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Santiago Ponzinibbio remained focused on UFC 269 fight despite news of Geoff Neal’s arrest

Santiago Ponzinibbio (left) won a decision over previously unbeaten Miguel Baeza in June.
Zuffa LLC

Geoff Neal is facing a pair of misdemeanor charges for driving while intoxicated and unlawful carry of weapon on Thanksgiving day, but his UFC 269 opponent Santiago Ponzinibbio wasn’t worried about being left without a dancing partner for Dec. 11.

Neal was released from jail later that same day on Nov. 25 and is still slated to face Ponzinibbio on the main card of UFC 269 at the T-Mobile Arena. Speaking with MMA Fighting ahead of the welterweight showdown, Ponzinibbio explained his reaction when he first heard the news earlier of Neal’s arrest this month.

“I don’t really care, you know? He can do whatever he wants,” Ponzinibbio said. “I thought, ‘OK, if the fight falls through, I hope someone steps in,’ because, truth is, I don’t even care about him. I just want to fight. I just want an opportunity to showcase my work, so, if the fight fell through, I just hoped someone would step in so I could beat someone up.

“I was preparing for him, of course, so I wanted to fight him. Thank God everything went fine. Nobody told me anything so I assumed the fight was going to happen, and that’s what matters.”

Ponzinibbio said he didn’t reach out to his manager or the UFC to ask about the status of the fight because “they would call me if something happened.”

“That happens all the time here [in the United States],” Ponzinibbio said of Neal’s charges. “People are always drinking, that’s common. I said, ‘OK, if something happens they will let me know and put someone else in.’ Of course, for a moment I thought, ‘I hope they don’t cancel the fight.’ I’ve worked really hard, and luckily everything worked just fine.”

The American Top Team welterweight is motivated to compete at UFC 269 because, he said, “there will be a lot of eyes on this card,” and vows to show why he’s in his prime.

“I’m not paying too much attention to what [Neal] does,” Ponzinibbio said of his opponent’s skill set. “He’s a tough guy and that’s why he’s among the best in the world, but I think I’m a better athlete and I’m ready to make a run for this title. I’m not looking at his game, I’ll go out and do my job, which is to beat people up, throw heavy hands and knock him out. That’s what I’ll do. I don’t want to know what he does best.

“I’m a better striker, I’m a better fighter, and I have more tools than him. I’m ready for everything, but I trust in my hands and I’ll go for the knockout, always. … I’ll hit him hard and knock him out.”

Ponzinibbio believes he “deserves an opportunity against a top-5” opponent with a win at UFC 269 because he’ll be 8-1 in his last nine fights, “and not many people can do that,” he said. The Argentine fighter recently added Miguel Baeza to the list of foe he’s beaten under the UFC banner, a record that also includes the likes of Neil Magny, Mike Perry, Gunnar Nelson, and Sean Strickland.

That said, Ponzinibbio admits he was “bothered” by how the UFC handled his situation when he was forced to stay on the sidelines between 2018 and 2021 while battling serious injuries and health issues.

“I was inactive for 26 months, I was [ranked] No. 6 in the world and they took me [from the ranking]. But ‘Pantera’ [Yair Rodriguez] was out for 25 months and stayed in the rankings, and came back against the No. 1 in the world [Max Holloway],” Ponzinibbio said. “What’s the criteria? I came back, I lost [to Li Jingliang], and they kept me unranked. Now I’m back in the rankings. I feel I lost many years of my career, much of the work I’ve done.

“I’m in the company since 2014, I went 8-1 over the last nine against tough guys. Rankings aren’t fair, but I’m focused on doing my job and putting on the best performance of my career Saturday. I’ll beat this guy up and then we’ll see who’s next. I hope it’s a top 5.”

Khamzat Chimaev has taken the MMA world by storm after only four UFC appearances since July 2020. Ponzinibbio said he’d fight Chimaev for the hype, but his focus is to win at UFC 269 and go against a top-ranked next.

“I want to get to the title, I want to fight [Kamaru] Usman,” he said. “I like this idea. I took that fight in Chile but suffered an injury. To me, the opportunity of fighting the No. 1 pound-for-pound [fighter] is unique, is great. That’s the fight I want. I hope he stays there and I hope I’ll get there soon. I’m working for it.”