The UFC travels to the beautiful city of Buenos Aires, Argentina, for the first time on Saturday, Nov. 17. The promotion’s first trip to the country will be held in the Arena Parque Roca in the city’s bustling epicenter. Argentina is the third South American country and 24th country worldwide to host a UFC event in the past 25 years. Earlier this year, Chile joined Brazil as the only countries in the continent to do so prior.
Argentinian Santiago Ponzinibbio headlines the event in a five-round welterweight showdown with perennial contender Neil Magny. Ponzinibbio has earned stoppages in three of his six UFC victories during his lengthy winning streak, which is tied for second among active welterweights. Magny seeks to conquer his top-10 foe on enemy territory. He rides a two-fight winning streak with victories over former interim champ Carlos Condit and Craig White. The victor of this bout could find himself close to title contention.
In the night’s co-headliner, former UFC title challenger Ricardo Lamas attempts to end his two-fight skid when he goes up against Darren Elkins, one of the toughest fighters in the division. Lamas is less than a year removed from a top-five ranking. A shocking upset at the hands of Josh Emmett and another setback against featherweight prospect Mirsad Bektic have left Lamas fighting to remain relevant. Elkins, too, was on the cusp of contention following six straight wins. However, he ran into the seemingly unstoppable Australian Alex Volkanovski. Elkins is on the hunt for his 15th UFC victory.
The main card also features an action-packed striking contest between light heavyweights Khalil Rountree and Johnny Walker, a middleweight showdown between exciting Brazilian Cezar “Mutante” Ferreira and former Legacy Fighting Alliance champ Ian Heinisch, and a battle of rising strawweight ladies Cynthia Calvillo and Poliana Botelho.
Further down the lineup, Argentina’s own Laureano Staropoli makes his UFC debut against Mexico’s Hector Aldana, and Guido Cannetti takes on Ecuador’s Marlon Vera.
The night kicks off on UFC Fight Pass with the early prelims at 7 p.m. ET. The action moves to Fox Sports 1 at 8 p.m. ET for the televised portion of the preliminary card. Finally, at 10 p.m. ET, the six-fight main card goes down on Fox Sports 1, culminating in the welterweight main event between Magny and Ponzinibbio. Combat Press writers Matt Petela and Zach Aittama preview the action in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.
Headlining welterweight Neil Magny has flirted with title contention on several occasions, but he always seems to lose a key bout just as he’s gaining momentum. It happened against Demian Maia and again when he met Lorenz Larkin and Rafael dos Anjos. Now on a two-fight winning streak, Magny faces the surging Santiago Ponzinibbio. Will Magny slam the gate shut on the rising Brazilian, or will this be yet another setback for Magny? How far is the winner from a welterweight title shot?
Petela: Magny impressed in his last two fights, which came against Carlos Condit and Craig White. However, it is unclear whether this was a testament to Magny putting it all together or the quality of the competition. White took the fight on short notice and was making his UFC debut, and Condit was coming off a 16-month layoff and has not looked like the same elite welterweight he once was. This fight will give Magny another attempt to show he is one of the elite fighters at 170 pounds.
Ponzinibbio looked great in his decision victory over Mike Perry, as well as in his first-round knockout of Gunnar Nelson. However, Magny is a different type of fighter than Perry or Nelson. Magny is well rounded and brings unmatched cardio. In his first UFC headliner, Ponzinibbio will struggle to keep pace with Magny over five rounds, and Magny will cruise to a lopsided decision victory.
The welterweight picture just got more interesting with the addition of former Bellator and ONE Championship kingpin Ben Askren. As long as Tyron Woodley is the champion, Askren won’t fight for the title against his teammate. Askren will take on — and likely defeat — a number of top contenders, though. The dynamic between Woodley and Askren bodes well for Magny, who will find himself a win or two away from a title shot while Woodley and Askren take out a number of other top contenders in the coming year.
Aittama: Magny has definitely been through some rough patches in his UFC career. Yet, he has consistently been in or just outside of contender status for the past three years. He entered those discussions with a seven-fight winning streak, but he has never capitalized on the opportunity. He’s quietly continued to pick up quality wins over top competition, including former UFC champs Condit and Johny Hendricks, plus No. 1 contender Kelvin Gastelum and former top-15 fighters Hector Lombard and Erick Silva.
