In the third round, as Casey attempted to return to her feet following a takedown from Gadelha, the Brazilian appeared to kick a clearly floored Casey in the head, a blatantly illegal maneuver. Casey immediately collapsed, clutching her head.
No points were deducted, and the fight continued. Though the result would have been the same even in the case of a two-point deduction, the decision to allow such a blatant foul to go unpunished was not a popular one. In light of recent comments from CABMMA, Brazil’s sanctioning body, the scrutiny surrounding referee Fernando Portella’s non-action has only intensified.
"Because the kick didn’t land, the athlete forged the injury. Had she not done that, and not used that time to her benefit and rest, he would have deducted the point. Had the kick landed, Claudia could get two points deducted or being disqualified. (Casey’s) conduct was wrong and unsportsmanlike, which could even be interpreted by the referee as she was giving up on the fight. The point was not deducted because of her attitude. It was an atypical situation and (the referee) acted correctly under our interpretation."
-- CABMMA COO Cristiano Sampaio (as reported by MMA Fighting’s Guilherme Cruz)
Though Gadelha would later claim that the kick did not land, replays appeared to show that the kick was a glancing blow to the top of Casey’s head.
“It appears where it could have just been a glancing blow, or it could have hit right on the top of the head,” UFC commentator Brian Stann stated after viewing the replay from multiple angles. “How do you not deduct a point there?” Stann would later ask, “I really question that part.”
The controversy was exacerbated by the location of the bout and the nationalities of the fighters involved. Gadelha, a Brazilian, benefited from a questionable call made by a Brazilian referee, in Brazil, while facing an American opponent.
Perceived prejudice from foreign commissions towards their native fighters has always been a complaint among fans, with the “Brazilian judging bias” a commonly cited (but unfounded) example. Sampaio’s disparaging remarks towards Casey serve only to fuel the backlash, and accusations of foul play levied against a fighter who many believe was clearly impacted by an illegal strike could easily be interpreted as tactless.
Regardless, no link between foreign commissions and unfair treatment of fighters has been decisively established. Numerous decisions have gone against Brazilians fighting in Brazil, even when the vast majority of onlookers believed the verdict to be incorrect.
One of many notable examples was #LyotoMachida’s bout with #PhilDavis in Rio de Janeiro. Most scored the bout for Machida, with many awarding him all three rounds. In the end, Davis won a unanimous decision in the Brazilian’s home country, and is far from the only example of egregious judging which did not favor the local fighter.
Though bias is an unlikely culprit, there remains the possibility that the situation was mishandled. Sampiao’s comments come off as tone deaf and accusatory, even defensive. For a fighter to feign injury or illegal contact is exceptionally rare, almost unheard of at the UFC level.
The decision to deduct points rests with the sole discretion of the referee. In making his decision, Portella appeared to consult with cageside members of the athletic commission before finalizing his ruling. With due respect to Sampaio, the opinions of commissioners are largely irrelevant in the moment of the ruling, and should not have dictated the referee’s final decision. Sampaio’s statement reads as though the referee’s views and opinions serve as a proxy for those of CABMMA’s elites.
The most important detail is, of course, whether or not the kick landed, and whether or not the rules were implemented fairly. Replays from multiple angles appeared to show that the kick did indeed glance off of the top of Casey’s head, and the American’s immediate and seemingly sincere reaction served to bolster her case. In spite of this, there are shades of grey here, and two knowledgeable, well-intentioned onlookers could watch the replays and come to starkly differing opinions about whether or not Casey was the victim of a foul.
Regardless, these grey areas provide enough ambiguity that to outright accuse her of dishonesty serves only to ignite tension. With the power to govern a sport comes the responsibility to treat its athletes with decency and consistency at all times. The potential black mark of a governing body calling into question Casey’s sportsmanship is a hefty one. On that end, CABMMA’s greatest failure may reside not in their ruling, but in their decisive statements about an ambiguous situation and the hefty accusations leveled against the potential victim of that situation.