The Ultimate Fighter
Perhaps no weight class is more saturated with storylines, drama and high caliber fights than the welterweight division is right now. In just the last two years, there has been a sea-change at the top, a fight for a “BMF” title in Madison Square Garden and long-held beefs between those at the top. And the name we didn’t hear during that whole stretch was Santiago Ponzinibbio.
The Argentinian scored a dominant main event win in Argentina in November 2018 over Neil Magny, and instead of competing in a fight to launch himself into the title picture, he instead spent 2019 fighting health complications that threatened his career. After spending 2020 rehabbing and getting back to the shape that brought him to a seven-fight winning streak, Ponzinibbio is finally set to return, 26 months removed from his last fight.
“We learned a lot,” he told UFC.com. “We learned that in this life, we don’t have a guarantee of nothing. Today, tomorrow, everything can change. When I finished 2018, my focus was on a title shot. I was there, and a couple months after, I was fighting for my life. We don’t have the guarantee of nothing in this life. Man, we need to use this time in the right way. I’m working hard.”
After such a long layoff and a harrowing battle for his health, Ponzinibbio needed to regain the confidence in his body and abilities, which in itself was a journey. Because of the inactivity, he saw his name drop out of the welterweight rankings – something which irritated him – and while he doesn’t face a Top 10 opponent right away, he does have a tough opponent ahead in Li Jingliang.
The durable and active Chinese welterweight comes in with five finishes in his last seven wins and has never been knocked out. For Ponzinibbio, who himself boasts 15 knockouts to his pro record, getting Li out of there before the final horn is a priority.
“I’m going to finish this guy,” Ponzinibbio said. “I’m going to (make this guy) feel a lot of pain. I finish this guy. I’ll show to the world I am ready to be champion of the world.
The welterweight division to which Ponzinibbio returns is loaded with fun fights to be made and plenty of unique personalities to promote them. From the dominant championship reign of Kamaru Usman to the headline-making tendencies of Colby Covington and Jorge Masvidal, in addition to the bevy of diverse, dangerous fighters like Stephen Thompson, Gilbert Burns, and Leon Edwards, there’s plenty waiting for Ponzinibbio.
While one wouldn’t blame him for feeling left out or like the division left him behind during his absence, Ponzinibbio sees nothing but positives.
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“I love this division,” he said. “The welterweights are f***ing crazy. There’s great, talented fighters. I am excited to be back to the game, stay with the best and take my opportunity for the belt.”
It’s easy to forget where Ponzinibbio stood in the rankings after beating Magny, but he very much looked the part of a title contender. Among his wins on his seven-fight streak: knockout wins over Court McGee, Gunnar Nelson and Neil Magny and a strong decision win over Mike Perry to stretch his pro record to 28-3.
When pressed about whether it’s more important for him just making it back to competition versus the pressure to win emphatically, Ponzinibbio said making it back is the important thing. But he made a point to say he very much expects to make that return statement, as well, boasting that when “The Leech” feels his power, he’ll “prefer to stay on the floor.”
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Overall, Ponzinibbio is in a good mood. He’s back doing the thing he loves, the thing he thought he lost, and the thing that has him so, so close to realizing his dream of UFC gold. That, in itself, is reason for celebration. Regarding what he’s anticipating in terms of pre-fight emotions, it’s all positive, all excitement, and all enjoyment.
“It’s amazing,” he said. “I dreamed for this time all this month. I waited for that feeling. I feel so good. I don’t have words to express it. Everything that passed, 26 months, I listened to doctors tell me maybe I can’t fight again in my career, and brother, now, that everything has happened, everything passed, I am back. I am back in fight week.”
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