Mike Chiesa has arrived at his ultimate fight, and is perhaps a little surprised to discover how many detours there were on what he presumed would be a one-way street.
He is irrevocably changed. He is “still just a normal guy.”
He has been cajoled out of an old tendency to dark-spin even his best moments. He’s gone back to his room and cried.
He has acquired depthless respect for the fighters with whom he’s shared three months of hothouse communal living. He’s had his fill of the seclusion and can’t wait to get home.
One thing hasn’t changed.
“I’m ready to cap this off,” he said, “and write the perfect story.”
By winning, he means.
“The Ultimate Fighter,” which in its seven-year run has done for mixed martial arts what “Jersey Shore” did for Guidos, reaches the end of Season 15 tonight when Chiesa – the 2006 Shadle Park High School grad – meets Al Iaquinta in the finale.
The winner’s jackpot is a UFC contract with the potential of paying off as big as $300,000 – though the series’ non-winners have been known to do OK, too.
But whatever the show does for Chiesa’s future, it can be argued that he did every bit as much for the show.
Ratings have dipped a bit for “The Ultimate Fighter” this year, which can probably be chalked up to a move to a new network home (FX) and the newness of the concept having worn off. It certainly hasn’t been for the lack of a compelling lead story.
When Chiesa went off to Las Vegas, he wasn’t the only Spokane fighter who’d survived the auditions. Sam Sicilia, a friend and training partner, not only made the cut but got “into the house” with a stunning eight-second knockout before losing in the preliminary round. So there’s been the buddy story.
Then just a day after those initial fights, Chiesa’s father, Mark, died – at the age of 53 – after a long battle with myelodysplastic syndrome. In a departure from series policy, Chiesa left the house briefly for the services – but his up-and-down emotions in dealing with the grief have driven the storyline ever since.
“I’m hoping it drew a new group of followers to UFC and connected with people out there,” he said, “even if it’s the kind of circumstances you don’t want anyone to have to go through.”
His results suggest that Chiesa has held up remarkably, but he resists easy reconciliations.
Motivation? Sure, he wants to win in his father’s memory – “but I was 100 percent motivated to win before, because it’s been my dream.
“To be honest, every day I had a low moment thinking about him,” Chiesa said. “You know I chose this fight. He didn’t choose to be sick and be in the fight he was in. What he endured was so much tougher than anything those of us in that house have had to deal with.”
He created drama in the ring, too. Chiesa came up against series favorite Justin Lawrence in the quarterfinals and seemed constantly on the verge of elimination. He spent a good portion of the first round on his back. In the second, Lawrence dropped him with a pair of wicked body shots, and again got a takedown in the sudden victory round before Chiesa – a former Shadle wrestler and as strong as any TUF fighter in that element – reversed him and scored a TKO.
“I was rocked – I’m not going to joke with you,” he said. “But I tapped into something I’ve never tapped into before. When I went back to the house, I didn’t sleep that night.”
Another knockout of a favored opponent, James Vick, after a slow start put Chiesa in the finals, where he figures to be an underdog again – unless he can get Iaquinta to the mat.
“But you’re going to see a different side of me this fight, that’s all I can say,” he insisted. “I never believed in my standup before – I always find a way to get them to the floor. But I believe in it now.”
Chiesa is a visceral contradiction – an untamed mop and a beard James Harden might envy hinting at wildness and even a primitive disregard, but thoughtful and introspective in conversation. His emotions and will run deep, and something always seems to be pushing him along – and not just the memory of his father.
“I miss Spokane so much,” he said. “I’ve always looked up to guys like John Stockton and Mark Rypien, who’ve done such great things for Spokane. It’s just a big small town, and I want to make the kind of impact they did.”
A perfect story would seem to demand no less.