When Santiago Ponzinibbio secured his seventh consecutive win in the UFC, he was convinced that one more victory would allow him to finally compete for the welterweight title.
More than two years later, the Argentinean contender hasn’t set foot inside the octagon because of a health scare that had doctors fearing that his career might be over and his life could be at risk.
According to Ponzinibbio, he stayed relatively quiet about the entire ordeal because he was facing a harsh reality where fighting might no longer be an option for him. For all the questions about his standing in the division or when he might return to action, the 34-year-old veteran was just wondering if he’d get the chance to ever fight again.
“For me it’s very tough,” Ponzinibbio told MMA Fighting. “The people don’t know the truth. The people don’t really know the truth. When everything happened, it’s a little weird and I don’t talk too much. It was very complicated.
“It started with an infection inside my body and then it goes to my blood. I’ve got two different kinds of bacterial infections. It was [an] epidemic [type of bacteria] and the other was pseudomonas, [a bacteria frequently found in water and certain plant seeds]. This is a more complicated bacteria. I had two in my body. I spent eight days in the hospital.”
After an initial diagnosis and treatment along with his hospital stay, Ponzinibbio was discharged, but he was losing weight. He then developed a 103-degree fever that put his doctors in a panic.
“It was three days to finish the treatment, and then I started with a fever,” Ponzinibbio explained. “I have two doctors, my general doctor and my [infectious disease] doctor. I go to him, I have a fever, that’s normal? He told me not at all, go to the hospital right now. I go to the hospital and they make a couple tests.
“I stayed 10 days more in the hospital. They couldn’t bring my fever down. They switched my medications. They gave me a lot of different medication. I went back home, still with the PICC line [peripherally inserted central catheter] and more medication. For a couple, maybe two months more.”
Finally after finishing the last round of medication, Ponzinibbio was given a bill of good health, which allowed him to return to training.
He had already been forced out of the gym during this ordeal, so Ponzinibbio took a trip to Las Vegas to begin his rehabilitation under the watchful eye of coaches, trainers and therapists at the UFC Performance Institute.
Sadly, he soon discovered that his body wasn’t regaining its strength despite intense physical therapy sessions he was undergoing. In fact, Ponzinibbio was starting to feel even more pain in his body, seeing no results after he started working out again.
“I go to Vegas and I go to [physical therapy] – a lot of PT, twice a day, for five weeks,” Ponzinibbio said. “We don’t see nothing is getting better. Heather [Linden] at the UFC PI told me, ‘This is not normal at all.’ I was still using very strong anti-inflammatory. It’s almost November, I started in May and I’m still using this anti-inflammatory [medicine].
“We go to get an MRI. A couple of days after that, they called me into a separate room and said, ‘Listen, the MRI said you have an infection in the bone, it’s very dangerous and maybe you can’t fight again.’ The doctor said that, you have an infection in your bone and they said this is very dangerous. Maybe you can’t fight again.”
Ponzinibbio had taken a lot of punches during his career. None hit harder than hearing that his career might be over.
Following that diagnosis, he flew back home to Florida, where he visited with his own physician before ultimately being referred to a rheumatologist, a doctor who specializes in the diagnosis of arthritis as well as other diseases of the bones, muscles and joints.
“The inflammation in my ligaments is coming from arthritis,” Ponzinibbio revealed. “End of November, I go to the rheumatologist, they give me a lot of protocols and I start to get back to normal. Until this, I lost six months. It was very bad.
“After that, with the treatment, with the rheumatologist, a lot of different antibiotics, and my body started coming back. The PT started to make it work. Before that, my ligaments were very swollen. I lost all my muscle, that’s very crazy. After that, I started to improve.”
It was a roller coaster ride both physically and emotionally. Ponzinibbio’s body transformed from the athlete who had become one of the most feared strikers on the entire UFC roster to a frail civilian. Add to that, his mind had been riddled with questions about what the future held if fighting was no longer a possibility.
“They told me I might not be able to fight again in my life,” he said. “It started in 2019. I dreamed about fighting for the belt. The people in the UFC told me to go win one more fight and then I can go for the belt. I was so excited. A couple months after, I’m in the hospital and people didn’t understand what was happening to me. At one point, I lost 30 pounds. It was very bad. It was very scary.
“It was very, very crazy and very bad. I had a very complicated case. It was very tough on me. I went from one opportunity where I was going to live my dream to win the belt and a couple months after that, I’m fighting for my life. I can’t lie, I was very scared.”
Ponzinibbio spent the majority of 2019 dealing with doctors, hospital stays and physical therapy as he attempted to salvage his career. Once he finally received the correct diagnosis, the former Ultimate Fighter: Brazil contender returned to the gym. But the long road to getting into fight shape still had to be traveled.
“I got back to the gym around December, but for sure, it was not normal,” Ponzinibbio said. “I still had to do a lot of PT, a lot of conditioning exercise. After a big injury, it’s a process until you’re back to normal. It was very hard work.
Because he’s been out of action for over two years, the welterweight division has largely moved on without Ponzinibbio. He lost his standing in the rankings and despite a seven-fight win streak, Ponzinibbio knows one more win will no longer secure a title shot.
While that is certainly a tough pill to swallow, Ponzinibbio is ready to put in the work to regain the position he once held, and it starts with his upcoming return in January as part of a trio of events being held in Abu Dhabi.
“Some guys that were behind me in the rankings like Leon Edwards, they are now in front of me,” Ponzinibbio said. “I started to lose opportunities. That’s very bad. I was No. 7 in the rankings and I know the rankings don’t make a lot of sense but they removed me. I worked so hard for that.
“After a lot of work, after a lot of ups and downs, after this whole crazy thing, thank god, I am healthy. I’m very excited to come back. I’m very excited to show the world. The first reason I did this is because I love it. This is my dream. I feel good. I’m back in shape. I’m very excited to be back.”