Lipeng Zhang squeaked past Wang Sai courtesy of a split decision to win the welterweight bracket of the first ever The Ultimate Fighter (TUF): "China" series and the 24 year old will step inside the Octagon as a fully fledged UFC fighter for the very first time this August.
Zhang is scheduled to face undefeated Australian Brendan O’Reilly at UFC Fight Night 48: "Bisping vs. Le" and he will have a point to prove after the controversial nature of his win over Sai, which like his next fight, took place at the Cotai Arena in Macau.
With a 7-7-1 record, Zhang has plenty to prove despite having already earned a multi-fight contract through TUF and he has decided to abandon his normal training routine in China in order to ensure he gets the best possible preparation ahead of his August 23rd bout.
Zhang is currently training at Evolve MMA in Singapore alongside the likes of Tyron Woodley, who also has a fight booked in Macau, Leandro Issa and Eddie Ng. He says the setup is much more conducive to training than anything he has experience back home.
"In China I have a Muay Thai coach from Sweden and an MMA coach from the U.S. who I work with but at Evolve MMA there are many Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) black belts and Thai trainers and everything is in the same building, so it is very easy and I don’t have to travel to different places every day like I do in Beijing," he said.
Although record keeping in China is notoriously erratic, Zhang was one of the more experienced fighters to enter the inaugural season of TUF and on August 23rd he is taking on an opponent who may be undefeated, but has far fewer fights.
Zhang believes he is the more well rounded of the two fighters, a point he hopes to prove emphatically when they meet in Macau.
"Brendan hits hard but I think his weakness is his ground game and I have been working with a lot of BJJ black belts in Singapore, so I think that will be my advantage in this fight," he said.
He came very close to submitting Sai and could have ended the fight in the first round, but failed to finish a tight rear naked choke, a mistake he says he will not be repeating.
"I should have won by submission. I could have finished the fight but I know what mistakes I made and next time I will not allow my opponent to escape from that position."
After competing as a welterweight on TUF: "China" he will be dropping down to 155 pounds for this bout and plans to remain in this division for the foreseeable future.
"There were two weight classes on TUF: 'China,' featherweight and welterweight and it is impossible for me to make featherweight, so I had to compete at a bigger weight which was a disadvantage for me. In the future I will be fighting at lightweight," he said.
With the UFC contract comes financial security and Zhang says the purse money will make a big difference, but he doesn't intend to let his newfound wealth change him.
"I grew up on a farm and I have always had a very simple life. I will save the money I make for me and for my family, but it is definitely an advantage to be able to travel to train at a place like Evolve MMA. Before signing with the UFC I never had the opportunity to train anywhere except in China," he said.
As well as the eponymous main event and Woodley's bout with Dong Hyun Kim, "Bisping vs. Le" is also set to feature the long awaited 145-pound final between Ning Guangyou and Yang Jianping and a UFC debut for Taiwan's Rocky Lee.