"I let his friends know that Garrett will tell me everything that goes on," Mitch says. "But I'm not here to judge them. The only thing I care about is their safety."


It's a quiet Tuesday afternoon at American Top Team in Weston. Garrett and his dad are buzzing. They've just learned that Fuel TV will air a short segment about Garrett later that evening on a show called UFC Ultimate Insider. It will be his TV debut, but the excitement doesn't stop the kid and his father from bickering about weight.

Garrett, wearing silver shorts and a black sleeveless T-shirt, insists he has dropped 50 pounds since starting to train in 2010. Mitch says it's closer to 35 pounds.

Garrett Holeve and his father Mitch.
George Martinez
Garrett Holeve and his father Mitch.
Garrett trains at American Top Team in Weston.
George Martinez
Garrett trains at American Top Team in Weston.

"He's a liar," Garrett says after his dad walks to the front door to greet someone. "I've lost 50 pounds. That's how I got these." Again, he lifts his shirt, flexes his abs, and grins confidently. There's no arguing that his strength and stamina have improved dramatically since diving into the sport. Garrett and his father head to the Weston gym about four times a week. Mitch purchased a 50 percent stake in the small franchise — he split it with Ramos, the coach from the Davie branch — and then put his share in Garrett's name. Now Garrett helps with the kids' classes and hands out fliers, while Mitch teaches evening CrossFit sessions.

Around 4:30 p.m. on this Tuesday, a young man named D.J. Barclay arrives. He also has Down syndrome and is far more physically challenged than Garrett. As they warm up with some laps around the gym, Barclay's mother, Karen, cheers. "G-Money is just awesome," she says, not once during the half-hour session calling him Garrett.

Barclay has been training in mixed martial arts for about three months. His mom came across a flier that offered free classes every Tuesday for anyone with special needs. It took several months for Barclay to come around to the idea, but Karen says the physical and emotional benefits were noticeable after just a few training sessions with Garrett and his father. She's even caught her son late at night shadowboxing in front of the mirror.

Barclay is the only person who's been lured in by the flier. But Karen says many people with special needs could greatly benefit from using the gym.

Compared with Garrett, whose punches are relatively quick and clean, Barclay looks as if he's moving in slow motion. He practices a takedown on a life-sized dummy but clumsily falls on top of it. Though sometimes he can't understand instructions, he listens intently — and then finishes the session with ten pushups and 20 situps. Not to be outdone, Garrett does the pushups on his knuckles. Everyone hugs at the end of the 30 minutes.

"It feels good," Garrett says when asked about what it's like training with Barclay. For Mitch, the session is far more meaningful; it's a major breakthrough for his son. Before tunnel-visioning on MMA, Garrett would never have been willing to associate so closely with another special-needs person. That all changed, however, when retired professional UFC fighter Stephan Bonnar took an interest in Garrett.

Bonnar, nicknamed "the American Psycho," is well-known among fans of the first season of The Ultimate Fighter. He made it to the final fight before losing by decision to the long and lanky Forrest Griffin.

In February, Bonnar came across a YouTube video of Garrett sparring and was blown away. "It was clear this kid has a ton of heart," Bonnar says. "I felt inspired."

Bonnar chatted with his associates at Tap­out clothing, one of the biggest MMA sportswear lines in the world, and they decided to get involved with Garrett in some form or another.

"I was like, 'Oh shit,'" Mitch recalls of the day he answered his cell phone at the gym and heard Bonnar on the other end. "On that phone call, [Bonnar said] he wanted to really give back and get Garrett's story out there. And that's the mission we set out on that day."

In April, Bonnar and a few associates flew from Las Vegas to South Florida for a weekend to spend time with Garrett, watch his routine, and film a documentary about him. They were able to set up a second exhibition fight for Garrett in which Bonnar cornered for him. Later, Bonnar flew Garrett and his parents to Las Vegas for a weekend of fights. There they mingled with some of the sport's biggest names. The experience cemented Garrett's determination to make it to the UFC and his dad's drive to extend the reach of the sport into the special-needs community.

A few months ago, Mitch, with support from Bonnar, started a nonprofit foundation, Garrett's Fight (garrettsfight.org). The objective is to help kids with special needs get involved with MMA. Bonnar is scraping together funding to finish the documentary and says he's been in very preliminary discussions about a reality show. Ultimately, Mitch and Bonnar would like to see mixed martial arts included in the Special Olympics.

But is it the right sport for those with significant physical and cognitive limitations?

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12 comments
kimberleyl9
kimberleyl9

I LOVE HIS MOTIVATION! I have a 27 year old with Downs Syndrome. I would love if he was passionite about something. Garrett has inspired me.

neko687
neko687

I love it, this is a young man doing what he wants to do, and he has a supportive family behind him.

I'm willing to bet that those questioning the choice of sport for this young man (apparently due to the risk of injury) wouldn't have a problem sending their kids to football/cheerleading/gymnastics.

paulkchoi1
paulkchoi1

It's great that this person has a passion for something but there is no future in it.  He could get the same passion in tai chi or fencing without the violence.   He is like a dog with a bone.  Once you take the bone away he can clear his mind and think about other things.

alehound
alehound

I can count to potato......

lenny14
lenny14

In the late 1960's, Miami had the Sunland Training Center, a euphanism for a place for Downs Syndrome kids left in the care of the state. There were both boys and girls there. They lived in cottages. I dated a girl who worked as a "house mother" in the cottage that housed anti-social boys. There were occasional fights and I can tell you these boys were strong. They all seemed short. One thing though, was that when you dealt with them one on one, they were the sweetist kids you can imagine. Reaching into your gut, you may get the anger that these kids never had. I do not think the sport of MMA is right for them, but good physical education is very helpful in reaching them. Any sport would do them good, so they should stay in the gym, but I would hate to see any of them get hurt.

ThunderValleyKO
ThunderValleyKO

@benfowlkesMMA love it. As a father to a young boy with autism I take heart it anything that provides purpose & hope for special needs kids

drakemallard
drakemallard topcommenter

But I heard you can get killed at that Kumite.Why are the mentally challenged so physically strong?

mega_bytes
mega_bytes

I think it is wonderful he is passionate about this and the training is an added physical benefit. That being said I find the fact a person who has limited ability on an intellectual level to make the choice to have a “real” fight disturbing. People with Down Syndrome have other limitations physically or complications besides their intellectual capabilities. How can the punishment and risk of injury impact that as well? Perhaps there is a reason the Special Olympics does not have a punishing sport like MMA.

Decent_American
Decent_American

Finally America has reached the pinnacle of good taste  - Tard Fights!

MMABeatdown
MMABeatdown

No. RT @benfowlkesMMA Take a sec to read an interesting, well-written article about a man with Down Syndrome who wants to be an MMA fighter:

Metoproziva
Metoproziva

@benfowlkesMMA good read. Awesome to see he has a passion for something and enjoys training. Good for him.

mega_bytes
mega_bytes

@drakemallard  You realize that is a myth that mentally challenged people are somehow physically stronger. Some are strong some are not and there are many reason for that. In cases of Down Syndrome they are in fact less strong do to physical limitation they all share. Some people can who are mentally challenged can be strong but perhaps they come from a family where people are stronger. Some conditions affect the mind and not the body. Some like Down Syndrome which is a genetic disorder affect mind and body.

 
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