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Should We Be Rooting for an MMA Fighter With Down Syndrome?


(Props: Danny Arruda via CP reader Sean McGehee)

Last night’s edition of ESPN’s Sportscenter featured a segment titled “Garrett’s Fight,” about a 23-year-old man with Down syndrome named Garrett Holeve who has transformed his life through MMA. After being introduced to the sport by his father, Holeve committed himself to training at American Top Team, which has become a supportive second-family to him. The segment follows “G-Money” as he prepares for his first amateur fight against “Monster” Mike Wilson, who makes good on his promise to show Holeve what a real punch feels like. Through three tough rounds, Garrett doesn’t quit, and comes out the other side an even stronger person.

For me, the most touching part of the segment is the end, which shows Garrett now working as an instructor at an ATT affiliate that his father purchased, teaching MMA to children and another man with Down syndrome. “Them look up to me as a hero, or as a super man,” Garrett says. “Because them need a super hero.” (Damn…is somebody chopping onions in here?)

But look, we’re not talking about a kid with Down syndrome getting passed a basketball to take a shot during a middle-school game. MMA is a sport where people can get badly injured, and Garrett’s story is inherently controversial. As Garrett’s father puts it, “I’ve had family members that just said to me that I’m crazy. They’ve lost respect for me as a parent from the fact that I’m allowing this to happen.” Meanwhile, Zach Arnold at Fight Opinion sees this as just the latest in a long line of questionable decisions by Florida’s athletic commission As Arnold writes:

After the Sunday night feature, I made several phone calls to doctors, athletic inspectors, judges, and individuals with medical knowledge who are involved in regulating combat sports. The reaction from the people I contacted was unanimous and swift — they were absolutely terrified. Not one person supported the idea of allowing someone with Down’s Syndrome inside the ring for amateur or pro MMA. One respected athletic inspector said that allowing Garrett Holeve to fight in an MMA bout was exploitative, no matter if the audience cheered and gave Holeve a standing ovation after the fight. The concept of allowing someone with Down’s Syndrome (limited cognitive ability & brain issues) to take punches and get slammed drew a swiftly negative reaction amongst the people I interviewed…

Would ESPN have showed the ending to Garrett Holeve’s fight if he got knocked out? If Holeve had gotten injured during the fight they aired, would they have spiked the feature because it wasn’t a heartwarming ending?

One thing that separates MMA from other professional sports is that there’s very little barrier to entry. You don’t have to possess an elite-level of talent to try your hand at it; all you need to do is find a local promotion that needs warm bodies. And in the wake of that other controversy in Florida, it’s worth thinking about who should be “allowed” to participate. Everybody? Only the athletes we deem to be physically, mentally, and developmentally healthy? Should a person with limited cognitive ability — and slower reaction times, in Garrett’s case — be barred from competing in a combat sport like MMA? Or is inclusiveness one of the factors that makes this sport so unique, and so often inspirational?

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roachtbp- March 28, 2013 at 5:27 am
The comments on here attacking Garrett are embarassing. Most of y'all have never stepped in the cage and are criticizing him for doing something that y'all are too scared to do. Fighting gives him confidence and purpose in life. He enjoys it and trains hard to stay in shape and learn the sport. Who are you to tell him he can't do what he enjoys?
HEY- March 26, 2013 at 6:36 pm
Only if he fights others of genetic similarity in the "Tri-21 Combat League".
tristan_donald- March 26, 2013 at 11:46 am

