NEWARK - Gian Villante sits at a table in a backroom at Prudential Center, his hand covering his forehead, his face projecting disappointment, confusion, bewilderment.
He's surrounded by his cornermen, equally confused and dejected. Not the UFC debut they planned for, those blank stares facing the floor but ending much farther away.
Villante lost at UFC 159 Saturday night to Ovince St. Preux, but how it happened still resonates.
Villante, from Levittown, was poked in the eye and backed away to recover while covering his eye early in the third round. St Preux did not pursue. The referee asked Villante if he could see, and Villante responded: "I can't see, I can't see."
Referee Kevin Mulhall stepped away and waved his hands, signifying the end of the bout. Ruled a stoppage by accidental foul, the judges' scores were tallied and they favored St. Preux, 30-28, 30-29, 29-29, for a technical majority decision. Judge Jose Tabata scored the second round 10-10, a rarity in mixed martial arts as much as it is in boxing.
"Human reaction, if they ask if you can see, you tell them, 'Hey, I can't see, give me a second,' " Villante said. "We're in the middle of a fight. No one's claiming to be a genius in there when you fight. We do get punched in the face. I don't know, it's pretty stupid."
Villante (10-4) was clearly disappointed in the outcome, as was his camp.
"These guys are going to war," said Keith Trimble, Villante's lead trainer at Bellmore Kickboxing Academy. "They're not thinking about proper grammar, proper English."
There are many ways an MMA fight can come to an end, and these three words don't unring any bells: "I can't see."
"It's like a verbal submission," Trimble said.
UFC president Dana White said that the referee should have called for time and had a doctor examine Villante, which is what referee Herb Dean did in a later fight when Michael Bisping poked Alan Belcher in the eye. That bout was also stopped.
"He should have had a doctor come in," White said. "You stop the fight, you send the guy to a neutral corner, you have the doctor come in and check him out, and you have the doctor determine whether he's able to fight or not. That's what should have happened."
When a referee stops a fight for a groin kick, a fighter has up to five minutes to recover. No such rule exists for eye pokes. White said that "they're due" to modify some of the existing unified rules of mixed martial arts.
"It's just the worst, or not the worst, ah, yeah, the worst way to have your debut," said Villante, 27.
St. Preux, the first southpaw Villante has faced, got off in the first round with his straight left and left hooks. Two of those staggered Villante and pushed him against the cage.
In the second round, Villante landed several low leg kicks that caused some damage. He also poked St. Preux in the eye.
The referee did not pause the fight to check on St. Preux, and Villante stutter-stepped a few times, unsure if he could proceed to attack or not.
"I didn't feel like I poked him," said St. Preux (13-5). "I got poked, too. Stuff happens but I don’t think they should’ve stopped the fight. I would’ve won the third round because I felt great and I was coming on stronger but still it’s unfortunate it had to end like that.”