Slow and steady wins the race. A tale as old as time, it remains hard to replicate in the modern MMA era when it comes to opportunities at the sport’s peak. However, some of today’s competitors are still investing in themselves for the long run rather than allowing for the process to be rushed – take top Chinese prospect Liang Na as a strong recent example.
After working her way through the UFC Academy program within the UFC Shanghai Performance Institute, Liang is very excited to have achieved a brand new UFC contract. “Dragon Girl’s” dream officially comes true when she debuts on April 24 at UFC 261 in Jacksonville, Florida – but it could have come much sooner.
“I’ve thought about being in the UFC by this time,” Liang told MyMMANews. “When I was younger, a few years ago, an opportunity came to sign with the UFC but we turned them down because [my team] were concerned I may have been too young to get into the Octagon.
“When I first got the opportunity to sign with the UFC around 2017-2018, I did not believe I had enough experience or skill to sign with UFC so the team turned down the offer. But since then I’ve always tried to motivate myself about the opportunity to sign with the UFC again.”
For the still relatively young 24-year old Liang, she’ll enter the biggest MMA promotion in the world boasting a 15-4 record with all of her wins ending via finish – nine submissions, five KO/TKOs.
Kicking things off as part of the first fully attended UFC event since the COVID-19 pandemic shut the world down, Liang expressed that any pressure to perform is alleviated by the overwhelming excitement. Despite the slow build she’s taken to get to this point, there was still a moment of eagerness that saw her falter early on. Ultimately, that too helped get her ready for this grand stage.
In December 2017, Liang had what is, for now, her only fight stateside when she made her Bellator debut opposite future champion Juliana Velasquez. The Heilongjiang native wound up on the receiving end of her second career loss as she submitted to an armbar in the second round.
Majorly throughout her career, Liang has competed as a 125-pound flyweight. That was until she decided to make the drop to strawweight in her last two fights and where she’ll reside going forward.
In many of her matchups like the Velasquez outing, Liang admits to not feeling any size advantage – something her coaches thought would be more prevalent at 115-pounds. While only being two fights in at this point, the strength advantage is already felt for the UFC newcomer and thinks it will remain despite the division’s ultra-competitive nature.
Overall, adjustments have been made and lessons were learned since Liang last stepped foot into a cage on U.S. soil – including the assistance of the Shanghai P.I.
“Last time, the experience was kind of a struggle,” Liang said of her lone bout in America. “Not because of the time difference but because of the diet and weight cut. I’m more concerned about my diet and weight cut this time and how much weight I can put on after weigh-ins.
“You always have to improve your weakness. Because I have a very obvious fighting style, I’m such a strong grappler so I’m always trying to improve my weaknesses during training.
“The experience here in the Performance Institute has really helped a lot,” Liang explained. “Here in the P.I., you get to train very scientifically and the teams will help you to strengthen your weaknesses. It’s because of the last two years training in the UFC Academy that made me have enough confidence to sign with the UFC.”
In many cases, physical activities can be great outlets – especially for energetic youth. Liang falling into that category growing up resulted in her parents sending her to a martial arts school where she took up Wushu. Eventually, the Longyun MMA product transitioned to wrestling and started to get serious about becoming a professional athlete.
Though, MMA wasn’t really a venture that was on her radar until being inspired by one of its all-time greats.
“Around 2016, by this time I was a wrestler,” Liang reflected on when she debuted in MMA. “By coincidence, I got to see a highlight reel of Ronda Rousey fighting and I started to have some interest in this sport. I thought wrestling had too many restrictions which don’t allow martial artists to do everything so then I got interested in Mixed Martial Arts.
“When I first started doing MMA, Ronda was the girl I looked up to because we have similar fighting styles and are both strong grapplers. I would say Ronda is my idol.”
Building up her experience slowly on a grand scale, but quickly in terms of activity, Liang already has surpassed her biggest fighting inspiration in number of fights fought. But just like Ronda Rousey, she also has been excitement personified due to her consistent finishing abilities in those 15 victories.
At UFC 261, Liang Na aims to keep her tradition of putting opponents away going. First standing in her way will be Brazil’s Ariane Carnelossi (12-2) who returns for the first time since September 2019.
Realizing Carnelossi’s toughness, Liang notes her foe’s last performance against Angela Hill that resulted in a doctor’s stoppage TKO. Regardless of Carnelossi not going away by her own accord, Liang still believes she’ll manage to find yet another stoppage for win No. 16 as she simply sees herself as the better fighter.
In what she considers a dream come true, “Dragon Girl” made sure she was ready to be here. Similar in their hesitancy to join the promotion too early was the now UFC titleholder of Liang’s division, her fellow countrywoman, Zhang Weili.
The big April 24 event will see both fighters in action and proudly representing the strength of their nation – a task the fighters hailing from China have had no problem doing to great effect in recent years. Because of the growth and evolution of Chinese MMA that we’ve already rapidly seen, Liang Na isn’t making this moment out to be an overly big showcase for all involved… but hey, there’s still a lot of doubters who can still be educated.
“I believe China has already shown its power in the richness of the fighters since Weili became champion,” She said. “But if one day two contenders who are both from China can fight for a title then it will show we’ve reached another level.”