, and he believes it’s been a missed opportunity by the organization.

“Probably yes,” Li said when asked if the UFC should market him more at home. “I’m currently the highest-ranked Chinese male fighter, and I have the most fights in the Octagon. I am the man they seek when promoting the sport.”

That lack of marketing behind Li is also why he’s thrilled to be a late addition to the promotion’s UFC 4 video game. He sees the popular Playstation and Xbox games as another chance to grow his name globally.

“It’s great marketing for me. My Chinese fans can use me as a character in the game, and my foreign fans can feel the strength of China-Power,” he said.

Jingliang sees striking trouble for a ‘great opponent’ in Chimaev at UFC 267

A fighter that has recently been showered by love and the promotion’s marketing might is Chimaev. The unbeaten Chechen had a breakout year in 2020. Finishing all three of his fights in less than two rounds. If not for a long bout with COVID-19, the 27-year-old was in line to face third-ranked welterweight Leon Edwards. Instead, he will get the man at 12 in Li. An impressive stroke of fortune despite only having one bout at 170-pounds in the UFC.

It’s enough for any fighter who has been around as long as Li to be frustrated over. However, the heavy-hitting talent sees this matchup just like the one against Ponzinibbio. A great opportunity that could expose him to even more fans, and push him even further up that relevancy ladder.

“It doesn’t bother me,” Li said about the push Chimaev has received. “He has the ability to bring great matches to the fans. As I said, the opportunity is for those who are ready for it … It doesn’t matter who the opponent is. Firstly, I always respect my opponents. And I’m fortunate to have such a great opponent. If I win this one, people will view me from different angles.” 

Although his upcoming opponent has far less experience, Li has respect for what “Borz” will bring to the Octagon in October. He admits Chimaev is probably the best grappler he has faced yet, and, he also admits if he can stuff his opponent’s takedowns, then Chimaev could have a long night on the feet dealing with him and his power.

“I think his striking is not precise enough. However, you only know when the fight is over,” Li said.

UFC 267 takes place on October 30, at the Etihad Arena on Yas Island, in Abu Dhabi. The event’s main card pay-per-view will air exclusively on ESPN+ for a price of US $69.99.

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