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Santiago Ponzinibbio embraces important role as UFC makes first trip to Argentina

Santiago Ponzinibbio
Santiago Ponzinibbio faces Neil Magny in the main event of UFC Argentina.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

UFC Argentina headliner Santiago Ponzinibbio understands what his upcoming fight represents for the future of MMA in his native country.

“Gente Boa” left Buenos Aires to train in Brazil in 2010, and won 11 of 12 fights before joining the second season of The Ultimate Fighter Brazil three years later. The first non-Brazilian to be part of the Brazilian version of the reality show, Ponzinibbio defeated every single one of his opponents en route to the welterweight final, pocketing bonuses for the best knockout and best fight of the season, however an arm injury forced him out of the final.

Seen by many as an uncrowned winner after Leonardo Santos — who he beat in the semifinal — won the TUF Brazil 2 welterweight final, Ponzinibbio suffered a setback in his UFC debut when he lost a decision to Ryan LaFlare. Another defeat came two years later, when Lorenz Larkin snapped his two-fight winning streak.

From that moment on, everything changed for the Argentine.

Now on a roll in the welterweight division, Ponzinibbio faces Neil Magny in the main event of UFC Argentina on Nov. 17 hunting for his seventh straight victory, and he feels that a win in his return to Buenos Aires will solidify him as a star in his home country and boost the popularity of the sport in Argentina.

Ponzinibbio's mission is a tough one, though, as the UFC's first trip to Argentina will have to battle for attention in the midst of a historic soccer match between Buenos Aires clubs River Plate and Boca Juniors, both of which are preparing for the second Copa Libertadores final on Nov. 24 after the first game on Nov. 10.

“MMA has grown a lot, it’s incredible,” Ponzinibbio told MMA Fighting. “People recognize me in the streets, they know about the sport, understand about fighting. It’s truly amazing. MMA is the fastest growing sport and it’s happening the same in Argentina. It’s amazing how much it has grown in such a short period of time, and this event will be crucial to make the sport ever stronger.”

The UFC hasn’t had a good television deal in Argentina for a few years. According to Ponzinibbio, his Octagon debut against LaFlare aired on network television in Argentina, but the deal ended shortly after. Years later, on May 2017, the UFC announced a deal with FOX Sports Latin America to air all fights in different channels and platforms.

Two months later, Ponzinibbio headlined a UFC card for the first time, finishing Gunnar Nelson in just 82 seconds in Scotland.

“Many people followed the sport on newspapers, sports websites, and radio shows,” Ponzinibbio said, “but we know that the sport changes when we are on television. Everything changes, it grows a lot more, and that’s what happened with my last fight. I was on a roll, ranked among the best, and that helped me promote myself a lot better.

”They saw that there was an Argentine among the best. People love watching fights, but nobody wants to see an American fighting, they wanted to see an Argentine among the best in the world, and that helped the evolution of the sport.”

Having high-level athletes who are countrymen help turn a casual fan into a hardcore fan. Conor McGregor has done that for Ireland, for example, and Ponzinibbio believes he can lead his country to a brighter MMA future.

“I’m sure that we will have plenty of more athletes from Argentina because we have great talents there,” Ponzinibbio said. “Even though we’re not a country that injects money in sports — the only money in Argentina that goes to sports go to soccer — we still have great talents with heart and determination.

“Of course, it’s an process of evolution that will take some time, but I still believe that Argentina will export many great athletes to MMA.”

There will be other Argentines in action at the Parque Roca Arena on Nov. 17, with Guido Cannetti taking on Marlon Vera and Laureano Staropoli is making his Octagon debut against Hector Aldana. However, the weight on Ponzinibbio’s shoulder to deliver and carry the country in the UFC is much heavier.

He promises not to disappoint.

“I’m well trained, I’m ready to win this fight,” Ponzinibbio said. “I will knock him out. I will put my hands on him. I have everything to beat him. If he gets back up, I will beat him for 25 minutes. I’m ready to win this fight and show the world I’m ready for the world title.

“I beat the No. 8 in the world in 82 seconds. I won six fights in a row. I just need my opportunity. Magny is next, an excellent athlete, and I will beat him to show the world I’m prepared to become the world champion.”

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