Natural born fighter

Photography by Finn O’Hara for Sportsnet magazine

Garrett “G-Money” Holeve lives for MMA. But should a man with Down syndrome be allowed to get in the ring?

“That’s how the hero will rise.” The fighter says the words slowly—leaning forward in a black folding chair—carefully navigating each syllable as though dictating a prologue to his own legend. Dusk bleeds through the hotel room window behind him. A hungry crowd cheers and jeers in a nearby conference room. There are 11 events on a potpourri card of amateur fights tonight. His is ninth, but the most anticipated of the evening; the only fighter in the makeshift change room who has an ESPN camera following every move he makes. He fires a round of quick jabs and cross cuts. Under a black T-shirt, his biceps rapidly recoil and reload—two barrels alternating fire against an invisible enemy. “The first thing I’m going to do is hurt him badly,” he says. “And when he’s hurt that bad, I’m going to knock him out. It’s going to be a kick to the face.”

The fighter drapes a heavy silver chain around his neck and places a grey UFC cap over his freshly cropped mohawk. Swag to match the pre-fight swagger—something you’d expect from a man with a few knockouts to his name, not a man who’s never faced an opponent willing to swing for his jaw. His corner man carefully wraps his fists in cloth. A referee inspects his gear. Nearby applause signals the climax of the night’s eighth match. The fighter marches out with his entourage. “There’s no quit in you,” one shouts. “You’ve got this,” echoes another. Their whoops build as they near the entrance. “I can finish this,” the fighter says, staring into the camera facing him. “I promise that.” The team huddles, hands together. “One. Two. Three,” they yell. “G-Money!” In the ring, the figher squares off with his opponent, touching gloves. “This is an exhibition only,” the announcer says. There will be no headshots on the mat. No submissions. No punching at 100 percent. No winner.

Garrett Holeve has Down syndrome, a genetic condition that affects his physical and intellectual development. He is 23 years old and lives with his parents in a Miami suburb. It is unlikely that he will ever be able to live alone. He reads at a Grade 1 level and has the cognitive ability of a preteen. For the past three years he has trained as an MMA fighter—losing 50 lb., gaining unmeasured confidence and becoming something of a local celebrity. But he has never been able to test his skills in a fight, because he couldn’t find an opponent willing to step in the cage with him. Until today. What’s about to happen might shock you: A man with Down syndrome will fight a man without it. It’s exploitation, to some. Inspiration, to others. It is a family’s great mistake or its proudest moment. It is courage. It is shame. To Holeve, it is a hero’s moment to rise.

The bell rings. The fighters charge. The other man is the same age and size as Holeve—five feet, 131 lb.—but significantly stronger, significantly quicker. He has compact biceps like tennis balls. A giant green M, the Monster Energy Drink logo, is tattooed down his rippled back. Smack—like a hunk of meat slapped down on a chopping board, Holeve’s face meets the fist of Mike “Monster” Wilson. Before the crowd can exhale its collective gasp, Holeve regains his balance and jabs with his right arm, tattooed with the Punisher skull. He’s stopped with a swift kick to his ribs.

Standing next to the entrance, a tanned woman with jet black hair feels her heart thumping toward a crescendo that seems certain to end in cardiac arrest. She wears fitted jeans and a white “Garrett’s Fight” T-shirt, the collar cut out á la Flashdance. She gave them out in exchange for donations to their foundation—hoping to help others with disabilities benefit from martial arts. But part of Susan Holeve has to question the good in this as well. “I don’t need a paraplegic with Down syndrome,” she says before the fight. She worries that the polite young man who ended the long search to find a match for her son could seriously hurt the boy she’s been fighting for since the day a doctor at Hollywood Memorial Hospital looked in her eyes and told her the baby had Down syndrome. “Do you plan on taking him home with you?” he asked. That was the only thing Susan and Mitch Holeve would consider. Neither knew what lay ahead—but neither flinched at it either. They found the best occupational and speech therapy for their boy. When he was old enough to go to school, they refused to put him in special programs. “Whatever needed to be done was going to be handled with regular people,” she says. They faced relatively little resistance through those early years. While he fell behind academically, Garrett managed to slip by socially until middle school, when he was placed in a special program. “The box room for ‘retarded’ kids,” Susan angrily dubbed it. She and Mitch protested and Garrett returned to regular Grade 6 classes with the help of a personal aide. He knew how to listen, how to fit in. To see him interact, no one would guess the boy could barely read. He could carry on in a world rapidly outpacing him. He was normal. He was fine.

