Wednesday, May 30, 2012 | 8:15 p.m.
One of the happier moments of Mark Chiesa’s late life came when his son, prospective UFC lightweight Mike Chiesa, gave his first published interview.
Mark’s wife, Teresa Chiesa, said he couldn’t stop sharing and playing the audio. She estimated Mark listened to it 50 times.
The scene at “The Ultimate Fighter” gym Wednesday afternoon would have overwhelmed Mark. A horde of reporters surrounded Mike, with even more media waiting in line for a chance to speak with him.
All the cameras and notepads in the room were pointed toward Mike Chiesa (7-0 MMA, 4-0 TUF) as he previewed his “TUF Live” championship bout, scheduled for Friday at the Pearl at the Palms, against Al Iaquinta (5-1 MMA, 4-0 TUF).
“His dad would be really happy,” Teresa said as she wiped tears from her eyes. “He would be so proud.”
Mark Chiesa, 53, died over two months ago from a form of leukemia. His death came hours after Mike won a fight to secure his spot on the 15th season of “TUF,” the UFC’s biannual reality show that awards the winner a $100,000 contract.
UFC President Dana White broke “TUF” tradition, in which fighters aren’t allowed to have outside contact or leave the house, and let Mike return home to Spokane, Wash., for his father’s funeral. White would have understood if the 24-year-old decided to stay home with his family and not return to the set in Las Vegas.
But that was never an option for Mike Chiesa. Seeing his son fight in the UFC was one of Mark Chiesa’s dying wishes. Mike promised Mark that nothing would stop him from pursuing a future in the world’s largest mixed martial arts promotion.
“It was something me and my dad talked about before I left, so it didn’t cross my mind at all that I wanted to drop out of this competition,” Mike said as his voice cracked with emotion. “When I went home, it was easy for me to come back.”
The more difficult part was staying focused and not showing any weakness to the other 15 fighters on the show for the next 13 weeks.
The distance and longing for family caused multiple fighters to leave “TUF” in past seasons. None of them were dealing with a tragedy like Mike.
“To be honest with you, I didn’t even know anything had happened to him until the coaches told me,” Iaquinta said. “He really kept a poker face and I think he’s definitely a tough guy.”
Even if competitors knew the extent of Chiesa’s grieving, it’s unlikely they could have capitalized on it. He rolled through the tournament bracket by getting three wins once back from the funeral, dedicating the run to his father.
He took a unanimous decision over Jeremy Larsen before knocking out Justin Lawrence, the consensus favorite to win the show, and James Vick, who was also favored over Chiesa.
Chiesa’s “TUF” coach, UFC bantamweight top contender Urijah Faber, labeled him as the most improved fighter on the cast. Chiesa’s striking ability has developed immensely in the past three months.
“That’s been the key,” Chiesa said. “I’ve had stand-up (skill) throughout my career, but I didn’t believe in it. I always just thought my strength was in my wrestling. But (Faber) really made me believe in myself as a fighter and believe in my striking.”
Teresa and Mike’s two sisters — Meggie and Amy — gathered in Spokane every Friday night to watch the episodes of “TUF Live.”
Mike’s success has helped as a healthy distraction and healing mechanism, Teresa said.
“When you lose someone as close as a father, the scars don’t heal fast,” Mike said. “My family, it’s going to take lot of time for us to cope and get over it. We’ll probably hurt for a very long time. But I know every Friday, whether I was fighting or not, them getting to tune in and see me on the show, I know for at least an hour it made them happy. I know my family is proud of me and I’m proud of them as well.”
Amy was too far along in her pregnancy to make it to Las Vegas for the fight. But Teresa and Meggie flew in earlier this week.
Teresa’s motherly instincts make it hard to watch Mike fight, which was one of the great joys in Mark’s life.
Somewhere, Teresa notes, Mark is watching Mike’s ascent to the UFC.
“He kept a promise to his dad,” she said. “We wanted him to go on with his career. I’m just so proud of him. He’s a great kid and he’s got a huge heart.”