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‘I might be dead right now’: Inside the appalling referee mistake that shocked the MMA world

Gianni Vazquez
| Images courtesy of Richard Burmaster, Fury FC

“I was kind of, like, dreaming, to be honest, but I heard the voices of my coach yelling, ‘Stop the fight! Stop the fight!’” says Gianni Vazquez, the fighter on the wrong end of one of the most viral moments in recent MMA history.

By now, you have probably seen this clip from the Fury FC 76 main event on March 24, where Edgar Chairez submitted Gianni Vazquez in the fourth round, and referee Frank Colazzo watched on as multiple people screamed at him that Vazquez was unconscious due to the initial triangle, before transitioning to a horrific armbar that actually woke Vazquez up so he could tap out.

Turns out, Vazquez didn’t go out once – he went out twice.

In most sports, a mistake that dire leads to some sort of punishment, but in MMA — and in Texas — Colazzo was allowed to judge fights at UFC San Antonio the next day despite one of the all-time refereeing blunders, while Vazquez is dealing with the injuries that clearly could have been avoided, injuries that could keep him out of action and out of work for several months.

And for Chairez, the 27-year-old who got a massive win continues to swim in the negative current of the moment.

“I remember everything perfect,” says Vazquez. “I passed out, like, in two seconds.”

In retrospect, it’s like a movie for Vazquez. An out-of-body experience that couldn’t possibly have happened to himself, but it did.

As the dreamlike sequence continued, Vazquez says he could actually feel the pain in his arm as Chairez transitioned to the armbar, which awoke him from a deep slumber only to find himself in a confusing, real-life nightmare, not being able to muster the strength in his free hand to tap out. Eventually, the pain became too much, and instinctually, he managed to get his mind and body working as one in order to finally submit.

“I start tapping with my feet and I pass out again,” Vazquez says.

“I was out twice.”

Gianni Vazquez days after the incident.
MMA Fighting

Chairez has faced widespread backlash from fans since the incident, receiving direct messages accusing him of purposely trying to hurt Vazquez or calling him a “dirty fighter,” among other things. In addition to how the fight ended, the one-time Contender Series competitor missed weight ahead of the bout, which has only added to that backlash.

Despite the way things played out, Chairez is happy to get a victory — even if it doesn’t necessarily feel as if he won a fight.

“There was a moment there where I thought he was actually faking it, maybe, so I could let go because the referee wasn’t doing anything about it,” Chairez says through a translator.

“There was a moment when I felt trembling. It kind of scared me a little bit, so that’s why I decided to switch into the armbar, and I was telling the ref, ‘I think he’s out!’ The ref was just standing there in a daze. I was confused but I still did not want to let go of the move, because again, I felt that at any moment he could get up, get me in a position, knock me out, and then I lose.

“But I did notice that the top part of his body wasn’t moving, but his feet were, so it did scare me. I felt bad.”

Anyone sitting close to the action — or who watched on TV, social media, or on UFC Fight Pass — could clearly see Vazquez was unconscious in the triangle. Even UFC President Dana White publicly commented on the situation.

Vazquez alleges the number of people who could see it in the arena went beyond the cageside area — something he says he learned on his painful and confusing ride to a local hospital, where he saw the viral clip for the first time.

“The guys from the ambulance, they told me, ‘Man, we noticed right away when you passed out and we were screaming to stop the fight. We tried to scream and everything, but nobody listened,’” Vazquez says.

“So I’m up there [at the hospital] watching the video and I’m like, ‘Man, I passed out in his face twice. I don’t know how he didn’t notice.’ And I’m like, ‘Thank God the guy switched the triangle to the armbar, because I might be dead right now if he didn’t switch it. If he wouldn’t switch it, I might be dead or I might be like a vegetable. It might be like brain damage.

“But thank God I’m here, I’m still alive, and we can talk about it, I guess.”

Hearing how thankful Vazquez is that the transition between submissions occurred made Chairez appear as if a bit of weight was lifted off of his shoulders. Chairez wants to make it extremely clear to anybody who doubts him that his goal was not to hurt Vazquez — it was to get the victory and try to take another step toward getting to the UFC.

It’s Chairez’s hope that Vazquez recuperates, and that both fighters find their way to the biggest stage the sport has to offer.

“I know that I didn’t do it with ill intent, we’re just two Mexican warriors that were fighting for a very important fight for both of our careers,” Chairez says. “You know, it’s funny and ironic because everybody says, ‘I want to kill my opponent.’ But deep down, you don’t want to hurt him — it’s just part of the job. It was unfortunate. I’m also glad I let it go.

“But I did doubt myself. I doubted myself, saying, ‘Did I make a mistake [transitioning]?’ What if in that split second, I would have made a mistake? He would have reversed and then I end up on the losing end at the end of the day. It was unfortunate.”

On fight night, Fury FC promoter Eric Garcia, color commentator and UFC welterweight Alex Morono, and many others in the arena — including UFC flyweight champion Brandon Moreno — screamed at Colazzo cageside in an effort to get his attention. It didn’t work, and the result could have been catastrophic. But what makes things even scarier is the fact that Garcia alleges that Colazzo — who has refereed many of the promotion’s bouts over the years — didn’t understand the outrage once the bout was finally stopped.