my best friend's sister makes 77 every hour on the laptop. She has been fired for 10 months but last month her income was 14170 just working on the laptop for a few hours. Here's the site to read more http://www.pie21.com
BigDaddyD- March 26, 2013 at 2:55 am
Some of you should be ashamed of yourselves for your comments. I think this is great. This kid with a disability is doing more than your trolling asses. I think this is great. I don't know why anyone should or would look down on his parents for letting him do this. Letting him train and fight gives this kid a feeling most people with a disability will never achieve. Good for them for letting him do this and props to G Money for pushing himself.
Gobbleston- March 25, 2013 at 10:25 pm
I have several issues with all of this. First of all, fighting a kid with down syndrome = lose/lose situation. Win the fight? Good job champ, you just beat up a kid with down syndrome. Lose the fight? Good job champ, you just got beat up by a kid with down syndrome.
The second issue is that while I get that it was good for him PERSONALLY, and it wasn't really a really real fight, but that specifically negates the very actual concept of "People with down syndrome in an MMA match." This specific issue wasn't an actual legitimate representation of the concept being discussed.
My third issue, and this is important; to all the people saying "Sure, let him fight, it's no more dangerous than for anybody else." You don't know that. In fact, nobody knows that. Are there studies and research on the effects of trauma to the brain on people with Down Syndrome? No. No there isn't. So nobody, especially here, can say if it's actually as safe as it would be for anybody else. No, I'm not talking about fighting so long a normal person might get dementia pugilistica, I'm talking about knowing for certainty that 1, 2, 7, 10 punches to the head of a person with Down Syndrome isn't going to harm him on a potentially exponentially greater scale.
rpn452- March 25, 2013 at 8:44 pm
"This is no different from baring the kid from having a driver's license."

Huge difference. He can't kill or harm others by fighting like he can while in control of a vehicle. Well, unless he's really good.

Allowing him to ride a scooter would be a more reasonable comparison, except that the risk of serious injury or death from riding a scooter on public roads is certainly much higher than that from an amateur fight.
Mr_Misanthropy- March 25, 2013 at 7:19 pm
Oh, how special.
Pen Fifteen- March 25, 2013 at 6:44 pm
@danomite
Well, there is the whole argument that motorcycles/scooters are more fuel efficient and take up less space on a road, thus minimizing congestion, and are mostly only unsafe because of car-driving retards and at high speeds, but I presume that doesn't matter because you'll just come up with another analogy. We don't let people with all kinds of pre-existing medical conditions compete in combat sports, and that seems to me like a far more relevant comparison.

Anyway, it strikes me as instructive to focus less on the fact that this kid did emerge from his bout unscathed (as far as we know) and think more about what kind of regulatory precedent it sets. Stopping retards from doing MMA isn't putting us on some kind of slippery slope to a Soviet Union redux, which seems to be the undercurrent of these libertarian "LET HIM BANG BRO!" arguments.
danomite- March 25, 2013 at 5:13 pm
They're fucking doctors. Of course they're going to say it's unsafe. They think it's unsafe for anybody to be doing boxing or MMA. You know why? Because it is unsafe. It's two guys hitting each other and bending limbs the way they aren't supposed to bend. Go ask those same doctors if they think it's a good idea to ride a motorcycle. I guarantee you they'll say no. Why? Because it's unsafe. There's no need to own or ride a motorcycle. It can't do anything a car can't do. But people still ride them, because this is the United States of America and you should be allowed to do stupid pointless shit like ride motorcycles or punch another consenting human in the face for money. USA! USA! USA!
crappiefloper- March 25, 2013 at 4:26 pm
"and in this corner.....Garrett 'wheres my basebaaaaaaaalllllll' Holeve"
Pen Fifteen- March 25, 2013 at 4:20 pm
@danomite
Did you even read the article on Fight Opinion? You say, "The risk of injury he faced in that fight was no greater than the risk anybody else faces when they step in the ring." How the fuck would you know? The author independently interviewed a number of doctors, all of whom unanimously agreed that letting a kid with Downs fight in a live MMA match was unsafe, which obviously raises the question of what kind of oversight this kid even had for his match.

