Chinese New Year is historically a time for family. It’s a week of celebrations, gatherings, and feasts, when migrants return home to spend the holidays with their relatives and loved ones.
For Beijing-based #LiJingliang, the Spring Festival usually involves a trip west, to visit his parents in Xinjiang, some 2,000 miles away from #ChinaTopTeam headquarters. But this year, he’s wrapping up an 18-pound weight cut, in Denver, Colorado, just days before his sixth UFC appearance.
“It’s the first time during Chinese New year I’ve had a fight,” comments Li, who flew to Denver three weeks prior to the bout, along with his coach Ruy Menezes, and mentor Zhang Tiequan, the first Chinese athlete to compete inside the Octagon. “This fight is really important to me.”
Looking for his first back-to-back wins in the UFC, Li never intended to leave China during the new year, or 春节. If not for a series of unfortunate events, Li may have already racked up his fourth victory inside the Octagon; however, #USADA threw a curveball his way during the dog days of summer, only to clear him a week later after it was determined that he was not at fault for trace amounts of Clenbuterol, which can be found in contaminated meat in China.
Two months later, scheduled opponent Chad Laprise was forced from their bout at UFC 206 due to injury. The fight was scrapped, but throughout a tumultuous six months, Li never stopped training.
“Li is too professional. He’s training hard everyday … so I think it’s no problem for us,” offers Menezes, a Carlson Gracie black belt who first started training Li long before the UFC came calling. “He feels so good -- his cardio -- he has a great conditioning … he’s ready.”
Now set to return to action for the first time since a first round KO of Anton Zafir at The Ultimate Fighter 23 Finale, Li is determined to become the first Chinese fighter to record consecutive wins inside the Octagon. Always a student of mixed martial arts, Li arrived in Denver on January 3 to acclimate to the time difference and the altitude of the “Mile-High City.”
The early arrival also allowed Li the opportunity to pick up some new skills in time for his UFC Denver matchup against debutante Bobby Nash, courtesy of striking coach #DuaneLudwig, who has spent the last few weeks schooling “The Leech” in the art of Bang Muay Thai.
“He came out a bit early and showed up one day, and just asked to train,” states Ludwig. “He is by far the fastest 170 pounder that I have ever worked with … he picks up extremely fast. He’s a good student of the game. He’s a martial artist, he’s not just a regular tough guy fighter.”
With Ludwig polishing Li’s striking attack, head coach Menezes is certain that his star pupil will deliver his finest performance at the UFC on FOX 23 event. Although, he’s not expecting Li to suddenly transform stylistically after just three weeks with Ludwig.
Menezes also believes that, despite Li’s first round knockout win last July, he made some mistakes, partially attributed to the setup of their previous training camp, in which Li prepared in Las Vegas, while Menezes remained in Beijing until fight week.
“This time I follow his camp 100-percent ... last time he went to Las Vegas ... I can’t make the strategy. So he made some mistakes last fight. He won, but he did some mistakes, especially in the first two minutes,” claims Menezes. “He’s learned some footwork … now I think he’s much better … he’s more confident in his standup game.”
Skills refined and strategy in place, all that’s left for Li to do is make weight and perform inside the Octagon. And while his family remains on the Chinese mainland, lighting endless fireworks, making dumplings, and consuming tables full of food, Li is more than 6,000 miles away.
Fortunately, members of the local Chinese diasporic community in Denver have showered Li, Menezes, and Zhang with small gifts, as is customary, in an effort to alleviate any last-minute homesickness. Menezes is adamant that the team remains focused on the fight, as are their fans across the Pacific Ocean, adding “China will stop to see Li fight.”
UFC Denver Fight Card:
- Valentina Shevchenko vs. Julianna Pena
- Donald Cerrone vs. Jorge Masvidal
- Andrei Arlovski vs. Francis Ngannou
- Alex Caceres vs. Jason Knight
- Nate Marquardt vs. Sam Alvey
- Raphael Assunção vs. Aljamain Sterling
- Li Jingliang vs. Bobby Nash
- Luis Henrique da Silva vs. Jordan Johnson
- Eric Spicely vs. Alessio Di Chirico
- Jason Gonzalez vs. J.C. Cottrell
- Marcos Rogério de Lima vs. Jeremy Kimball
- Alexandre Pantoja vs. Eric Shelton