Corey Anderson climbed up on the cage to celebrate. His family was going crazy in the stands. Anderson had become the Bellator light heavyweight champion, a tournament champ and the recipient of $1 million.
And then, quickly, it all came crashing down Friday night at Bellator 277 in San Jose, California.
Anderson told ESPN on Monday that he was initially told by multiple people inside the cage that he had beaten Vadim Nemkov to win the Bellator light heavyweight title, the Bellator Light Heavyweight World Grand Prix and the $1 million tournament prize. But then, Anderson was informed by referee Frank Trigg that the bout was actually ruled a no contest and Anderson would leave empty-handed.
"I jump on the cage, I get excited," Anderson said. "My mom is crying. My family in the crowd is jumping up and down. All of a sudden, I jump down from the cage and you see the [$1 million] check walking down the stairs. All of a sudden, the ref comes back and tells me there's [five] seconds left and you have to go all the way to the end of the third round to be declared the winner."
The ruling came due to an illegal clash of heads. Nemkov was cut badly on his left eyebrow, which forced Trigg to stop the fight. But instead of going to the cards -- where Anderson was ahead -- it was called a no contest, per the Unified Rules of MMA. Trigg stopped the bout at 4:55 of the third round. If the fight had gone into the fourth round and ended in an accidental foul, it would have gone to a technical decision.
In this instance, it wasn't late enough in the fight and the result had to be either a no contest or, if Trigg had found Anderson to have committed the foul intentionally, a disqualification. In the event of a technical decision, Anderson would have won because he was ahead on the scorecards.
"It was a roller coaster -- you go up and you come down fast," Anderson said. "The biggest thing for me is keep my composure and not lose my sportsmanship mentality."
With the no contest, Nemkov remains the Bellator light heavyweight champion. The grand prix championship and the $1 million remain up for grabs in a rematch. Anderson said he was told that would happen as soon as Nemkov's cut heals. Anderson said Bellator officials told him that Nemkov did not have a broken orbital bone, just the wound. The hope is that the rematch could take place before the end of summer.
ESPN has Anderson, a UFC veteran who owns a win over UFC 205-pound champ Glover Teixeira, ranked No. 3 in the world at light heavyweight. Nemkov is No. 6.
The cut happened with Anderson in top position, which he had kept for most of the third round. Anderson went to throw an elbow and at the same time Nemkov took Anderson's legs out, causing Anderson to come down onto Nemkov headfirst. Anderson said he was the one who alerted Trigg that the Nemkov cut came from an accidental head clash.
Trigg had said during the course of the action that it was a legal blow that caused the cut, per Anderson. But Anderson corrected him and stopped the bout himself.
"I know he would have kept it going," Anderson said of the referee. "But the sportsman in me was like, 'Let him know that wasn't from me -- I didn't hit him, I accidentally head-butted him.' ... That was just me being a good person."
Anderson said one of his teammates sent him a photo of him posing with both the Bellator light heavyweight belt and the grand prix belt from a shoot before the fight. A coach, Anderson said, sent him a screenshot of a Bellator tweet that was deleted that referred to Anderson as the new champion. These are the things keeping him motivated going into a rematch.
"I got those two things locked on my phone," Anderson said. "I'm just looking at them every day. The motivation is like: That's what it should have been. I need that. I've already seen it, I've already tasted it, I've already felt it. I had that excitement from being the champ. Now, I have to really feel it. I know how it feels to believe you're the champ. Now, I have to go out there and actually be the champ. I need that feeling."