At the core this isn't an issue over what kind of rights disabled people have, but rather how the state of Florida approaches the regulation of MMA in the first place. If ISKA sanctioning can let a kid with Downs into a fight, something that is apparently at odds with at the least anecdotal evidence offered by medical professionals, who the hell else will they let fight? Once again, I reiterate the point that this should be treated as a public health concern, not an issue of individual rights.
Athelas87- March 25, 2013 at 3:50 pm
I guarantee that some of the people who are taking shots at this young man's disability have never stepped a foot into the cage. It's amazing what the sport has done for this person and the people around him. Props to his opponent who saw him as a person, as a fighter, not just someone with Down's Syndrome.
Japanadian- March 25, 2013 at 3:39 pm
take a smart guy and knock him out till he's stupid. acceptable.
take a stupid guy and knock him out till he's.... stupid.
unacceptable.
danomite- March 25, 2013 at 3:26 pm
Did you guys even watch this video? The kid loved it, it gave him a sense of accomplishment and you think he shouldn't be allowed to experience that because you know what's best for him, or because you think it makes the sport look bad? You're probably right, I know personally I lost all respect for the game of basketball when I saw that video of the High Schooler with down syndrome making all those 3-pointers. Disgusting.
I don't know why I should keep having to reiterate this point, but he's not fighting in the UFC. He's not making a career out of this. It was a glorified sparring session with amateur gloves and shinguards. And I never said who cares if he gets brain damage. I said he already has brain damage. One fight is not going to make it worse. He's not getting boxer's dementia. The risk of injury he faced in that fight was no greater than the risk anybody else faces when they step in the ring. In fact, it was even less dangerous considering the other guy knew what the deal was and wasn't going all out to try and hurt him.
crappiefloper- March 25, 2013 at 3:09 pm
@j.jones
These gray hair along my temple arnt from age, it's from friction against all them ladies thighs
Pen Fifteen- March 25, 2013 at 3:05 pm
@karma
The reason I respond to you is because it's my hope that you will eventually see how full of shit you are. Since when is the ability to compete in sport that requires governmental sanctioning considered part of a "normal" life? This is no different than the Kyle Maynard case. You aren't owed the right to compete in a sport generally acknowledged to be dangerous if you can't meet the minimal criteria for participating in it, which includes the ability to adequately defend yourself. If you can't come up with an answer to that question that doesn't rely on the kind of circular reasoning you've displayed up to this point, don't bother. And if you don't want ad hominem insults directed your way, maybe try not to be such a self-aggrandizing douchebag. When I come on this site begging for money to help pay down my student loans or settle my debt with the local massage parlor, feel free take your best shot.

And to respond to danomite's point, who cares if the kid gets brain damage...shouldn't we all? If the kid's dad hasn't got the balls to tell his kid it isn't worth risking severe injury or possible death just to "live his dream," and the promoter isn't scrupulous enough to refuse to book such a match, then we have a collective responsibility to pass judgment. For fuck's sake, people are always whining about MMA being taken seriously, and it's precisely this kind of sideshow bullshit that has no business being associated with martial arts competition.
roachtbp- March 25, 2013 at 3:03 pm
Obviously mma is dangerous, and obviiously it's even more dangerous for the mentally impaired, but I totally support Garrett Holeve. It's not like he's trying to fight professionally - he just wants to do some amatuer bouts, and hopefully he won't get hurt too badly. From what I saw, I admire his work ethic and courage. He's definitely is a tough kid and has some heart - he took some hard punches in that fighgt and made it to a decision (though it did appear that is opponent seemed to lighten up on him a bit in the last round). Anyway, I support the guy. Good fight.
AndyInflammatory- March 25, 2013 at 2:42 pm
Let Corky bang, bro
teep- March 25, 2013 at 2:09 pm
Why not? Tito was allowed to fight! Plus I don't think that a down syndrome adult is "guaranteed" any disability payments. That is a terrible comment anyway. Many down's sufferers have jobs and can live very capable lives. Let him fight!
danomite- March 25, 2013 at 1:46 pm
"if you saw some regular Joe get in a fight with a guy with down syndrome on the street, and then proceed to whip his ass, would you think that was so heartwarming? Would that regular guy who just beat the crap out of a disabled guy be a "hero" because he treated him just like any other guy?"

