Santiago Ponzinibbio hit a pivotal point of his career this summer – one he needed badly.
The UFC welterweight handed rising prospect Miguel Baeza his first professional defeat, outputting him in a “Fight of the Year” contender on the main card of UFC Fight Night 189 in June.
It was the first win for Ponzinibbio (28-4 MMA, 10-3 UFC) since returning to competition after a life-threatening illness that kept him out of the octagon for three years.
“It was a beautiful fight and it was a fight where, most importantly, I proved I’m back,” Ponzinibbio told MMA Junkie in Spanish. “I proved I’m ready to fight with the best in the world.
“This kid (Baeza) might not be ranked, but I think he has the level of a top 10 and he’s a very good athlete. He’s big physically. He’s technical and he was coming in with that undefeated confidence. There are so many qualities. I took the fight as a challenge for myself and to test myself. I proved to myself and to everybody else that I’m back and I’m here to fight the best.”
Prior to the lengthy layoff due to illness, the Argentine fighter was on a seven-fight winning streak and considered a top title contender at 170 pounds. The inactivity saw him out of the rankings and his return to competition didn’t paint a promising picture.
Ponzinibbio resumed his career in January and suffered a first-round knockout loss to Li Jingliang. It was a tough setback for the 34-year-old.
Ponzinibbio knew for his second fight back against Baeza, he badly needed a win – not because his UFC job was on the line, but because he still aspired to pick up where he left off and be a title contender once again.
“I didn’t have my back against the wall because I know the company wouldn’t have let me go,” Ponzinibbio said. “My fights are always exciting. I’ve never missed weight. I never had issues with USADA. I put on good fights, win or lose. But I’m not here to just fight – I’m here to be a world champion.
“I was so close to the title. We had talked about being one fight away from the belt. I was on a seven-fight winning streak. I was coming off that main event fight in Argentina, but then the illness came, the inactivity, the return, which I wasn’t 100 percent. I lost quick where I wasn’t dominated technically. It was one hit and it was over.
“Then the rumors saying I’m not the same and this and that. So I needed to prove to myself and everybody else. I know I have the potential to be champion, but I need to show it. There’s no use just knowing it and showing it in the gym. I need to show it in the octagon. I needed that win to show I’m back.”
Ponzinibbio is determined to get his hands on UFC gold. The American Top Team product hopes to clock in two more fights this year if the schedule permits. Ponzinibbio wants a return in October and he’s open to compete with any of the top dogs at welterweight.
“We’ll see what happens next, but there are many names out there,” Ponzinibbio said. “There’s Michael Chiesa, who recently lost, but he’s a top athlete and that loss doesn’t define him. There’s Vicente Luque – we can make a very exciting fight and he’s a guy that likes to exchange like me. That would be a great fight. There’s Stephen Thompson; Gilbert Burns, who I would love to fight someday; Leon Edwards – just many names out there. We’ll see what the UFC is thinking. I’m prepared to return soon.”