Santiago Ponzinibbio has broken new ground for the UFC in South America, but he wasn’t the first Argentine to do so.
Ponzinibbio might be the most decorated non-Brazilian fighter to hail from the south side of the continent — his six-fight winning streak helped the UFC make its first venture into Argentina with a Fight Night card on Nov. 17 in Buenos Aires, at which “Gente Boa” will face Neil Magny in the main event. A win for Ponzinibbio on Saturday night’s event at Parque Roca Arena likely changes mixed martial arts in Argentina forever, boosting the popularity of both the athlete and the UFC. But another Argentine talent had the chance to make that same push 13 years ago, at a time when the UFC wasn’t nearly as big as it is today and the thought of the Octagon traveling to South America seemed to be a distant dream.
Alex Schoenauer, born in El Bolson in 1976, moved away from Argentina when he was 15. A decade later, Schoenauer entered himself into a professional mixed martial arts bout for the first time, and scored the first of seven eventual wins that earned him a spot in the reality television show that changed the history of the UFC.
”I moved to Las Vegas not because it was something I wanted to,” Schoenauer tells MMA Fighting, “but at the time, being involved with this sport, I was like, ‘Where’s the best place to develop my skills if I wanted to fight professionally?’ It’s either Las Vegas, the fight capital of the world, where the UFC is, or in (Pat) Miletich’s camp in Iowa.
”At the time, Frank Mir was holding the title and he was one of the top fighters in the game, so I wanted to go where he was training, where he got his black belt in jiu-jitsu, so I moved to Vegas and started training with the same person that he’s got his black belt under.”
Training with Brazilian jiu-jiu-jitsu coach Sergio Penha, who graduated him to black belt years later, Schoenauer was one of the 16 athletes locked inside a house in Las Vegas to compete for a six-figure contract with the UFC through The Ultimate Fighter.
The inaugural season produced several MMA stars, a future UFC champion, and a fighting maniac in Diego Sanchez who continues to compete to this day. Schoenauer, on the other hand, was one of the faces in the house who many fans may not remember, but for some time he was a big deal back home in Argentina.
”Before the TV show, The Ultimate Fighter season one, the sport was looked at differently in Argentina,” Schoenauer says. “Most people just didn’t know what it was about. They didn’t know what fighters went through just to get there. The public eye just thought, ‘Oh, a bunch of guys just jump in a cage and just fight each other.’ They just didn’t know the martial aspect of it. So after the TV show, it opened up [everybody’s eyes]. It basically changed the sport overnight. It opened up everybody’s eyes, what [MMA] was really about and how it was a true sport, and everybody started to watch it and appreciate it. It just changed everything. It wasn’t what they thought it was.”
Forrest Griffin, Stephan Bonnar, Sanchez, and Kenny Florian were some of the most successful athletes to come out of that inaugural season. Schoenauer’s run ended abruptly though. He lost to eventual season winner Griffin in his first fight on the show.
”At first, when the show came out and aired down in Argentina, it was a big deal,” Schoenauer says. “But a lot of people didn’t know that I was the first Argentine to be in this sport. And after time, if you don’t stay on top, people forget. It was kind of a big deal while the TV show was airing, and then once it stopped there, it was like, ‘Okay, move on.’”
On the debut TUF Finale card in April 2005, Schoenauer experienced his first and only official chance to compete under the bright lights of the UFC. On a night that would go down in history as the one that likely saved the company, with Griffin and Bonnar putting on an all-time classic battle for the six-figure contract, Schoenauer’s run lasted no more than 20 seconds. He lost to Mike Swick via first-round knockout.
The Argentine was subsequently let go by the UFC and spent the next few years competing in regional shows until the International Fight League popped up into existence. With a team league format, Schoenauer went 5-5 over the next couple of years in the IFL, until the chance to return to the UFC knocked on his front door.
Some time before the UFC absorbed the WEC’s light heavyweight division, Schoenauer was offered a chance to replace injured Mark Munoz on days’ notice against Steve Steinbeiss at WEC 36. He took the fight, but it fell through within days after Schoenauer suffered a “really, really bad” hamstring injury.
That’s when his life changed for good.
Sidelined from the sport he loved, Schoenauer landed a chance to get involved with stunt work for the movie industry, and that eventually drew him away from mixed martial arts.
”That’s what’s really keeping me out of the fight game,” Schoenauer says. “I wanted to get back into fighting, but I’m always working on the movies. Movies is more of a career than fighting, where you don’t know when is your next fight. The money, unless you’re a top 10 [fighter] in this, you’re not making any money. The pay scale is very, very all over the place. You get paid nothing unless you’re a top guy.”
The former light heavyweight has worked in more than 20 movies so far, including “Fast 5,” “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” “Star Trek: Beyond,” “xXx: Return of Xander Cage,” plus a couple of “Transformers” movies. He also worked on “Bumblebee,” the next chapter of the Transformers series that premieres Dec. 21 in the United States.
Schoenauer has done many wild things as a stuntman over the past few years, from jumping off a 250-foot cliff to jumping out of moving cars. “All kinds of stuff,” he laughs.
”It’s something I always like. Adventure, crazy stuff,” Schoenauer says. “It was like, ‘Hey, you’re gonna get paid to jump off a cliff.’ I’ll do it. That sounds good. It was the same as when I found out that I could get paid to jump in a ring and fight somebody. ‘Hey, I get paid for that? Sign me up.’ But there was more skill level. … In both there’s skill level, you have to train to jump off a train. If you wanna do high falls, if you wanna do driving, you have to train all that stuff. Same as martial arts. You don’t just, ‘Oh, I’m gonna jump in the cage and fight.’”
