(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?