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Saturday, March 23, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Blanchette: Chiesa making name for himself in UFC

By John Blanchette Contributing columnist

The anything-goes days of mixed martial arts are long gone, at least inside the octagon. There are rules, if not something so dainty as an etiquette.

Outside? Not so much.

It doesn’t seem as if it’s something Michael Chiesa particularly warms to, this nastier side of putting fannies in the seats or in front of TV sets. But a culture is a culture, and when you’re on the UFC’s payroll, you do your part.

So as he headed off to Seattle for Saturday night’s UFC on Fox 8 event at KeyArena, the Spokane fighter tried to be as dismissive of opponent Jorge Masvidal as he could – at least after citing his experience, composure, ability and a few other attributes.

“His time’s past,” Chiesa said finally. “It’s my time now.”

If that’s trash talk, it comes in a white plastic Hefty with a drawstring tie.

So how about the other guy? What’s he got?

“I think he’s a punk,” Masvidal said of Chiesa at a press briefing this week. And that was just a warmup. In a few more breaths he managed:

“Usually my opponents, I don’t care if they win the lottery or they die. For this guy, I really don’t care for him at all.”

“There’s nothing nowhere that impresses me about him.”

“I just don’t like the dude.”

But in the lowest, scuzziest, below-the-chin shot of all, Masvidal took aim at Chiesa’s trademark beard, a dense bush that takes over his face like a cat video consumes the Internet.

“I’m going to tell the (athletic) commission (to) wrap that up,” he said. “I don’t want to get no mat herpes or nothing on my face. … I ain’t about to catch some syphilis or whatever he’s got going on in that beard.”

Lovely. So this is the big time.

Well, sort of. Masvidal has fought under more banners than a bleacher drunk at Yankee Stadium – Bodog, Strikeforce, Bellator, AFC – and only this year was called up by the big-league club. And he and Chiesa are headlining the preliminary card, which airs on FX beginning at 2 p.m.

But it’s undoubtedly a big deal for Chiesa – his first opportunity to fight within an afternoon drive of his hometown since his career-defining moment winning “The Ultimate Fighter 15” just over a year ago.

What’s happened since then? A lot … and not all that much.

Chiesa has fought just once since then. Illness forced him off of a card in December. Three months later, in front of packed house there to see a different UFC debut – Ronda Rousey’s – Chiesa submitted Anton Kuivanen in the second round, a victory that in some ways meant as much to him as that “TUF” championship.

“I just felt a lot of pressure, after ‘Ultimate Fighter,’ that it was really important to win that fight,” the 2006 Shadle Park graduate said. “I had expectations to live up to, with fans and UFC but also myself, and winning made me think, ‘OK, I’m a UFC fighter.’ I felt like I belonged.”

There have been other changes since “Ultimate Fighter:” no more wedging working out around driving a beer truck, trips to train with top-ranked lightweight Benson Henderson, travel and appearances for UFC and sponsors. But much has stayed the same, too.

Home is still Spokane and Rick Little’s gym. Sam Sicilia remains his good friend and main training partner. Wrestlers at Shadle still get his coaching attention.

“I don’t want to be just another guy at a gym in L.A.,” he said.

And this: His father is still never far from his thoughts.

What was just a dramatic story line for the viewers of “TUF 15” – Mark Chiesa’s death from myelodysplastic syndrome early in the series’ run – is something Chiesa had to come home and grapple with once his mission in Las Vegas was accomplished. He’d like to think his weekly ordeals helped his family cope, “but really, that’s hard to say.”

“Maybe staying on the show, moving forward, helped,” he said. “I still wish I could have been there with them. But I did have the 30 seconds each time to look into the camera and tell them I loved them. Maybe for an hour every Friday I helped.”

One thing’s for certain: Nothing helped Chiesa’s state of mind quite like getting back home.

“To see all the people waiting for me – it just doesn’t get any better than that,” he said. “I felt like I was living the end of a Disney movie. Winning the fight wasn’t my moment – getting off the plane was. The only way I can relive it is to come home some day as a world champion, and that’s what motivates me every day now.”

That, and maybe a little beard-bashing this week.

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