No, we would think he's a shitbag because he's committing a felony on a disabled kid. You can't equate MMA to an assault on the street. If you can't tell the difference between the two you might be dumber than the kid with down syndrome. And you're right, none of us will probably be astronauts but that doesn't mean we can't go to fucking space camp. Jesus christ, nobody is saying the kid should be fighting Jose Aldo for the belt. It's an amateur fight against another kid who knows his opponent has down syndrome. What are you afraid is going to happen to this kid? Brain Damage? Too late for that. Let the fucking kid enjoy his life.
Revengeance- March 25, 2013 at 2:49 pm
You blow off the possibility of the kid getting brain damage because he already has it and I'm the idiot?

Yeah, we can all tell the difference between a street fight and an MMA bout. Point being that if you can admit that a street fight like this would be a horrifically lopsided beating that was a truly despicable crime, that should NEVER even be considered for an MMA bout. Amateur or otherwise. Here, I'll explain it to you in simple terms so you can catch on: if you see two guys throw down in the street, and they are roughly the same size and nobody pulls a knife or stomps the other guys head into the pavement when he's down, that's a basically fair street fight, no matter how stupid or illegal it is. While MMA is not in any way replicating a street fight, it does try to control the fairness of a fight. If you see a dude outweigh someone by 100 pounds and kick that smaller guys ass in a street fight, pretty much everyone would say that was lopsided and completely unfair, and no reputable athletic commission would sanction those two guys fighting each other. Why on earth would you support an MMA match (even amateur) between two people who you freely admit are completely on unequal terms?

In summary, if even in a street fight, the match up would be considered a horrendously lopsided freak show that no person in good conscience could condone, why would you say that is ok for an MMA match?
J.Jones- March 25, 2013 at 1:37 pm
@crappie - I never knew that Bucky Larson movie was a biography.
crappiefloper- March 25, 2013 at 1:27 pm
a long time ago, a young crappiefloper had a dream. at 19, i was certain i was going to be a porn star. sure, i was enabled along the way. girlfriends with the,"your the best" and,"thats the bigest ive ever had" gave me the confidence needed to pursue this dream. imagine how crushed i was, when at my audition the,"actress" said that i was,"hung like an asian". she was the first to educate me on something called premature ejaculation as well. i was crushed, as you can imagine. but that young man changed focus,changed his passion, and became the worlds greatest box muncher. and that my friends, is the rest of the story
KarmaAteMyCat- March 25, 2013 at 1:20 pm
"I can guarantee you this kid and his family are getting some kind of government-sponsored disability support" Can you really Guarantee that? Last I checked this kids father basically purchased an ATT branded gym so I highly doubt this is a family that requires a lot of assistance from the government. That said you keep trying to spew personal insults and bring up the fact that I made a request sometime ago and people more then helped out. Not to mention that your childish attempts to flip this into a personal battle is a bit contradictory to the whole claim that "I don't know how to make an argument". Funny story you are here still arguing it with me so I'm obviously doing something right chief. You've always been a sub par contributor and even less of a troll so just move along.

With that said I've been following Garret's story long before it made mainstream attention. It's obvious the kid has issues but plenty and I do mean this PLENTY of disabled people such as Garret live a normal and functioning life. If you can't wrap your mind around that then my only suggestion is to learn to google. Keep on keeping on chief.
The12ozCurls- March 25, 2013 at 12:56 pm
So let me get this straight. The Summer Olympics are going to do away with Wrestling as an official event but the Special Olympics is going to add MMA. Sounds legit.
Pen Fifteen- March 25, 2013 at 12:27 pm
Let's make this straightforward: without relying on his opponent to pull punches or take it easy on him, is this kid capable of "intelligently defending" himself? The answer would quite obviously seem to be "no." As such, he should absolutely not be granted a license to fight.
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