Why Michael Chiesa has a claim as the true ‘Ultimate Fighter’

Kevin IoleCombat columnist

LAS VEGAS — Michael Chiesa began his MMA career with a 9-0 mark — 13-0 if you count his victories on the only live season of “The Ultimate Fighter,” including an impressive semifinal finish of James Vick — and was 14-2 when he landed a bout on June 25, 2017, against Kevin Lee.

The fight had huge implications in the always deep lightweight division, and Chiesa was confident it would be just another step on his way to the top.

But Chiesa got submitted by Lee, and then by Anthony Pettis in his next fight, and it was obvious he’d outgrown the division. It was time for him to move to welterweight, but that posed a problem of handling bigger and more physically imposing opponents.

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And then he was booked with ex-champion Carlos Condit, one of the most respected fighters in the sport’s history. Chiesa’s prospects didn’t look good. He never lost faith, but he also knew he’d come to something of a crossroads when he walked into the cage at UFC 232 at The Forum in Inglewood, California, on Dec. 29 to do battle with Condit.

“Before that fight, I hadn’t won a fight — granted, it was only a two-fight losing streak, which was terrible, absolutely terrible; worst span of my life — I hadn’t won a fight since April 2016,” Chiesa said. “So it was like I was starting to get away from what it feels like to win, something I was so used to. I know a lot of people counted me out.

“There were a lot of points in that camp I counted myself out. I was in very foreign territory. We’re talking two losses in a row, new weight class. I had never fought a guy before that I had put on a pedestal the way I did with Carlos Condit. I’ve got his walkout shirt. He’s a former champion. I’m a huge fan. I doubted myself a lot of times.”

Michael Chiesa, right, lands a right hand against Anthony Pettis during his loss to Pettis at UFC 226 in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Michael Chiesa, right, lands a right hand against Anthony Pettis during his loss to Pettis at UFC 226 in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

He need not have doubted himself.

In arguably the best performance of his career, Chiesa dominated Condit and submitted him with a Kimura 56 seconds into the second round.

That moment may have saved his career.

“When I finally beat him, I was like, ‘Holy crap! This is what it feels like! This is why I do this! This is me. This is who I am,’ ” Chiesa said. “I’m so excited to be back. This camp has been so … it’s no more foreign territory. I know I belong at 170. There is not a shadow of a doubt. This is my division and there’s a clearcut path to the title.”

He’ll face Diego Sanchez in a battle of former TUF winners on Saturday at UFC 239 at T-Mobile Arena. He’s excited to mix it up with Sanchez, and he recalled watching Sanchez win the first season of TUF while watching on television in the basement of his parents’ home.

He knew that he’d be able to pull himself out of the doldrums because he’d shown the requisite mental toughness before. During the airing of his season of “The Ultimate Fighter,” his father, Mark, passed away.

Chiesa went home briefly to bury his father, and then was back in the TUF house for three months to compete for the title. He won it, defeating Johnavan Vistante, Jeremy Larsen, Justin Lawrence, Vick and Al Iaquinta along the way.

The amount of mental toughness it took for him to pull through that is all but impossible to comprehend for someone who hasn’t been through something similar. And Chiesa knew during the winless streak that he could right the ship because it had happened before.

“If I could get through that three-month span, I could get through anything,” Chiesa said. “Anytime my life has ever thrown me a curveball, I can go back to that and draw a lot of confidence for myself knowing I can persevere.

“Perseverance doesn’t always mean winning and losing. Perseverance means showing up and rising to the occasion and performing. I know that no matter what, I have something I can go back to and draw motivation from. I can overcome anything.”

So Chiesa will now try to overcome Sanchez, who has rejuvenated his own career by winning two in a row after there were calls for him to retire. Sanchez has a new coach and believes he’ll make a massive difference in his performance.

Chiesa likes the idea of facing another TUF winner and especially one who promises to bring a crazy and fast-paced fight.

“Given his style and my style, it makes for a crazy fight,” Chiesa said. “I’m not one to take backward steps. I’m not one to play kick and run. I meet guys in the middle and I want to lock horns. You’ll probably see some wrestling exchanges, some scrambles and some big punches. I’m just excited for the opportunity to compete against a guy who has also won the show. I take it very personally and only the guys who have been on ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ can attest to that.

“You don’t get the opportunity often to fight another guy who has won ‘The Ultimate Fighter.’ Not only that, I’m getting The Ultimate Fighter. I’m getting the guy. I watched him in my parents’ basement. You can only dream of getting to fight guys like this.”

Given what Chiesa has been through, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say he’s proven he deserves to be regarded as The Ultimate Fighter, as well.

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