“I went in the cage and I asked, ‘Frank, what’s going on? Was he asleep?’ And he’s like, ‘No, he wasn’t out. I was looking at him the whole time. He wasn’t out,’” Garcia alleges.

“I said, ‘Man, I think he was asleep,’ and he was like, ‘No, he wasn’t, man. He was fine.’ That’s the first time I’ve ever experienced that in 13 years as a promoter. That’s the first time something to that extent has happened that really made me reevaluate and be like, ‘Man, this kid could have lost his life in there.’”

Morono can be heard over and over in the viral clip screaming at Colazzo. The 17-fight UFC veteran has trained martial arts for nearly two decades and is a black belt in jiu-jitsu, along with his experience as a coach, trainer, and a cornerman, so he was well aware of what he was seeing unfold that night in San Antonio.

“To get put out with a triangle only to wake up in an armbar is real nightmare fuel, man,” Morono says. “I’ve been doing this 16 years consistently. I’ve watched thousands of fights. I have never seen anything quite like that.

“The moment [the choke] was slapped on, I was like, ‘Damn, this triangle is gonna get the tap within a few seconds,’ and the guy ended up going to sleep within a couple of seconds. And I also want to preface, I actually like Frank Collazo, that’s the first time I’ve ever seen him make a mistake. I actually thought he was one of the good refs. But this was the mistake of all mistakes.”

Veteran referee, current Bellator color commentator, and longtime trainer of officials John McCarthy couldn’t help but get frustrated watching the clip for the first time. McCarthy says he’s met Collazo in the past, and is well-aware that — regardless of what the public may think — referees and judges truly care about getting things right and not making mistakes.

McCarthy fully admits he made mistakes during his 25-year tenure as a referee before retiring from the role in 2018, but there are levels when it comes to officiating errors. And what Colazzo did — allowing the fight to go on as long as it did — takes him to a level, according to McCarthy, that no referee wants to reach.

“You can see he’s indecisive because he doesn’t know [what he’s watching].” McCarthy alleges. “Now, that’s not OK because it’s your responsibility to know — and if you don’t know, then you shouldn’t be in that spot.

“That’s just as basic as it could get, because you have a human life in your hands at that moment and you are the true instrument — although it’s being applied by somebody else, you’re being the true instrument in allowing this to get to a point where you could take somebody’s life, you could permanently injure them for the rest of their life.”

While some blame can be attributed to Colazzo for how things transpired, McCarthy doesn’t give 100 percent of it to the Texas official. He places a small portion of the blame on Chairez for not having the wherewithal to know that the fight should’ve been over in the triangle choke, citing the Josh Burkman vs. Jon Fitch matchup from WSOF 3 in June 2013 where Burkman put Fitch to sleep in a guillotine choke. Once referee Steve Mazzagatti didn’t stop the fight, Burkman stopped it himself.

“At that level, maybe you’re excited, I’ll give it to you a little bit,” McCarthy says. “You had to know as you were squeezing in that triangle, you could feel him as his body relaxes. He becomes nothing but a noodle. He’s limp. You can’t feel that?”

Morono, having been in a similar situation as Chairez in the past — losing a fight on the cards until landing a big shot that knocked his opponent out, then landing follow-up hammer fists — doesn’t put the blame on the fighter. Neither does Garcia, because he can’t put himself in Chairez’s mindset. Did he know how much time was left? Did he think Vazquez was waiting it out? Along with all the other things a fighter could be going through.

Vazquez also doesn’t carry ill will towards Chairez. In fact, Vazquez admits that if he were in the same offensive position, maybe things would play out in a similar way.

Chairez can’t say he’s totally immune to people passing any blame to him as he’s trying to accomplish his dreams, but he’s learned to accept it at this point.

“All I can say is I’m sorry you feel that way,” Chairez says. “There was no ill will, I was just doing my job.”

Richard Burmaster, Fury FC

One of the big questions to emerge since the incident is if Texas can’t — or won’t — choose to punish Colazzo, can something else be done? After all, Vazquez isn’t a full-time fighter who is paid to train; he supplements his income by coaching, mostly private sessions with clients where he teaches jiu-jitsu to students, holds pads, and other implementations that are done on a one-on-one basis.

With an injured arm, and likely a long period of healing and rehabilitation, Vazquez may not be able to make the money he needs to support his household.

While every fighter is aware of the dangers this violent sport has to offer, there are simply lines that can’t be crossed when it comes to keeping the fighter’s health and safety in check. McCarthy believes this situation, in particular, could actually have cause when it comes to pursuing legal action.

“That referee is responsible for health and safety within certain parameters,” McCarthy says. “If a fighter gets choked and goes unconscious, it’s his responsibility to see it and stop the fight.

“That right there tells you, legally, yeah, I think they can go after you. If you get choked to a point where it damaged you, are you liable? You’re liable, there’s no doubt about it.

