No athlete needs a back injury that results in a year away from his or her sport. But before his return this Sunday to face fellow lightweight contender Kevin Lee, Michael Chiesa is able to see the last 12 months in a glass half full light.
“A good day last year probably felt like a s**tty day this year,” he said. “My body was so run down I never knew what it felt to be a hundred percent.”
In his nine years as a mixed martial artist, Chiesa pushed himself in the gym as hard as he did in his fights, and through it all, he never chose to step back and take a break, even when it was necessary, like when he had knee surgery before a 2013 fight with Anton Kuivanen.
“If you look at my leg, you can see where my leg hair was shaved because I had knee surgery five weeks before the fight and I still showed up and fought,” he said.
That grit and determination is why Chiesa made it through four fights on the only live season in Ultimate Fighter history, capped it off by winning the series by finishing Al Iaquinta, and then logged six more UFC wins with just two losses. But in the midst of training for a pivotal 2016 meeting with Tony Ferguson, the Spokane product’s back said no more.
Opting against surgery, the 29-year-old rehabbed the injury and was eventually given the green light to return. Yet it was the work he did while on the sidelines that may have taken his game to the next level heading into his meeting with Lee.
“I love this sport,” Chiesa said. “I’m a fan first and I pay a lot of attention to fighting. I watch a lot of boxing, a lot of MMA and kickboxing. I love combat sports, and when I had down time with the injury, I spent more time watching old film on fights. I also officiated a few fights and did judging for a few fights. I did a lot of other things involving the sport. I would go to practices and just sit and watch the guys train. Mentally, I was making improvements. Most importantly, I gave my body a break after nine years.”
Saying he feels “refreshed,” Chiesa didn’t take a tune-up fight in his return, and that’s just how he wanted it.
“I didn’t want an easy fight back because I don’t need an easy fight back,” he said. “And what better way to see where I’m at than to fight a guy that just finished someone I couldn’t put away in Francisco Trinaldo? He (Lee) is on a winning streak similar to my own, he’s got a lot of finishes and is looking good. What better way to test myself?”
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It is about that time in Chiesa’s career. Currently ranked seventh at 155 pounds, “Maverick” has won three straight over Mitch Clarke, Jim Miller and Beneil Dariush, picking up two finishes and two bonuses in the process. A win over the No. 12-ranked Lee would help him make his case for a move forward, and while he’s happy with his progress after five years on the roster, just don’t call him a veteran.
“On one hand, I feel like a veteran, but on the other hand, I’m still evolving,” he said. “Sometimes I feel with the word ‘veteran,’ it refers to a guy who is stuck to the way that he’s fought that has made him a veteran. Whereas I’m a veteran as a competitor in the UFC, but my game is still evolving, I’m still improving and I’m showing new wrinkles in my game every time I go out. Sometimes the word ‘veteran’ doesn’t have the right ring to it. I’m a veteran but I’m still growing.”
As for that five-year anniversary, Chiesa isn’t satisfied yet.
“Do I think I could have accomplished more? Yeah, you could always accomplish more. But thus far I’m very pleased with where my career is. It’s had some downs, I’ve had a couple hiccups and an injury, but all in all it’s been a successful run so far. Business is good.”
He laughs, but Chiesa is no businessman. He’s a fighter, and as such, he embraces the art of the battle. Will Lee be the one that makes him dig deeper than ever before? Chiesa doesn’t shy away from such a scenario, but he insists he already knows the outcome.
“The idea of getting under the lights on the big stage to go against my equal, the guy that is going to absolutely push me to my limit, that makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up,” he said. “If that day comes, I will welcome it with open arms, but I will be the one getting my hand raised.”