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.
"We got in the car to go to the hospital, and it was like I was sitting on his head, because he was coming out," she says. "When I got there, I was already ten centimeters dilated. I was told not to push, and I was like, 'Yeah, right.' And I gave birth without the doctor there."
At birth, Garrett weighed 8 pounds 6 ounces, measured 19.5 inches long, and was ostensibly healthy. On the Apgar scale, which assesses a newborn's health, he scored a seven or eight out of ten, indicating all was well.
But the next morning, a developmental pediatrician told the couple their newborn son likely had Down syndrome. Dark thoughts immediately washed over Susan in the hospital bed. "It was almost like he was born dead," she says. "I was depressed. I was angry."
Down syndrome is the most common cause of birth defects. One in every 691 babies is born with it. Today, approximately 400,000 people in the United States are living with the disability.
It's a genetic condition in which the person has 47 chromosomes instead of the typical 46. The extra genetic material, usually a copy of chromosome 21, causes abnormalities in how the brain and body develop. Though Down syndrome is more common in children of older mothers — for women 44 and older, the chances of having a child with the disorder are 1 in 35 — Susan was 26 years old when she had Garrett. Hospital staff presented the exhausted and overwhelmed parents with three options: Put the boy up for adoption, wait a bit and place him in a group home, or raise him on their own.
"That conversation really hit my wife and me and sent us into a tailspin," Mitch says. "After ten minutes, we were like, 'You guys are crazy — this is our kid!' and we brought him home the next day."
Raising a child with Down syndrome and a 3-year-old brother tested everyone. The learning curve was steep. Garrett needed to be taught even the most basic functions, such as how to sit up and how to roll onto his belly. No one imagined he would one day be able to execute a half-decent triangle chokehold or an excruciating arm bar.
When he was preschool age, his parents took him to a program run by nuns. The sight of dozens of special-needs people confined to the regimented environment left Susan shell-shocked. "I burst into tears," she says. "I threw the pamphlet into the garbage. He went to nursery school with the regular kids; he went to day camp with the regular kids."
After Garrett turned 5, Mitch and Susan decided to have another child. One of the reasons, Susan explains, was they didn't want to leave their eldest son with the sole responsibility of one day having to care for his brother. "We thought at least if there are two, they could split the responsibility, whatever that may eventually be," she says.
A barrage of tests confirmed the good health of their third son, Logan.
In a few years, fart jokes, rough-housing, and sports reigned supreme. Zachary and Logan cut little slack for their brother. Garrett attended public school throughout his education, going to Cooper City High School. He took some classes crafted for kids with learning disabilities, and others that were part of the usual curriculum.
During high school, Garrett slipped into deep denial about having a disability. Though he never caused problems at school, he'd call special-needs kids "retards" at home. "I hate to say it, but it's almost like he was a bigot," Susan says. "He really had this sense of superiority, and he just wanted nothing to do with them."
Soon, Garrett began insisting that people call him by a nickname, usually G or G-Money. At age 18, he took a job at a nearby Publix. Whenever he received a paycheck, he immediately scratched off his name and wrote in whatever his nickname of the month was. It posed problems for the bank tellers.
"I sat him down and told him he can't do that anymore," his dad says. "And he said, 'That's not my name.' And I said, 'Yeah, that's the name your mother and I gave you. And he said, 'Garrett Holeve has Down syndrome, and I don't want to be Garrett Holeve.' That really hit home. I knew he was in denial, but I never knew how bad it was."
About 18 months later, in 2010, the family was watching a night of UFC fights on television when Mitch asked if any of his sons wanted to give MMA a shot. He himself had been a boxer, but he didn't expect a response.
Garrett, however, perked up and a few weeks later walked into an American Top Team training facility in Davie. "I was like, 'Fuck, how do I teach someone with Down syndrome?'" says Rodrigo "Braga" Ramos, a barrel-chested 36-year-old professional fighter who runs that facility.
