About a year and a half ago I met a young man named Garrett Holeve — an MMA fighter with Down syndrome.
Holeve had arranged to fight a man without a disability. It was obviously a controversial bout. I covered that story for Sportsnet magazine, trying to learn about the motivations of Holeve and his family. Mitch Holeve, Garrett’s father, received a great deal of criticism for supporting his son’s dream of being an MMA fighter. For the record, Mitch doesn’t care what the critics say. But as an outsider, I admit it seemed like a very dangerous idea.
Garrett Holeve proved my assumptions wrong. He was outmatched in his fight, but he was impressive. He was strong and fast and skilled. He just didn’t have the reflexes needed to compete at that level.
The fight was only allowed because the Florida Boxing Commission stipulated that there would be no winner— the fight was strictly an exhibition. There would be no headshots, no submissions, no punching at 100 per cent.
Holeve was proud of the fight — but he knew it wasn’t real. He wanted either to win or lose. He wanted the dignity of either outcome.
To get that chance, Holeve needed to find an opponent with special needs, of comparable talent and ability. He found that in David Steffan, a 29-year-old athlete honoured in the Nebraska Special Olympics Hall of Fame who has trained as an MMA fighter for three years. Steffan has cerebral palsy.
A fight was arranged to take place last August, but moments before it began the Florida Boxing Commission shut it down, executing a cease and desist order. It was a humiliating, frustrating experience for Holeve.
Then, after months of trying to find a state that would sanction a fight between two men with special needs, the Spire Sanctioning Alliance in Missouri agreed to allow the bout. Holeve had worked tirelessly just to have this chance.
The fight happened on Saturday.The full video is below. If you feel uncomfortable with the idea of watching an athlete with Down syndrome fight an athlete with cerebral palsy, please at least skip to the 8-minute mark — the part where Holeve roars triumphantly, arms outstretched.
Watch the joy in that place, and realize this was never about a sideshow — as some critics suggest. This was simply about one man’s fight. I encourage you to go back and watch that part too.