As Hermes Franca waited for the decision of his fight against Ferrid Kheder to be read inside the cage of a Cartago, Costa Rica high school gym, the UFC veteran thought his losing streak was history. Instead, to him, it was the beginning of something even worse than defeat.
If it was a simple loss, Franca could have handled it, but what happened next could not be so easily settled in his mind. According to some, Franca was simply the victim of a bad decision. But according to others, he was robbed, the victim of a fix.
"This is like a bad joke," Franca told MMA Fighting. "It's unbelievable. I won the fight. The judges gave it to me. I got my hand raised. And then they said I didn't win."
"What happened was confusion," said Jean-Francois Billon, who helped organize the show. "It's a big story for a little thing. Nobody had bad intentions. Nobody was cheating."
What started out as a fight in the cage became a fight for the truth.
Weeks earlier, when Franca received a query about facing Kheder, he didn't hesitate. Just days removed from a loss in Israel to Moshe Kaitz, a fighter with a 2-2 record, Franca didn't ask about the money; that wasn't his concern. Instead, it was all about the chance to once again experience the sweet feeling of victory. It had been two years, four fights and one aborted retirement since he'd won.
"I was hungry to fight," Franca told MMA Fighting. "I wanted to prove to myself and to everyone that I'm back. And most of all, I wanted to win."
Franca had been hand-picked by the promoters of Costa Rican-based Xtreme Vale Todo (XVT) because of his popularity in the MMA world, a major selling point in a country in which the sport has seen strong recent growth. A former top contender in the UFC, Franca had once fought for the promotion's lightweight championship, losing a five-round decision to Sean Sherk in July 2007.
Kheder, a late starter in the MMA world, had transitioned into the sport in 2006, compiling an impressive 18-5 record, a mark that included wins in 13 of his prior 14 fights. The success had paid off when in 2010, he signed a contract with the upstart Bellator promotion.
Kheder had given much of the credit for his accomplishments to a successful California businesswoman named Lu Dwyer, who had become his main sponsor.
"She is a pillar of support that every MMA fighter needs to be successful during training and preparation for fights because she is a constant and unconditional lifeline," Kheder said in a statement released to MMA Fighting.
By the fall of 2010, Dwyer had become involved in Xtreme Vale Todo as one of the financial sponsors of the show. In Costa Rica, Jean-Francois Billon did the legwork.
According to Billon, a few years earlier, he and Kheder had become friends. Their relationship was an easy one due to their shared background. Billon was a Frenchman, while Kheder had competed for France in judo, where he had advanced to the 2000 Olympics, losing in the round of 32 before going on to finish seventh in the repechage.
The relationship between Billon, Dwyer and Kheder was unknown to Franca when he agreed to the fight.
"To tell you the truth, when I took the fight, I mostly wanted to make sure I got paid," said Franca. "I asked my friend who told me two of his fighters fought for the promoter and got paid no problem. That's all I knew. It was something where I knew I was going to fight in Costa Rica, and Ferrid was the face of the show. When I got there, I started to collect some information that Lu sponsors Ferrid."
While Billon readily admitted his friendship with Kheder, he told MMA Fighting there was no effort to hide it, and no hidden agenda.
"That's true we are friends," he said, "but fighting is fighting. It's a different thing. I'm not the judge and nobody wanted to cheat him. I really like Franca. He's a great guy with a great attitude. He was playing with my kids while here. For me, it was an honor to get him for our show, to get a UFC veteran. I don't want to do something bad to him."
The three-round fight between the two in the Dec. 19 main event lacked any explosive moments, but the drama was to come after the final horn. By most accounts, Franca won the first and third rounds, while the second was in some dispute. Still, winning two rounds would have been enough to give Franca the win.
Then came the controversy.
Before the decision was even read, Franca had an inkling something was wrong.
"Right after the fight, I saw [the promoter] Jean-Francois [Billon], and he was nuts," he said. "I knew something was not right so I faced him. I said, 'I don't want no BS. Be a man. You know I won.'"
The announcer read off Franca's name as the winner, but as Franca threw his arms in the air in celebration, Billon approached the announcer. Seconds later, the announcer corrected himself, and named Kheder as the winner and XVT lightweight champion.
(Editor's Note: Watch the entire fight on Jansen's YouTube channel. Rounds one, two and three.)
Dave Jansen was Franca's cornerman for the fight, and was inside the cage, just a few feet from the exchange between Billon and the announcer.
"Billon went up to him, and said, 'No, no, no, Ferrid won," he told MMA Fighting. "And then he walks up to Ferrid with the championship belt."
Billon, however, disputes that he changed the actual decision. He said that just prior to entering the cage, the table judge who tabulated the scores told him Kheder had earned a split-decision.
"The fight was very close," he said. "I heard Ferrid's name from the judges. The decision comes from the judges. There was confusion and I wanted to report what they told me. That's it."
According to Jansen, though, just moments earlier, he had seen the decision card in the announcer's hand, which indicated Franca as the winner.
"His name was written on the paper, and it was circled," he said.
Billon says that is impossible.
"The judge told me Kheder," he said. "There was no bad intention. This is like to make a story, a novella. Nothing happened. There's a problem? OK. No contest, no problem. We don't want a problem."
