Melquizael Costa and Rafael Barbosa met for the Demolidor Fight lightweight belt Saturday night in Bauru, Brazil — and the main event bout almost ended in tragedy.
Barbosa went for a standing choke in the third and final round and locked an anaconda choke as soon as they hit the ground. Twenty seconds later, Barbosa claims he told referee Emerson Pereira Saez that Costa was out. The referee stood next to the athletes for 90 seconds without checking if Costa was still in the fight.
“I told you,” Barbosa yells to the referee as soon as he releases the choke and Costa lays unconscious on the ground. The disturbing video went viral online on Monday.
“He locked the anaconda choke, and when I turned to the wrong side, I went out,” Costa told MMA Fighting. “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.”
Costa spent the night in a local hospital and was released Sunday morning, but will still undergo further exams to check if he suffered any side effects after staying unconscious for so long.
“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.”
“When his opponent let him go, (Costa) fell on the ground and looked like he was dead,” said Costa’s manager Adriano Vilela, who was in his corner that night. “I had never seen something like that in my life. It took 10 minutes for him to come back to normal. He was breathing slowly, still out. He opened his eyes after five minutes, but still couldn’t respond to us or move his legs or arms. I thought he was going to die. ... His opponent was desperately yelling that he was out, and if he hadn’t stopped the fight on his own, the referee would left him there forever. That was absurd.”
The referee, Saez, who spoke to MMA Fighting on Monday night, said that he was the one to stop the fight. Barbosa confirmed that he let the submission go when told to by the referee.
“He was in the anaconda choke, and I didn’t notice he was having a seizure,” Saez said. “He had his eyes open and didn’t present any symptom of loss of conscience. I thought he was trying to escape. He was calm, breathing, and I didn’t notice his leg shaking. His arm, the one that wasn’t trapped in the choke, was pushing his opponent’s belly the entire time. There were four people in a corner a meter away from me, and no one noticed it, or they would have yelled. No one noticed anything, and me neither.
“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.
“Watching the video now, I only see one abnormal thing, which is his leg shaking a little bit. Maybe he went out with his eyes open, but these are situations that happen in there and you don’t notice. Unfortunately, these are decisions that have to be made in a split second and I didn’t notice his leg shaking. I saw him moving, but I thought he was doing a hip escape.”
“Upset with the situation,” Saez confirmed to MMA Fighting that he will no longer work as a MMA referee. Saez first announced the decision to Combate.
“My family and I think it’s time to retire,” Saez said. “I’ve done my best. I wish (Costa) and his opponent the best. They are young, and I hope they can build their dreams.”
Barbosa admits that the referee messed up in the fight, but says that the fact that Costa had his eyes open the entire time was misleading.
“My initial reaction was to let the referee know as soon as I felt that he went out,” Barbosa told MMA Fighting. “I saw that he didn’t stop the fight because his eyes were open. At that moment, I understand the referee not stopping the fight. I stopped squeezing hard because I felt in his body that he was out, but the referee wouldn’t stop it.
“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.”
Barbosa improved to 7-1 in MMA with the victory and captured the promotion’s lightweight belt, but it took a while before he could finally celebrate his win.
“At first, I was very upset with the referee because I told him [Costa was out], and then I was worried about him,” Barbosa said. “We didn’t celebrate. What went through my head? Anger. And then I couldn’t stop thinking about it on Sunday, about how [Costa] was, but then I saw he was fine.”
Veteran referee John McCarthy had strong words for Saez on social media after watching the video.
That is one of the most sickening things I have ever seen in MMA!!!! That referee has no idea what he is doing and could cause a death due to his ignorance and incompetence. This is why MMA needs a worldwide governing association that could handle such outrageous negligence https://t.co/bN83YYOHQw— Big John McCarthy (@JohnMcCarthyMMA) August 20, 2018
Realistically??? How about as soon as he went out at the 1:49 mark. If you are going to step into a ring or cage to referee any type of combat sport, you better know what the f#%k your looking at or people can actually DIE!! https://t.co/FZPj6HveEq— Big John McCarthy (@JohnMcCarthyMMA) August 20, 2018
Asked why he never touched Costa’s arms or legs during those 90 seconds to see if he wasn’t unconscious, the referee said that asking if he was alright was enough.
“I stayed close to them and talked to the athlete and he had his eyes open, was pushing his opponent’s belly,” Saez said. “I told his opponent not to let go because he was in the fight. ‘If you let it go and the fight continues, you can’t complain later. Continue with that because he’s not out.’ I wasn’t negligent. Unfortunately, I was criticized for that. I was upset for the athlete, worried about him, but everything happens too fast in there. 90 seconds, 50 seconds, but you have to make decisions. I was worried about separating them and the fight continuing. It has happened to me in the past, unfortunately.
“I spoke with the athlete and he made a signal, pushing his opponent, and I saw it was cool. He made a movement with his hand in the belly, so that’s why I made that decision. … If I could go back in time, watching the tape — because I don’t have that vision in the moment of the fight — if I had seen his leg shaking, I would have stopped it earlier. But I missed that. It’s like in soccer, some times you only see something on the tape. We make mistakes, too. If God makes mistakes, any human being is subject to mistakes. But I never intended to hurt any athlete. I would never hurt anyone’s careers and dreams.”
A Chute Boxe fighter, Costa said his family and friends watched the title fight live online, and according to Costa, the stream was cut off shortly after the bout.
“My wife is still in shock,” Costa said. “My wife and friends were watching the fight online and they cut the stream when that happened, and everyone was in shock because they didn’t know what happened. I saw death so close. My opponent let me go, otherwise I would be dead if I had to wait for the referee. It was horrible. It was agonizing for me when I came back because I couldn’t breathe.”
Demolidor Fight promoter Jeferson Pavanelo told MMA Fighting that he hired the National MMA Confederation (CNMMA) to oversee the event, and it was their responsibility to hire judges and referees. According to Pavanelo, he was informed by CNMMA hours before the event that the Confederation’s main team of referees wouldn’t be able to work that night for various reasons, and would send other officials that they trusted.
“When [CNMMA president] said [Saez’s] name, I told him, ‘I don’t hire Emerson,’ but he said he was affiliated to the Confederation and trusted him,” Pavanelo said. “I know him because he’s from the city, he asks me to work in the event all the time and I say I only hire officials through the Confederation. I thought it was odd that the president said he was licensed, but OK.”
Pavanelo doesn’t rule out working with CNMMA for future events, but only if they send its best officials. The Confederation did not respond to a request to comment.
“I will analyze the entire situation because the repercussion has been big,” Pavanelo said. “If they bring the team that usually does events for me, cool. Everybody has problems, everybody makes mistakes, but a serious mistake like that … everybody saw him doing nothing there, not even touching the athlete or asking if he was okay. [Barbosa] saying [Costa] was out and he did nothing.”
Despite the scary situation he went through, Costa still had time to serve as inspiration for a young kid that attended the event to watch him compete live. As soon as he entered the gymnasium earlier that day, a woman reached out to introduce him to her 10-year-old son who deals with vitiligo, the same skin condition Costa has dealt with his entire life.
“I met him before the fight and told my master I would dedicate the win to him, but the fight didn’t go as expected,” Costa said. “Still, when they were taking me to the ambulance on a stretcher, I asked my master to call the kid there. I told him to never be ashamed of who he is, that he is a warrior. I told him that was not my day, but we would bounce back.”
The full fight video is available below.