Michael Chiesa didn’t think his family took him seriously when he began mixed martial arts fighting, and when they realized it wasn’t a lark, they worried for his safety.
So when he finally convinced his parents, Mark and Teresa, to come watch him in action, he almost wished he hadn’t.
“Because there I was,” he said, “getting the crap kicked out of me. I was a bloody mess.”
But what Chiesa remembers most is his father leaping from his seat and dashing around the octagon, imploring his son to wriggle free, get up, punch back. At one point, Mark Chiesa bulled his way through the opponent’s cornermen, and naturally they shoved back. Security moved in to separate them.
“I thought, ‘Oh, no, we’re going to have a brawl,’ ” recalled Teresa Chiesa.
Dads protect – from harm, yes, but they also protect youthful aspirations and hopes from being abandoned.
Ten days ago, you were introduced here to Michael Chiesa – one of two Spokane men to make the cut for this season of “The Ultimate Fighter,” one of cable television’s longest-running reality shows. On the FX premiere March 9, Chiesa won his way into the house where the 16 fighters live communally by submitting Johnavan Vistante in barely two minutes.
Then he looked into the camera and told his dad this one was for him.
Mark Chiesa didn’t see the fight on TV, according to Teresa. But he did open his eyes to see his son’s hand raised, and he heard the dedication and declared, “I’m so happy.”
The following day he died at the age of 53, a victim of a far more terrible fight of his own with myelodysplastic syndrome.
And the day after, Teresa Chiesa made a phone call her husband hadn’t wanted her to make.
“He had made Michael promise he would pursue this opportunity no matter what happened to him, and he didn’t want me to let him know,” she said. “But I just couldn’t do that to Michael.”
This is the kind of reality no reality show really courts, or at least we have to hope so.
Chiesa’s sorrow, to no surprise, was a prominent part of the second episode. After all, these men sign their lives away to the show for 13 weeks. But it didn’t play as overly exploitive, and UFC officials did not balk at letting Chiesa return home for his father’s services.
But the show always goes on.
“I never thought about dropping out,” Chiesa said. “There have been seasons where guys went home because they missed their girlfriends or stupid stuff. But I’d promised my dad and I know what he wants me to do and never questioned it. That doesn’t make it any easier not to be with my family right now.”
Mark Chiesa’s condition had been diagnosed last June. He had gone through chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant – his brother Andrew had come from Rome to donate bone marrow. But 80 days later, a biopsy revealed the worst. After suffering a brain bleed in December and returning home to hospice care, he started setting his own goals.
He wanted to see the Giants win the Super Bowl again – born in Brooklyn, he was true to his New York teams. He wanted to see Michael’s first Ultimate Fighter bout. And he wanted to be alive for the June birth of his daughter Amy’s second baby – his first grandson.
Grandchildren were a joy, but no more than his kids were a devotion.
“Before he passed – and I hold it really close – he told me he never lost faith in me,” said Amy. “I kind of went astray a few times, but even at our worst, he loved us and was behind us. That’s just how he was.”
In Spokane, Mark Chiesa had sold Mercedes and Jaguars for a living, but he was a man of dimension. Raised by Italian parents, he’d attended a boarding school in England and lived in Mexico City and was fluent in four languages. Travel and cooking were passions, and his son called him “cultured.”
And if he wasn’t necessarily strict, there were standards.
“My sister pierced my ears in the sixth grade,” Michael remembered. “I showed them to him and Dad said, ‘Take those out.’ Sometimes it was hard for me to understand the way he was. But when I was 19 I kind of figured out why my dad wanted me to get a job and manage money and dress well and have manners – why I needed to do that.”
Dads can’t ask for bigger victories than that.
In fact, as much as Mark wanted his son to succeed in his fighting ventures, he may have taken greater pride in the daily hints of his children becoming, well, whole people.
“We’ve had our trials and tribulations, like any family,” said his oldest daughter, Meggie. “His sickness brought us all together. And I think that was his ultimate goal – that we were as close as we all could be by the time he had to leave us.”
Except that Michael, for the moment, is off on his own island, trying to apply his grief to a different goal.
“I’m more motivated than ever, but it’s not about winning and losing at this point,” Chiesa said. “It’s just about giving it everything I’ve got. I guess it always has been.
“But as much as I’m so appreciative for this and I’m going to give it every ounce of what I have, if my dad hadn’t made me promise, I can’t say I’d be here.”
Looks like Dad’s instincts were right again.