Ponzinibbio, 32, brings a six-fight winning streak into his biggest showcase to date. The UFC is bringing the Octagon to Argentina for the first time on Ponzinibbio’s back. He’s by far the biggest MMA star in a country where the sport’s popularity is still growing. It helps that he has an all-action style that rarely sees him take a step back, for better or worse. Ponzinibbio’s only loss in the last five years came against the aforementioned Larkin, who also holds a knockout win over Magny.
At 31, Magny will enter the cage as the best version of himself. He’s developed his game at Elevation Fight Team in Colorado by adding a solid jab to his ever-improving striking game, an awareness of when to level change and use his wrestling, and better overall game-planning. Magny is the type of fighter who should beat Ponzinibbio most of the time. He has the length and reach to catch him coming in, the wrestling and top game to control him on the ground, and the gas tank to push the pace for five hard rounds.
Despite Magny’s advantages, Ponzinibbio is nearly a 3-to-1 favorite heading into this contest. It’s all because of Ponzinibbio’s relentless pressure. He has overwhelmed opponent after opponent with a non-stop boxing game that could play on one of Magny’s weaknesses: an inability to deal with pressure. Ponzinibbio is there to be countered, hit, stunned and finished. However, Magny’s length might actually play against him with his back to the cage. Magny needs to use the jab and teep kick to keep the distance. If Ponzinibbio gets inside, then Magny will have to switch to using elbows, takedowns, underhooks and the clinch to defend from the onslaught.
The winner of this contest does move closer to a title shot. However, the welterweight division is a cluttered mess at this point. It sounds like Colby Covington is next in line for Woodley. Then there’s Askren, who is scheduled to fight Robbie Lawler at UFC 233 in January. If Lawler wins, then he could potentially move closer to a title shot. The winner of the fight between Kamaru Usman and the aforementioned dos Anjos also likely has the bigger claim at a title bid.
Ponzinibbio is tied with Covington, Leon Edwards and Elizeu Zaleski for the second longest winning streak in the division, but he doesn’t quite have the resume as some of the contenders listed above, especially Usman, who has won eight straight since debuting with the UFC. Magny has the most to gain from a victory, but Ponzinibbio has the tools to excite the hometown fans.
The evening’s co-headliner pairs featherweight Ricardo Lamas with Darren Elkins. Both men have been defeated in recent fights — Lamas has back-to-back losses to Josh Emmett and Mirsad Bektic, while Elkins recently dropped a decision to Alexander Volkanovski. Can Lamas get back on track and re-establish himself as a contender, or will Elkins extend the former title challenger’s skid to three losses?
Aittama: This fight is pivotal for both men. A loss could mean a slide outside of the UFC rankings. Before Elkins’ recent defeat, he had racked up six straight victories to get into the rankings. If he falls against Lamas, it’s very likely he drops outside of the top 15 again. Lamas has even more to lose. He was the third-ranked featherweight less than a year ago, but he’s on the verge of dropping three straight bouts. This could put Lamas, 36, on the chopping block.
This might seem strange given Lamas’ success in the UFC since his debut in 2011. However, the UFC has made aggressive changes to its roster heading into the new year. The company has plans to cut the entire flyweight division, and it has signed more talent from new territories and let some fighter’s contracts expire. Lamas has been a perennial contender for half a decade, but he stands to take the biggest hit in his career should he drop this bout. Prior to his recent skid, Lamas had never lost back-to-back fights. He’s beaten Cub Swanson, Dennis Bermudez, Charles Oliveira, Jason Knight, Hatsu Hioki and Diego Sanchez. He has lost only to the elite fighters in the division. At the very least, a defeat would signal an end to any title aspirations for Lamas.
As a result of his toughness and ability to persevere through adversity, Elkins went on a six-fight winning streak from 2015 to the beginning of 2018. He doesn’t have any flash to his game, but his grinding style earned him recent victories over ranked opponents Michael Johnson, as well as the aforementioned Bermudez and Bektic. “The Damage” claimed victory in 14 of his 19 fights. However, he’s rarely talked about as a serious contender. A victory here won’t change this, but it will continue his slow grind toward the top of the division. His performance against Volkanovski was an absolute disaster, though. Australia’s top prospect absolutely dominated the fight on the feet and stunned Elkins multiple times in each round to earn a one-sided decision.
