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The Ultimate Fighter’s ultimate underdog Mike Chiesa takes 15th season’s crown

Chiesa pulls off third straight upset to submit Al Iaquinta

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

Mike Chiesa celebrates his submission victory over Al Iaquinta in their lightweight bout at The Ultimate Fighter 15 Friday, June 1 2012.

TUF 15: Chiesa vs. Iaquinta

Mike Chiesa celebrates his submission victory over Al Iaquinta in their lightweight bout at The Ultimate Fighter 15 Friday, June 1 2012. Launch slideshow »

TUF 15: Kampmann vs. Ellenberger

Martin Kampmann raises his arms in victory after defeating Jake Ellenberger in their welterweight bout at The Ultimate Fighter 15 Friday, June 1 2012. Kampmann won with a second round knockout. Launch slideshow »

TUF Live Finale

Charles Oliveira hits Jonathan Brookins during their bout at The Ultimate Fighter 15 Friday, June 1 2012. Launch slideshow »

Mike Chiesa spent three months losing to Al Iaquinta only to reverse course when it mattered most.

Chiesa became “The Ultimate Fighter Live” champion Friday night at the Palms by submitting Iaquinta at 2:47 of the first round. If the faces of those in attendance who spent time on the reality show’s set expressed surprise with the outcome of “TUF Live” finale, no one could blame them.

As teammates on a squad coached by Urijah Faber, Chiesa and Iaquinta regularly sparred together. Iaquinta routinely got the best of Chiesa in those practices.

“He’s an animal,” Chiesa said. “He was in my head all season.”

At the same time, Chiesa’s triumph shouldn’t have completely shocked anyone. The 24-year-old from Spokane, Wash., overcame everything in his way no matter the odds on the 15th season of the UFC’s reality show.

The bout against Iaquinta was another chance to show his resilience.

The majority of fighters in the UFC go an entire career without winning three fights as an underdog. Chiesa pulled off three upsets in a span of 21 days in the bracketed, single-elimination competition among 16 lightweights.

He knocked out the top two fighters on Dominick Cruz’s team, Justin Lawrence and Justin Vick, before choking out Iaquinta.

“I can tell my body needs a break,” Chiesa said.

Iaquinta entered the octagon as a 3-to-1 favorite over Chiesa. One episode of “TUF” earlier in the year showed the 25-year-old New York native picking Chiesa apart with his striking. The fighters also recalled times when Iaquinta outwrestled Chiesa to the point his confidence was shaken.

But on Friday, Chiesa weathered Iaquinta’s advances and began to find his timing enough to effectively counterpunch. Chiesa was the one who got the fight to the ground, where he took Iaquinta’s back and locked in a rear-naked choke that forced a tap.

“One mistake and you can lose a fight,” Iaquinta said. “That’s what happened to me tonight. I made a mistake against Mike Chiesa, who’s a very tough guy and finds a way to win. He did that tonight. My hat’s off to the guy. He’s been through hell in that house. I don’t even know what to say. I’m happy for him.”

Chiesa’s underdog story encompasses more than the fighters put in front of him. Emotional baggage weighed on Chiesa more than any of his “TUF” opponents.

Within the first week of arriving to Las Vegas for the show, Chiesa’s father passed away from leukemia. UFC President Dana White permitted Chiesa to attend the funeral, but he had to return after one day without the comfort of his family.

Dealing with a house full of other fighters chasing their dream, a six-figure UFC contract, felt like nothing compared to handling the biggest loss in Chiesa’s life.

“Every day, I just had to pull myself up and push myself forward,” Chiesa said. “Keep training and keep fighting tough fights. I know I’m not the most technical guy. But just like Martin (Kampmann), you can’t count me out. I’ll stand in there and I’ll find a way to win.”

Throughout the season, Chiesa let his tears flow freely. He impassionedly dedicated victories to the memory of his father and his family back home.

Even leading up to the finale, Chiesa had a hard time answering questions about his father without breaking up. But he showed no signs of sadness after beating Iaquinta.

He gently took a victory lap around the octagon before sharing an embrace with his mother and sister. It’s a moment that immediately secured its place in UFC lore.

No fighter in the promotion’s history has overcome as much as Chiesa in such a short amount of time.

“It’s pretty self-explanatory for anyone who watched the season,” Chiesa said. “They knew that I was going through.”

Case Keefer can be reached at 948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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