How do you describe a year that has contained both your brightest joy and your darkest moments?
“I’ve always said that this year has been a hard one to put into words — and it has been — but I would say it’s been a journey,” says soon to be 25-year-old Spokane, Wash., native Michael Chiesa.
One day after hitting the quarter-century mark, “Maverick” will step into the Octagon to make his first UFC appearance since winning Season 15 of The Ultimate Fighter.
Watch The Ultimate Fighter 16: Team Carwin vs. Team Nelson, which returns Friday, on Sportsnet and get weekly recaps on Sportsnet.ca.
Winning the show was a dream Chiesa carried since high school, and one he accomplished when he submitted Al Iaquinta halfway through the first round of their meeting on June 1 in Las Vegas. While the win represents the highest point of Chiesa’s professional career, it was preceded by a tragic loss outside the cage.
At the same time that he was earning the victory that secured his entry into The Ultimate Fighter house, Chiesa’s father Mark was in the final stages of his lengthy battle with leukemia.
“My fight to get into the house, my dad passed away a couple hours after that,” said Chiesa in an interview with Sportsnet.ca earlier this week. “So from that point on, I feel like I’ve been climbing out of that valley.”
Chiesa was given the news of his father’s passing on the season’s second episode. It was one of the most real moments in the history of the long-running reality TV competition. After returning home to attend his father’s services, the unbeaten lightweight worked his way through the competition, defeating tournament favourite Justin Lawrence by TKO in the quarter-finals before stopping James Vick to advance to the finale where he would submit Iaquinta to deliver a real-life Hollywood ending.
As proud of his achievement as he is, Chiesa makes it clear that he’s nowhere near finished when it comes to making his dreams a reality inside the cage.
“Winning the show is a big deal to me; it’s the biggest accomplishment I’ve had in my life, but I’m not done climbing yet. I’m still trying to climb to get to this peak. I have one last goal I can achieve in my fighting career, and that’s to win a world title, and I feel like winning the show has made me start believing in myself. I believe that I can make that a reality. I can win a world title. I can get that belt.”
In addition to his personal success, he wants to prove to fans that there is still a lot of value in the reality show.
“(I also want) to show people that this show still produces contenders,” Chiesa said. “I plan on winning this fight, as tough as it may be, and continuing to win so that people believe in this show again.”
For several seasons, the UFC’s pioneering series has been criticized for focusing more on personalities and prospects as winners and past contestants have mostly failed to reach the same championship level attained by stars of the show’s early seasons like Forrest Griffin, Rashad Evans, and Michael Bisping.
“In those first few seasons of The Ultimate Fighter, the UFC didn’t have as deep a talent pool (as they do now). There weren’t as many guys under contract. If you look at it, a lot of those guys from those early seasons are still in the UFC now. Not that they’re not talented, but they didn’t have as deep a roster as they do now.
“I still believe that these recent seasons have still produced some very good fighters. You’ve got John Dodson, Diego Brandao, Tony Ferguson, Jon Brookins — those guys are all very talented individuals. When you lose one here or there, that doesn’t define your career. That’s the hard thing about this sport.
“I feel like a fight is a season. When you’re in the UFC, one fight is the equivalent of a whole football season, so when you lose a fight, the fans only remember you from your last fight, so it’s very important to perform well, and to keep winning.”
Chiesa will take the first step on his championship quest on the televised preliminary card of next Saturday’s UFC on FOX event in Seattle.
“There’s no better way to take my very first step towards that than in my home state of Washington … in front of all the people that have supported me over the last five years that I’ve been in this sport.”
Watch UFC on FOX 5: Henderson vs. Diaz on Dec. 8 on Sportsnet starting at 5 p.m. ET / 2 p.m. PT.
Though he’s had to endure an opponent change and the added stresses of fighting at home, the man with the gnarly beard and well-rounded skill set says his journey to the Octagon has been nothing but positive.
“It hasn’t been that bad of an adjustment,” said Chiesa, who was originally scheduled to meet Rafaello Oliveira but will now square off with former Division III wrestling standout Marcus LeVesseur. “Marcus is a lot more of a decorated wrestler, but in terms of fighting style, they’re really not too far off from each other. Oliveira, in most of his fights, he looks for the takedown. He’s a decorated black belt, so he’s looking to put guys on their back and work his ground game, and it’s kind of the same thing with Marcus.
“It hasn’t been a difficult shift as far as the opponent change because I got the change six or seven weeks out, so it wasn’t like it was a two-week thing where I was scrambling to change game plans or anything.
“I’ve always said — and especially now — that I’m still developing as a fighter, so I don’t want to do my training camps around a certain guy’s style. All I need to know is whether he’s a righty or a lefty and what he going to do and then we’ll go from there. When I train, I like to focus on making myself better in every aspect, and just work on the one thing that they’re good at a little bit more.”
“With Marcus, that has been wrestling, and that’s not a big deal because there is a lot of good wrestling here in Washington. We have a very strong wrestling community, so there has been a wealth of guys who know Marcus and have competed within the same tournaments as him, so when they found out I was fighting LeVesseur, they were calling offering to help. It’s been a great training camp.”
There is an excitement in Chiesa’s voice when he talks about his fight, his training camp, and his development as a fighter. After spending the first five years of his career training when he could after working eight- or nine-hour days “throwing beer” as he says, winning The Ultimate Fighter has afforded him the opportunity to make mixed martial arts his full-time career, and he intends to make the most of it.
“Obviously winning is what’s most important, but I need to show people that I’ve improved. Each fight from here on out I want to show people that I’m improving; that I’m getting better in all aspects of the game.”
E. Spencer Kyte is a regular contributor to ufc.com, UFC Magazine, and Fight Magazine, and writes the MMA blog Keyboard Kimura. Follow him on Twitter @spencerkyte.