Mike Chiesa wasn't a known commodity before he won The Ultimate Fighter 15 in June to put a bow on one of the most dramatic feel-good stories in the history of the reality show.
Chiesa's father passed away during the show's filming, leaving him with an impossible choice: finish taping the show, or go home and attend his father's funeral.
He didn't have to make the choice, as UFC officials allowed Chiesa to go home with his family and then return to continue the show. It was the first time they'd done such a thing, and it resonated with the fans who were collectively in Chiesa's corner for the rest of the season.
And when he won, he started getting a little more attention than he was used to, which was to say no attention at all. He took some time off because he deserved the time off; the grueling (and never again replicated) Ultimate Fighter Live schedule had Chiesa away from home for nearly five months. He wanted to enjoy himself a little, and he did.
Chiesa told Ariel Helwani on Monday's MMA Hour that he was getting just a little bit arrogant, but a stern talk from his sister put that kibosh on any of that nonsense. And Chiesa says that's the key to staying grounded as a young fighter with a modicum of fame.
"You just have to keep your head on your shoulders. Sometimes I have to ask my friends or my family to tell me how I'm doing. Somebody to be real with me," Chiesa told Helwani. "Because there was a point this summer where my head did get a little big, and I had to have a talk with my sister to kinda bring me back down to ground level. Now that that's been gone for about a month or so, I feel good. I feel like I'm back to my normal self."
Young athletes have it all. The fame, the visibility and the kind of preternatural talent that allowed them to rise and become famous athletes in the first place. They're special, even if we don't want to recognize it. Or even if they flaunt it in our faces to the point of resentment.
What they don't have, in many cases, is the wisdom to know when to say when. It's not always their fault, of course. Plenty of these athletes are surrounded by people who fear losing their spot on the gravy train, so they will say and do whatever it takes to secure that spot.
If that means telling the athlete what he wants to hear, then by all means that's what they're going to do, no matter the consequences or the far-reaching effects it has on the athlete's reputation.
Mixed martial arts has no cautionary tales of super-prospects who flew too close to the sun and flamed out spectacularly due to arrogance, at least not in the years since the sport started crawling slowly into the mainstream consciousness. But that doesn't mean there isn't danger of it happening.
Plenty of folks will point to Jon Jones as as a cautionary tale in the making. And perhaps he is. Or perhaps all we've done is vilify a young and successful athlete for no good reason at all, or perhaps because we just don't like him.
And maybe we don't really even know why we like him, so we manufacture this feeling that he's a "fake person," as if anyone outside of his immediate family and close circle of friends could ever truly know him well enough to determine if he's pretending to be a good person or if he's genuinely just making a few honest (and yet costly) mistakes here and there.
“Jon is a young guy and he’s made mistakes that young people make. Who doesn’t at his age? If I went back to being 23 years old with a ton of fame and a ton of money, that’s when you make all your mistakes," Dana White recently told Fuel TV. "The great thing about making your mistakes in your 20s is by the time you’ve established yourself in your late 20s and 30s, you’ve already made all your mistakes and you can conduct yourself the way you should.”
I did some really dumb things when I was 25 years old. I cannot describe to you how stupid I was, and not even just some of time. I was quite literally dumb for almost my entire existence. I hadn't learned anything, and I surely hadn't figured out how to apply the lessons from my past in order to amend my future.
I was a kid. What else was I supposed to do?
"I make a lot of mistakes and say things that make people upset. Five years ago, I was an average kid who went to college. I'm a 25-year-old. I'm gonna make mistakes," Jones said on the UFC 152 conference call. "I'm just a dude who says what he feels. Some people dig me and other people think I'm arrogant. I'm just me.
"First they said I was too fake and now they want me to hire a PR guy. I'm just me. I'm not perfect. I won't always say things people want to hear. I just did things the way I know how to. I think that I handled a lot of this with grace."
This is the first time, I think, that we've heard Jones truly speak from the heart. He's not trying to sway public sentiment in his favor. He's not telling us what we think we want to hear. He's telling us how it is—from his own perspective, of course—and if we don't like it, well, he doesn't really care.
And you know what? I like it. I like it a lot, in fact. Jones can spend less time worrying about controlling the message and more time perfecting his dominant performances in the cage. And at the end of the day, if Jones continues his reign of terror, he's still going to go down as one of the best fighters in history, perhaps the absolute best of all time.
And if he says a few things that piss people off, well, so much the better. As long as it's from the heart, and as long as he believes what he's saying, it's better than trying to mold an image for the public. Because at the end of the day, the fans are smarter than fighters give them credit for. They can see through facades, and they'll call you out on it.
Jones may never be the most popular guy in the room. And if he ever does regain some of those fans he lost during the cancellation of UFC 152, it will take a long time to do so. But it doesn't matter, because loved or hated, Jones is still one of the best fighters in the sport and one of its biggest personalities.
And besides, being hated isn't such a bad thing. Just ask Michael Bisping or Josh Koscheck.
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