The UFC has invested heavily in the Chinese market. A local season of flagship reality show The Ultimate Fighter already in the books, and events in Macau are a regular fixture on the calendar. Even a broadcast deal was recently penned with the country’s leading digital sports platform, PPTV.
Chinese fighters are slowly but surely starting to make their mark in the Octagon. Leading the way is welterweight Jingliang Li, who is set to compete for the promotion for a third time when he takes on Roger Zapata at UFC Fight Night Manila next month.
Li is 1-1 in a UFC career which is in danger of becoming synonymous with judging controversy. He won a split decision over David Michaud on his promotional debut but then found himself on the wrong end of the same outcome when he faced Nordine Taleb second time out.
That fight took place in Taleb’s native Canada and Li feels that was a decisive factor in favor of his opponent.
“It was a tough fight. I thought I won because I was more aggressive and chasing my opponent many times but he is the hometown fighter so the Canadian audience and the energy was with him.”
After competing in Las Vegas and Halifax, next up for Li is a bout in Manila. It’s less than a five hour flight from his native Beijing, which he hopes will make for a much less stressful experience than having to travel halfway across the world to fight.
“There is big difference in time, 12 hours, and even after a month in USA I was still off sync but the hardest part for me is that I do not understand any English so I feel lost and limited. I have to rely on other people and sometimes it makes me feel helpless not knowing what the signs are, not knowing where to go to get things.”
It’s not just linguistic differences which the Chinese welterweight struggles to get to grips with, he also finds the dietary habits of Westerners a little bemusing.
“The food is different and the taste is not something I am used to. The portions in USA and Canada are also very big. In China I am use to eating lots of cooked vegetables and I see why Americans are so big now!”
Li’s official record is listed as 9-3 but like most Chinese mixed martial artists, he has a few wins missing and says his actual tally is 15-3. He was the welterweight champion of Legend FC and was sorry to see the Hong Kong based promotion cease operations in 2013.
“I was extremely disappointed because I thought they did a good job in organizing the fights and match making. I enjoyed going to Hong Kong and also I was running out of opponents in China to fight and Legend FC was getting me more exposure to international fighters and also international recognition.”
A few month’s later, Li signed with the UFC but Legend FC’s fights all took place within a ring meaning that fighting inside the Octagon was a relatively unfamiliar experience for him and he has been forced to alter his style and strategy slightly as a result.
“I fought once in Russia in a cage before the UFC and it makes a big difference because there are many techniques to use when pushing an opponent against the cage whereas with ropes you are always afraid of falling out of ring. Also in a cage I do not have to worry about where my position is for throwing and takedowns but in ring fighting there is a big difference between being in the corner and being in the centre.”
The movie industry has helped to heavily associate China with Kung Fu and fight fans might expect mixed martial artists from the region to be more comfortable striking than on the ground. Still, Li says he comes from a diverse background of styles.
“My background is Sanda and freestyle wrestling. I am an ethnic Mongolian and we like to take part in combat sports especially wrestling, it is part of our culture and daily life along with riding horses and shooting arrows.”
Li has been based at some of the most renowned camps in China alongside many of the best MMA fighters the country has ever produced.
“In 2006 I began training with Sanda champion Bao Li Gao. In 2008 I went to Xian Sports Institute to continue with my Sanda and MMA and later I moved to Beijing to train in MMA with Zhang Tiequan.”
The global perception might be that Chinese MMA is still in its infancy but there are coaches and fighters there with plenty of experience. This includes Gao, who retired from professional competition with a 5-0 record, and Tiequan, who is 15-4 and best known for his exploits competing for the WEC and UFC.
While he might have access to high caliber training, however, one handicap for Lim is that China’s draconian censorship laws prevent him from conducting thorough research on future opponents. He admits to not knowing too much about Zapata.
“I saw two of his fight and only know he is left handed. I am still looking for more details on him but Youtube is blocked in China so there many videos we cannot access.”
When Li enters the Octagon to face Zapata it will be almost a year to the day since he made his UFC debut and ‘The Leech’ says his life has changed beyond all recognition during this period.
“In China many people watch UFC and I have a larger fan base now that I am a UFC fighter.”
It is not just Li’s personal profile that has been raised in recent years. The UFC’s assault on the Chinese market has helped to increase interest and participation in MMA and the county’s leading welterweight has seen the sport go from strength to strength.
“There are more and more people now training in MMA and many new clubs opening with MMA coaches. CCTV, which is China's biggest TV station and is owned by the government, even has an MMA show which many of my students fight in.”
The results might not always be made available in the English language but according to Li, there are numerous MMA shows in China with participants ranging from relative beginners to potential future UFC stars.
“There are MMA events that are four days long with over 100 fighters fighting. Before only top fighters from China were recruited to fight in MMA events but now with more events and more fighters there are many more people involved.”
There are a handful of Chinese fighters on the UFC roster, many of whom graduated from TUF, but Li is one of the few to have shown he can hold his own against Western opposition. After going the distance twice he will be hoping to win in more emphatic style when he faces Zapata in Manila next month.
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