TUF 15′s Michael Chiesa hoping for a Hollywood ending
Real life has delivered a more inspirational and emotional story than even the best Hollywood screenwriters could craft this year on The Ultimate Fighter.
A couple weeks after making it into the house, Spokane’s Michael Chiesa learned that his father Mark, 53, lost his battle with leukaemia and had passed away.
The fifth pick of Team Faber (10th overall), the 24-year-old lightweight wasn’t picked as one of the favourites to advance to the finals, but after winning three fights in 13 weeks, Chiesa is poised to face teammate Al Iaquinta to see who will emerge as “The Ultimate Fighter” for Season 15.
No need for re-writes or “A List” actors to channel their inner fighter; this story has played out in real time over the last three months, and the ending will be written Saturday inside the Octagon.
“This situation was something me and my dad had talked about before I left,” explains Chiesa, speaking with The Roar on the eve of the biggest fight of his young career.
“He’d been sick since June, so when things started to get more serious going into the try-out process, I had told him I didn’t know if I would want to leave if I made the show, and he darn-near scolded me for it.”
Chiesa, his words measured and his voice wavering ever so slightly, explained that his father chastened him to put his illness aside, and concentrate on chasing his dream. In fact, Mark Chiesa didn’t even want his wife to tell their son the news should something happen while he was in the Ultimate Fighter house.
“That would have meant I would have found out about just a couple days ago,” admits the unbeaten lightweight hopeful. “The hard choice for me was if I wanted to go home or not.
“I knew I wasn’t going to leave the competition, and (teammate and long-time friend) Sam (Sicillia) was concerned with it — he was afraid I would go home, and change my mind about coming back to the competition — but ultimately, I’m glad I made my choice about staying in the competition, and as well as go home, spend a day with my family, pay respects to my Dad, and go to his services.
“It was definitely a tough thing to go through; every day I thought about it, and every day I had my own little breakdown about it, but it motivated me, and it kind of pushed me to where I’m at right now.”
While everyone has been busily writing the “Winning One for His Dad” angle since the finals were set last week, the well-spoken Chiesa wants to make it clear that while his Dad’s fight has put his personal struggles in the house into perspective, he’s been thinking about winning The Ultimate Fighter for quite some time now.
“This has been my dream since I was in high school – to get on the show and win it – so I would be a liar if I said that my dad passing away motivated me to win the show. That would be a lie; I’m here solely for myself. I’m here for my dream that I’ve wanted for the better part of my life.
“As far as my Dad’s passing, and everything my family is going through, it just motivated me because when I would get down on myself or have a bad day — start to doubt myself — I would stop and think, `I chose to be in this sport. I love this sport; I chose to be here. I chose to compete in this. My dad didn’t chose to be in the fight that he got into; he was forced to go through it, and he fought his ass off.’
“What my Dad went through is on such a tougher, higher scale than what I was doing, so it would almost calm me down because I was looking at what my Dad did, how hard he fought, and what I’m doing, and think `This is a cakewalk. What’s the worst that’s going to happen? I get beat up. That’s not a big deal.’
“Any time I got worked up in the competition or down on myself, I just looked at my dad’s situation, and how much worse, and how much tougher it was, and it made the competition — not be easier, but it just calmed my nerves down a lot. It definitely put things into perspective.”
While his personal tragedy has been the biggest story of the season, it’s far from the only memory Chiesa is taking with him now that he’s out free from the TUF House and ready to embark on the next stage of his career.
He has nothing but praise for his coach, Urijah Faber, and the rest of the team of coaches and fighters he brought in to help the eight members of Team Faber develop their skills, and credits the strength of the unit as a whole for helping the blue team earn both spots in the finals.
“There are not enough good things that I could say about Urijah and his coaching staff. Everybody on Team Alpha Male are very talented fighters, and very good coaches as well. You look at the roster of guys, and everybody there is so high level, and they’re great coaches.
