After leaving home to pursue MMA, Ponzinibbio returns as a headliner

Santiago Ponzinibbio faces a tough test in his home country against Neil Magny at UFC Fight Night: Buenos Aires on Saturday. Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Any time a UFC athlete gets to fight at home, it's a big deal. That is especially the case, however, for Argentina's Santiago Ponzinibbio.

Ponzinibbio (26-3) will headline UFC Fight Night on Saturday in Buenos Aires, opposite American welterweight Neil Magny (21-6). The televised event will mark the UFC's first trip to Argentina.

The opportunity to headline in his home country is a special one to Ponzinibbio, 32, especially since he had to leave the country to pursue the sport.

"When I started, the sport was not popular here," Ponzinibbio told ESPN. "People didn't understand it. If you wanted to learn MMA technique, you had to move to America or Brazil. Learning positions like ground-and-pound, working in a cage, specific to MMA -- you had to go somewhere else to get that information."

So, in his early 20s, that's what Ponzinibbio did. Up until that point, his MMA training consisted of working with single-discipline partners, such as a boxer, kickboxer or wrestler. He studied simple techniques on the internet and took fights where and when he could get them.

Even during that time, he knew he needed to seek better training. So when a friend in Argentina told Ponzinibbio he was going to Brazil on vacation, Ponzinibbio bummed a ride with him. He ended up staying there until four years ago, when he moved to the United States to train at American Top Team.

"A lot of people told me I was crazy," Ponzinibbio said. "In my city, university is free. You can study for free. My mother and father told me, 'You go to university.' But I have a lot of energy and I knew this sport was my life.

"I went to a beach in Brazil, looked for guys with jiu-jitsu shirts and asked where I could train. It was crazy. Two or three guys told me nothing, then one guy gave me a place to train. I had no papers. I lived for months on the beach, moving to different locations. I sold beer on the beach. After that, I got documents to work, so I started working in a restaurant. There was no technology. I didn't call my mother for one year. New country. New language. It was difficult."

On Saturday, many of Ponzinibbio's family members and longtime friends will see him compete live for the first time. Only his two brothers have ever seen him fight live. His father will be in attendance for the first time.

A win will extend Ponzinibbio's streak to seven and move him closer to a 170-pound title shot. It also will showcase Argentinian talent at the highest level of MMA -- something Ponzinibbio was once told was impossible.

"As the gyms get more information in this country, Argentina will export more fighters," Ponzinibbio said. "I know that. This is a country of warriors."