Some days Susan still worries they made a mistake in the aggressive attempt to give their son a “regular” upbringing. More than once he sat on the bench outside his house waiting for a lift to the movies with friends that never came. Girls gave him kisses, but never dates. He rejected other disabled people, despising any reminder of his own differences—he was not like them. Maybe if they’d kept him in those classes, he’d have been more accepting and he’d have had an easier time coming to terms with who he is? And maybe he’d have been a better reader, a better writer—more capable of settling into the tasks of the everyday working world.

But would he have found the confidence to do this—to stand in this ring in front of hundreds of spectators, throwing a right cross at a much stronger and faster man? Wilson recovers from the punch and kicks Holeve hard in the ribs. Holeve lunges forward and misses with a punch as Wilson wraps around his torso and lifts him into the air. “No, no, no, no, no…” yells a girl in the second row. The expected slam never comes. Wilson stumbles forward and drops Holeve like you might in a friendly scuffle. The match carries on with bursts of violence mixed with measured restraint to the bell. The fighters slump to their corners.

“Don’t let this guy bother you,” Rodrigo “Baga” Ramos tells Holeve. “Haven’t I punched you harder than this? Huh?”

“Yeah,” huffs the fighter.

Despite the fact many would, Baga didn’t flinch when Holeve first walked into his American Top Team gym in Davie, Fla. He found in him the will to fight, despite the disability. So did Stephan Bonnar. The UFC veteran called the Holeves a year ago, after seeing a video of Garrett training, and asked if he could join their journey—finding a fair fight for Holeve and creating a charity to help others follow suit. He’s here today, coaching Holeve, steaming with intensity. “That’s it. That was a great round,” he shouts, as Holeve nods, catching his breath. The supporters from American Top Team crowd behind him, each offering advice. It’s a group of young men who spend every day in the gym; a brutish, crass bunch who trade in unprintable jokes and consider Holeve an equal.

Across the ring, Wilson is alone. He rests against the corner partition, slouching forward, head down, gloves on his thighs. He is the heel here—the villain to Holeve’s hero. He had no one to drive him from Miami’s south side, so he hopped on a train early that morning and Susan picked him up at the station. The same train where this all began two months earlier when he read about Holeve’s quest to find a willing opponent his size. Everyone deserves that chance, Wilson thought. “I’m not going to take it easy on him—he wants to be an MMA fighter. I’ll give him that fight.”

Mitch Holeve—50 years old, bald, with a stubbly white beard and broad shoulders—stands next to the ring leaning in, echoing the coaches, making sure his son has heard everything. He’s been by Garrett’s side since this bold MMA journey began three years ago, when he asked his three boys if they wanted to join him in a mixed martial arts class. Only Garrett, his middle son, agreed. He was already a UFC fan, often watching the fights with his dad. Garrett played basketball until he was 18—Mitch refused to have his son play in a special needs league. He repeatedly told coaches not to coddle Garrett. “You don’t have to run a special play for him,” he’d stress. “I don’t want the kids saying, ‘Get the ball to dummy over there.’” It was always the same battle. “No, no, no,” Mitch constantly said to a placating world. “He’s included.”

As a kid, Garrett took on other personalities—insisting he was a superhero or a character he’d seen on television. Through high school he claimed to be a rapper, bringing to life the name “G-Money” for the first time. It was just a phase, it seemed—a persona that allowed him to fit in with a crowd. But soon he was rejecting his given name entirely. When other boys went off to college, driving cars and dating girls, Garrett retreated to the solitude of his room. He became sedentary, gaining weight and growing restless with the looming limitations of his world. When he received paycheques for his job at a local department store, he scratched out his name and wrote G-Money. The cheques were ruined. “I don’t want to be Garrett, because Garrett has Down syndrome,” he told his father. “It was the first time I understood,” Mitch says.

And now, here’s that same boy, his boy, charging into the second round, grabbing hold of Wilson’s left leg and throwing him to the mat. The room erupts as Holeve fires two quick jabs to Wilson’s head and knees him in the ribs. Wilson pushes him off. They circle again and Holeve catches his opponent with a kick to the face. Wilson seems stunned. He charges at Garrett’s legs, bringing him to the mat. On the ground, he drives two hard punches into his back, before flipping Garrett over and locking him in an arm bar.

