The Ultimate Fighter
Miguel Baeza is at the point of his career where he still has tunnel vision, his eyes affixed on the top of the UFC welterweight division and nothing else.
Three fights into his tenure on the biggest stage in the sport, the 28-year-old native of Davie, Florida has made considerable progress in his quest to reach the summit of the 170-pound weight class, registering three straight second-round stoppage victories to push his professional record to 10-0 heading into his biggest fight to date: a main card showdown with longtime welterweight Top 10 fixture Santiago Ponzinibbio this weekend in Las Vegas.
“I don’t take any win for granted and the fact that I’m here right now — a UFC fighter — that’s a dream come true,” the MMA Masters representative offered. “I was just talking to a couple of teammates, guys that are on the way up, and that’s their dream. I’ve never taken it for granted and the fact that I’m here right now is amazing.
“That being said, there is a large mountain to climb and that’s what I intend on doing,” he continued, returning to the single-minded approach that has carried him to the brink of the Top 15 less than two years after earning his contract with a unanimous decision victory over Victor Reyna on Season 3 of the Contender Series. “I try to stay focused and the key to doing that — to progressing forward — is becoming a better fighter, improving every day, with a short-term goal of taking out the next guy and a long-term goal of the UFC title.”
But after three wins in three fights, with three stoppages and back-to-back Performance of the Night bonuses, isn’t there time for a little break from worrying about the next one and how to get ahead to appreciate everything he accomplished in his first 18 months on the UFC roster?
“You know what?” he began, stifling a laugh. “You always ask me these really good questions and I never reflect on it until you ask and it’s like, ‘Ah man, have I actually done that?’
“To be honest, I feel like my whole mindset has always been about trying to get ready for the next guy. I had that little break, and that was great to actually break away from that, but looking at the overall picture, I’d say I have a one-track mind; I just want to get better every day and make sure the goal is reached.
“I have a lot of people counting on me — my family, my coaches, my teammates — and not doing that feels like I’m letting them down, but I guess I have to take that breath and look back at what I’ve done. I need to take that breath in between to appreciate how far I’ve come and what I’ve achieved.
“I don’t even think of that some times, so I’m glad you brought that up.”
After beating veteran maestro of violence Matt Brown last May, Baeza’s profile rose to the point where people recognized him for his efforts in passing; not by name, of course, but as “that guy that beat Matt Brown.”
Since his second-round submission victory over Takashi Sato in November, he’s graduated from being “the guy that beat Matt Brown” to people incorrectly remembering his nickname, which is a step in the right direction on the public notoriety spectrum.
“I’m getting more of the name, where people are like, ‘It’s Something Thunder, right?’ but they keep messing it up, calling me ‘Chocolate Thunder,’” laughed the unbeaten welterweight, whose official nickname is “Caramel Thunder.”
If he secures a fourth straight victory this weekend, there will be a lot more people recognizing Baeza by name, especially if he adds another stoppage to increasingly impressive resume.
Ponzinibbio is a veteran of the treacherous welterweight ranks — a graduate from the second season of The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil who split his first four appearances inside the Octagon before embarking on a seven-fight winning streak that carried him to the brink of title contention, capped by a fourth-round knockout win over Neil Magny in his home country of Argentina at the close of 2018.
Two years of injuries, infections, and uncertainty forced the 34-year-old “Argentine Dagger” from the Top 15, and when he returned earlier this year, Ponzinibbio landed on the wrong side of a first-round stoppage finish against Li Jingliang, 26 months between appearances and a daunting comeback assignment catching up to him on UFC Fight Island.
Nonetheless, Baeza knows his opponent this weekend is the most established name he’s faced to date and as dangerous as they come.
“This is definitely my biggest fight in terms of notoriety, but I try not to get too caught up in that because then the stage becomes too big,” he said of this weekend’s contest, which falls in the middle of the main card. “I’ve got Santiago Ponzinibbio and I’ve got to take him out, and perform as well as I can because then the next one will be a step in the right direction.
“I believe he’s going to be aggressive — he’s a tough guy, he uses his hands a lot, and he’s going to try to corral me, stay right in front of me so he can land big combinations. He throws fast and he throws hard, so I know he’s going to be trying to land some big bombs on me.
“He might be a little wary of the takedowns and try to implement his game plan, but our plan is to keep him at bay and pick him apart, and I feel like I can do that,” he added. “I’m not going to say first round because he’s an experienced guy, but I think I can get a second-round finish.”
So more of the same then?
“Yeah — you’re right; I guess that’s a safe prediction for me,” he agreed, laughing.
Regardless of how it happens, a victory over Ponzinibbio on Saturday night would give Baeza four straight victories in one of the deepest, most competitive divisions in the UFC, and 11 consecutive wins to begin his career, two markers that would make him a candidate to crack the Top 15 when the rankings update.
Just like taking a minute to appreciate what he’s accomplished thus far, having a number beside his name isn’t something Baeza thinks too much about until he’s pressed about it, when the thoughts he’s tucked away in order keep himself strictly focused on the goals in front of him creep into his mind.
“I want to say that it doesn’t effect me, but I look at it some times and I’m like, ‘If I was ranked a little higher, I could get this fight,’ and you start to realize (the chain reaction that can cause),” admitted Baeza, whose focus, unsurprisingly, is on how breaking into the Top 15 could help expedite his climb towards the top of the division.
“Sometimes it’s ‘on to the next guy’ and ‘whoever is in front of me,’ but sometimes you see how all of this stuff works, and you can’t help but think about how it influences things.”
He takes a beat, pausing as if he’s letting what he’s just said sink in — for his own benefit as much as mine.
“That said, I’m here to fight, plain and simple, so whoever comes, comes.”