Lamas offers a different style match-up than Volkanovski, but “The Bully” is still dangerous in every phase of the game. Lamas will need to establish his jab, strike in combination, and use a variety of kicks to change the looks he gives Elkins. Lamas can be an explosive fighter on the feet, but he has a tendency to put himself in more danger than needed.
Elkins won’t blow the doors off Lamas on the feet. He’s very much a one-note striker with a basic one-two and a switch left body kick. Where the fight gets interesting will be in the wrestling, grappling and submission games. Both fighters can finish the fight on the ground, but it’s more likely the person who controls where the fight takes place will win.
Lamas is feeling the pressure heading into this contest. The former title challenger needs a victory to snap his losing skid and reroute his path to contention. He takes the first step in the right direction on Saturday night with a win over Elkins.
Petela: This fight will be entertaining, that’s a certainty.
Elkins doesn’t know how to be in a boring fight, and Lamas took part in an epic battle with Max Holloway where the two men stood toe-to-toe and pointed to the ground for the last 10 seconds of the contest, as if to say, “Let’s plant our feet and just start swinging.”
Elkins is known for his ability to sustain a beating and come back, but this fighting style has an expiration date. Lamas will be able to hurt Elkins early and, unlike Bektic or Johnson, he will not fall prey to Elkins’ insane comeback ability.
Lamas and Elkins both have their back a bit against the wall. They’re coming off losses, which will only help to motivate them to push the issue in this affair. Lamas could even face a pink slip with a loss, and this should fuel him to a victory against Elkins in a fight that is my early favorite for “Fight of the Night.” Lamas will end this fight before the closing bell.
Johnny Walker, Jesus Pinedo, Laureano Staropoli and Anderson dos Santos — do we need to know these names?
Petela: Pinedo is the fighter that I am most excited to see make his UFC debut. The Peruvian lightweight is on a six-fight winning streak. All of his victories have come by way of stoppage, including three submissions and three knockouts. He makes his first walk to the Octagon in South America, which should do a great deal to calm some of the UFC jitters. Pinedo takes on Devin Powell, an American who got his first win inside the UFC with a body-kick TKO over Alvaro Herrera in July. It is sure to be an exciting fight.
Aittama: The 22-year-old Pinedo is an exciting southpaw talent with an improving high-volume striking style, relentless and destructive ground-and-pound from the top position, skilled submissions, and a non-stop pace. Powell has an awkward style that could play into Pinedo’s pressure game. The young prospect will need to watch out for his surprisingly quick kicks and wrestling game. Now, let’s talk about the other debuting fighters.
Walker may be most known for getting trounced by Henrique Silva in 2016. However, the 26-year-old has won six straight since then, including his most recent bout against former UFC fighter Luis Henrique da Silva. Walker is a massive light heavyweight who employs an aggressive striking style that has led to knockout victories over former champions Stuart Austin and Cheick Kone. The Brazilian will be in for a very tough fight against fellow heavy-handed striker Khalil Rountree, who has won three straight in the UFC.
One of three Argentinian fighters on the card, Staropoli makes his UFC debut on a five-fight winning streak. Staropoli, 25, is a striker by trade. He fights out of the orthodox position, works to the body, and likes to throw wild hooks at times. “Pepi” would much rather stay on the feet, but he has shown some decent takedown defense and counter grappling. Staropoli is the slight favorite heading into his UFC debut against Mexico’s Hector Aldana, who lost his own Octagon debut against talented Chinese prospect Kenan Song.
Finally, there’s dos Santos, who makes his UFC debut on a three-fight winning streak. The Brazilian is a well-rounded fighter who has scored the stoppage in 15 of his 20 victories. “Berinja” has underrated knockout power in his hands, a strong striking game from the top position, and the ability to lock up a submission from any position. However, he faces a difficult challenge in former Cage Warriors champ Nad Narimani.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Aittama: Despite the imminent doom of the flyweight division, the sleeper fight on this card features The Ultimate Fighter 24 semifinalist Alexander Pantoja and former Shooto flyweight champion Yuta “Ulka” Sasaki. This fight is going to thrill.
