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Could Li Jingliang be a Chinese MMA superstar?
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Could Li Jingliang be a Chinese MMA superstar?

Jingliang Li celebrates after a UFC victory

Asian fighters generally have a tough time transitioning to the UFC. Besides dealing with the massive step up in competition, they’re generally shorter and don’t cut as much weight. But while countries like Japan and South Korea have started producing contender-status UFC fighters, China has noticeably lagged behind. Their fighters are relegated to barely-prelim status with the exception of events targeted at Asian fans, at which point the time difference turns off all but the most dedicated fans.

Li “The Leech” Jingliang (13-4) may be the cure.

Constructed to fight

Six feet tall and long, Jingliang has a good starting build for a welterweight. He doesn’t have to cut too much weight, but he’s still muscular enough that he can hold his own in clinches and grappling exchanges. He’s got great power in his hands but it’s not the “winging” power you see in many aggressive Asian fighters where they’ll swing their power hand with reckless abandon. Rather, Jingliang can shake opponents to their heels with compact hooks as well as long haymakers. He doesn’t produce one-hit knockouts with his legs, but he can shred opponents’ ribs and thighs to ribbons with sharp kicks.

But none of that matters if he can’t put together. Luckily, he can.

Li Jingliang destroys Frank Camacho at UFC Fight Night 111 in Singapore
Li Jingliang tags Frank Camacho at UFC Fight Night 111

Winning ways

The UFC is the ultimate proving ground of MMA; if you can win there, you can win anywhere. But to have a career in the UFC, a fighter has to show they can win consistently. Because of the low exposure of Chinese fighters, fans may be surprised to know that Jingliang is 5-2 in the UFC. Even those two losses have to be contextualized.

Against Nordine Taleb, Jingliang repeatedly bloodied the Frenchman on the feet and fought excellently off his back when grounded. Many sites and commentators felt that Jingliang’s activity from his guard outweighed Taleb’s time on top and gave him the nod, but the judges disagreed. Jingliang was beating the hell out of Keita Nakamura before the Japanese veteran got a last-minute submission. A fair loss, but a fluke nonetheless.

What we’re looking at is a fighter who could conceivably be 7-0 in the UFC. That’s enough to keep a job, but why should Jingliang be a star?

Fan-friendly and finish-oriented

Jingliang has won four fights and lost three fights by decision, but don’t let that fool you; “The Leech” is a finisher. With three wins by strikes in seven UFC fights, it’d be tempting to think of Jingliang as a lifelong knockout artist. But here’s the crazy thing: he was China’s premier submission artist for a long time.

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Guillotine chokes are notoriously difficult to land for a variety of reasons. They require incredible strength and they completely drain the fighter’s arm. If they do choose to give up on it to conserve strength, they are almost always left on their back. Yet Jingliang owns four of them. But similar to Fabricio Werdum or Tyron Woodley, Jingliang now uses his grappling base for defense so that he can strike with greater abandon.

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Even when he can’t finish his opponents, it’s by a narrow margin. Frank Camacho made it to the final bell, but from the second round onward he was a punching bag for Li. If Jingliang hadn’t taken his foot off the gas in the final, Camacho would have been less “gracious opponent” and more “human-shaped bag of crushed organs and bones”.

Jingliang is durable as well; his aggression on the feet leaves him open to counters against disciplined fighters; Nakamura and Nash both caught him when he was sloppy retracting his right hand. Yet Jingliang recovers quickly and his fantastic ground game lets him get back to the feet and throw down again.

It’s going to be difficult to convince mainstream US fans to wake up early enough to watch the entire main card since it starts at 7 am ET. Chances are that most of them will wake up for the main event, but if I might I suggest that people wake up just a bit earlier? Because the co-main event will feature the first star-caliber fighter from the most populous nation in the highest position he’s ever been on a card.

And besides, where there’s a leech there’s blood. Who doesn’t love that?

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