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Referee Resigns After Waiting 90 Seconds To Call Off Fight-Ending Choke

A missed call by referee Emerson Pereira Saez almost cost one fighter his life.

A lightweight championship bout between Melquizael Costa and Rafael Barbosa took a turn for the worse at Demolidor Fight in Bauru, Brazil on Saturday, August 18.

Barbosa slithered his way into a tight anaconda choke in the third and final round, dragging Costa on the floor in hopes of finishing the job. According to Barbosa, the choke rendered his opponent unconscious but the referee did not agree.

The Winner

“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,” he further explained. “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.”

Costa says he informed the official that his opponent was out cold to no avail: “At first, I was very upset with the referee because I told him [Costa was out], and then I was worried about him. 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.”

The outlet spoke to all parties involved and Costa says the end of the bout almost ended his life.

The Loser

“He locked the anaconda choke, and when I turned to the wrong side, I went out,” Costa reflected. “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. You might think I’m awake, but I was already out. I moved a couple of times, but I was having seizures,” he told MMA Fighting.

Unlike his opponent, Costa insists his corner tried to have the bout stopped. “My corner and his corner yelled that I was out, but the referee said he would only stop the fight if I was out,” said Costa. “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 manager Adriano Vilela also chimed in. At the time, he believed he witnessed manslaughter in the cage. “When his opponent let him go, [Costa] fell on the ground and looked like he was dead… 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,” said Vilela. “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.”

The manager described the refereeing as “absurd” and believed “the referee would [have] left [Costa] there forever” had Barbosa not “stopped the fight on his own.”

Saez, the referee who received significant backlash for his role, believes it is much easier to criticize from the outside looking in.

The Aftermath

“He was in the anaconda choke, and I didn’t notice he was having a seizure. He had his eyes open and didn’t present any symptom of loss of conscience,” said Saez. “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,” he insisted. “No one noticed anything, and me neither.”

Saez said the job is a difficult one. “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,” he argued. “I let it go a little bit longer, and when I realized his eyes and his expression were changing, I stopped the fight.”

Nevertheless, he expressed how he is “upset with the situation” and announced his decision to retire from referring: “My family and I think it’s time to retire. I’ve done my best. I wish [Costa] and his opponent the best. They are young, and I hope they can build their dreams.”

Shakiel Mahjouri
smahjouri@gmail.com

A regular online writer with ET Canada and co-host of the Pull No Punches podcast, Shakiel has interviewed the most colourful personalities in entertainment and MMA. Send him a cheese basket.

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