China's Li-thal force moves step closer to ultimate prize
After pulling off the biggest win of his career in spectacular fashion, China's Li Jingliang is making no secret of his ambition to go all the way to the pinnacle of the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
On Saturday night, Li upset the odds to defeat returning contender Santiago Ponzinibbio of Argentina via a first-round knockout in a welterweight bout on the main card at UFC Fight Island 7 in Abu Dhabi.
The stunning win has helped Li crack the top 15 in the 170-pound division, and now the 32-year-old from Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region has set his sights on following in the footsteps of his female world champion compatriot, Zhang Weili.
"It's by far the toughest victory I've pulled off in my career but I am sure there will be more higher-ranked opponents for me to beat down the line," Li said during an online post-fight interview with Chinese media.
"I think I proved myself tonight for the UFC and Dana White to see that I am here to fight for the championship.
"I am not just a participant. I am going after the belt seriously just like everyone else does."
Hot on the heels of Zhang's successes in the women's ranks, Li's rise to prominence has thrilled fans in China's growing MMA community－and the UFC is taking note.
"Huge for Li. That was a legit finish," UFC president White said of the stoppage win in the post-fight media conference. "This was a big win for him."
After losing his previous bout to American veteran Neil Magny in March last year, Li (18-6) entered Saturday's contest as the underdog. However, he was aggressive from the start against the seventh-ranked Ponzinibbio (27-4) in his first outing on Abu Dhabi's Yas Island, where the UFC has set up a bio-secure bubble with strict COVID-19 countermeasures to keep the action going during the pandemic.
Known as the "Leech" in the Octagon, Li landed a vicious left hook on the chin of Ponzinibbio, who was on a seven-fight winning streak, at 4:25 in the opening round to send his opponent crashing to the canvas.
The victory earned Li a $50,000 bonus and the admiration of the global MMA community.
"Wow underdogs killing today," welterweight Belal Muhammad of the United States wrote on Twitter.
Niko Price, another American fighting in the same division, tweeted: "Size doesn't matter," referring to the Argentine's larger physical frame.
Born to a family of modest means in Tacheng, a rural prefecture in Xinjiang, Li trained in sanda, or Chinese kickboxing, as a teenager. In 2008, he moved to Beijing to train at the same MMA gym with his hero and mentor Zhang Tiequan, who in 2010 became the first Chinese fighter to sign for UFC.
Since his UFC debut in May 2014, Li has amassed 10 wins, seven of those via KO or TKO, to become China's biggest hope in the men's ranks. He is bidding to emulate the success of Zhang Weili, who won China's first UFC world title by wresting the strawweight belt off Brazil's Jessica Andrade in August 2019 in Shenzhen, Guangdong province.
With 12 Chinese fighters currently signed to UFC, Li believes the organization's consistent investment in talent programs in his homeland will yield more champs sooner rather than later.
"China has an abundant supply of talent especially coming from the sanda system," said Li, who attributes his exceptional striking skills to years of training in the Chinese kickboxing program.
"They just need to get more exposure to the MMA culture and system as early as possible and to have more technical exchange with MMA fighters.
"I believe that the Chinese force will reign in many divisions in MMA eventually."
Having spent two months preparing for the fight, first in Las Vegas and then Abu Dhabi, Li is looking forward to a family reunion and treating himself to some Xinjiang home cooking as soon as he finishes a mandatory two-week quarantine after landing in China.
But he doesn't plan to relax for too long, and is already thinking about his next bout.
"It's up to Dana White and his team. Whoever they set me up against, I will be ready," said Li.
"I don't care who it is as long as I can challenge a higher-ranked opponent.