Mitch’s heart beats as frantically as his wife’s. “Come on, G!” he yells. “You’ve got this.” This is what they trained for—father and son, sparring every day. “We push him hard,” Mitch says. “You drop your gloves, you’re getting hit in the head.” He had to know his son was ready to step in the ring, ready for the speed and force of a real match. “I want him to demonstrate to other people what he’s capable of,” he says. “I don’t want him to walk away and have people say, ‘Oh, that guy took it easy on him.’” Mitch doesn’t listen to the critics—not the family members who refused to accept this fight, not the people who comment online and accuse the family of exploiting their son. There are concerns specific to people with Down syndrome—for example, their joints tend to be weak, making them more prone to injury. The neck is particularly vulnerable. But local doctors vetted and approved Garrett for the fight. “No one is more concerned about my son’s safety than me,” Mitch says. How, he thinks, can they know what is lost or gained here? How can they measure the effort—the singular pursuit, the endless training, driven by an undying belief in this dream?

And it’s hard to deny the growth in his son’s self-esteem and sense of acceptance. Last year, Garrett started instructing children, taking on a teaching role when his father scrounged up money to start a new ATT gym in Weston, closer to home. He started working with a student of his own—D.J., another young man with Down syndrome. “Dad, I’m OK with being Garrett now,” he told Mitch one day after Bonnar took him aside and said how proud he should be of everything he’d accomplished. Mitch knows that tonight’s fight is likely the peak of what his son can accomplish in the sport. But he fights it as Garrett Holeve—a man who loves rap music and beautiful women and hanging out at the beach; who shows off his six-pack and enjoys cold beer and crude jokes and has arthritis in his knees and Down syndrome in his genes. He is Garrett Holeve, and he is here, in this ring. Fighting.

Time runs down in the third and final round. Holeve attacks aggressively, landing a few solid punches in Wilson’s side. They circle, and Wilson throws soft punches in the air—as though he’s play-fighting. Holeve charges and they collide at the ropes together and fall. “Knee bar! Knee bar!” Bonnar shouts. And Holeve appears to pull off the move—until Wilson twists up into a handstand, kicking his legs cartoonishly in the air. The crowd laughs. “10 seconds!” shouts Bonnar. The fighters square off in a flurry of jabs and kicks, until the bell goes and they embrace. Both hands are raised, and the crowd roars and claps and hoots and hollers.

Holeve grabs the mic from the announcer: “How about we hear it for our American Top Team Weston!” he yells. With a medal around his neck, he stops for a photo with the ring girls and then beams his way to the embrace of his corner, where his friends celebrate like a world champion has been crowned. “I did it, Baga,” Holeve says, hugging his coach. “I did it.”

In the other corner, Wilson’s big toe gushes blood—a white bone protruding out the side. Because of all the adrenalin, he hadn’t noticed the pain when he broke it kicking Holeve. Paramedics carry him to the stretcher and wheel him through the lobby, where Susan waits for her son, overjoyed, as the team leads him back to his hotel suite. “You’ve got a shiner,” she says. “Oh, your ear!” He wraps his arms around her and kisses her on the cheek.

In the room, the men are ecstatic. It’s all back slaps and high-fives and ice packs and video replays. ESPN cameras circle the group. “He did great,” Baga says. “I don’t think he expected it to be this realistic. He tries, man. I tell you, he tries.”

When the men filter out and the cameras shut off, Mitch and Garrett relive the fight. “I’m so f—ing proud of you,” Mitch says, looking into his son’s eyes. “When you locked up his leg…”

“Yeah, that was tight,” replies Garrett. “Real tight.”

“And the choke—Baga was real happy with the choke,” Mitch says, brushing his finger over the rising bruise on his son’s cheek.

“My finger,” Garrett shakes his hand like he has just punched a wall. “F–k.”

“Do you need some ice?”

“Yeah,” Garrett says and laughs.

Outside there are more photos to take, hands to shake, beers to drink, girls to kiss. In the days to come, the swelling in Holeve’s face will go down and his ribs will ache. He’ll be back in the gym teaching and training once more. It’s his job, he says. His story will go viral. Some will wince. Some will cry. Somewhere, someone will find hope in his fight. Another will laugh and call him retarded.

That’s just how the story goes—an uncertain, untidy ending. A new fighter will come forward to punch Garrett in the face—a match is scheduled for this summer in Oklahoma. A man with Down syndrome will once again fight a man without it.

But right now, none of that matters. His father leaves the room, and Holeve is alone. He hunches his wounded, battered body in a folding chair. He stays there for a moment, drinking it in. Then slowly, the hero rises up and heads for the shower. He leaves the epilogue unwritten.

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.