Ultimate Fighter title is just the beginning for Michael Chiesa
Michael Chiesa was an underdog in the 'TUF: Live' finale but won by submission
The victory gave the 24-year-old fighter a six-figure, multi-fight UFC contract
Chiesa will have his work cut out for him in the stacked UFC lightweight division
All the signs told Michael Chiesa to keep going.
It's what Chiesa's terminally ill father told him when the 24-year-old fighter was one of 32 applicants chosen to compete live on FX in March for a slot on the 15th season of The Ultimate Fighter.
And when his father passed just a couple of days after Chiesa aced his qualifying bout to get on the show (one of the last things his father said he wanted to see before he passed), the emotionally overwhelmed fighter continued to follow the signs.
On Friday, Chiesa submitted heavy favorite Al Iaquinta at the show's live finale at The Pearl inside The Palms in Las Vegas, winning a six-figure, multi-fight UFC contract and the opportunity to forge a lucrative career for years to come alongside TUF luminaries like Forrest Griffin and Rashad Evans.
It was the most grueling season of the series ever, with a re-vamped one-week, tape-to-air schedule that required its contestants give up contact with their families and the outside world to live in Las Vegas seclusion for 12 weeks, double the time of any previous season. A shell-shocked Chiesa left the show to attend his father's funeral in Spokane, Wash., and despite his inclinations to stay home and comfort his mourning mother and two sisters, he was back in Las Vegas 24 hours later, the way his father would have wanted it.
Chiesa's father, a world-traveled businessman who managed Mercedes and Jaguar dealerships in Spokane, had always told him that taking a day off costs you a day's pay.
"My father worked very hard and he never missed a day of work, no matter how sick he was," said Chiesa.
Back on set, the lightweight fighter struggled to keep his head in the game and focus the uncharacteristic mix of emotions brewing inside of him prior to his preliminary-round fight with Jeremy Larsen. Chiesa looked around for the next sign.
The number 22 had always symbolized strength for him and his family. Chiesa's grandfather, Darrell Triber, a legend of the Northwest motorsports scene with over 1,200 wins that spanned nearly 50 years, had always raced under the number 22. At 67, Triber died doing what he loved best: racing on the track against competitors in their 20s, wearing the number 22.
In a rare twist of fate, Sam Sicilia, Chiesa's main training partner for the last four years back home in Spokane, had also beat out hundreds of hopefuls to make the show and was there to give him a message.
"I told him his dad was watching him," said Sicilia, who wore the number 22 playing football in high school. "I told him his dad didn't need a TV anymore. He had a full-time pass and he was watching all the time."
Chiesa kept following the signs. With encouragement from his TV coach Urijah Faber, he beat two of the show's standout strikers, Justin Lawrence and James Vick, and became the unlikely underdog finalist. Waiting in the dark tunnel to enter The Pearl for his final fight on Friday, Chiesa looked down and saw a piece of tape with his name on it telling him where to stand. Next to his name was the number 22.
"I don't know why that number was there," said Chiesa, who has the number tattooed on his chest, "but I thought it was my grandpa's silly way of saying 'What's up?' He was letting me know he was there."
On Friday, after winning five fights over three physically and mentally draining months, Chiesa became the 22nd fighter to win The Ultimate Fighter title.
Of all the talented, resilient fighters to come through the TUF franchise, it will be hard to argue that Chiesa wasn't its most perseverant.
Like many of his peers, perseverance was something Chiesa learned early on. His parents divorced when he was 2 and Chiesa lived with his alcoholic biological mother until he was 15. Most days, there wasn't food in the house, but there was always a bottle of booze in the cupboard.
When he'd visit his father on weekends or for the summer, Chiesa said he got to experience what a real family felt like, "where parents didn't do anything but love you." And when things got really bad, Chiesa called his dad to ask if he could move in with him and his family permanently.
"If I hadn't done that when I did, I guarantee I wouldn't have made it to all of this," said Chiesa.
In his father's basement, Chiesa found refuge and purpose watching The Ultimate Fighter on Spike TV. Over the next nine years until his dad's passing, he was given stability and the support to pursue his passion to fight professionally.
Chiesa also formed a bond with his father's second wife, Theresa, the woman he now calls his mother. During Friday's telecast, it was Theresa who ran into the octagon and hugged him only as a mother can and it is Theresa whom he credits for giving him the strength and faith to see this journey through to its end.
Entering the UFC lightweight division, Chiesa (8-0) will face the stiffest competition the promotion has to offer. It's too early to tell how the grappling-savvy Chiesa will fare, but as a TUF winner, doors will open to him unavailable to other up-and-comers. He's earned those opportunities, but it will be up to him to make the most of them.
It's clear that fans will be rooting for Chiesa to do just that. Chiesa made no effort to hide who he was during the show -- it doesn't seem like he's capable of anything else -- and as long as he holds onto that, he'll find success.
Keep going, Michael Chiesa. Keep going.
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