Garrett's training followed a similar path as it would for anyone just starting in the sport, albeit a bit slower. He learned the basic grappling techniques and then perfected them. He studied punch formation and then weave combinations. He changed his diet and built muscle mass.
Ramos matched Garrett with people of the same skill level. He wasn't great, but he was dedicated.
"We didn't coddle him or baby him at all. After the first day, I didn't see him as a guy with Down syndrome," Ramos says. "Poor guy, my ass."
Stretching in his driveway, Garrett gets ready for his morning run. His parents are at work — his mom is in jewelry sales, and his dad is a financial planner. Six days a week, Garrett trains. Usually it's a combination of running, swimming, and weight training, capped off by sessions at an American Top Team facility.
Before embarking on the run, he holds up a stopwatch that's paused on 13 minutes. Not fully understanding how the device works, he says it means he ran 13 miles yesterday.
As he jogs slowly along the sidewalk, he lays out his dream: Become a professional fighter, move to his own place in Weston, buy a boat, and get an MTV2 reality TV show on which he interviews fighters and other celebrities. He doesn't want any kids because "they're a pain." As for a wife, his top choice is Tatyana Ali, the stunning actress best-known for her role as Ashley Banks on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
After a cool-down, he takes out his stopwatch and pauses it on 34 minutes. "Thirty-four miles," he says and then lets out a satisfied sigh.
As he opens the door to his house, he tears off his shirt, drops his shorts in the living room, and strips down to a pair of silver spandex shorts to check his weight. Next it's a quick shower and a breakfast of a single protein pancake that his dad premade. When a song by 50 Cent ends on the radio and the DJ announces a Chris Brown track, Garrett looks up midchew and says, "I'll beat the shit out of him," referring to Brown. Why? "Because he beats women."
He swigs from his glass of Arizona diet green tea with ginseng and douses what's left of his pancake in organic blue agave. Next he heads to a barbershop around the corner to get a flattop. Before the talcum powder settles, he's posing in a fighter stance — shoulders squared, fists raised — and handing the barber his iPhone to snap a picture.
He immediately tries to post the image on Facebook but encounters problems. He explains he just got the phone for his birthday and hasn't figured out the finer points of the application. Growing increasingly frustrated, he takes out an older smartphone that he's more familiar with and uses it to snap a picture of the picture, which doesn't work. After 20 minutes and one video call to his dad, the photo is online with the caption "Tv mma fighter."
The rest of the day passes as it would for most dudes in their early 20s who don't have jobs (because of his disability, Garrett receives $450 in social security each month as long as he doesn't work). He has pizza for lunch and spends some quality time playing an Ultimate Fighter videogame while listening to the radio.
Garrett's denial of his condition hasn't made it easy to find friends or land a girlfriend. He dated a young woman with Down syndrome, but it quickly fizzled after some drama involving public displays of affection at school.
When pressed on the subject of girls — ones who haven't starred in sitcoms or posed for Maxim — Garrett becomes flustered. "I don't do drama anymore," he says. "I got tons of girls right now... I'm hot and sexy." Then, like a media-savvy celebrity, he quickly steers the conversation to how he'll shed pounds for his next fight.
"He thinks he can date typical girls his age, but that's just not going to happen," his mom says. "I tell him that I wanted to marry Brad Pitt and I got your dad, so you have to lower your standards somewhere."
As for friends, Garrett has clicked with some of the guys at American Top Team. If there's a big fight on TV or at one of the nearby casinos, he'll have some beers with them. For his birthday, a few fellow gym rats threw him a party, and Garrett got duly trashed. He likes Corona and Bud Light but doesn't drink often. Since turning 21, he's gotten hammered only a handful of times. It's not that he doesn't enjoy it; it's that drinking is a surefire way to throw a fighter off a training regimen.
"I saw him at the gym a few times with his dad, and when I finally met him, it clicked," says Chris Haddican, a 34-year-old electrician who trains at American Top Team in Davie. "We mess around with him; we don't treat him any differently. The first couple of times I trained with him, I kind of took it easy. I was letting my guard down a little bit, and he would wail on me. There was one time where he dropped me... Now we beat him up too."
