SINGAPORE: After nearly an hour of media interviews on the back of a gruelling training session, mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter Li Jingliang is tired. His answers are monosyllabic and plodding – until the name Conor McGregor is mentioned.
“Of course! Call me now and I will go,” the Xinjiang, China native perked up, exclaiming in Mandarin. “If McGregor dares to fight me, I will do it immediately. At whichever weight he wants.”
Li, 29, was responding to a question from Channel NewsAsia on whether he still stood by what he told Chinese media earlier this year: “If I can choose, I want Conor McGregor to be my opponent, and we can fight in Beijing.”
Trash-talking Irishman McGregor is the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s (UFC) lightweight (70kg) titleholder. Li is a welterweight (77kg) steadily climbing the ranks with a record of 12 wins and four losses.
Li vs McGregor makes little sense on a purely sporting level, but plenty by way of promotional and financial spectacle – pitting arguably the best MMA fighter in the world’s most populous nation against the biggest mainstream draw in all of the sport today.
It is to Li’s credit that he isn’t shy about vocalising his desires – including challenging entertainment wrestling crossover CM Punk on Twitter and using his victory speech to ask for a Harley-Davidson sponsorship.
That Harley is still nowhere to be seen but he impressed UFC president Dana White sufficiently to earn a US$20,000 bonus for knocking the lights out of Bobby Nash in his last fight in January this year. It was Li’s second, similarly dominant outing in a row, and online MMA forums quickly lit up in praise of his iron chin and gutsy, show-stopping style.
“This support gives me big motivation to train and prepare for my next fight and my next opponent,” the man nicknamed “The Leech” said nonchalantly.
On Chinese microblogging platform Weibo, he has over 100,000 followers – not quite celebrity status in a country of 1.4 billion but Li, without missing a beat, said: “After I defeat more great opponents, there will be more followers.”
The inability to speak English “will not be a barrier” to worldwide fame, he insisted. “If I have a chance, I will take the post-fight interview in English.”
MORE EYES ON HIM
That chance comes June 17 when Li takes on Canada’s Jonathan Meunier (eight wins, one loss) in Singapore, to kick off a new four-fight contract inked just last week.
Between Meunier’s kickboxing credentials and Li’s apparent newfound punching power, the bout promises to be a striker’s dream, but the latter is making sure to cover all bases in his training camp out of Beijing’s China Top Team gym.
“Anything can happen in an MMA fight. I like knocking people out, but maybe my next fight I will submit him,” said Li, referring to finishing an opponent in the grappling martial art of Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ). He is a brown belt – one below black – in the discipline.
At 1.91m, Meunier will take a height – and almost certainly body mass – advantage into his clash with the lanky, 1.83m-tall Li, who has pointed out in previous interviews that nearly all his opponents in the UFC have been larger than him.
Most fighters in his place would have dropped a weight class down to the lightweight division – a move Li said he had once considered. “I might still cut to a lower weight one day, but this is not the right time.”
That he would want to stick to the formula is understandable, given how his standout performances and time in the global limelight represent uncharted territory for any Chinese MMA fighter in history.
It is also a long, long way from his hometown in far-north Tacheng county. “It is a very beautiful city that only can be found in paintings (sic). The food is very good, especially the dried meat. There’s good BBQ,” Li described. “My parents used to be farmers, but now they are too old to work in the farm.”
He was barely into his teens when he took up Olympic freestyle wrestling and later, the Chinese combat sport of Sanda. “Maybe I would have played table tennis or badminton, but no one introduced me to those,” said Li. “But fighting is what I love to do.”
Having transitioned straight from Sanda into MMA, he has also known no other occupation. Li is determined his 18-month-old daughter will have the ability to choose a different type of life. “I wish she can study well… but train BJJ too,” he laughed.
There is little that lies beyond the girl if she possesses the same dedicated, single-minded desire to improve that fuels her father.
At the start of his now decade-long professional MMA career, Li embraced a slogan of “想点新的” – Mandarin words once emblazoned on his fight kit but now committed to heart and mind.
“It means to always think of something new – think of new fighting techniques, and hopefully this way more people will have their eyes on me.”