Being a stuntman is not easy. It’s obviously a very dangerous and risky path to follow, but it’s easier for Schoenauer than having his limbs twisted in unnatural directions and getting punched in the face for a living.
”Of all the things that I have ever done in my life, and I’ve done a lot, fighting is not only physically demanding, it’s mentally demanding — one of the hardest things you can do,” Schoenauer says. “You can ask Dave Bautista, he’s a real good friend of mine. I trained him for his first MMA fight. He’s a pro wrestler, he’s been through a lot in his life, and he said the same thing, ‘One of the hardest things I’ve ever done was preparing for a MMA fight.’
”I can look back and that’s one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life. The fight, when you walk out to the cage, that’s easy. Fighting the fight, that’s easy. The hard work is the training, getting past shark tanks, going back to the gym every day after getting beat up, getting bruised up and waking up the next morning to do it again and again and again. Mentally, physically, emotionally, it just breaks you down. You really have to get past everything to keep going, to make it into the ring.”
The last time Schoenauer entered a cage to compete was almost a decade ago. With Renzo Gracie as the referee at Bitetti Combat, Schoenauer took on former WEC middleweight champion and PRIDE icon Paulo Filho. He lost a close decision that night in Rio de Janeiro, then never fought again.
”To be honest with you, I never called myself done with MMA,” Schoenauer says. “When I got that Paulo Filho fight, I was in the best shape, my jiu-jitsu was great. Obviously, he couldn’t submit me in the fight. Even though the decision was in his favor, the whole Brazilian crowd that hates — not hates, but don’t think much of Argentines … I was walking into the ring as an Argentine and everybody stood up and booed me. When I walked into that stadium, I was looking up to see when the bottles would be thrown at me. But when I walked out of that ring and walked out of that stadium, everybody stood up and applauded me. They thought I had won the fight. I’ve gained a lot of respect from the fans that night.
”I was ready, ‘Okay, where’s the next fight?’, but then I got phone calls to work in the stunt industry and those phone calls kept coming in, so I kept doing that. It’s another passion that I have, so I decided to do this while [fighting] wasn’t working out.”
The door for a comeback fight is open for Schoenauer. “I’d love to have another, not one, but several comebacks,” he says. “I still train, I still go to the gym to train with Sergio and Stephan Bonnar, we train.” But committing to a training camp at age 42, after being away from the sport for nine years, would be so demanding that Schoenauer would need to pause his career in the movie industry to be successful again in the cage.
”I’m not going to the gym for just a month and take a fight,” Schoenauer says, “I have to be in the gym for, like, three, four months and get prepared and then take a fight. So, yeah, I’d love to do that.”
With Schoenauer out of the MMA world for almost a decade, and Ponzinibbio now finding success inside the Octagon, “Gente Boa” has become the biggest name from Argentina in mixed martial arts. Schoenauer admits he hasn’t followed Ponzinibbio’s career or watched UFC a lot recently — the last fight he watched was Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Conor McGregor, and he wasn’t that impressed — but he still believes that having an Argentine ranked among the best in the world is a great thing for South America.
However, the retired fighter also believes that Argentine fighters will have to continue to leave the country in order to find the best training to succeed at the highest level. Like Ponzinibbio did years ago, when he moved from Buenos Aires to train in Brazil before switching his camp to American Top Team in Florida, Schoenauer would advise all Argentine prospect to leave the country until MMA becomes a bigger deal at home.
”I wish there were more Argentines involved in this sport,” Schoenauer says. “Argentina doesn’t have the level of exposure in martial arts that we have here in the United States with the camps. To be able to fight at the level of the UFC, you have to have top training, and I think South America — other than Brazil — doesn’t really have that training and education of what it takes to be a MMA fighter.
”I’ve been down there in [Argentina in] the past, doing seminars, and the skill level ... the people in the sport, they’re very enthusiastic and fanatic, it’s great and I love that about the South American countries, but there isn’t a foundation to have a top talent. You have to at least leave the country and seek other places to do camps.
”To be honest with you, I never thought that [the UFC] would go [to Argentina] at all, period, because of the economic value, the dollar,” Schoenauer adds. ”They obviously have to do ticket sales, and Brazil’s economy — the dollar versus their money — is not too big of a difference. Where as somewhere like Argentina, the devaluation is so huge from what they turn out. For a big company to come down and invest big money on TV deals and venues and all that, you have to see a return, and it’s hard. I think it’s great that the UFC is able to do that, it’s great for the sport. We’ll see. If they continue to do that, it would be great.”
The finances of UFC Argentina will need to make the event worth the trip for the company, but a title win for Ponzinibbio would definitely help the country’s case. “Gente Boa” has won his last six fights in the Octagon, a run highlighted by victories over Gunnar Nelson and Mike Perry, and he could very well enter the title picture if victorious against Magny on Saturday.
”The sport is gonna develop no matter what,” Schoenauer says. “Since the first Ultimate Fighter show it’s crazy how it developed, but to have something like that, an Argentine taking the title, and knowing how Argentina supports their people, it’s gonna bring change overnight. That will make it easier to expose the sport and bring what is needed to grow the sport [in the country].
”Our resources are limited, and that would make it much easier.”