Santiago Ponzinibbio traded in a home — four walls and a ceiling above his head — for mixed martial arts.
In the early years of his career, the current UFC welterweight was struggling to gain any headway in his home country of Argentina. Boxing has been popular for a long time in the South American republic, but when Ponzinibbio was coming up the knowledge of MMA was about nil.
“I started in my city and in my city the people had no idea what MMA was,” Ponzinibbio told MMA Fighting.
Ponzinibbio met people who trained in different disciplines, like boxing, kickboxing and wrestling, and sparred with them near his hometown of La Plata. Their instructions came from videos online and emulating the fighters they watched on the internet in Japan’s Pride Fighting Championships.
When Ponzinibbio felt he had reached his ceiling training in that manner, he wanted to go to Brazil, but didn’t have the means emigrate. So, he went on “vacation” with a friend to the country — which, of course, has an incredible MMA pedigree — and did not return to Argentina.
With no money, an inability to speak the native language of Portuguese and no documents for work, Ponzinibbio lived in a tent on the beach in Florianopolis. There, he picked up odd jobs and sought out anyone wearing a Brazilian jiu-jitsu t-shirt. If he spotted someone with the correct gear, Ponzinibbio asked them where the nearest gym was and if he could train there.
“When I moved to Brazil, people said, ‘Man, you’re crazy,’” Ponzinibbio said. “This was the start of my career.”
Ponzinibbio spent five months living on the beach before finding tenement housing nearby. He later moved to Rio de Janeiro and now resides in Florida where he trains at American Top Team. After all that, a successful stint on The Ultimate Fighter Brazil and a run as one of the best welterweights in the world, Ponzinibbio will return to where it all started Saturday.
The local boy who made good will fight Neil Magny in the main event of UFC Argentina, the promotion’s first-ever event in the country. The card will take place in Buenos Aires, just about an hour away from where Ponzinibbio grew up. His career — from homeless to headliner in his homeland — has now come full circle.
“This is really exciting for me,” Ponzinibbio said. “I have all the motivation. I have all the reasons for me to put in 100 percent every day.”
Ponzinibbio (26-3) isn’t just being thrown a bone because he’s one of the only fighters from Argentina on the UFC roster. Actually, he believes the UFC wouldn’t have even ventured to Buenos Aires without him. Either way, he has sure earned it. Ponzinibbio, 32, has won six in a row and sports an 8-2 record in the UFC. A victory over Magny could send Ponzinibbio closer to a title shot, which he has been calling for.
When he knocked out Gunnar Nelson in the first round back in July 2017, Ponzinibbio thought for sure that he had done enough to get a top-five opponent next. Instead, the UFC gave him a bit of a step back in Mike Perry. “Gente Boa” beat him by one-sided unanimous decision at UFC on FOX 26 last December.
The always solid Magny is currently ranked No. 8, while Ponzinibbio is No. 10 in the UFC’s official contender rankings. Ponzinibbio will probably need at least one more win if he were to beat Magny, a possibility he is very much confident in.
“He’s tough, but I kill him,” Ponzinibbio said. “I finish him. I’m really excited for the fight.”
When asked if there was any added pressure of fighting back in Argentina, Ponzinibbio laughed the laugh of a man who moved to a foreign country with nothing but a dream. He said he is relaxed by the thought of fighting in Buenos Aires, which now has a thriving MMA culture in no small part due to him.
“It’s not a pressure,” Ponzinibbio said. “I’m happy for this. I can live my dream. There’s no pressure. I put pressure on myself every day. I put in my 100 percent every day — every day. I don’t have no excuse.”