“The one thing that I really enjoyed about it is that it is that we had such a good team format. They were our coaches, but at the end of the day, we were all peers. We all trained together, we all sparred together, we all grappled together, we all did everything together, so it felt like we were all a strong team. It wasn’t even just like a team of eight — it felt like a team of 15 of us.”
The debate about teammates fighting one another has been argued extensively over the last few years in this sport, with various fighters, coaches, and critics — not to mention UFC President Dana White — all voicing their views on whether athletes who train together should or shouldn’t step into the cage and battle it out for real.
It’s another angle that has been presented repeatedly in the build-up to tomorrow’s finale, but again Chiesa is quick to dispel the angle an inflated storyline. Yes, he and Iaquinta both represent Team Faber, but facing someone he trained with throughout this journey was something he planned for all along.
And something he’s happy to be doing in the finale in all honesty.
“I predicted at some point that I would have to fight one of my teammates. I’ve met everybody here — aside from Sam Sicillia — under these circumstances. I wouldn’t have met any of these guys if it wasn’t for The Ultimate Fighter.
“Al’s a great teammate, he’s a great guy, and we got along real well, but we met each other under these circumstances, so it’s not a big deal that we’ve got to fight each other. It’s just part of the business. We met each other through this show, and honestly, it’s an honour to fight him in the finale.
“I’d rather fight against one of my teammates in the finale than somebody on Team Cruz — that gives Urijah the win as the coach, Team Faber the win as a team, and I wouldn’t want to go to war with anybody else.
“We pushed each other all the way along, as far as our training camps for our fights, and now we get to go out there, and have a war. I’m so excited, and it’s such an honour.”
Regardless of what has happened in the world outside of the reality TV competition, making it to the finals of The Ultimate Fighter is a solid accomplishment. After all, a massive field of hopefuls was whittled down to 32 before 16 of those lightweights were sent packing by those who became the Season 15 cast.
Now, after an exhaustive stretch of seclusion, and three fights, Chiesa is one of the last men standing, set to head into the cage with a more refined skill set, and a new-found appreciation for the little things in life.
“The 13 week process was definitely a grind,” he says with a chuckle, underselling the struggle of living in a house full of fighters with no outlets or connection to civilization for more than three months.
“It gives you an appreciation for certain things. You’re deprived of everything in that house. You’re deprived of everything except fighting and food, so you have a little bit more appreciation for a simple walk outside. As you grow up, lots of people get distant with their family, but I’m talking to my family a lot more. It’s changed me for the better, and it’s made me grow up a lot.
“As far as where I’m at as a fighter from the day I got there to where I’m at now, I’ve improved by leaps and bounds. I had stand-up when I got to the house, but I was just a brawler — no technique; just tuck my chin, and throw — and these guys broadened my horizons in all aspects, and made me improve my game.”
Chiesa says he envisions Saturday’s meeting with Iaquinta being a battle, one that both men are capable of winning regardless of where the fight goes, and he’ll stop at nothing to be the one holding up the glass plate given to the winner.
“I’ve envisioned myself holding that piece of glass,” he admits as the conversation is winding down. “I think about is that piece of glass, and the feeling of winning the fight, and getting to hold it in my hands.”
His words trail off for a moment, the mental picture of the life-long dream that could be a reality giving him pause.
“This fight means everything to me just in the sense of accomplishment,” he says. “Of knowing that I made it through the 13 weeks of hard training, hard sparring, having bad days, dealing with the death of my dad, having to go out and fight a #1 pick. This fight has such sentimental value to me that you couldn’t put a price tag on how great winning it will be.
“This fight is going to be the best version of me that I can put out there, and I just anticipate a war; I really do. I have a feeling this thing could go all three. I’m just so ready to go out there and perform. Mentally I’m so well-prepared for this fight; it’s the biggest moment of my life.
“This fight means everything, and I’m embracing it with open arms. I’m so ready to go out there and get the win, and I’ll go through whatever I have to in order to get it.”
With everything he’s been through this season, Chiesa is already a champion in the eyes of many, regardless of the outcome of Saturday’s contest.
Follow Michael Chiesa on Twitter: @MikeMav22