Pantoja, 28, was the No.1 seed and one of the favorites to win his season of The Ultimate Fighter. He defeated current UFC fighters Brandon Moreno and Kaiwhare Kara-France to earn his place in the final four, but he fell short in a two-round fight against Hiromasa Ogikubo. However, Pantoja earned a UFC contract, unlike his opponent. Since debuting with the promotion in 2017, the Brazilian has defeated Eric Shelton, Neil Seery and the aforementioned Moreno. His lone loss came against top-10 flyweight Dustin Ortiz.
Sasaki was victorious in his UFC debut in 2014. After back-to-back losses at bantamweight, he dropped to the flyweight division in 2016. Since then, the 29-year-old has traded wins and losses. He holds victories over Willie Gates, Justin Scoggins and Jenel Lausa. Sasaki benefitted from the UFC’s recent flyweight purge despite falling to top-10 flyweights Wilson Reis and Jussier “Formiga” da Silva during his run at 125 pounds.
This fight was constructed because of its potential for an exciting, back-and-forth battle from start to finish. Pantoja will have a striking advantage on the feet to add to his excellent ground game. Sasaki can stand and trade, but he will be best served to create scrambles to open up a submission opportunity. The No. 9-ranked Pantoja is unlikely to move up the rankings with a victory. However, a performance bonus will not only help his pocketbooks, but also his case as a contender following what would be four wins in five fights.
Petela: I’m a sucker for a battle between two highly skilled women, which is exactly what the UFC serves up when Cynthia Calvillo takes on Poliana Botelho.
Calvillo was undefeated when she ran into the buzzsaw that is former strawweight champion, Carla Esparza. Botelho is coming off a TKO victory over Syuri Kondo in the UFC’s May trip to Santiago, Chile, and the South American crowd should firmly be in the corner of the Brazilian.
Botelho has a chance to climb up the rankings toward the top of the strawweight title picture. Calvillo, on the other hand, is looking to get back on track. This should make for an exciting back-and-forth battle.
Pair this card with…
Petela: A dose of No-Doz. It’s rare that any UFC event doesn’t have me at the edge of my seat, but outside of a few key match-ups, the promotion’s first trip to Argentina does not have the making for a classic night of fights. Hopefully I’m wrong, though.
Aittama: The Copa Libertadores Final. I’m not saying this UFC card is bad, but it’s not even close to the best sporting event that will take place in Buenos Aires this month. It’s unfortunate the UFC is making its debut in Argentina so close to one of the biggest sporting rivalries in the country, the Superclásico. The football battles between the Boca Juniors and River Plate have captivated fans since 1913. The clubs have nearly split all of their 246 matches, with Boca taking a slight seven-match lead. This year’s Copa Libertadores Final featured both clubs in a two-leg championship. In the first leg on Sunday, Nov. 11, the teams went to a 2-2 draw. The second leg, which takes place on Saturday, Nov. 24, will decide the victor in River Plate’s home stadium, El Monumental, which seats more than 70,000 people and is a mere 17 miles from Parque Roca Stadium. Luckily, the UFC event fell between the two legs of the championship, but it’s unlikely the promotion’s first foray into Argentina gets the attention the company desires.
Main Card (Fox Sports 1, 10 p.m. ET)
WW: Neil Magny vs. Santiago Ponzinibbio
FW: Ricardo Lamas vs. Darren Elkins
LHW: Khalil Rountree vs. Johnny Walker
MW: Cezar “Mutante” Ferreira vs. Ian Heinisch
BW: Marlon Vera vs. Guido Cannetti
Women’s StrawW: Poliana Botelho vs. Cynthia Calvillo
Preliminary Card (Fox Sports 1, 8 p.m. ET)
WW: Michel Prazeres vs. Bartosz Fabiński
FlyW: Alexandre Pantoja vs. Ulka Sasaki
FW: Austin Arnett vs. Humberto Bandenay
WW: Hector Aldana vs. Laureano Staropoli
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 5 p.m. ET)
LW: Devin Powell vs. Jesus Pinedo
FW: Nad Narimani vs. Anderson dos Santos
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