Garrett confesses everything without thinking twice. After one particularly boozy night, he told his father how he smoked weed for the first time. He has also described receiving oral sex twice but never intercourse. This candidness is a relief to his parents.
"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.
"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?
"Fighting is something we do only once in a while," Bonnar contends. "Most of MMA, 90 percent of it, is training, studying, and living martial arts. That's what I see when I see Garrett — a martial artist. He trains, studies, and helps teach martial arts. The fact that he has the courage to go in there and compete makes it that much more inspiring."
Not everyone sees it that way. On YouTube, there's a three-minute video of Garrett in a heated sparring session with a woman named Brooke Crosby. Garrett takes some punishing jabs to the face, though both fighters are wearing headgear and plush gloves. "I'm going to send this to Stephan Bonnar if you lose," the cameraman shouts. After two minutes of exhausting grappling, Garrett locks Brooke's forearm between his legs and leverages his weight to apply an unpleasant amount of pressure on her elbow joint. She surrenders.
"This is ridiculous! There is nothing amazing or living a 'dream' about this!" writes one commenter using the handle "lee4d17." "I'm a special ed teacher and to see this makes me cringe... There is no way in hell this should be allowed."
Another commenter says Garrett has an unfair advantage because of "retard strength," while still another says that "retards need to be kept out of the sport." Mitch writes these people off as trolls, but there are a few critics he can't ignore. Mitch's sister and brother-in-law, who live in Minnesota, are thoroughly appalled by Garrett's MMA pursuits.
"I'm upset that they don't support him at all," Mitch says. "I've sent them pictures, I've sent them videos, and I don't even get an email back. My brother-in-law basically told me to my face that I was a bad father for letting my kid do this."
As for the Special Olympics, it's a long shot. Mandy Murphy, a spokeswoman for the organization, explains in an email that judo is the only martial arts competition offered. "To get judo as an official Special Olympics sport that has become part of our World Games... our Special Olympics International Medical Committee did an extensive study on safety as well as controlled emotion for our Special Olympics athletes," she writes.
But Mitch and others who work closely with Garrett say critics and naysayers see only the haymakers and chokeholds of MMA, the 10 percent of the sport that makes it to television. Those people don't know how it has helped Garrett evolve and the potential it has for others.
On Bonnar's last day in Florida, he sat Garrett down and explained how inspirational he is, how he's a role model for the entire sport. Bonnar made a point of calling him Garrett, not G-Money, G, or any other nickname.
"Literally the next day, we're driving home from the gym, and Garrett turns to me and says, 'Dad, I know I have Down syndrome. And I'm proud of it, and I want to be a role model,'" Mitch recalls. "Before that, he would have never been open to the idea of working with D.J. and training another guy with special needs... People don't see how compassionate he is."
Garrett has fought only two exhibition matches. There have been no winners or vicious attempts to knock the other guy's head off. In February, he's slated to participate in a third exhibition fight at the Ultimate Kickboxing and MMA Challenge, a charity event to benefit the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association.
"There are a lot of promotions going around that I could get him a fight for," says Haddican, Garrett's electrician friend. "It's just finding the right one and the right crowd... As for finding the other fighter, we're not telling anyone to take a dive. We tell them to hit him, kick him, and punch him. We tell them to keep their guard up because he's gonna get ya. But we're not putting him in there in a full-on fight. It's just an exhibition."
In reality, Garrett will never make it as a professional. No matter how much time he spends in the gym, no matter how much weight he can bench-press, that one extra chromosome has imparted a permanent disadvantage.
"The issue with Garrett's fighting is this: reaction time," his dad says. "He's never going to have the reflexes that a regular kid is going to have... Our goal is just to get the word out and maybe we'll find some special-needs kids we can start training and have our own little Special Olympics for the kids who want to do this."
Still, pro or not, Garrett is already changing the world of mixed martial arts simply by doing what he's doing.
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