Down syndrome fighter wants real shot

Garrett Holeve, right, has been training in MMA for four years and now wants the opportunity to face an opponent in a real fight for the first time. (George Martinez)

He slouched forward in a folding chair, with a fresh bruise rising on his cheek. He took a long, deep breath. Garrett Holeve was exhausted after the fight—physically, mentally and emotionally. It was over now, but his hands were still tightly wrapped and he looked like he wanted one more round. His opponent, Mike Wilson, was en route to the hospital, the bone of his mangled toe exposed. He broke it kicking Garrett in the shin. Wilson stuck around long enough for the ref to raise both of their hands after the fight at an oceanfront hotel in Miami Beach in February 2013.

Both hands were raised because both MMA fighters were declared “winners.” It was an exhibition fight, and under the terms allowed by the Florida Boxing Commission, everyone wins. Or, rather, no one does. There were to be no headshots on the mat, no submissions, no punching at 100 percent. Those rules were mostly broken during the fight. I stood ringside through all three rounds last year, when we first shared this story in Sportsnet magazine. Garrett—aka G-Money—cared little for the rules. The rules, after all, had done little for the fighter with Down syndrome.

It’s a scary thing to watch, a man with Down syndrome being punched in the face or driven hard into a mat. The crowd went wild for Garrett, but you could hear the gasps with every blow he endured. It was uncomfortable, but it was real. Wilson would have won the match, though Garrett would certainly disagree with that. Wilson’s reflexes and strength were just too dominant. He doesn’t have Down syndrome.

But there is honour in losing. And there’s that hope, that longing for an actual win. It wasn’t enough to be declared the winner just for showing up. For Garrett, it wasn’t enough to receive a pat on the back and a kiss from the ring girl. He wanted a real loss or a real win—regardless, a real fight.

That’s where we left the story last year. Much has happened since. Garrett’s attempt to arrange a sanctioned match against an opponent with special needs has been thwarted several times.

Last August he was set to fight David Steffan, a 29-year-old who is honoured in the Nebraska Special Olympics Hall of Fame as a soccer player, and who has trained in MMA for three years. Steffan has cerebral palsy. Garrett trained almost five hours a day leading up to the bout. Five minutes before the fight was scheduled to take place, with Garrett and his opponent both preparing to enter the ring—hands taped, adrenalin peaked—the Florida Boxing Commission executed a cease and desist order, preventing the fight from taking place.

Holeve and Steffan tried to set up another fight this June. They asked the International Sport Karate Association—one of the organizations licensed by the boxing commission to sanction fights in Florida—to arrange a bout between the two. They were told that they could only compete in an exhibition match, with no scoring, no declared winner and no strikes that might hurt an opponent. No official reason was given.

With the support of the National Down Syndrome Society and legal counsel from Disability Rights Florida, Garrett’s family asked the federal courts to step in, claiming that Holeve has been discriminated against and his rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act have been violated. First, they asked for a restraining order allowing Holeve to fight on June 28. That request was rejected. The date passed without a match. The legal battle continues.

There are understandable concerns for the safety of fighters with special needs, but those are rooted within a narrow understanding of what a person with special needs is capable of, says Mitch Holeve, Garrett’s father. “People who criticize (allowing Garrett to fight) are doing it from a distance and they lack knowledge. They see the label of Down syndrome and they don’t really understand him as an individual,” says Mitch. “They don’t understand that every individual with an extra chromosome is just that, an individual. You can’t blanket them physically, mentally, emotionally, or socially.”

Garrett has trained in MMA for several years. He’s worked one-on-one with retired UFC fighter Stephan Bonnar. He’s built up his body—doing cross-fit, practising Muay Thai, dedicating his life to bettering himself in the sport. He’s been approved to fight by his doctor. And he’s capable. In a Muay Thai match this February, he submitted an opponent who doesn’t have special needs. Garrett is a strong 24-year-old man, with rippling muscles, a vicious punch and loads of ambition.

“Garrett wants to compete like everybody else. He’s clearly shown that he can compete,” Mitch says. “He’s just asking for that opportunity to take that next step.”

The question I received most last year after writing about Garrett was whether he had the cognitive ability to decide if he wanted to fight. His intellectual capability is roughly that of a preteen. It’s hard for him to engage in a conversation over the phone. This is a difficult problem, rooted in many assumptions about how we separate the intellectual abilities of a person with special needs from his or her ability to comprehend the extent of their capabilities—and to identify and pursue their own ambitions.

I’m not qualified to answer that question, but it seems to me, through researching and writing about Garrett, that this is the kind of discussion that doesn’t have an absolute answer. I spent several days with Garrett. I watched him work out and saw him teach a mixed martial arts class for kids, and work one-on-one with with another fighter with special needs. I watched him conduct interviews with ESPN and film a commercial for an organization in Florida that supports people with special needs. I watched him interact with his father, Mitch, his best friend, who works out with him everyday. I watched him kiss his mother, Susan, on the cheek before his “exhibition” fight and tell her not to worry. And I saw Susan standing at the back the of the room, cringing as her boy took blow after blow, and crying with pride as he stood at the end, hands raised.  And I saw that for Garrett, that wasn’t enough. It wasn’t a win—not a real win.

He sat in a chair after the fight, exhausted and battered and wounded. His dad wiped away his blood and gave him a pack of ice for his swollen eye and the rising bruise on his cheek. Garrett’s fight was later broadcast across the United States by ESPN. Letters of support came in from around the world. There were letters of thanks, too. He was an inspiration. Garrett went to schools to speak about special needs. He did demonstrations for war veterans. He fought in Muay Thai events. He did ju-jitsu and he boxed. But he couldn’t do the thing he wanted, the thing that filled his heart. Mixed martial arts was the sport that first caught his passion and pulled him out of a sedentary life filled with perceived limitations—the sport that first allowed him to truly believe in himself—and he was being told that he didn’t belong in it.

Garrett seemed happy for all he’d earned in the ring that night last year. But he knew there was an asterisk next to the win: Two hands were raised, not one. No one’s a winner when everyone is. He looked into the ESPN camera that was following him around and said “Dana White, I want my chance to fight.” I scribbled that in my notebook, but didn’t think twice about what he was saying. I missed it, and he was saying so much. Of course Garrett will never reach the UFC. But that doesn’t make his dream any less real than that of someone who doesn’t have Down syndrome. When I first wrote Garrett’s story, I admit that part of me thought isn’t it enough that he be able to fight at all? Isn’t that an accomplishment in itself? I don’t agree with that now. Any person should have the right to succeed or fail in pursuit of their dreams, and to let that experience shape who they become. The optics might seem ugly, but the Florida Boxing Commission and its sanctioning bodies need to reassess their narrow perceptions and allow Garrett Holeve to have an official match. They need to let him win or let him lose—they need to let him fight, and it needs be honest and filled with violence. It needs to be real.


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