The debut of the 16th season of The Ultimate Fighter this week put the popular reality TV show's most recent winner in a reflective mood.
After all, it's only been a little more than three months since Mike Chiesa took viewers on an emotional journey — winning the show after his father, Mark, died during the first day of filming.
"It’s a lot to take in. I’ve had to adjust to a new lifestyle," Chiesa said on last week's edition of The MMA Hour, of how his world has turned upside down after choking out Al Iaquinta at the show's finale in June to win a six-figure contract with the UFC.
"I’ve adjusted well. I'm very glad to be out of the house. I actually feel normal again. Seriously it took me at least a month and a half to two months to feel normal again. I felt shell-shocked by people, music. All the things taken away from you for three months, it's crazy that it takes a while to adjust to having them all back."
While the 16 weeks isolated from the outside world weighed heavily on Chiesa, the Spokane, Wash.-based fighter said he wouldn't trade the journey for anything.
"Hands down (best experience of my life)," he said "I met 14 great individuals, great coaching staff. It doesn’t happen very often to anybody. If you did the math about how many guys make the show compared to how many guys applied, it would be crazy. It’s just a blessing that I got the opportunity to compete."
The 24-year-old — who is set to face Rafaello Oliveira in his first UFC fight on Dec. 8 at UFC on Fox 5 — did admit that he might have had a brief moment or two where he got caught up in his newfound fame.
"Just keep your head on your shoulders. Sometimes I have to ask my family and ask my friends: 'How am I doing?' Somebody just to be real with me, because there was a point where my head did get a little big," Chiesa said.
"I had to have a talk with my sister to bring me back to ground level. (She said) 'Yo, you're being kind of weird. You don't seem like yourself right now.
"She knew that I wanted to go out and have some fun, and I did. I deserved it. I took a month off and did nothing, just hung out and laid low. But then she was like 'Hey get your feet back on the ground and get back to work.' And so I did."
The one-time Budweiser worker says winning the show has only deepened his commitment to MMA and ensured that fighting is indeed his fulltime job now.
"I can’t go to work and I have so many obligations now. My life is fighting," Chiesa said. "When I wake up I feel like I’m on the clock. So I have to get things done and be productive."
Chiesa gets his first opportunity in his new gig, close to home when he takes on Oliveira in Seattle.
"It's awesome man. It's crazy that I'm on a Seattle card," said Chiesa, who retold a story of how he was in Seattle earlier in the summer and went for a walk down to KeyArena, site of the UFC's second-ever show in Seattle.
"I couldn't sleep I was just thinking about everything that was going on and walked down by the Space Needle and KeyArena. A security guard saw me walking around and talking about how this would be real neat to fight here.
"Sure enough, a week later Joe Silva called me about Rafael: 'Oh my gosh this is awesome. I'm so excited I can't even explain it.'"
While some fans are quick to label Chiesa as one of the top contestants to ever come off TUF considering the season's extended time frame, his come-from-behind victories, and personal tragedy, Chiesa says he hasn't earned anything yet.
"I haven't' even fought my first fight yet. That would be a bold statement by me," Chiesa said. "I haven't even shown my skills. It's all about putting the W's on paper.
"I still look at Ross Pearson, Forrest Griffin, Rashad Evans, those guys are the ultimate (The) Ultimate Fighters. The guys who win The Ultimate Fighter and go on to have successful careers, those are the ultimate, ultimate fighters. I'm just getting my feet wet."
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