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Despite unparalleled rivalry in soccer, Brazilians expect a warm welcome at UFC Argentina

Brazilian strawweight Poliana Botelho faces Cynthia Calvillo at UFC Argentina.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Every soccer aficionado knows that there is no international rivalry in the sport like the one between Brazil and Argentina. Whenever the national teams collide, or even whenever clubs face off in tournaments like Libertadores and Sul-Americana, it’s anything but a calm atmosphere.

Less than three weeks after Buenos Aires’ giants River Plate and Boca Juniors eliminated Gremio and Palmeiras, respectively, in the dramatic semifinals of this year’s Copa Libertadores, a group of Brazilian athletes crossed the boarder to compete in front of the hermanos in the capital of Argentina.

The UFC is finally making its first trip to the South American country on Nov. 17 at UFC Argentina, a card headlined by local welterweight Santiago Ponzinibbio against Neil Magny, and several Brazilians on the card are hoping that the historical soccer rivalry won’t translate to the arena when they enter the cage to face non-Argentine opponents.

“I think this Brazil-Argentina rivalry is only about soccer, there’s no such thing in fighting,” said Poliana Botelho, who faces Cynthia Calvillo on Saturday night. “I’ve fought an Argentine before, but every time I post something on social media, they send me messages of support, so I believe they will cheer for the Brazilians. I think they like and root for us in the MMA world. They welcomed me really well at UFC Chile, and I think it will be the same in Argentina.”

Brazilian flyweight Alexandre Pantoja is booked against Japan’s Ulka Sasaki, and thinks that his South American “neighbors” will cheer for the green-and-yellow team as well.

“I think that this rivalry would be a big thing if I were to fight an Argentine,” Pantoja said. “But since I’m fighting a Japanese opponent, I think the entire [people of] South America will get together to cheer for each other. We have Santiago in the main event — our people welcomed him very well when he moved there to train, so I think they will be favorable to us.”

Ponzinibbio, who currently lives in Florida after spending years training and competing in Santa Catarina and Rio de Janeiro, expects his countrymen to side with the Brazilians.

In fact, Ponzinibbio’s official nickname in the UFC was given to him by his friends and teammates when he was living in Brazil. He became “Gente Boa,” which means “nice guy” in Portuguese, because he was a nice guy despite hailing from a rival country.

“That depends on each rivalry, right?” Ponzinibbio said. “I think that if [a Brazilian] is fighting an American, they will cheer for the Brazilian because they are from South America. We’re all the same. I think that’s rivalry exists only in soccer.

“I went to Brazil and that was pretty clear to me. We’re very similar to one another, a lot more than with the United States, so I think many will support the South Americans. I can’t be sure, of course, but I believe they will root for the Brazilians.”

“I believe they will welcome us really well,” said Cezar Ferreira, who meets Contender Series alum Ian Heinisch. “We have our Argentine ‘Gente Boa’ who will headline the card, and he’s half-Brazilian, half-Argentine, and both crowds love the guy. That rivalry doesn’t exist in our sport. Everybody loves to watch a good fight, a good show, and that’s what we’re here to do.”

Michel Prazeres and Johnny Walker, scheduled to face Poland’s Bartosz Fabinski and USA’s Khalil Rountree, respectively, are confident that the entire arena will cheer for them. “Trator” believes fans will side with him for being much smaller than his opponent, while Walker plans on winning the crowd with an impressive performance.

“I think they will cheer for me because I’m a good fighter and I will put on a great performance, not because of where I’m from,” Walker said. “Race, country, we’re all human beings. I want them to cheer me because I’m a good fighter.”

All of the UFC Argentina fighters are leaving the rivalry between Brazil and Argentina to the soccer fields, but they didn’t shy away from looking back at the many unforgettable moments when both national teams collided.

For Pantoja, Adriano’s epic goal to tie the score in the overtime of the 2004 Copa America final will forever be in his head. Prazeres mentioned Bebeto’s volley goal at the 1989 Copa America, in front of 110,000 fans at the Maracana stadium, which helped Brazil defeat Maradona’s Argentina by 2-0 en route to the title.

Speaking of Maradona, was he really better than Pele like Argentine fans say?

“F*ck, brother. That’s even disrespectful to say,” Pantoja said, laughing. “I think it’s answered, right?”

Walker also picks Pele over Maradona, while Ferreira and Prazeres take things in a more “diplomatic” direction. “Trator” said Pele is the king of soccer, but Maradona was “more talented.” Asked if he’s saying that to win the crowd, Prazeres just laughed.

For “Mutante,” Maradona and Pele “were both great and did a lot for the sport, they were both wonderful,” so he’s planning on designing a special jersey for UFC Argentina.

“Half Brazil, half Argentina,” Ferreira said. “Half Pele, half ‘Dieguito.’”

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