Garrett Holeve, an MMA Fighter With Down Syndrome, Is Changing the Sport

Garrett Holeve, an MMA Fighter With Down Syndrome, Is Changing the Sport
Photo by Stian Roenning

"I'm dangerous," 23-year-old Garrett Holeve warns as he bounces around a bedroom in his parents' suburban, single-story house, throwing punches and kicks. A pungent combination of protein-powered farts, dirty laundry, and ball sweat permeates the air.

"I'll hurt a guy real bad," Garrett brags. "I'll be covered in too much blood, and I'll keep hurting him. Kick him in the mouth so hard the mouth guard flies out."

The words don't roll off his tongue. They bunch up in his throat and pour out in a slurred manner that's difficult to understand. This is just one of the ways Garrett's Down syndrome manifests itself.

"Oh, umm," he stammers frequently when looking for an answer. "Finding a fight takes time. My friend Chris is going to get me a fight."

He carries other telltale physical characteristics of the genetic condition: small ears that look like half-hearts, almond-shaped eyes, wide hands with short fingers, and a small, round mouth. Further affecting his health is rheumatoid arthritis that afflicts his right knee.

Garrett stands five feet tall and weighs 136 pounds. But he can drop to 125 pounds in a few days to make weight for his beloved sport, mixed martial arts. His black wifebeater reveals the tattoo of a black Punisher skull engulfed in black flames near his left shoulder. His neck and arms are solid muscle, large enough to make clear that his fists could permanently alter the alignment of an opponent's nose.

Here, in a modest home in one of Cooper City's gated communities, the floor is littered with kettlebells, a curl bar, a medicine ball, dumbbells, and two towel-covered milk crates that serve as makeshift pushup stands. Framed on the wall is the white tape in which MMA megastar Tito Ortiz wrapped his wrists for a recent Las Vegas fight. There's a poster of sharks, pictures of a half-dozen other professional fighters, and some torn-out pages of a Hooter's calendar featuring bikini-clad butts.

Playing on the flat-screen TV set is a DVD of Garrett's first exhibition bout earlier this year against a guy named Antonio Martin at Seminole Immokalee Casino. The crowd roars when Garrett throws a spinning backfist, but back in his room, the young man isn't paying attention. He's kneeing an imaginary opponent in the face before dropping to his knees to pound the thin, smelly air into submission. He then lifts his shirt and flexes his abs, a solid undefined wall of muscle padded by pasty white flesh. "This is the new me," he says enthusiastically.

For someone with Down syndrome, Garrett is extremely high functioning. Still, his cognitive ability is roughly equivalent to that of a 12-year-old. His reading and math skills are at a third-grade level. He can't tell if a cashier gives him correct change after he buys a slice of pizza, his mom says, and it's unlikely he'll be able to understand this entire article.

But Garrett has found salvation in MMA, a combative sport that John McCain dubbed "human cockfighting." Though it was once banned in a dozen states for its gruesome brutality, nowadays jujitsu black belts of the umpteenth degree battle Olympics-grade wrestlers in refereed yet still-violent face-offs. This more polished competition has been masterminded by the Ultimate Fighting Championship, or UFC, the largest and most profitable promotion company in the world.

The sport has allowed Garrett to reinvent himself — mind and body. At the gym, he's not Garrett Holeve, the guy with Down syndrome. He's G-Money, an up-and-coming fighter with big ambitions.

"I will go for a contract for the UFC, get the contract, sign it, and be on UFC," Garrett declares.

But there's a problem. Even though he has spent countless hours training at American Top Team Weston, Garrett can't find a fair fight. People who run the Special Olympics have given little indication they will ever allow the sport, and it's unclear how many parents of special-needs' people would even allow their children to pursue MMA. And though he has fought two exhibitions against abled competitors, few fighters want to be the one who knocks out a guy with Down syndrome or, worse, gets knocked out by him.

Visualizing his first professional fight, Garrett snaps his foot into the air and says, "That's the kick I do," demonstrating an impressive combination of limberness, balance, and power. "Knockout."


During an ultrasound, Susan Holeve asked the doctor to double-check that everything was OK — that all the limbs were intact and the bone growth looked normal. At a Lamaze class, she questioned how often a child with a disability is born. She got blank stares. "Nobody asks that at Lamaze," she says. "That's just not a question people ask."

Doctors assured her everything was fine. Ultrasound and other test results looked good.

Then, around 3 a.m. on October 11, 1989, she snapped out of a dream in which she was eating hamburgers and having a baby to discover her water had broken. Having gone through a long and involved labor three years earlier with her first son, Zachary, Susan and her burly, bald husband, Mitch, assumed she had plenty of time to get to the nearby hospital in Hollywood. They miscalculated. Susan was in precipitous labor.

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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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