MMA is a dangerous sport. It’s built into the fabric of fighting. Two people can’t enter battle in a full contact contest – with punches, knees, kicks, elbows, and submissions – without the threat of danger. And that’s why MMA is also supposed to be a sport of checks and balances.
Fighters have rules they follow in the cage, referees are there to make sure that rules are enforced, and that fighters are kept safe. Corners watch the action, hopefully willing to step in if the referee fails to do his job. And the various regulating bodies are supposed to ensure that fighters, their corners, and the referees are all held to certain standards of training and skill.
Whether or not any of it works as intended, however, is an entirely different matter. And at a recent regional MMA event in Brazil, almost everything failed.
When Melquizael Costa entered the cage against Rafael Barbosa at Demolidor Fight 13 on August 18th, he was relatively unknown. Unfortunately, he’s found a moment in the spotlight, as the victim of a shocking moment of referee error. Costa ended up caught in an anaconda choke, one that put him to sleep almost immediately. Only referee Emerson Pereira Saez failed to recognize that fact for a full 90 seconds while Costa lay unconscious on the mat, his brain in desperate need of blood and oxygen.
Costa spoke to MMA Fighting about the experience in a recent interview.
“He locked the anaconda choke, and when I turned to the wrong side, I went out,” Costa said. “The first thing I remember is opening my eyes and seeing my coaches and a doctor over me, calling my name, and I couldn’t breathe. It was agonizing. I only came back to normal when I got to the hospital and they gave me some serum.”
“I saw in the video that I went out and my eyes were open,” Costa said. “You might think I’m awake, but I was already out. I moved a couple of times, but I was having seizures. My corner and his corner yelled that I was out, but the referee said he would only stop the fight if I was out. And I was! Every referee touches the fighter to see if they are out, but he never touched me. My opponent stopped the fight. Otherwise, I would be dead.”
Costa’s opponent, Rafael Barbosa, gave his thoughts on the experience as well, saying that while the referee clearly made a mistake, he wasn’t the only one deserving of blame.
“I know that the referee is wrong, but [Costa’s] team wouldn’t say much either,” Barbosa continued. “He was out, and his team kept telling him to get up, to defend. They thought he was still awake. I don’t think the referee is completely wrong here.”
For his part, Referee Emerson Pereira Saez told Fighting that, in the moment, a lot of little things made him believe that Costa was still conscious. The fighter’s eyes were open, he appeared to be posting off his opponent with his free hand, trying to create space, his legs seemed to be moving. However, following public reaction to the video, he announced that he would no longer referee bouts.
“Everything happens too fast in there, it’s different than looking at the video later. You have to make a quick decision in there, and at the same time, I thought if I stop this early and he’s in the fight, it will be controversial. I let it go a little bit longer, and when I realized his eyes and his expression were changing, I stopped the fight. That’s exactly what happened. I didn’t notice him having a seizure. If I had noticed that, I would have stopped it earlier to protect the athlete.”
“My family and I think it’s time to retire,” Saez added in an interview with Combate. “I’ve done my best. I wish (Costa) and his opponent the best. They are young, and I hope they can build their dreams.”
Wrapped up in all this is the fact that, up until the last minute, Saez wasn’t even supposed to be working the event at all. In response to backlash the fight has caused, promoter Jeferson Pavanelo explained that he had contracted Brazil’s National MMA Confederation (CNMMA) to officiate Demolidor Fight 13. But, shortly before the show started, CNMMA president Marcelo Drago – who had apparently planned to oversee the card – informed Pavanelo that he would be unable to make it, and in place of their regular team he sent Saez instead.
According to Combate, Drago explained that because Demolidor Fight works with the regulating body at a discounted rate, he was unable to bring in official CNMMA referees from outside the area at their agreed upon price. However, Pavanelo says that Drago vouched for Saez’s expertise, despite him not being directly affiliated with the organization.
All of which meant, when push came to shove inside the cage, it seems nobody was ready to take charge.