Michael Chiesa points to his Fight of the Night effort against Jim Miller in December 2015 as a critical point in his career on two fronts: the win got him into the top 15 in the lightweight division, and he started to feel the strain the weight cut took on his body.
He couldn’t stop cutting to 155 pounds though, not when he seemed to break through as a contender in the division, so he trudged on and picked up another Performance of the Night-earning submission win over Beneil Dariush a few months later.
Injuries and back-to-back submission losses to Kevin Lee and Anthony Pettis halted Chiesa’s momentum, though, and missing weight for the latter – which Chiesa says is the “only embarrassing moment of his career” - was the final straw. He called up Bo Sandoval at the UFC Performance Institute and asked for help to rebuild his body for the welterweight division. Six months later, he earned a submission win over Carlos Condit followed by a unanimous decision victory over Diego Sanchez.
“I’m a true welterweight,” Chiesa said. “There’s no going back.”
Chiesa admits he wonders where his career would be had he moved up sooner, but his hesitation is understandable given the success he was having at 155 pounds. Now, though, he feels a lot less stress during training camps and enjoys the ability to work on his skills rather than focusing on a big weight cut.
That’s not to say he has everything down to a tee, though. When he reflects on his high-effort fight against Diego Sanchez, he thinks might have “overworked” himself during camp, which in turn hurt his performance.
No matter, though. He came away victorious and is set to face Rafael Dos Anjos in the co-main event at UFC Raleigh on Saturday. The bout presents a big opportunity for Chiesa, who is currently unranked, to jump the line and into the middle part of the welterweight rankings.
“When my manager calls me and says, ‘RDA,’ I say, ‘Finally,’” Chiesa said. “I want to fight a ranked guy. This is what I’m here for. I’m not in the sport to just get a paycheck. I want to be a world champion. I’m striving to be great.”
Though Dos Anjos – a former lightweight in his own right (and a champion at that) - is coming off three losses in his last four fights, Chiesa is more than respectful in his assessment of his opponent.
“A lot of people may say he’s over the hill, and I think those people are stupid,” Chiesa said. “This guy is very valid in this division. He’s fought the best guys, and he’s beat some of the best guys.”
Chiesa, who labels himself as a grappler more than a wrestler, is most interested in Dos Anjos’ takedown defense. According to Fight Metric, Dos Anjos stuffs about 60 percent of takedown attempts, and with 21 submission wins between the two, Chiesa wouldn’t be surprised if the two end up cancelling each other out on the mat and throwing hands instead.
Though Chiesa doesn’t have a single knockout win on his record, he’s positive that he has already faced a more dangerous striker in Carlos Condit, so should he need to stand and bang, he’ll find a way to get the fight to the ground eventually.
“I can show a lot of the wrinkles in my game that nobody’s really seen yet,” he said. “There’s a lot of what-ifs, there’s a lot of possibilities as to where this fight is going to take place and how it’s going to go, and that’s what it’s all about.”
Should he win, Chiesa throws himself right into the whirlwind that is the top of the welterweight division. When he left the 155-pound ranks in the middle of 2018, he described welterweight as “a little more clear,” but he can only laugh now as he finds himself in another storyline-filled division.
“You got the BMF title, you got Conor back in the fritz jumping wherever he wants. You got Usman, the undisputed champion, and it’s like, ‘Ah, I’m back in the muddy waters,’” Chiesa said. “That just shows it’s a really tough weight class, and I want to compete against the best guys, so this is the right division for me.”
Before he wades through those waters, though, Chiesa is focused solely on Dos Anjos and how this fight could greatly accelerate his chase for a UFC title.
“It’s all excitement, even though I have a really tough task ahead of me,” Chiesa said. “This guy is super tough. I’m a big underdog, I love it. This is where I want to be.”