This year's The Ultimate Fighter Live winner was somehow able to do what no other fighter in the history of the show ever did. Michael Chiesa weathered three incredible battles in a three-week span to take home a huge glass trophy, which he said meant more than the Harley Davidson or the money that came with his final triumph over Al Iaquinta.
Both fighters came into Friday night's fight after a particularly exciting and contentious finals schedule, and neither one could have been at full health. A bevy of other contestants appeared on the same card, some of them on two or three weeks of rest at most.
Past seasons of The Ultimate Fighter on Spike TV were produced over a much longer period of time. The fighters fought on the same type of epic schedule right up until the finals, but it was all taped. For all those previous seasons, the finale card would be delayed.
The fighters would be off the show already when the viewing public was just starting to find out how each season unfolded. Each prior finalist had an opportunity to put in a proper training camp before fighting for that trophy. Each contestant who earned a courtesy fight on the finale card would also have time to put in some more practice outside the confines of the UFC gym and the fighter house.
This year, Michael Chiesa and Al Iaquinta had only a week outside the house to prepare for what could be considered the fight of their lives.
All the bouts in the TUF series have always been treated as exhibitions that don't go on the fighters' official pro records. Losses can be overcome for fighters who don't make the finals if they get an invite to fight on the show's finale. Sometimes many of those second-fiddle contestants fade away and never fight for the UFC again. Others turn enough heads to stick around in the league and become stars.
So much always rides on that first post-fighter-house professional performance in the octagon. This year was no different in that respect, except for the fact that the involved fighters had much less time to recover from the show's brutal schedule of fighting before making their official UFC debuts.
In the future, it may be a wiser idea for the UFC to allow for at least a month-long break between the show's last two fights and the finale card. Even with the UFC's comprehensive health insurance program, fighters take serious risks entering the cage to fight on the show.
The better TUF contestants always wind up fighting multiple weeks in a row, running through a gauntlet of sorts to wind up in the winner's circle. Add to this dynamic the fact that the fights are not always matched correctly.
Coaches on the show often make it their mission to mismatch their fighter against an opponent from the other team they are sure their own fighter can beat. There's been a plethora of fighter health issues during the taping of previous shows, though this season's most egregious injury happened to be one of the coaches (Dominick Cruz) blowing out his knee.
Welterweight Chuck O'Neil received two huge second-chance opportunities on one of the last Spike TV seasons of TUF in 2011. The first big break for Chuck was thanks to an injury to Myles Jury, who also competed Friday night after coming back to appear on the show this season.
O'Neil entered into the field of contestants in place of Jury during the Team Dos Santos vs Team Lesnar TUF season and had a disappointing first fight against Zach Davis. O'Neil's next big break came when UFC President Dana White chose him to be a "wild card" and gave him a second bite at the TUF apple.
O'Neil proved himself worthy of White's judgment call, winning his next two fights (including a rematch with Davis) before going into the third round against the show's ultimate winner, Tony Ferguson. O'Neil lost his final bout on the show to Ferguson, but his transformation was one of the more entertaining themes of the series.
His run on the show saw him fight four times in 17 days, as he recalled during a September, 2011 interview I did with him as he prepared to fight UFC Veteran Marcus Davis.
"My body was pretty messed up after the whole experience," said O'Neil, adding that he still thought it was worth the effort. He later explained that between the show wrapping up in March and his first official UFC fight in June he still didn't have enough time to completely recover.
It wasn't until around the time of our September 2011 conversation that O'Neil really felt fully recuperated from the rigors of the show.
Beyond just the fights themselves, it was the weight cutting that really made things difficult for O'Neil. For a guy who normally walked around near 200 pounds, getting down to 170 before each bout in that 17-day period was a real nightmare.
The recent death of a 26-year-old mixed martial artist after tapping out in a fight should also raise some eyebrows and some caution flags. The bout that led to Dustin Jensen's untimely demise didn't seem overly violent to the spectators watching. The young father and husband had been a practitioner of the sport for about a year before losing what turned out to be the fifth and last fight of his career.
The bout was part of a South Dakota Ring Wars show, and Jensen watched two fights from the stands after his own fight ended. He then returned to the locker room and suffered a seizure. He would never recover, succumbing on May 24 to his deteriorating condition.
While it's true there have not been any deaths recorded so far in the history of the UFC, when a death like Jensen's happens, the prospect of a UFC fighter dying as a result of a match doesn't seem so far-fetched.
Graduating from two rounds to three and going from exhibition mode to a pro start in mixed martial arts is a big deal. During a format like The Ultimate Fighter LIVE with so many rough-and-tumble battles and so much at stake, fighters on this same schedule in the future are bound to suffer more serious injuries.
At some point, the finalists won't physically be able to fight a week after the last fight on the show. There will be a broken hand at the very least to derail that plan and change the scheduling dynamics.
This was still one of the best TUF seasons ever, and it was awesome to watch (even though I think they picked a bad night to air it on) from start to glorious finish. It was also one of the first years I saw something in the first episode that convinced me of who the winner would be.
As a member of the press, I also received a nice packet from FX with details on all of the 32 competitors going into the first show.
These fighters were whittled down from a much larger pool of 500 prospects. Looking at the press packet again now, I see Michael Chiesa is on the first page of the fighter profiles, which happens to be page 7 of the book. Asked why he would become this season's TUF champion, Chiesa's answer ended with these words:
"I just think I have the formula and the style and the heart to push through every single form of adversity this show is going to put in my way."
Of course, those of us who watched the show closely know Chiesa lost his father Mark to a brutal battle with cancer while the show was taping. We watched Chiesa deal with all that intense grief and anguish, drive on, and become a true inspiration to fans and fighters across the globe.
His winning seemed so fitting after we saw him conquer the truly tremendous adversity he knew he would have to overcome to get as far as he did. The physical and mental struggle he endured is not something I would wish on my worst enemy. He embraced the opportunity and performed like a true professional.
I would just like to see all future winners of this show a bit less beat up and brought into the UFC at a much more cautious pace than Chiesa had to keep up to be the one holding up that trophy and sitting on that Harley when all was said and done.
It would have been much more exciting and humane if both finalists came in without the visible wounds on their face from the slugfests they won in the previous weeks.
The live-fight aspect certainly added some interesting twists to this year's season, but there's really no good reason these fighters shouldn't be given a reasonable amount of time off after the show before going into the cage to fight for a contract or a chance to fight again in the octagon.
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