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Michael Chiesa: I was fighting at ‘half my potential’ at lightweight

If Michael Chiesa is right, he hasn’t even scratched the surface of what he’s capable of as a fighter.

A veteran of 15 UFC bouts, the 30-year-old Chiesa is making a major change for his next bout jumping from the lightweight division to the welterweight division after being submitted in his last two fights at 155 pounds.

Chiesa won season 15 of The Ultimate Fighter (beating future title challenger Al Iaquinta) and then proceeded to put together a 7-4 record with notable victories over Beneil Dariush, Jim Miller, and Francisco Trinaldo. However, despite scraping his way to a top-10 spot in the UFC’s official rankings, Chiesa’s recent struggles both in the Octagon and with the scale convinced him that it was time to change weight classes.

On Monday, Chiesa appeared on The MMA Hour and he gave a projection for where he expects his career to go in 2019 and how improved he will be without the complications of a grueling weight cut.

“Just to get back to contention,” Chiesa said. “I got as high as being ranked 7th at lightweight and I really believe this deep down to my bones that I was really only fighting to half my potential. I really feel like going up to 170 I’m going to really be able to show my skill set. I’m not gonna be a small welterweight. I’m bigger than probably 80 percent of the guys that are already welterweights right now.

“So my goal for 2019: win fights. Get in the top-10. Maybe getting closer to the top-5 by the end of 2019. But my long term goal is still the same. People may say I’m crazy. A lot of people say I can’t pull it off. I don’t give a f**k what they say. I know deep down I’m destined to be a world champion and maybe it’s to be attained in the most prestigious division in the UFC at welterweight. So that is my long term goal, but for now 2019, end in the top-10.”

At 6-foot-2, Chiesa was always one of the taller fighters in the UFC’s lightweight division, and he described his experience cutting down to 155 pounds as “miserable.” He’s been spending time at the UFC Performance Institute in Las Vegas, where he says the focus has been on lifting weights and eating right.

“I can tell I’ve probably gained about six pounds of muscle in the past two-and-a-half months,” Chiesa said. “I just feel good, to not have to stress about weight — to some people I sound like a psycho because I’m like, ‘I’m only a little more than 30 pounds over’, they’re like, ‘That’s still 30 pounds.’ Yeah, well it beats 50.

“It beats having to cut all that weight and if you see the trend nowadays, look at Dustin Poirier, look at Kelvin Gastelum, look at Robert Whittaker. They’re guys that are making that 15-pound jump and they’re killing it right now, so I just think that the trend now is to go to the weight class that’s most suited for your body. I was still part of that trend where it was see how low you can get, get as small as you can get, be the biggest guy in your weight class and it started to burn me out.”

Chiesa doesn’t think that he did any long term damage to himself as a result of his weight cuts, though he recalls being “super bloated” and “super lethargic,” and he experienced difficulty digesting food in the weeks following a fight. That dulled the passion Chiesa once felt about competing and he’s already feeling a renewed sense of enjoyment in preparation for his matchup with Condit.

“The biggest thing for me is I’ve been doing this for over 10 years and I love it, it’s a blessing to be able to get up and to compete and train and make fighting my job,” Chiesa said. “But it started to lose its luster when all I’m doing is killing myself. This used to be fun to me and now it’s like this is fun again. I don’t have to stress about making this certain weight. I don’t have to eat spinach and egg whites year round. I can eat and I can be an athlete and I can lift weights and I don’t have to just focus on cutting weight all the time. I can focus on becoming a better fighter.”

He and Condit are both on losing streaks, with Condit — a former UFC interim welterweight champion — having gone winless in his last four appearances. Chiesa doesn’t expect the fight to be a “loser leaves town” match, nor does he think the pairing was made for any reason other than the fact that he believes they make for an exciting match of styles.

Chiesa praised Condit for his “kill or be killed” mentality and sees him as exactly the kind of opponent he needs to beat to show that he’s serious about being a contender at welterweight.

“Those are the challenges I’m looking for,” Chiesa said. “This is a guy that could be the toughest test of my career. He’s a former world champion, those are the types of guys I want to fight. Anthony Pettis was my first shot at a former UFC champion and that’s a win that I wanted to get really badly.

“To beat somebody that held the title, that had the thing that I’m striving for, I need to get that win under my belt and I like the challenges that he presents.”

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