Chiesa ready to fulfil promise to late father in TUF finale against Iaquinta
LAS VEGAS, Nev. - Mike Chiesa has tangled with some of the toughest up-and-coming mixed martial arts fighters, but after spending 13 weeks removed the rest of the world even the simplest tasks can seem scary.
"I borderline had like a panic attack. I went from being around nobody to walking into Wal-Mart to get a phone charger and was like 'Oh look at all these people,'" joked Chiesa, a finalist on UFC's "The Ultimate Fighter Live," of his introduction back into the real world earlier this week.
"It totally bugged me out. But I'm glad to be out of the house. When you're in the house, it's such a grind. It feels like everything takes forever. A day feels like a week. Being in the house is definitely a mental test."
The UFC's popular reality television show, now in its 15th season, features 15 contestants living in a secluded house in Las Vegas without contact with the outside world for three months while trying to win a six-figure contract from the world's largest MMA promotion.
But unlike the other contestants, the Spokane, Wash. native had to endure a greater emotional test when his 53-year-old father, Mark Chiesa, passed away from a battle with leukemia early on in the show.
"When you lose someone as close as a father, the scars don't heal fast," Chiesa said. "My family, it's going to take lot of time for us to cope and get over it. We'll probably hurt for a very long time.
"But I know every Friday, whether I was fighting or not, them getting to tune in and see me on the show, I know for at least an hour it made them happy. I know my family is proud of me and I'm proud of them as well."
A win over fellow teammate, Al Iaquinta (5-1-1 MMA, 4-0 TUF), Friday night at The Ultimate Fighter: Live Finale at the Palms Casino Resort would give the 24-year-old Chiesa (7-0 MMA, 4-0 TUF) a cool glass trophy engraved with his name as this seasonís lightweight tourney winner and a $100,000 contract with the UFC. More importantly, secure the promise he made to his dying father.
"His dad would be really happy," Chiesa's mother, Teresa, said while wiping away tears as she talked with reporters. "He would be so proud.
"He kept a promise to his dad," continued Teresa, who travelled to Las Vegas with one of Chiesa's sisters, Meggie, to support her son. Another sister, Amy, was too far along in her pregnancy to make the trip.
"We wanted him to go on with his career. I'm just so proud of him. He's a great kid and heís got a huge heart."
UFC President Dana White broke the tradition in which fighters aren't allowed leave the house, and let Mike return home for his father's funeral.
While White said he would have understood if Chiesa didn't return to the show, that was never an option for the former Budweiser distributor.
"It wasn't tough at all. It was something me and my dad talked about before I left, so it never cross my mind at any point if I wanted to drop out of this competition or not," said Chiesa, his voice cracking with emotion.
"When I went home, it was easy for me to come back. It was hard for me to leave my family, but it was an easy choice for me to stay in this competition."
Such emotional and physical toughness earned him the respect of teammates and foes alike.
"My hats off to him. I couldn't imagine myself in the same situation," said Iaquinta, a 25-year-old New York native.
"Hopefully I never will. Having to fight under circumstances like that is definitely tough. To be honest with you I didn't even know anything had happened until one of the coaches told me. He really kept a poker face. I think he's definitely a tough guy."
Indeed, the bushy-bearded Chiesa, sporting a freshly bruised right eye from his come-from-behind victory over James Vick last Friday in the semifinals, has defied odds all season long.
He defeated Johnavan Vistante and Jeremy Larsen before knocking out Justin Lawrence, the favourite to win the show, and his second-round KO of Vick also came with him playing the role as underdog.
Chiesa credits his improved standup to his TUF coach and UFC top bantamweight Urijah Faber.
"That's been the key," Chiesa said. "I've had stand-up throughout my career, but I didn't believe in it. I always just thought my strength was in my wrestling. But (Faber) really made me believe in myself as a fighter and believe in my striking."
While Chiesa, a plus-235 underdog against Iaquinta at some Las Vegas sports books, will likely have a large majority of the crowd on his side because of his touching story, he knows his journey won't be an easy task to complete.
But like he has all season, Chiesa promises he won't give up.
"Fifteen minutes is a long time to fight. It doesn't matter if I'm losing or winning in the fight, I'll find a way to win," he said. "I won't roll over and quit.
"It's been a test. It's a blessing to get where I'm at, a lot of hard work and perseverance through tough times. Itís been quite a journey."