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Michael Chiesa: ‘I’m going to be a world champion and it’s going to be at welterweight.’

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Michael Chiesa has a lot of attributes when it comes to his fighting abilities but mental toughness may be the greatest weapon he wields.

Back when he was competing on “The Ultimate Fighter” reality show, Chiesa had to suffer through the tragic loss of his father during filming but he somehow gutted his way through to win the competition and earn his contract with the UFC.

Unfortunately, Chiesa’s best weapon came back to haunt him when it came to his decision to constantly cut down to 155 pounds to compete in the lightweight division.

“Honestly in hindsight I feel stupid because I just can’t believe that I did that to myself for so long,” Chiesa told MMA Fighting ahead of his return at UFC 239. “I pride myself on being a mentally tough guy and just last year around this time, that mental toughness played against me.

“I forced myself into a fight I really shouldn’t have fought. I was still forcing myself into that weight cut and I just look back on it and I can’t believe I was doing that to myself in the few days before a fight.”

The reality is Chiesa was just doing what he always thought was the way to find success in mixed martial arts, which revolved around cutting as much weight as possible to try and gain a competitive advantage over an opponent on fight night.

“When I first got into the sport it was all about who could cut the most weight, who could be the biggest on fight night,” Chiesa said. “That’s the same era when you’re sparring 10 five minute rounds, new partner every two and a half minutes, that era of just really hard weight cutting and really hard full contact training.

“Now we’re getting into this era where let’s be smarter. Dumb and tough goes a long way in this sport but to be elite, you’ve got to be smarter. Dumb and tough is not going to get you to the top of the mountain. You’ve got to be smart, you’ve got to be tactical. Now the landscape of the sport is changing. Change is scary in this sport. Now I’m comfortable with these changes. I’m letting my coaches take the reins more. Letting them make the decisions on what’s going to be a hard practice, what’s not going to be a hard practice and also this weight cutting thing. It’s the best decision I’ve made in my entire career.”

Chiesa finally stopped fighting against his own body and made the decision to move to welterweight last year. The results were instantaneous as Chiesa was healthier and happier than he’s ever been and more importantly it showed in his fight as he tapped out former interim champion Carlos Condit in the second round at UFC 232 this past December.

“After going through the [weight] cut for Carlos, I thought this is how it should be,” Chiesa explained. “I’m still cutting weight. I’m not walking around at 170 [pounds]. I’ve still got to cut nine pounds or whatever but there’s big difference cutting down from 180 to 171 than cutting down when I’d start my cut to lightweight at like 168. I really had to pull it out of me. Just to put it in perspective, I woke up one pound over on the day of weigh-ins for Carlos Condit and it took 15 minutes to get that pound off. If I woke up one pound over on the day of weigh-ins for 155, it would probably take two hours to get that pound off. I just can’t believe I did it to myself for so long.

“I’m glad I made that decision now rather than later. Because I really feel like the prime window for a fighter is like 30 to 34 [years old] and I feel my best years are ahead of me and I’m in the best place to make a run like I’ve been talking about for many, many years.”

Chiesa admits as good as it was for his body to move up to welterweight, the decision was still a tough one considering how he had already established himself as a top 10 fighter in the lightweight division.

Moving to 170 pounds meant Chiesa was almost starting over but the rewards have ultimately far outweighed the risks he took when changing divisions.

“I’m not here to be mediocre. I’m not in the UFC just to get a paycheck and make a living,” Chiesa said. “That’s really not what I’m here for. If I wanted to make money, I would have gotten out of the sport and done something else. I want to be a world champion.

“I still have ambition. I still have that feeling that I know I’m going to be a world champion. I could have stayed in the mix at 155 [pounds] and it was tough to leave that ranking. I had to leave that ranking and go back to the bottom of the heap but I had a really good performance against Carlos and I’ve got to do the same against Diego [Sanchez]. I’ve got to go pitch a shutout.”

The fight against Sanchez this weekend gives Chiesa another opportunity to face a high profile opponent with hopes that a win will push him closer to the top 15 rankings and eventually title contention.

“All I’ve got to do is keep winning fights. As long as I’m healthy, I can fight more frequently cause I’m not killing myself to make weight,” Chiesa said. “The time is now.

“The mission stays the same. I’m going to be a world champion and it’s going to be at welterweight.”