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From title hopeful to ‘fighting for my life,’ Santiago Ponzinibbio leaves struggles in the past for UFC dream

A lot has happened in the UFC welterweight division since Santiago Ponzinibbio’s last appearance inside the octagon in November 2018.

Tyron Woodley was UFC champion at the time, and Colby Covington had just been stripped or his interim belt. Kamaru Usman, who now sits at the throne, had yet to secure his shot at the gold. Gilbert Burns and Jorge Masvidal were coming off losses, and Khamzat Chimaev was still an unknown 3-0 fighter.

Twenty-six months later, Argentina’s “Gente Boa” will finally put the gloves back on to face Chinese 170-pounder Li Jingliang at UFC Fight Island 7, which kicks off the 2021 calendar for the company on Jan. 16 in Abu Dhabi.

“I have no words to express what it means to me to finally trade hands again,” Ponzinibbio said in an interview with MMA Fighting.

The 26-month layoff was caused by a series of health scares. First, the American Top Team talent underwent emergency surgery which was followed by another hospitalization just weeks later. Thirteen months after that, Ponzinibbio had to take weeks off one more time after testing positive for COVID-19.

All the momentum he had going for him after a fourth-round stoppage over Neil Magny in the main event of UFC’s first-ever event in Argentina, a feat that led to him receiving the key to the city of La Plata by the hands of the mayor, was now gone.

“Crazy, brother,” he said. “Argentina, a dream come true, everything went perfect, I was talking about being one fight away from the world title, I was already envisioning the world title, and all of a sudden I’m fighting for my life. I got very sick in 2019, I almost died, bacteria in the blood, several medical complications, and six months later they find out another problem.

“I spent 2019 battling health issues, and 2020 trying to get back to normalcy. I had COVID, another month gone, and then trying to get me a fight. ‘You’re fighting in November or December.’ It’s been 26 months, brother. I felt abstinent, man. Feeling of sadness, joy, euphoria. Crazy, brother. When I had a bone infection, I was told I might never fight again in my life. I was told that. From going to a world title to hearing that is crazy, brother.

“There were a lot of feelings but thank God it’s over, and now someone has to pay for all that. I’m sorry this guy accepted the fight because that was the worst decision he’s ever made in his career. I’ll make him feel pain until he can’t take it anymore and I knock him out. I’ll come back with everything I got in the first card of the year so I have good rhythm and can fight for the world title, which I know I will win. I deserve it, and I will give it to my people of Argentina and all Latin America.”

Ponzinibbio was reportedly linked to a fight with Robbie Lawler for UFC 245 in December 2019, but doesn’t understand why that was announced since he never agreed to it due to his ongoing health problems. “I couldn’t even walk straight, I was all f*cked up,” he explained.

Li, who replaced Muslim Salikhov as his opponent for UFC Fight Island 7, was on a three-fight winning streak before his most recent bout, a decision loss to Magny in March 2020.

“I think I deserved a ranked athlete but there were so many changes, man, I said just give me someone,” Ponzinibbio said. “I just want to beat someone up. I don’t care. Ranked or not, tough or not, it doesn’t matter. I was given that tough Russian, Salikhov, I said, ‘give me that and I’ll knock him out.’ And then he got sick and they gave me some options, and I said ‘bring anyone.’

“They only gave me the name three weeks out and I said cool, give me a tough guy with several wins in the company, and I’ll show my technical level once again. I will hurt him, I will knock him out, I will show I’m one of the best in the world.”

Ponzinibbio understands being removed from the official UFC rankings due to inactivity, but demands being placed in the top-five, “where I deserve to be,” with a win over Li. A victory would give Ponzinibbio eight in a row after topping the likes of Magny, Mike Perry and Gunnar Nelson.

Once paired up against now-champion Usman for the main event of UFC Chile back in May 2018 before being replaced by Demian Maia after Ponzinibbio injured his hand, Ponzinibbio feels “super confident” looking at the current landscape of the welterweight class. He’s predicting—and hoping—that Usman remains welterweight champion until he gets to the top.

“I think it’s a great matchup for me, I have great takedown defense and I believe I can knock the champion out,” he said. “I can beat anyone at 170 pounds. The division is so much fun right now, a lot of good athletes. I’m not being disrespectful, I just believe in my work. I know how much I work, I know my level, and I know what I’m made of. I’m more confident than before because I’m a better version of myself now. More mature mentally, better physically, and I’ll put on a great fight.”

After enduring the longest layoff of his MMA career, Ponzinibbio has bold plans for 2021.

“If you ask me what I wanna do this year, I wanna fight every other month,” he said. “I wanna fight at least five times, man. Jingliang is my focus now, of course, and I won’t think past him, but that’s my plan. Get a good rhythm going so I can fight for the belt this year.”

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