'Frustrated' Michael Chiesa wants to compete, but can't. At least not yet.
Just a couple of weeks before the most important fight of his UFC career, Chiesa ruptured his L5 vertebrae on his spine and was forced to pull out of the fight. Chiesa was scheduled to headline UFC Fight Night 91 on July in an important lightweight bout against top contender Tony Ferguson. Since his injury, Chiesa has been quietly on the sidelines, watching the lightweight division change drastically while also getting called out to fight by a few of his fellow lightweights.
MMA Fighting recently caught up with 'Maverick' to talk about his injury, the state of the UFC's lightweight division, and more. Below is a transcript of the conversation:
Danny Segura: Michael, how's your back doing?
Michael Chiesa: It feels good but there's days, like today in specific it's just barking at me. I can do some rolling, some wrestling, some sparring, but when it gets to strength and conditioning and lifting weights and doing things that really put weight on my lower back, that's when I start having some problems, you know. It's one of those things. I'm 28, I still have time, but I'm not... I'm toiling with this spot where I just want to push through it and try to take a fight right now, but at the same time it's not fair to the fans for me to take a fight and pull out because I didn't give myself time to heal. I made the choice not to get surgery. I talked to a lot of people and I didn't get a lot of good feedback of the surgery. They said they go and clean up part of the disk that's hanging out, but you still don't feel that great. I'm getting better, I'm making progress, but I just need to make sure that I'm fully healed when I come back. I don't want to think I'm ready, book a fight, and then have to pull out. I want to be ready to come back, I want this to be put behind me.
DS: Do you have a time frame for your return?
MC: I don't really have a time frame. I had a time frame on when I could go back and work out, so I took eight weeks off and the UFC sent me down to Exos (physical therapy center for professional athletes) when the injury initially happened. I went down there got some good feedback and they said, 'You're definitely not ready, you're still limited to some things'. Like, I can't run on pavement, I can't... there are just a lot of weird things that I can do, and there are a lot of things you'd think I wouldn't be able to do, that I can do.
So I just have to keep doing what I'm doing, man. I'm going to start looking at other forms of therapy. I spoke to a chiropractor in Vietman when I was down there at a gym opening for the UFC, and he told me about a guy on Sandpoint, Idaho, which is an hour away from me, that has a certain method where they've had basketball players back on the courts and all sorts of athletes that had the same injury as me and in the same area. So I'm going to look in to that.
If I were a betting man, I'd say January, February maybe. I think that's a good time frame to make sure I'm ready, make sure I'm healed, and the state of the lightweight division, there's a lot of big fights coming up. There's a lot of match ups that need to happen and see how they shake out. You know, I still want that Ferguson fight, I mean, it haunts me to this date. I have mad respect for the dude, but I got so close to getting that big fight, and you know, I'm hoping I can get that fight. I think even if he beats dos Anjos I have a feeling that Khabib gets the next title shot granted that he beats Michael Johnson. I don't think Tony is going to sit around and wait, so hopefully him and I can do the dance before he makes any immediate plans for his future.
DS: You think Ferguson won't get a title shot with a win over dos Anjos?
MC: Yeah, you see how this company works. You see what is happening right now. It's not always the best guy with the best win streak, you know. I think Khabib wins if he beats Michael Johnson. And if he does, that's a tough fight. If Tony beats dos Anjos and Nurmagomedov beats Johnson, I think that Tony is going to fight for it because they're going to do Khabib. Think about everything that goes with it, you know. Khabib has Russia ridding on his shoulders and he's said, and I think it's real, that if they don't give him the next title fight, that they can kiss Russia goodbye. I mean, if you look at the guy's social media following, it's insane. So we'll see, hopefully, if anything, they'll do what's right and have Tony and Khabib fight like they were supposed to. Maybe they'll do that, who knows.
DS: While you've been out, Conor McGregor has moved to the lightweight division to challenge for the belt. What are your thoughts on that?
MC: I think it's bullshit. I feel bad for the guys that have been leaped-frog by him. I do understand that there is an entertainment aspect to the sport and to this promotion, but I think you have to maintain the sport before you let a guy make moves like that. Do I like him being in my weight class? Yeah, because it's a big money fight and I match up really well against him. I mean, I'd be one body-lock away from subbing him. Other than that, it doesn't really... you know, I just feel bad for the Tony Fergusons, and the Nurmagomedovs, and these guys that have racked up these huge win streaks and they're getting leaped-frogged by a dude, who really, I mean, we'll find out if he has any business in our division on November 12, but until then, I don't think he's in the right spot. He needs to go back and do what's right. He's got Max Holloway and Anthony Pettis in his own weight class to deal with. So I hope Eddie puts him back down to 145, but if not welcome to your new home, welcome to the deep waters.
MC: Yes and no. Leo not so much. I mean, I know he's tough, I know he's like a four-time world champion in jiujitsu, I know he flying-armbared St-Pierre at ADCC, I know he's got great accolades, but I'm ranked No. 7 in the world right now. You [Santos] don't even have a number next to your name, so it's bad business. I know I'm saying that like I'm very snobby, but that's just kind of a fact. Like why would... I've worked really hard to get my spot. And you know, how this division is, anybody can beat anybody any given day, and I'll give him his respect. So when you make the top 10, the top eight it doesn't really matter who you want to fight, but you just have to fight the guys ranked ahead of you. I dont care who it is. If you're ranked higher than me, then that fight interests me. It has nothing to do with him [Santos] in specific because I match up great against him, but right now my focus is on Ferguson.
I want to see what happens with Ferguson and dos Anjos, I want to see what happens there. And let's not forget, I still need to figure out when I can come back and fight. I can't go out here and say what fight I'm interested in and really be out here talking sh*t if I cant even get in there and compete. I'm not that guy. When the day comes that I can come back and fight, which I hope that my time line is right, I'm going to comeback and make statement. This momentum hasn't died with my injury, the momentum is still here. I'm still training what I can do, I'm still making improvements. My body needed a rest. That was my third camp in seven months and I'm not one of these guys that's on the juice. I'm a natural athlete. Three eight-week camps in seven months is pretty fucking grueling, so you know, we'll see what happens. I'm just trying to get healthy. That's my biggest opponent right now.
DS: Is it frustrating to be on the sidelines while the lightweight division changes so fast?
MC: It is frustrating. It's very frustrating because I want to compete. It's not about money, it's not about anything, it's about me wanting to compete. I love my job. I've gotten to this point in my career where I enjoy fighting so much, I enjoy everything about it, and I've hit this really good groove in my training and I think it has come with age. I've almost had nine years in the sport, I've been in the UFC for almost five years.
I'm in a good spot, it just sucks I can't compete. On the good side of it, there are a lot of changes happening. The sale, fighters are changing weight classes, all these different things, but I've gone up two spots in the rankings since I've been out. That doesn't mean I'm just going to sit around and be like, 'Oh, let's see how far up rankings I can get since I've been hurt'. Yeah, I've been super bummed and it sucks. I can't do the thing Iove the most, but I'm still making progress in my career technically, so no matter what it's frustrating. I want to fight, but as the changes are happening I'm still making progress, so by the time I come back, I'm No. 7, I'm still in a good spot, so let's rattle off a win or two and fight for the title in 2017. Is that too far out in the realm of possibilities? Could that really happen? Yeah, absolutely.