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Michael Chiesa unconcerned with nearly two-year layoff ahead of UFC 291: ‘It feels like I never left’

Michael Chiesa isn’t feeling any added pressure coming into this weekend.

On Saturday, Chiesa faces Kevin Holland in the main card opener of UFC 291. Originally set to face Li Jingliang at UFC 287 in April, when Li was injured, Chiesa got bumped off the card, meaning this will be the first fight for “Maverick” in nearly two years. But despite his long layoff, as fight week winds down, Chiesa says feels great and that in fact, the issues earlier this year may have been a blessing in disguise.

“It feels like I never left,” Chiesa told Ariel Helwani on The MMA Hour. “It doesn’t feel like my last fight was almost two years ago. The last big card I was on was 265 in Houston. It doesn’t feel like I’ve been away. I’ve had long layoffs due to injury and stuff, so I don’t anticipate to have any issues when it comes to the competition. When I look at the situation with what happened in April, there is a light in that whole situation in [that] I don’t believe in ring rust, but I do believe in camp rust.

“So fortunately for me, I got a full camp under my belt when I was training for Li Jingliang, I shook off the camp rust, it made it easier this training camp to deal with the rigors, the hard sparring, everything that comes with it, but when it comes to competition, I’m a competitor. I was born to do this and it just feels good to be back at fight week.”

A concern for Chiesa fans heading into this weekend is not just his long layoff, but the even longer gap between winning fights. Chiesa lost to Sean Brady and Vicente Luque in his two most recent appearances inside the octagon, and now he steps in to face the always dangerous Holland. It’s a tough return fight for the UFC’s No. 12-ranked welterweight, but one that Chiesa says he’s been preparing for for some time.

“I’ve never wanted an easy fight and I feel like Kevin and I have been on a collision course to face each other,” Chiesa said. “Had I got the fight in Miami, I think him and I would still be fighting each other on this card. I think it was inevitable and I think it’s better to catch him now before he really hits his prime at 32. I know how I felt from 30 to 35, and I think Kevin’s best years are ahead of him. I’m happy with this fight, I like somebody that’s going to bring the fight, and it’s fun to be on the main card with him. I like this matchup a lot.”

Holland is one of the more popular fighters in the UFC, known not just for his exciting style of fighting and finishes, but also for his near constant dialogue during fights. UFC President Dana White famously nicknamed Holland “Big Mouth” due to how much he chatters during fights, and Chiesa says that his training partners for this fight even got in on the fun to help prepare him.

Chase Hooper! Out of nowhere!” Chiesa said when asked if anyone talked trash to him during fight camp. “I’m a game guy. If you saw the Sean Brady fight, I was talking some crap. I’ve had fights where I’ve been a little verbal myself. Maybe not to the extent of Kevin Holland, obviously, but I’ve had fights where I’ve gotten a little chippy and talked a little crap in there.

“Chase Hooper was training with us before I left for Vegas to finish my training camp, and on a whim he just starts, ‘Let’s go motherf*****!’ I was like, ‘Whoa, Chase, chill! Chill out. What did I do to you?’ It was just funny because nobody told him to do it, he just did it. So there were a few sessions we had where we did that. I think it’s kind of hard to talk crap when I’m kicking someone’s butt in the gym. But for Chase it was funny because nobody asked him to do it, he just did it. Once we got done I was like, where did that come from? And he was like, ‘I don’t know. You’re fighting Kevin Holland, I figured I’d talk some s***.’”

Whether that training will help Chiesa come fight night remains to be seen but if it doesn’t, the “Maverick” could find himself at a career crossroads. Currently on a two-fight losing streak and having to work himself back from some serious injuries, some view this as a make-or-break fight for the 35-year-old. But Chiesa isn’t one of them..

“I’m not [feeling extra pressure] and I think that the layoff helps with that,” Chiesa said. “I remember going into the Carlos Condit fight, I felt that pressure because I went from Pettis fight where I missed weight and came up short, second loss in a row, jumping to Carlos Condit. That was a tough hurdle to overcome because two losses in a row, new weight class, against a guy I admire a ton — in my mind I was like, ‘I’m about to be a part of this guy’s highlight reel and it’s going to be my third straight loss.’ That was pressure. I don’t feel pressure now. It’s like a new breath of life for me...

“I don’t feel like I’m heading into this fight with two losses under my belt. It doesn’t even factor into my thoughts. I’m not in that echelon of guys like, backs against the wall, this might be the last one. I’ve got a lot of tread left on my tires and while I’ve had these bad injuries, the one part on my body that is preserved the most is [my head], and that’s most important. I haven’t taken a lot of damage upstairs through my career, and I think that’s what’s most important. “

UFC 291 takes place this Saturday at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City.

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