LAS VEGAS – It wasn’t a fairytale ending Friday night – those don’t happen when loved ones die – but Michael Chiesa put a dramatic exclamation point on his highly publicized journey to the UFC.
The 24-year-old Spokane native (8-0 MMA) choked out “The Ultimate Fighter Live” teammate Al Iaquinta (5-2-1 MMA) in the first round of their lightweight tourney bout at the Palms Casino, located just off the famed Las Vegas Strip.
“There was no way I was gonna lose this fight,” said an emotional Chiesa, who as he had all season dedicated the bout to his father Mark, 53, who died two months ago after a long battle with myelodysplastic syndrome.
“This is exactly what I wanted. There was no way I was gonna sell myself short. I overcame a lot of things. I want to thank all the fans. This is truly a blessing that you supported me this whole time.”
Like he has done all season on the popular reality show on FX, Chiesa, a plus-230 underdog Friday, came from behind.
Iaquinta, a 25-year-old New York native, stuffed Chiesa’s early takedown attempt. He blistered the bushy-bearded former Budweiser distributor with some big punches.
But just when it seemed like Iaquinta might stuff another of Chiesa’s takedown attempts, the standout wrestler and 2006 Shadle Park High School grad got the bout to the ground.
He worked for a rear-naked choke, but his Urijah Faber-coached teammate fought off the submission attempt. Chiesa stayed persistent, getting his legs hooked in and an even stronger hold, before finally put Iaquinta to sleep at 2:47 in the first round as the crowd inside the Pearl erupted with cheers and tears.
“You are the Ultimate Fighter,” UFC president Dana White said, presenting Chiesa with a trophy emblazoned with his name as the winner of the 15th season of “TUF,” a six-figure contract with the UFC.
A Harley Davidson representative presented Chiesa with a new motorcycle and TapouT gave him a three-fight endorsement deal.
But the biggest gift likely came from his mother, Teresa, who greeted him in the Octagon with a big hug — as did his younger sister, Meggie.
“It’s been a long journey. It’s hard to talk about,” an emotional Teresa told UFC announcer Jon Anik. “I’m so proud of him.”
While the world watched the drama unfold during the 13 weeks Chiesa and 15 other contestants were secluded from the rest of the world while training in Las Vegas, he gave a special shout out to his supporters in Spokane.
“To all my friends in Spokane, I’ll be home tomorrow,” Chiesa said.
Chiesa’s good friend, Sam Sicilia, started the night with a bang for Spokane-based fighters.
Sicilia landed a solid left hook and followed up with a big knee and several more punches that crumpled his opponent, Cristiano Marcello. A few more hammer fists officially ended things at the 2:53 mark of the second round of their preliminary bout that was broadcast on FUEL TV.
“Once you smell blood in the water you hit gears you don’t even know you have,” said Sicilia (11-1 MMA, 1-0 UFC), who has won seven straight fights not counting his unofficial fights on the show.
“I looked fatigued, but out here you’re only one punch away from winning.”Marcello (12-4 MMA, 0-1 UFC), the second pick of coach Faber, had his three-fight win streak snapped. The black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu would have been better off getting the fight to the ground, but he openly engaged Sicilia in a slugfest.
The colorful Sicilia joked with Anik that the UFC messed up when they pitted the “two best looking dudes” from the “TUF” against one another.
“This is a big, big win, but also a bittersweet one. We have really become good friends and he really looked out for me during the show,” Sicilia said of Marcello.