China's Li Jingliang fights for family, team inside UFC octagon
Updated 21:47, 27-Nov-2018
Matthew A. Watson
Standing on the street, you’d have no idea that inside one of the many unassuming highrises in northeast Beijing, one of China's top MMA fighters is training for a fight that will be viewed around the world. But inside of China Top Team's fifth-floor gym, there's no mistaking the 6-foot Li "The Leech" Jingliang could be seen in a crowd of 19 men and women sharpening their takedown defense on the mat. 
Li has the look of a fighter: a jaw that's absorbed thousands of jabs and a prominent cauliflower ear that he wears with pride.
"These are the glory of a fighter," Li said, pointing to his ears, while taking a break from a six-hour day of training. The 30-year-old is gearing up for a welterweight bout at UFC Fight Night 141 in Beijing on November 24 against David "Sagat" Zawada (16-4), who took the fight on short notice after Elizeu Zaleski Dos Santos withdrew due to injury. It marks the UFC's second visit to China after a sold-out Fight Night 122 in Shanghai last November, during which Li notched a first-round TKO of Zak Ottaw in the co-main event, earning himself a 50,000-U.S.-dollar bonus for his dominant performance. 
Li Jingliang goes through a boxing drill. /CGTN Photo

Li Jingliang goes through a boxing drill. /CGTN Photo

Road to glory
Despite his current success in the octagon, Li told CGTN Digital he wasn't always sold on the idea of being a fighter. 
“There was an amateur sport school in my city, Tacheng. … They gave me an offer because they thought I could be a good wrestler,” said Li, who grew up in northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. “I took the offer back home and my parents asked me if I would like to be an athlete. Since I had no concept of the sport, I said 'No'."
Li, who said he would be a farmer if he weren't a fighter, eventually joined the school at the urging of his parents. Following the 2008 Beijing Olympics, he moved to the capital city with his coach and soon began his professional career. In 2013, he became welterweight champion of the Legend Fighting Championship, and won in his UFC debut a year later – he hasn't looked back since, racking up a 15-5 record with five knockouts, five submissions and two first-round finishes. 
Li Jingliang spars with a teammate during boxing training. /CGTN Photo

Li Jingliang spars with a teammate during boxing training. /CGTN Photo

Fighting for family
While Khabib Nurmagomedov and Conor McGregor raked in seven-figure paydays for their lightweight championship fight in October, not all fighters experience the same financial windfall. Li said that his first UFC contract only netted him 8,000 U.S. dollars per fight. After solid showings around the world, his second, and current, contract rewards him with roughly 10 times that amount when he steps inside the octagon – much better, but still not top dollar. 
"It's not a big deal. If I work hard, I can earn more. I have the dream of being the best of the best," said Li, who is the sole breadwinner for his wife and child as well as his parents. 
"Other organizations have invited me to join and I think I could easily be a champion ... and get better payments. But my dream is to be the best fighter in the world, so the UFC is the only choice for me; it's the best of the best." 
Li said his desire to provide for his family motivates him to train harder, knowing that his sweat equity will bring a return. "You have to work for everything ... I transfer the pressure and use it as a way to strengthen my training."
Li Jingliang speaks to CGTN Digital. /CGTN Photo

Li Jingliang speaks to CGTN Digital. /CGTN Photo

The reluctant face of Chinese MMA
Known for his knockout power, Li enters the octagon on Saturday for the first time since June, when he battered Daiche Abe to win by unanimous decision at UFC Fight Night 132 in Singapore. It was preceded by a loss to Jake Matthews that ended his four-fight win streak, three of which came by KO. 
Despite being the most well-known UFC fighter from China, Li refuses to call himself the "face" of Chinese MMA, as many have. "There are roughly 10 fighters from China in the UFC. I'm just part of the first generation and I'm the only one still around, so a lot of people know me," Li said. "China's MMA is just starting to develop. In a few years, more and more young fighters will go beyond me ... I'm just a part of Chinese MMA.” 
Li is carrying that team mentality into his upcoming fight. Shrugging off the pressure of fighting on home soil in front of thousands of Chinese fans, Li is solely focused on one thing: "The only challenge I face inside the octagon is how to smash the opponent and win,” Li said, stepping into the hazy Beijing night for dinner between jiu-jitsu and boxing sessions. 
“All I want is to win and bring the success back to the gym and share my success with my teammates. That's all I want.”