Back in 2008, when the 10-point must system only interpretatively defined a 10-8 round in mixed martial arts, the judge “Doc” Hamilton told me that the true outlier on a scorecard — the elusive 10-7 round — was as rare as a pound of hummingbird tongue. I remember asking him what a 10-7 score would look like in a five-minute MMA round. He said that one person would have to be on the verge of being finished the entire way, literally in survival mode from horn to horn. “Which is why you don’t see them,” he said, “because a referee will always stop the fight in that situation.”
That came to mind Saturday night during the UFC’s Fight Night card in Belem, Brazil, when Valentina Shevchenko struck down on Priscila Cachoeira for about nine minutes and change. It was one of the least competitive fights in the Zuffa era because it was allowed to extend southbound — well past the point of general comfort — towards that dubious distinction. Referee Mario Yamasaki stood idly by as the vastly experienced Shevchenko slammed away at Cachoeira, the gutsy, flailing, literal survivor beneath her weight. Shevchenko outstruck Cachoeira 230-3.
Two hundred and thirty to three.
Of the 230 shots, maybe half of them landed when Cachoeira was “intelligently” defending herself. The rest arrived in states of helpless duress and borderline panic. It was an onslaught — a situation where a primed contender in a new division was teeing off on a UFC newcomer, who found herself existentially and competitively well in over her head. Yet there was nobody there to rescue her. Yamasaki moved in on several occasions, but only, it seemed, for a better vantage point to take in the action. Mercy was the furthest thing from his mind. And Cachoeira’s corner wasn’t about to throw the towel (perhaps believing that the referee’s sole job is to protect them from ever having to breach such an honor code).
It was a perfect storm of pure gawkery.
No, Cachoeira — a Brazilian who overcame drug addiction and the favelas to reimagine herself as a UFC fighter — was on her own. She finally tapped to a rear-naked choke at the 4:25 mark of the second round. The tap was accompanied by a loud exhale from a television audience who’d spent the last ten minutes finding its way to a similar conclusion: For whatever reason, it seems like the sport comes off better when it doesn’t feel like two rounds of sustained assault. One of the most used words last night on Twitter was “gross.” That’s not ideal for MMA, as sport or spectacle.
The first round, especially now that we’ve come to better understand what constitutes a 10-8 round, had an unsettling 10-7 vibe. Cachoeira wasn’t in the fight at all, and Shevchenko — whose blonde hair was stained with Cachoeira’s blood — pummeled right along. If Yamasaki was giving Cachoeira leeway to reach the end of the round, it was somewhat understandable if not entirely forgivable — Cachoeira, though overmatched, was still fighting to free herself. The vital thing she wanted to communicate was certainly fleeting, but she was still reaching for it.
But one would think that the situation was simple after a one-sided round like that. If Cachoeira came out in the second round and found herself in the same situation, then the fight should be stopped right away. No sense revisiting a scene, not with the overwhelming evidence that on her back against Shevchenko, Cachoeira was…well, simply overwhelmed. The referee’s job is, in actuality, to protect a fighter.
What’s puzzling is that wasn’t Yamasaki’s thinking that at all. He was like a fish circling the bowl and encountering the action anew upon each pass, with no context and no idea. What he did have was a terrific stomach for the macabre. This time Shevchenko got Cachoeira in a crucifix in which to drop shots down from. It was wince-worthy to see Yamasaki do nothing when the pattern reestablished. To just let the dignity of the sport slip through the cracks, as if there’s merit in his specific threshold for taking in abuse. Cachoeira had no choice but to tap, because TKOs weren’t available.
Cachoeira is damn tough, though. She survived nearly 10 minutes in a fight with almost zero offense and no outside help, and before that street life to end up there. It was one hell of an ask to have her show up and fight “Bullet” Shevchenko in her UFC debut. It took guts to make that walk. Yet she did. And she took her lumps. About 150 more than were necessary. Officially the judges had the first round 10-8, but it was the rare pound of hummingbird tongue all told. And what a sorry revelation.
In the end Shevchenko was the only one who had Cachoeira’s back.