"I really do think Ferrid won," Dwyer told MMA Fighting. "But I'm not an expert at this stuff. I started off as a sponsor, to help fighters. So if I am a promoter, I am not going to be a crooked promoter. I promote these events to give fighters a chance to get fights and make some money."
All three judges involved in the decision told MMA Fighting that they scored the fight for Franca.
One judge, Allan Benavides, provided MMA Fighting with a statement that translated from Spanish, read in part, "In this fight, the Brazilian Hermes Franca was far superior than Ferrid Kheder. And for such set reasons, it wasn't that difficult to give the win to Hermes Franca. Therefore my card was 30-27 in favor of Hermes Franca."
Another judge, Jeffry Lopez, viewed the fight a bit closer, but confirmed to MMA Fighting that he scored it for Franca 29-28.
The third judge, Ariel Simons, who was also working the fights as its attending physician, also said he scored Franca as a 29-28 victor.
Dwyer and Billon disputed the judges' claims, saying they have been pressured by the public outcry over the decision as well as a fear of damaging their reputations in the Costa Rican MMA community.
"I'll be blunt about it, I think there was some hanky-panky going on, but it wasn't from me," Dwyer told MMA Fighting. "Maybe it was the refs. I think something was going on. Everybody knows everybody down there. There's a lot of back-stabbing and jabbing that shouldn't be going on, and it is."
"The judges were not paid, they were just helping because they like the sport," Billon said. "They are good people, they like to help. They did it for a Coca-Cola and a hot dog. It's a shame people put down when people try to do something good. Every fighter got paid. No problems. Hermes got paid 100 percent. He was paid the same night. It's a shame what happened with the confusion, but it happens in shows all over the world."
Franca confirmed to MMA Fighting that he received his full salary. However, Jansen said that Franca was told that his protests could cause his salary to be withheld, a statement that was confirmed to MMA Fighting by Nick Roehrick, an American fan who happened to be visiting Costa Rica and attended the show, sitting in the front row. Roehrick manages NASCAR driver Jeffrey Earnhardt, the grandson of legendary NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt. He was so incensed by what he perceived to be an injustice that he introduced himself to Jansen in the immediate aftermath of the chaos.
"It really offended my sensibilities as the manager of a professional athlete, as a fan and as a paying customer," said Roehrick, who called the result "an obvious sham."
Both Franca and Jansen immediately protested the decision, and later, Jansen went so far as to pick the judges round-by-round scorecards out of the bathroom garbage can they had been dumped into.
"It was no mistake, no mix-up," said Jansen, himself a 14-2 pro fighter who most recently fought in the WEC. "I don't know what Jean-Francois was thinking, like he could get away with this. It's despicable. That's the only word that describes it. Maybe he forgot to tell the announcer beforehand, maybe he just improvised, but he was trying to fix the fight."
Billon steadfastly denies this, saying there was no payoff for changing the result. No fighter had any win bonus, no sports books took action on the fight, and Billon said he himself made almost no money for the hours of work he put into organizing the event.
"People say it's very simple but the fight was very close," Billon said. "I had no benefit from making one man win more than the other one. I just want the best one to win."
Within 48 hours of the fight, Dwyer contacted the Sherdog MMA database and formally requested a change in the decision from a Kheder victory to a no contest.
"There was chaos going on, so I figured, I don't want it this way," Dwyer said. "Things were not clear. We don't know what's going on, so rematch, no contest. And then because I did that, I'm getting slandered and belittled, that I wanted to cover it up. That wasn't the case. I want things to be fair. I was damned if I do, damned if don't. We took the belt away. He didn't want it that way, it wasn't fair. So I thought a no contest is the way to go. But then it's turned around and twisted, saying I'm trying to cover my ass for a botched, fixed fight."
Even Kheder admitted that something went terribly awry in the aftermath of the fight.
"Obviously, we know something went wrong there from the communication of the judges to the refereeing, to the announcement of the winner," he wrote in his statement. "I'm sure the corruption is due to resentment from my fight history there."
Billon said he hopes Kheder and Franca will engage in a five-round rematch to determine a rightful winner. He says he has no idea if XVT will promote in the future, but if they do, there are plans to avoid further controversy. Dwyer plans on all future fights to take place with no judges. If fighters do not win by knockout or submission before the final bell, a draw will be declared. She said she is likely done promoting in Costa Rica, however, and has had a "falling-out" with Billon.
Franca told MMA Fighting he is willing to face Kheder again, but not at an XVT event. Kheder said he is also open to a rematch.
"It is regrettable that people think that I was somehow involved in the judges' decision, and I do not want any negative connotations attached to my name or my sponsor's name," said Kheder, who is expected to be part of the field for the upcoming season four Bellator lightweight tournament. "That is the sole reason I gave the belt back and offered Hermes a rematch -- this time for the five rounds I had hoped for in the first place that unfortunately he turned down."
Even a win in a second fight won't completely square things up for Franca though. In his mind, his losing streak is over, but the record books say otherwise. As of now, the fight remains a no contest, meaning he hasn't officially won a bout since 2008. Franca still holds on to the hope of changing the result. He says he is mulling the possibility of legal action in Costa Rica to change the decision to a victory.
"I didn't fight for the money, I fought for the win," he said. "I want to know if I can change this. Now I'm fighting for something that was wrong. I want to make it right. I want to fight for my 'W.' I trained my ass off. I hate drama. Every fighter has ups and downs, but this time, I won the fight."