“Most people, if they sat on a jury, and they have someone who knows what they’re talking about get on the stand and say, ‘He’s out right now. You can see him go out,’ it’s not hard to see, and time is going. We haven’t had [a situation], honestly, as bad as this.”

Same as many others, Garcia was shocked by the revelation that Colazzo was allowed by the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation (TDLR) to judge bouts at the following day’s UFC San Antonio event amidst the chaos surrounding his actions.

The TDLR issued a statement to MMA Fighting the day after the incident, which read:

“TDLR is aware of concerns about the officiating in one of last night’s fights. All TDLR officials receive ongoing training and we monitor each fight for consistency in officiating.”

“Fight officials for each competition are always selected in conjunction with promoters.”

Garcia took exception to that final sentence, in particular. He flat out denies that he, as a promoter, has any say whatsoever in the selection of officials. In fact, Garcia says he finds out who takes part from an officiating standpoint on weigh-in day, when he is handed a sheet of paper listing the referees, the payroll for the officials, and more, and just has to accept it.

“There’s never been an opportunity to say, ‘Hey, these are the refs that I want,’” Garcia says. “It’s never happened like that.”

A TDLR spokesperson was made aware of Garcia’s comments, and issued the following response to MMA Fighting.

“In title and championship bouts, the executive director or his designee will consult with the sponsoring or sanctioning bodies on the assignment of judges and referees and make assignments for such bouts.” says a TDLR spokesperson.

“In sanctioned boxing title fights (WBA, WBC, etc.) the sanctioning body asks that the referee for that match be accredited through their organization. This is the norm for the industry, and we work with the sanctioning bodies to use their accredited officials.

“As you know, there are no official sanctioning bodies for MMA. Some of the larger MMA promoters (such as UFC) do have world title designations, and we work with them as we do with the boxing sanctioning bodies and allow their input when choosing officials.

“In non-title MMA and boxing fights, TDLR selects referees and judges using the criteria listed above.

“In non-title MMA and boxing fights, If the promoter asks, TDLR will tell the promoter which officials have been selected. Fighters are not told who is working their contest until fight time, even if they ask.

“The promoter will tell TDLR’s lead event supervisor if they have concerns about any of the officials, and TDLR will try to accommodate the promoter if possible.”

Despite repeated requests, the TDLR declined to contact Colazzo on MMA Fighting’s behalf; however, they did provide the following statement regarding how they evaluate officiating:

“Following each event, TDLR combative sports staff discuss the performance of each official. If an issue is identified, TDLR staff will contact the official and discuss any inaccuracies or inconsistencies, and assign additional training as needed.”

As far as Colazzo’s future acting in an official capacity for Fury FC events, Garcia knows his hands are somewhat tied. There isn’t much he can do. But if he sees Colazzo’s name on the sheet prior to one of his fight cards, there will be questions asked about what he has done to improve since Fury FC 76.

“I want to see if he went back to the drawing board or did some other training,” Garcia says. “I’d like to hear what he had to say about it, what he saw, and what he’s going to do moving forward.”

Gianni Vazquez post-fight with his team.
MMA Fighting

McCarthy says he’d be happy to speak with Colazzo about learning from his mistake. Should Colazzo contact the O.G. of MMA referees and admit his errors, and show signs that he wants to improve, “Big John” would be happy to walk him through things step-by-step, go through each severe moment, seek out the correct responses, and potentially build a road back to where Colazzo was as a respected member of the Texas officiating community.

Having said that, when asked whether or not Colazzo can bounce back from his actions, McCarthy is truthful about the situation.

“I’m being honest, when you look at that, you don’t [bounce back],” McCarthy says. “If you’re a fighter, and he walks in to talk to you and says, ‘Hey, I’m your referee,’ what’s the person going to think? ‘Uh-oh.’

“What [he needs] to do [if he wants to] try and get back is say, ‘Hey, I screwed up.’”

Chairez was floored when he found out Colazzo would be judging fights for the UFC the next day. He agrees that Colazzo likely won’t be able to bounce back from the situation.

“I really hope that referee doesn’t officiate anymore — at least not my fights,” Chairez says. “It was a big mistake on his part and it has to cost him in some way.

“In my opinion, he should have been fired from his job.”

As a man trying to make his dreams come true and climb to the highest levels MMA has to offer, Vazquez is more gracious than most would be, given the circumstances. He says he doesn’t hold any ill-will towards Colazzo. He just hopes the referee can learn from this moment — just as Vazquez continues to do each day.

With the unknowns of his day-to-day life — and his career — staring him in the face, Vazquez chooses to stay positive and focus only on the things he can control.

“The only thing I wish is that he wasn’t there that night,” Vazquez says. “I just don’t wish this to happen to anyone [else]. I don’t want anyone to suffer the things that I’m suffering right now — or [something] even worse.

“But I don’t have hard feelings towards the referee. What happened happened, and nothing is going to change if I get angry. I’m just glad that I’m [still] here.”

All translations for Edgar Chairez courtesy of Adam Guillen Jr.


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