LAS VEGAS — One doesn’t simply have a face-to-face conversation with Santiago Ponzinibbio, the Argentine UFC welterweight contender. It’s more like an experience.
He’s smiling. He’s frowning. He’s in his chair. He’s out. He’s waving his arms. He’s demonstrating punches and moves as he attempts to explain himself.
As he speaks, it’s clear he’s having the time of his life. He’s 27-3 overall in MMA, 8-2 in the UFC and already ranked 10th in the welterweight division after back-to-back impressive wins over Gunnar Nelson and Mike Perry.
Why shouldn’t the 31-year-old be thoroughly enjoying his life these days? What he went through to make it to this point is the stuff of fairy tales and poor fiction writers.
Ponzinibbio grew up in Argentina, the son of a civil engineer father and a social worker mother. He was always attracted to sports, but when he discovered kickboxing, he was hooked.
Argentina has a rich history in combat sports, but almost all of it is with boxing. Argentina’s greatest boxers include legends like Carlos Monzón, Nicolino Locche and Víctor Galíndez, as well as modern stars like Sergio Martínez, Lucas Matthysse and Marcos Maidana.
As Ponzinibbio trained, he met friends. One was a Greco-Roman wrestler. Another specialized in jiu-jitsu. Another was a boxer. The group learned from each other and soon, Ponzinibbio had developed the rudimentary skills.
“The level of [MMA] in Argentina is very low, not good,” he said with a dismissive wave of his hand.
As he learned the various disciplines, he loved combining them and became interested in pursuing an MMA career. The natural choice for him was to head to Brazil, one of the sport’s epicenters.
He had a problem, though: He had no money. He couldn’t afford to travel to Brazil, let alone provide for himself once he got there.
A friend was planning a vacation to Brazil, so he bought Ponzinibbio a ticket and the two went together. The friend soon returned to Argentina. Ponzinibbio stayed in pursuit of this crazy, illogical dream of MMA success.
“If you love something, you put yourself fully into it,” he said.
And so Ponzinibbio, with rudimentary MMA skills and no money in his pockets, threw himself into the sport he loved. He pitched a tent on the beach, and there he lived for the next five months. He was homeless, penniless, unable to speak the language or provide basic necessities for himself, and without the skills required to compete.
Argentina is Brazil’s greatest rival in sports. At the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazilian fans were gracious hosts to the world’s best athletes. They cheered fervently for their countrymen, of course, but cheered for others, as well. It was only athletes from the U.S. and Argentina who routinely found themselves hearing the boos from the Brazilian fans.
The Brazil-Argentina sports rivalry is very real, fueled by the country’s many battles in soccer over the years, and Ponzinibbio found himself in the middle of it. He would approach people on the beach who had jiu-jitsu T-shirts on and ask where the gym was and if he could train there. He eventually met a group of MMA fighters who welcomed him in. And for a full year, they sparred with him.
If truth be told, they took advantage of him. They were more experienced in MMA and they would take turns pummeling him.
“All the time, it was bad, ‘Boom! Boom! Boom,’ they would do it to me,” he said. “They just kept beating on me and thinking that I would go away.”
He dutifully took his beatings, day after day, and would return for more the next day. In the meantime, he was scrounging up whatever jobs he could. He particularly liked working in restaurants, where he was mostly a busboy but also waited tables and worked at the bar a bit.
He enjoyed that because when he cleared the tables, he could eat the leftover food. It’s no one’s idea of fine dining, but it beat sipping bottles of water all day, every day in place of food.
One day, though, the beatings came to a halt. He’d earned the grudging respect of his teammates by standing up to their beatings and never backing down or giving up. One of the men called the rest together and declared Ponzinibbio “gente boa” in Portuguese, which translates to “good people.”
Ponzinibbio eventually found himself on “The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil,” where he won his first four fights but broke his right wrist while landing a punch on Leonardo Santos. He finished the fight with the broken wrist — it was flopping around with 10 fractures, he said — and won via unanimous decision, but then had to pull out of the tournament.
Little did it matter, though. He’d proven his point and made his way into the UFC.
And now, he has a welterweight title shot ahead of him if he keeps it up.
He’s one of the sport’s most exciting fighters and is still developing his nascent skills.
He stands as an example to those who have been down on their luck, with fate seemingly against them.
“Never quit; never give up,” he said. “Keep fighting. Always keep fighting.”
That is what Santiago Ponzinibbio had to do just to stay alive. And he’ll have to continue to do that to stay in the hunt in a deep and talented division.
It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s what he gave everything up to achieve.
“My life,” he said, glancing around the UFC Performance Institute, “is perfect. This is what I have been dreaming of for so long.”
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