by Dann Stupp on May 31, 2012 at 9:00 am ET
LAS VEGAS – Al Iaquinta has nothing but respect for Mike Chiesa, his fellow finalist and upcoming opponent at The Ultimate Fighter Live Finale.
Early in this latest edition of the UFC's long-running competition-reality series, Chiesa lost his father, and Iaquinta isn't sure he could have demonstrated the kind of composure and mental fortitude he saw from his teammate.
But come Friday in their "TUF: Live" championship bout, Iaquinta – respect or not – won't give Chiesa an inch in the cage.
"It's business," he told MMAjunkie.com (www.mmajunkie.com). "That's it.
"He's a great person. I respect what he's gone through and what he's done to be here. But I've worked too hard to let anything stand in the way of my goal."
The two lightweights meet in the co-headliner of The Ultimate Fighter Live Finale on Friday. They're part of the FX-televised main card, which takes place at The Pearl at Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas, following prelims on FEUL TV and Facebook.
Iaquinta (5-1-1 MMA, 0-0 UFC) and Chiesa (7-0 MMA, 0-0 UFC), who were both part of
Urijah Faber's team on the show, survived a field of 32 fighters to get into the big finale. As an early favorite, Iaquinta was Faber's No. 1 draft pick. Chiesa, meanwhile, was selected fifth out of eight rounds.
But Iaquinta and other cast members got a taste of Chiesa's perseverance when, in the second episode, he learned his father had died. Chiesa went home for a few days, but he quickly returned to the UFC Training Center and endured the super-sized 12-week show run – largely to keep a promise to his ailing father, who made his son promise that he'd remain on the show and fulfill his dream of being a UFC fighter.
"My hat's off to him," Iaquinta said. "I couldn't imagine myself in the same situation. Hopefully I never will. To be honest with you, I didn't even know that anything had happened to him until one of the coaches told me. So he really kept a poker face. ... He's a very emotionally tough guy."
Winning a "TUF" championship isn't the golden ticket it once was. The quality of competition in recent seasons has dwindled, and "TUF" doesn't produce the number of blue-chip prospects it did in earlier seasons.
Iaquinta and Chiesa, though, look to buck that trend. The 25-year-old Iaquinta, a member of the Serra-Longo Fight Team in New York, entered "TUF" with a 5-1-1 pro record, and on the show, he defeated the likes of Jon Tuck, Myles Jury, Andy Ogle and Vinc Pichel.
He now faces Chiesa, an opponent with whom he's intimately familiar, both personally and professionally.
"I got to know him pretty well," Iaquinta said. "There's not much to do but talk to people and get to know each other when you're bored (on the show). And we sparred and grappled together almost every day."
Unlike past, pre-taped seasons of the show, "TUF: Live" was shot in real time. So Iaquinta and Chiesa were training together just a week ago. Over the course of three months, they've learned each other's game inside out.
So on Friday, the heavy-handed striker knows a lot of what to expect from his wrestler/grappler opponent. But Iaquinta also knows there are a lot of unknowns that they simply couldn't replicate during their training sessions.
"Without a doubt you can take a lot of that [knowledge of the other guy] with you," he said. "I know where his head's at. For the most part, he knows where my head's at.
"But at the same time, it's totally different. There's going to be a crowd. There's going to be little gloves. We're really going to be trying to finish each other, which is a different dynamic that's not necessarily happening all the time in training."
So once again, he'll be in the spotlight. He'll be beamed to living-room TV sets across the globe. He's anxiously awaits a return home, but for now, he's digging the attention.
"I want the cameras," he said. "It just means I've gotten there and I'm on my way."