MMA referee Emerson Pereira Saez has retired after he was slow to stop a Demolidor Fight lightweight title match Saturday in Brazil in which one of the competitors went unconscious after getting choked out, Saez announced to Combate.
In the third and final round of their bout, Rafael Barbosa put Melquizael Costa in a standing choke that turned into an anaconda choke after the two men went to the ground. After about 20 seconds into the hold, Barbosa tried to let Saez know that Costa was out, but the fight continued with Barbosa's arms locked around Costa's head and neck as his body stopped moving.
Saez stood next to the men for about 90 seconds, looking to see if Costa was moving and fighting back while he was in the choke. However, Saez never touched Costa to confirm that he was fighting back, and he failed to notice that the small movements Costa was making while in the choke were actually seizures and not attempts to break free.
"He had his eyes open and didn’t present any symptom of loss of conscious," Saez told MMA Fighting. "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."
Saez added that he was talking to the fighters the entire time and he told Barbosa that if he let go of the choke and the fight still kept going on, he would not be allowed to complain later that the fight should have been called. Saez said he had a situation like that earlier in his career when he separated two fighters who were in a hold, but the bout continued.
Barbosa and Saez both confirmed to MMA Fighting that it was Saez who stopped the fight, but from Costa's perspective, Barbosa was the only reason he didn't die that night.
"My wife is still in shock," Costa told MMA Fighting. "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."
Costa went to hospital Saturday night and was released Sunday morning, but he will still undergo further exams to see if he is suffering from any side effects of going unconscious.
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"I know that the referee is wrong, but [Costa’s] team wouldn’t say much either," Barbosa told MMA Fighting. "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."
Demolidor Fight promoter Jeferson Pavanelo told MMA Fighting he hired the National MMA Confederation (CNMMA) to run the event, which entailed getting judges and referees. Hours before the start of Saturday's event, Pavanelo says he was told that CNMMA's main team of officials would not work the event and instead another crew would be working.
Pavanelo told the CNMMA president he doesn't hire Saez when he was told Saez was going to be one of the referees, but the CNMMA president said Saez was licensed by the organization.