It was an early Friday evening in Las Vegas and Mike Chiesa had successfully completed the first step toward fulfilling a long-time dream.
In 2005, Chiesa and his then-girlfriend were watching the finale of the first season of the UFC reality show, “The Ultimate Fighter,” on television when Chiesa made a pronouncement out of nowhere. He would, he told his girlfriend, fight on that show one day.
Now, seven years later on a beautifully mild late winter evening, Chiesa made his words come true, submitting Johnavan Vistante with a rear naked choke in the first round to earn a spot on the cast of 16 for the show’s 15th season.
About 1,100 miles away in Spokane, Wash., his father, Mark Chiesa, lay on a bed in a fight for his life. It was a fight he knew he would not win.
The 52-year-old Mark Chiesa was diagnosed with leukemia in June, after having felt ill for several weeks before that. As the disease spread and the likelihood that it would take his life set in on his devastated family, he wrote three goals on a slate that his wife, Teresa, had provided him.
The first was to see his beloved New York Giants play in the Super Bowl. The second was to live long enough to watch his son, Mike, fight in the UFC. And the third was to see the birth of his grandson in June.
The Giants won the Super Bowl in February, with Mark and Mike Chiesa watching together cheering them on.
As March dawned, it was little more than wishful thinking that he could hold on until June. Despite a bone marrow transplant from his brother, Andrew, it seemed Wish No. 3 was not going to happen. Mark Chiesa was declining rapidly.
But Mike was scheduled to fight March 9 at The UFC Training Center in Las Vegas, with a spot on the cast of “The Ultimate Fighter” riding on the outcome. There was hope that Mark could fulfill that dream and see Mike compete in the UFC.
The family wasn’t crazy about Mike’s decision to get into mixed martial arts. Teresa Chiesa, Mike’s stepmother, said watching Mike fight made her cringe, but that her husband was fully supportive.
“From a parent’s perspective, it’s hard to watch your child do anything where they might get hurt,” Teresa Chiesa said. “In this sport, there are rules, but there aren’t too many, and we were just worried that Michael would be hurt, like any parents would be. I can remember the first fight we went to see, Mark was a pretty macho guy – no way would people find him weak – but it was hard to watch the fight. I remember when something happened, Mark got up out of his seat and ran up to the cage.
“We just didn’t want to see him get hurt. We had reservations, but Mark was so proud of Michael. Michael has a lot of drive and determination. When he was a kid, he was doing skateboarding and you would have thought there was nothing else in life but skateboarding. Mark had his reservations, because he was worried, but he was also very, very proud of Michael and the determination he was showing to reach his goal.”
The television was tuned to FX on March 9 as Mike’s fight was slated to begin. Mark Chiesa lay motionless in his bed, surrounded by his family.
Just two minutes, five seconds into the fight, Chiesa forced Vistante to tap to the rear naked choke. Mark Chiesa lay in his bed, his eyes closed.
In Las Vegas, his son leaped to his feet, ran toward a camera and shouted exuberantly, “That was for you, Dad!”
Nobody in the Chiesa family knows if Mark Chiesa was aware that his son had just won the biggest fight of his life. But after Mike shouted to the camera, Mark gave up thumbs up and smiled.
The format of the reality show is that 32 men try out for 16 spots on the cast. The final 16 move into house, where they live and train together. At the end, the winner of the show earns a UFC contract.
Previously, when the show was broadcast on Spike, that would mean a commitment of six weeks being away from family and friends. The rules of the show are that there is to be no contact with the outside world: no newspapers, television, radio, telephones or Internet.
But this year, with the UFC opting to make the fights live each Friday, the commitment expanded from six weeks to 13 weeks. When Mike left Spokane in early March, he knew he was taking a fateful step.
“You know, I knew there was a possibility when I walked out the door that it would be the last time I’d ever see him,” Chiesa said.
As Mike waited for his ride to the airport, his gravely ill father was fraught with worry that his son would be late and miss the chance to live out a dream.
Not long after he left Spokane to fly to Las Vegas, Teresa Chiesa decided she needed to have a frank talk with her husband. She knew the seriousness of Mark’s health, and she felt he’d want to have one last chance to say goodbye to his son.
“It was only a couple of days before he passed and he was getting worse and worse,” Teresa Chiesa said softly. “I asked Mark, ‘Do you want me to call Michael and ask him to come home?’ And he said no. ”So I said, ‘Are you sure you don’t want me to call him?’ And he said ‘No,’ and said he didn’t want us to call for the duration of the show.”
And so, no phone call was made, at least not until Mark Chiesa had passed away a few hours after his son’s win.
“When they told me I had a phone call [while at the UFC Training Center], I knew,” Mike Chiesa said. “It was no surprise. I knew what it was.
“It’s a tough situation under any circumstances, when someone close to you passes away. It’s hard, especially when it’s your old man. He didn’t live his whole life. You’re not thinking someone that age is going to die. It’s just beyond anything I could have imagined.”
UFC president Dana White broke with tradition and allowed Mike to fly home to be with his family. He gave him the option to not come back, of staying home and taking care of his family. Or, White said, he would allow Chiesa to attend the funeral and return. Chiesa never had any doubt: He was returning.
White was relieved, because he wanted Chiesa to be able to mourn his father’s death, but he also didn’t want to see him miss out on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“I’m sort of a different person when it comes to life and death, and it’s always tough for me,” White said. “I don’t have the greatest relationship with my parents, but that’s just me. I know that’s not the case with most people. He was super close to his dad. His dad really supported him and didn’t want the kid to leave. He wanted his kid to stay and fight.
“He was literally gone for just one day. And I’ll tell you, I was glad he chose to come back, because the guy is talented. I haven’t seen a lot of him yet, but he’s a talented guy and he looked good winning his fight. I just wanted him to make the right call for him.”
Chiesa said the decision to stay and fight was the right one, as much as it pained him to not be at his father’s side in his final hours.
And though he won’t predict a win on the show – “All I’ll say is that every fight I have, I’m going to give everything I have for every second I’m in that cage” – he believes he’ll have a friend helping him from above.
“He’s going to be with me every time I fight, I know it,” Chiesa said. “I know he will be. My dad was a great dad and he was always there for me, no matter what. And he’s gone, but I know he’s still going to be there. He’s passed, but I know he’s not going to abandon me now.”