June 01, 2012

Al Iaquinta (above) and Michael Chiesa face off on Fridays season finale of The Ultimate Fighter. (Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)

Things were different this time on the UFC’s reality TV show. For one thing, a word was added to the title for the show's 15th season, making it The Ultimate Fighter: Live. Indeed, for the first season after a move from Spike to FX, the fights all were live, which stretched the 16 fighters’ time sequestered together to three months. That’s 12 weeks in a house with no phone, no TV, no Internet, no outside world. Nothing but young men’s longing glimpses of the Las Vegas skyline during van rides back and forth from the gym.

This season also had heart-wrenching real-life drama. In the first week, Michael Chiesa received news from back home in Spokane, Wash., that his father had died after a bout with leukemia. The 24-year-old opted to remain on the show, and for the months that followed we witnessed his frailty and toughness as he mourned and drew inspiration from his dad. And here he is in Friday night’s finale (9 p.m. ET, FX), facing someone with whom he’s become familiar. Chiesa and Al Iaquinta, a 25-year-old from Wantagh, N,.Y., who is a protege of former UFC welterweight champion Matt Serra, trained side by side as part of Urijah Faber’s team.

Last Saturday, the day after Iaquinta and Chiesa had eliminated Dominick Cruz-trained fighters in the semifinals, the Team Faber fighters sat down with SI.com and talked about the benefits of team spirit, the honor of competition, and how this experience might make both of them not just better fighters but better people.

On training with a guy, then punching him in the face:

Iaquinta: “We knew what we were getting into when we got here. All through our training, I knew there was a possibility of fighting any one of these guys. So it’s just par for the course, I guess. It’s different from other fights in that you have a little idea of what the guy does, but in the cage everyone fights a little differently than they do in training. I know I try things in practice that I wouldn’t do in a fight. But it’s still a fight. And at the end of the day, we’re all here for one goal.”

Chiesa: “I had Sam [Sicilia] in the house with me, and he’s a friend and training partner from back home and a guy I would never fight. But the idea of fighting one of my teammates from the show, that’s different. We met under these circumstances. So if we’ve got to fight, we’ve got to fight. And honestly it’s an honor, because as teammates we’ve built each other up to get to this finale. Al and I have trained together, we’ve pushed each other, we’ve sweated, bled, hurt. So to be in the finale with him is a great honor.”

On training with a potential future opponent, and how that affects training sessions:

Iaquinta: “Maybe we think about it a little bit, but your goal in every training session is to improve yourself. You put your focus on that, not the teammate thing. You need a team in MMA. It’s an individual sport, but you need a team. Mike and I helped each other out in training, and now we’re just going to do our thing.”

Chiesa: “I don’t put that in my mind when I’m training, because it will alter your approach. You’ll start putting pressure on yourself to perform against the guy in training, pressure to look good, to figure him out. That takes away from the training. You’re not training to fight your teammates, you’re training to make yourself a better fighter all around. You have to focus on yourself, what you need to improve on.”

On becoming friends during the three months together:

Iaquinta: “We trained a lot together, and we were close in the house, too. We’d sit there and eat together and tell stories. There’s no TV, no radio, so over three months we all got to know each other pretty well. Sitting around with these guys, I really got to know where they come from, what makes them tick, why they got into this sport, everything. It was almost like the show forced us to become friends, then forced us to fight.”

Chiesa: “All of us on Team Faber, we were very civil. We all connected. I could say so many great things about every guy on my team. Al’s a great guy, and it’s going to be a great honor to fight him on Friday. He and I actually had a talk one night about the possibility that we could be meeting in the finale. And we were, like, ‘Yeah, man, let’s make it happen. Let’s buzz through this tournament.’ And what do you know? It actually happened.”

On fighting and then, bruises and all, fighting again a week later:

Iaquinta: “The way I’m thinking about it is, in the early UFCs they fought three times in one night. I get a week. So I’ve got it a little better than they did. And they can do it, so I can do it. You’ve just got to prepare for it mentally. I think anyone would do it who wants that contract.”

Chiesa: “It’s fine. During the season, I fought fights pretty close together -- two weeks apart, a week apart. And Al’s going through the same thing I am, so it’s a fair matchup, with both of us being banged up. It’s not going to be a factor in the fight. Come crunch time, we’re both going to forget about what hurts and just get out there and try to create some new bumps and bruises.”

On surviving the sensory depravation chamber known as the TUF house:

Iaquinta: “I understand why we weren’t allowed TV. If we were watching the show every week, and saw how we were being portrayed, it would have changed the way we acted. But what I noticed is that you don’t need TV. A lot of times I’m at home, eating dinner with my family, and when we’re done the first thing we do is head for the TV. Or I’ll get together with my friends, head for the bar and watch a football game. Here on the show, things were different. We talked to each other, because there was nothing else. So when I called my mom last night, the first thing I said is that once a week we’re going to eat a good meal, the whole family, and we’re just going to talk. Really get to know each other. I think turning the TV on kind of takes that away.”

Chiesa: “The thing about the house is, the things they give you to occupy your time --playing pool, playing shuffleboard -- you can only do them so much. Mainly, you’re stuck with getting to know the people you live with, and you’re stuck with your thoughts. You can’t just think about fighting, though. If you think about fighting the whole time, you’re going to drive yourself nuts. It’s going to hinder your performance. So I spent a lot of time analyzing my life — what I want to do with my life, where I want to take my career, and what I can do to become better as a person. A lot of what went through my head had to do with my dad. I look up to him a lot. So I was, like, ‘Look at my life. What do I need to change to be more like my dad, to approach this whole thing like him?’ Well, my dad wore a suit and tie to work every day, so I decided that since I’m fighting in the finale and I want to make this my job, I’m going to show up for the finale in a suit and tie. So I went out and bought a suit today.”

 -- Jeff Wagenheim 

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