This may not be quite the how-to-get- started manual the mixed martial arts fraternity is looking for – but then again, maybe it is.
Mike Chiesa was 19 years old and joined a couple of friends to watch a UFC event at Hooters in the Valley and while he was suitably jazzed by the on-screen action, the trigger was what happened afterward.
“We got jumped,” he recalled.
Not an everyday deal among the aficionados, to be sure, but let’s be honest: A good chunk of the UFC’s male demographic is the I-could-do-that- because-I-fought-a- guy-once crowd, and so it’s not altogether surprising that someone might want to test his courage in an unsanctioned event in a bar parking lot.
As it happened, though the Chiesa group was outnumbered, “I held my own pretty good,” he said.
Among the witnesses who agreed was a Hooters waitress who occasionally served as ring-card eye candy for local MMA promoter Rick Little and passed on an endorsement.
“She set it up for me,” Chiesa said, “and he said, ‘I run a gym if you ever think about fighting’ and handed me tickets to one of his shows. From then on, I’ve been hooked.”
And now he and his good friend Sam Sicilia have hooked a big one.
The two Spokane fighters are part of the cast for the 15th season of “The Ultimate Fighter,” the television series that virtually launched the sport into the mainstream. Only this year, there’s a twist – the show’s moved from its longtime home on Spike TV to FX, and its premiere is live tonight at 9.
The two survived auditions and interviews for more than 500 lightweight fighters and now must survive tonight’s elimination bouts to earn a spot among the 16 who will be housed under one roof for the 13 weeks of taping – all vying for the end-of-the-rainbow contract that could payoff to the tune of $300,000, though only one year and $36,000 are guaranteed.
They are not the first Spokane fighters to land in the series – Cody McKenzie participated in season 12. But the fact that the producers picked two – close friends and training partners, in fact – is something of a curiosity.
“Yeah, we’re hoping to avoid fighting each other – unless it’s the finale,” Sicilia said. “I mean, in training we try to take each other’s heads off. But there’s too many people who need beating up to be fighting your friends.”
That friendship is relatively recent. Both were high school wrestlers here – Sicilia at Mt. Spokane (Class of 2004) and Chiesa at Shadle Park (2006) – but never met on the mat (“I wish we had – it would have made the story cooler,” Chiesa said). Both turned pro about four months apart just more than a year ago – though like Chiesa’s parking-lot debut, Sicilia seems to remember his amateur apprenticeship best.
“My first fight I was 19 and fought a 44-year-old grown man,” he remembered. “We had a war. I didn’t know what I was doing – hadn’t trained anywhere yet. I didn’t even use my wrestling. I just threw Donkey Kong punches.”
They have progressed significantly since then: Chiesa is 7-0 as a pro, Sicilia 10-1.
But calling it a profession is something of a stretch. Both have scraped around to subsidize their calling. Chiesa has helped coach the Shadle wrestling team the last couple of years; Sicilia has worked construction and as an electrician.
“And at Starbucks for a bit, to get insurance,” he laughed. “I’d be at the window, serving people with a black eye.”
So they grasp what’s at stake with this series, from which a handful of fighters have gone on to win UFC titles. That’s why they’re focusing on tonight’s fights and not the uncertainty of the communal living to come for the winners, where there will be no TV, no cellphones and no iPods but just “16 guys on a bad protein diet ready to fight each other,” Sicilia said.
“There’s really no in-between in this sport,” he noted. “Guys are either good, solid guys here to compete – or they’re the rock stars that I don’t relate to very well.”
Nor maybe they to him.
“They make fun of me for being from Greenbluff,” he said.
One thing they share: opportunity.
“I think we have just as good a chance as anybody,” Chiesa said. “I don’t think either of us would have come if we didn’t think we could win.”
Even if it means having to beat the other – which certainly shapes up as a delicious plot twist, whether that was considered or not.
“I asked a producer and she said it wouldn’t have mattered if we were from opposite ends of the U.S.,” Chiesa said. “We’ve got great records and some personality.
“We’re not just jock meatheads.”
If only those guys in the parking lot could say the same.