It has been an interesting year for Jingliang Li. He saw one UFC bout fall through because an opponent tested positive for Covid-19 and was subsequently offered a fight at late notice because another fighter had to pull out after exhibiting symptoms of the disease.

That fight is set for this Saturday in Abu Dhabi when Jingliang will face Santiago Ponzinibbio at UFC Fight Island 7. Covid-19 has clearly had a direct affect on him but the 32 year old shrugs it off,

“Covid doesn’t affect me and my life too much. I mean Covid is well controlled in China now, so we can go back to the gym and train as usual. My life is very simple, basically just training and staying at home to accompany my family. So traveling to the US was harder than before due to the pandemic, but my team helped me to overcome those difficulties. The pandemic is an issue for the people all around the world, so we are all affected and changed by it. We all need to be more cautious on being healthy.”

Fight life

His bout at UFC 256 in Las Vegas was nixed after Dwight Grant tested positive for Covid-19 and he was not on the UFC Fight Island  card until Muslim Salikhov started showing symptoms and withdrew. But Jingliang says this is just part and parcel of life as a professional mixed martial artist,

“As a professional athlete, I have to know how to adjust myself to deal with those unexpected changes. And this is not the first time those things have happened to me. Such as changing opponent before fight. I think I am used to this.”

He has been in the US preparing for this fight alongside some familiar faces,

“My training camp in the US for this fight is mainly at Urijah Faber’s gym in Sacramento California. There are also few other Chinese UFC fighters like Song Yadong, Su Mudaerji, I train together with them and of course, with those high-caliber fighters of Urijah’s team too.”

But Jingliang says that the days where fighters couldn’t get high calibre training in China are long gone,

“I train at China Top Team in Beijing. I have my own coach team there, and training partners like Zhang Tiequan, the first Chinese UFC fighter, Yan Xiaonan, the #3 contender of UFC strawweight, and some other top Chinese MMA fighters.”

Veteran opponent

He is going up against an opponent who has been out of action for two years. But Ponzinibbio is a veteran of 11 UFC fights so Jingliang knows what to expect,

“He is a very dangerous guy for sure. A veteran in this division, has a lot of experience, used to be a top 15 fighter. But I think his stamina may be a problem for him. And his stance and his guard is quite open, especially his front hand is low. I think there are some holes.”

This makes Ponzinibbio something of a mystery because Jingliang believes his opponent’s style will have changed slightly in the two years he has been away,

“Each UFC fight is difficult. I don’t think he will be a totally different type of fighter than who he was two years ago. But as I said, he is good. So I am very happy to fight him and will grab this opportunity to prove myself. What I am focusing on now is myself, my game plan. I will dominate this fight and lead it to be the way I want. Anyway, I am expecting a very exciting fight between us.”

Learning curve

Jingliang has been on the UFC roster since 2014. He has learned a lot during this period and still has his sights set on winning the welterweight belt,

“I have changed a lot since I started fighting in the UFC and become more mature than before. The journey is so tough. In the UFC, you have to compete with the best fighters from all around the world. No matter win or lose, I learned a lot from each of my fights. But my goal has never changed, the championship belt, just like everyone in this game.”

Weili Zhang is the reigning UFC strawweight champion and Jingliang says her success has been an inspiration for Chinese fighters,

“Absolutely a huge inspiration for us. She proved that Chinese MMA fighters can win the UFC title. I think many Chinese fighters were inspired by her achievement and set their goal as to be a champion. More Chinese people will follow and love MMA because Weili also. I believe Weil’s belt is just a start, we will have more champions from China.”

After fighting just once in 2020 he is hoping to be busier this year. Jingliang also raises the intriguing prospect of a drop down to lightweight,

“I hope I can fight at least two more times this year after this fight. Maybe also try to cut down to 155lbs.”