UFC welterweight Michael Chiesa has called the pandemic era the “Era of Opportunity.” But it’s an era that, despite all the opportunity afford to those able to compete, he has been unable to take part in. Until now.
Chiesa (17-4) returns in the main event of UFC Fight Island 8 on Wednesday against Neil Magny. Cageside Press caught up with the lightweight turned welterweight during a virtual media day to promote the event.
A year ago, Chiesa had secured his third straight win at 170lbs — this one against Rafael dos Anjos — to cement his spot among the best welterweights in the world. And then it all came crashing to a halt, in part due to the coronavirus pandemic, in part due to major knee surgery.
The Era of Opportunity…
In his absence, another streaking middleweight, Gilbert Burns, took every opportunity that came his way, and landed a fight for the title against Kamaru Usman. Albeit one repeatedly delayed. It’s not hard to imagine a scenario where a healthy Chiesa might have been in a similar spot.
Chiesa admits that watching everything play out “was very frustrating.” He does not, however, begrudge Burns his success. “It wasn’t even really— A) Good for Gilbert burns, I’m happy for him, I am happy that he’s able to capitalize on what was going on, and take these fights, and perform well and get himself in the position that he’s in. Because he deserves it. He’s an awesome fighter,” Chiesa told Cageside Press.
“And, you know, there wasn’t really any, there was no frustration,” he continued. “As simple as it sounds, I was just sad. The pandemic hits, and I have surgery, and I’m just kind of at a standstill. I wasn’t super frustrated, I was just kind of sad. I was in a rut, and I kind of felt like the sport was starting to pass me by a little bit. And I was having these very weird thoughts. But I think that just everybody around the world was having weird thoughts— when you’re stuck at home, and you can’t do your job. You can start to think some weird things. So, you know, I was just kind of more in a saddened state than I was frustrated.”
The UFC providing Michael Chiesa with the opportunity to work as an analyst on their broadcasts was a huge factor in pushing those thoughts to the side. “Getting the opportunity to work as an analyst got me back in the game, got me back in the sport, and just kind of got me out of those dark days,” he admitted. “It’s like, it gave me a purpose again. It was it was trying times for everybody around the world. But I wasn’t frustrated that guys like Gilbert Burns were able to make it happen and seize these opportunities and make the most of them. It was just more like I was just kind of bummed. Really, really bummed.”
When Chiesa talks about those dark days, with weird thoughts running through his head, much of that stems from the surgery he endured, which saw his knee under the knife.
“It was the injury. The surgery didn’t go great at all. What I was told was, it was going to be a half hour to a 45 minute procedure,” revealed Chiesa. Instead, the knee surgery turned out to be six and a half hours. “My leg was just humongous, black and blue from my butt cheek down to my foot. My leg was black, it was a lot of trauma. And even when the trauma started to go down, having mobility issues, it was just a laundry list of problems I was having.”
Chiesa never questioned whether he would be able to compete again. The question was when. “It was like, how long is it going to be before I can, [before] my leg is good enough to come back and get back to competition? And fortunately, it came around, and I’m healthier than I’ve ever been.”
The Pacific North West-based fight knows that might raise an eyebrow or two. “It’s such a cliche thing to say, like, ‘I had the best camp in my life.’ Everybody says that. Every time you prepare for a fight, you feel like you had the best camp of your life. But I can honestly say this is the healthiest I’ve been. This is the healthiest I’ve been going into a fight. This is a lingering injury I needed to address a long time ago, we’re talking a lot over 10 years ago. And it just kept getting worse and worse. So to have that done and behind me, I’m healthier than I’ve ever been. I’m ready to go, I’m ready to fight.”
It just so happens his return will come in his first main event since the infamous Kevin Lee fight in 2017. Michael Chiesa, 2021 edition, is in a very different place.
“We all saw what the build up for that fight was like. So just that alone is a night and day difference from that main event to this one,” admitted Chiesa. “And you know, it’s a lot less stress. Those cuts to 155 are very stressful. A lot of stress on the mind. A lot of stress on the body, and very stressful for my team. Where now it’s so much more focused on the fight. And it’s just the way it should be.
Chiesa admits that at 155lbs, he wasn’t sure if he could go the extra rounds required for a main event bout. But at welterweight, he’s able to push his body further in training. And he’s matured, physically and mentally. Which means he’s in a far better state, in both areas, than in 2017. “The biggest thing is the maturity. I’m a lot more mature than I was back then.”
… And Uncertainty
As much as the pandemic has brought about the “Era of Opportunity” it has also been the “Era of Uncertainty” thanks to fights falling through more often than ever before. COVID-19 positives have compounded traditional illness, injury, and mishaps. When Khamzat Chimaev fell off the UFC Fight Island 8 card, there was briefly a concern that Neil Magny would be bumped up against Leon Edwards atop the card. Instead, the UFC pushed Chimaev vs. Edwards back, and promoted Chiesa’s fight with Magny to the main event.
The landscape of the UFC FIght Island 8 card being what it was actually helped out in the end. As Chiesa explained it, his approach was to prepare for Neil Magny. “But if something happens, and this fight gets shuffled on short notice, there’s not a stark difference in how I would prepare differently if I got matched up with either three of those guys. I feel like my preparation would be fairly the same,” he noted. Of course, there was “a big level of uncertainty” when the verbal agreements for the fight were made, especially knowing that the UFC saw Magny as a potential replacement fighter for the main event. As a result, Chiesa was ready to fight whoever he had to — but luckily, it worked out in the end.
“I’m glad it panned out the way it did. I mean, it couldn’t work out any better. I got to keep my opponent,” Chiesa observed. “Now we’re in the main event. I’m glad that this fell more to the side of opportunity than uncertainty.”
I’ve done everything I could possibly do to temper me for this moment. Now it’s time to go walk through the fire.#visionquest pic.twitter.com/CZDCNQrb2D
— Michael Chiesa (@MikeMav22) January 19, 2021
The primary goal for Michael Chiesa remains winning a UFC championship. And a win over Magny, he believes, should land him at the top of the division.
“Just off the top of my head, it’s like, how would it not put me in the top five?” he questioned. At the same time, Chiesa isn’t focusing on what-ifs. “I’m usually a guy that’s got an opponent in mind,” he admitted. Chiesa tends to be ready to call someone out after a win. But heading into UFC Fight Island 8, he has put that to the wayside. “I’m focused on Neil Magny and Neil Magny only. I think that’s the best move. That’s the best way to move forward through this, through this camp through this preparation— is to not not be thinking about the next guy, just be focused on the task at hand. So I’m not even really thinking about what comes next after this fight. I’m focused on what I’ve got to do on the 20th. And I think that that’s very important.”
Michael Chiesa faces Neil Magny in the UFC Fight Island 8 main event on Wednesday, January 20 at the Etihad Arena in Abu Dhabi. The event airs on ESPN (TSN in Canada), with the main card getting underway at 12PM ET.