Unsexy contenders collide: Neil Magny vs. Santiago Ponzinibbio is a perfect example

Neil Magny
(Getty Images)

There is no discernable hook to the main event of Saturday’s debut fight card in Buenos Aires, Argentina; there is no bad blood between the combatants, neither wastes any time flexing on Twitter, and despite both being top-10 talents, it’s a fight that hasn’t garnered much attention since it was announced.

The matchup between Neil Magny and Santiago Ponzinibbio is unsexy, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important, and it’s crucial to understand that the two are not mutually exclusive.

Far too often these days, fights are prejudged on a mixed martial arts Q-rating that combines how popular the competitors are, what kind of drama exists between the combatants, the divisional narratives surrounding the fight and how exciting the contest may or may not be once the action gets underway. It works kind of like the scoring criteria used to judge the fights themselves.

Popularity and drama are the “effective striking” and “effective grappling” in this collection of criteria, with divisional narratives and excitement potential carrying less weight and being secondary elements to consider, much like aggression and Octagon control.

As a result, talented, ranked fighters who focus their energy on actually winning fights and nothing else frequently end up being overlooked and terrific matchups that carry divisional significance garner less attention than pumped-up feuds between middling competitors who have been barking at each other on Twitter.

Last weekend’s co-main event is a perfect example, as the bout between Donald Cerrone and Mike Perry garnered far more coverage because of the simmering feud between “Cowboy” and his former camp, Perry’s latest offensive social media offering, and the general fascination fans and media seem to have with “Platinum Mike” despite his average record inside the Octagon.

And don’t suggest that Cerrone being a tenured veteran who everyone likes played a big part in it, either, because he was coming off an impressive knockout win when he traveled to Singapore to face the streaking Leon Edwards last summer and that fight — like this weekend’s headliner — didn’t have any buzz.

It’s not a North American thing, either, where the Edwards fight being in Singapore or this weekend’s event taking place in Buenos Aires makes it impossible to cover in great detail, because Darren Till’s homecoming fight in May and countless other shows in Europe, Asia and Oceana have received in-depth coverage over the years.

It’s a Q-rating thing and while that is understandable to a degree, it has also contributed to the depreciation of the contender system and rankings structure while valuing personality over performance and dismissing talented fighters and good, meaningful fights far too frequently.

Saturday’s main event is a terrific fight between two emerging contenders and the winner should factor into the title conversation in 2019.

Magny is 13-3 over his last 16 fights dating to the start of 2014, with wins over Carlos Condit, Johny Hendricks and Kelvin Gastelum. He’s 3-1 in his last four fights and is coming off a dominant first-round victory in May. His most recent setback came more than a year ago against former lightweight champ and recent interim title challenger Rafael dos Anjos.

Ponzinibbio, meanwhile, has won six straight to climb to No. 10 in the rankings, including getting the better of Perry last December in Winnipeg and knocking out Gunnar Nelson. He’s 8-2 in the Octagon and hasn’t lost in 3 1/2 years.

Stylistically, it will be a chess match; Magny prefers to work at range behind a long jab and excellent conditioning, while Ponzinibbio is all forward pressure and power shots. If it goes to the ground, the American has shown the more offensive and effective grappling game, but the Argentine has a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and has proven difficult to get to the canvas since being outwrestled in his promotional debut five years ago.

Both are stationed in the top 10, and while there are far more marketable names ahead of them, results would dictate that the winner of this one would at least be in the conversation for landing a marquee assignment early next year because no matter how Saturday’s main event shakes out, the winner comes away in a great spot.

Outside of Colby Covington being next in line to challenge for the title, everything at the top of the welterweight division is fluid. Magny or Ponzinibbio should be considered for top-tier matchups in 2019 depending on who wins this weekend. From there, who knows how things play out?

Even if you want argue that their ceilings have been defined — which is difficult to say, given that Ponzinibbio is rolling and Magny is coming off two of his best performances — this remains a pivotal contest based on the fact the victor will most likely end up facing one of the more popular, more established names in the division next time out, so familiarizing yourself with both men seems like a reasonable thing to do if you’re a diligent fight fan.

With an increased focus on drama and personality, however, proven, talented fighters like Ponzinibbio and Magny get pushed aside and are largely ignored with increasing regularity, despite the fact they’re consistently winning and much closer to title contention than some of their louder, more controversial, less accomplished contemporaries.

The ironic piece in all this is that everyone who says they long for “the good old days” when there were fewer cards and more fighters they cared about should be riding hard for these types of competitors because 10 to 12 years ago were the halcyon days for unsexy contenders who worked their way up the rankings and were rewarded with opportunities to fight for championship gold.

A dozen years ago, Jeff Monson fought for the UFC heavyweight title. Two years later, Patrick Cote challenged Anderson Silva for the middleweight strap.

Results mattered and the same crop of contenders wasn’t recycled and hustled back into the title picture right away. Now, fans and media would get up in arms if a deserving but unheralded competitor like Cote were to fight for the title and few people want to see vanquished stars take a step back and work their way up the ladder a second time.

Which is how we end up here — 24 hours away from a compelling and competitive main event between two ranked competitors in one of the marquee divisions in the sport where far more people are interested in discussing the fallout from last weekend’s co-main event than acknowledging this weekend’s headline clash.

Saturday’s main event is a crucial contest in the 170-pound weight class that will have an impact on how things map out in the division next year — even if it isn’t sexy.