If you think otherwise, ask the hundreds of fighters that failed to make it onto the show or the numerous hopefuls that came up short over the course of 17 domestic seasons, two competitions in Brazil, and one playing off the England-Australia cricket rivalry.
Earning the elusive six-figure contract and etched block of glass that is awarded to the winner is difficult each and every season, but if there is one previous winner that had it rougher than anyone else over the years, it has to be Michael Chiesa.
For one thing, the 25-year-old lightweight from Spokane, Washington battled 15 other competitors on the first and only live edition of the long-running reality TV competition when the series debuted on FX in March 2012.
Every season before and after Season 15 has been taped over a six-week period, meaning the fighters spent a little less than half as long as Chiesa and his fellow cast members did sequestered in the Las Vegas mansion universally known as “The Ultimate Fighter House.” Chiesa fought five times in the span of 13 weeks, the entire time combining into one long, grueling training camp full of tough workouts, hard sparring, and battling through injuries.
Not only did the proud Pacific Northwest wild man known as “Maverick” reach his goal of holding up that etched piece of glass in the center of the Octagon, but he also made it through the physical and mental challenges of The Ultimate Fighter after losing his biggest supporter.
Just a couple days after winning his qualifying fight to earn a place in the house, Chiesa received word that his father, Mark, had lost his battle with leukemia. The heart-wrenching moment when he found out played out on television, with teammate Sam Sicilia doing the best he could to console his long-time friend and training partner. Rather than leave the show completely, Chiesa went home to attend his dad’s services, and then returned to Las Vegas to continue pursuing the dream he’d held since high school; one he’d talked about with his dad numerous times in the past.
Hollywood hasn’t turned out a story as compelling as Chiesa’s in years, his triumphant run through the tournament making him an instant fan favorite, but winning The Ultimate Fighter was really just the beginning of what has continued to be an entertaining journey for the unbeaten lightweight hopeful.
Following his win over Team Faber teammate Al Iaquinta in the June finale in Las Vegas, Chiesa’s post-TUF debut was set to be another storybook moment. One day after turning 25, he would step into the Octagon at Seattle’s KeyArena to take on Marcus LeVesseur. A fight on the biggest stage in the sport, right in your own backyard, one day after your birthday, in front of friends and family? It was perfect, until Chiesa was forced to withdraw just a week prior to the event.
When he did finally get the chance to make his post-TUF debut, which came in February against Finn Anton Kuivanen, another aspect of what makes Chiesa incredibly easy to root for was on full display.
What’s the easiest way to say this?
If Muhammad Ali’s ease and grace in the ring – the way he famously “(floated) like a butterfly” – were one end of the spectrum, Chiesa’s style would land at the complete opposite end of things. While “The Champ” moved beautifully, gliding around the ring nimbly, the model for how you’d like a fighter to move, Chiesa is a dusty tumbleweed rolling through a deserted Old West town.
There isn’t anything pretty to the way he works in the cage, but appearances don’t factor into the outcome of the fight, and Chiesa’s scruffy and scrappy approach has produced nothing but wins thus far.
Next weekend, he’ll get a chance to have that hometown fight he missed out on back in December, when he steps into the cage with Jorge Masvidal in one of the more exciting and intriguing pairings on the UFC on FOX 8 fight card taking place at the KeyArena in Seattle.
Originally scheduled to face Reza Madadi, the switch to Masvidal is a step up in competition for Chiesa, as the 28-years-old former Strikeforce title contender Masvidal has 31 professional MMA bout to his credit, and first gained notoriety from taking part in the Miami, Florida street fighting scene that gave us Kimbo Slice.
It’s precisely the kind of fight Chiesa wants though; a chance to test himself against a proven commodity in the lightweight division, and a bout where victory will propel him up the rankings much more quickly than a win over someone like Madadi certainly would. As much as winning The Ultimate Fighter was a dream fulfilled, Chiesa has a much bigger goal in mind: becoming UFC lightweight champion.
Challenging for the title is a little ways on down the road for the undefeated 155-pound competitor, but he can take another step in the right direction with a win over Masvidal next weekend in front of his family, friends, and 15,000 other raucous fights fans, give or take.
If he’s able to reach that goal, Chiesa will join Forrest Griffin, Rashad Evans, and Matt Serra as the only former Ultimate Fighter winners to wear championship gold.
Whether he gets there or not, the entertaining and easy-to-like lightweight is sure to have plenty of people rooting for him and cheering him every step of the way.