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Fighter with Down syndrome wants to get in ring

  • Garrett Holeve was issued a cease-and-desist order right before a fight
  • Holeve has trained as a MMA fighter for the past four years
Fighter with Down syndrome wants to get in ring

When 23-year-old mixed martial arts fighter Garrett Holeve was told he couldn't enter the ring to fight an opponent on August 3, he was more than just frustrated -- and it wasn't because he'd trained tirelessly for the fight for two months.

Garrett Holeve said he believes the fight was canceled because he and his planned opponent, ​David Steffan, both have disabilities. But he's not ready to give up yet. With the help of his dad, who spoke to HLN in a phone interview, he's seeking another way to enter the ring.

"It's our belief, based on conversation with people within the MMA community, that getting it done in any state isn't going to be easy," Mitch Holeve said.

Garrett Holeve, who has Down syndrome, discovered martial arts as a teenager. His father, Mitch Holeve, invited Garrett and his brothers to join him at the gym to improve their health. Garrett was the only taker. Soon, he found that he loved to spar, and that passion ignited a fire in him.

Garrett once told his dad, "I don't want to be called Garrett, because Garrett has Down syndrome. He's dead to me," Mitch Holeve said in an ESPN interview. 

Mitch Holeve said that, at that time, his son wanted to ignore his disability and make his way in the sport by being a sparring partner.

Read more: Down syndrome: Turning disability into positivity

As Garrett Holeve continued to train and spar, he looked forward to his first time fighting in the ring with an opponent of equal stature. But because of his disability, it was an uphill battle for him to reach that goal.

"There is a core group of people involved in MMA that are trying to protect the sport from bad PR," Mitch Holeve said. "They feel having disabled people compete would give the sport a 'black eye.' They are also afraid of the 'sideshow' effect of having disabled people competing."

The elder Holeve says even his own friends felt negatively about his decision to let his son fight, saying they believed he was "putting his son in jeopardy." 

Some MMA fans reacted negatively to seeing Garrett Holeve featured on ESPN in February. Zach Arnold from MMA news website Fight Opinion reached out to several experts in the field for their opinion on a person with Down Syndrome fighting in the ring.

"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," Arnold said. "The concept of allowing someone with Down syndrome -- limited cognitive ability and brain issues -- to take punches and get slammed drew a swiftly negative reaction amongst the people I interviewed."

Despite those opinions, Garrett Holeve -- also known as "G-Money" in the ring -- kept pushing forward. Mitch Holeve chose to reach out to King of the Casino promoter Mark Shopp in April, who employs an independent sanctioning body that is not affiliated with the Association of Boxing Commissions. 

READ MORE [Extra]: Hollywood joins forces with global down syndrome foundation

"Back in 2010, Garrett's coach, Baga Ramos, went to Mark and and asked if he had a fighter that would volunteer to do an 'exhibition' fight with Garrett," Mitch told HLN. "So Baga and I agreed we would have a fight, really, a staged event where Garrett's 'opponent' was told not to go hard or punch Garrett. So we went to Mark again when we wanted to do this fight with David Steffan. And he helped us put the event on."

Shopp also acted as the middle man between Holeve and the state, Mitch said, because the state and sanctioning body wouldn't speak to him directly.

Chuck Grace, president of MMA news website MMA Insider, says that working with an "indie" sanctioning body is a normal way to operate for amateur fighters.

"The Florida State Boxing Commission still sanctions the professional fights set to take place on the fight card, but they don't directly sanction amateur fights," Grace said. "They regulate amateur sanctioning bodies, such as the World Fighting Organization [WFO] who was the body that sanctioned the amateur fights that were scheduled for the August 3 event, who in turn sanction the amateur fights."

Thanks to Shopp, Garrett Holeve was finally set to compete in an amateur MMA match. His would-be opponent, 23-year-old Steffan, has cerebral palsy and is a former Special Olympian and current Paralympic Games competitor. It would have been the chance of a lifetime for both competitors, but right before they stepped into the cage in Immokalee, Florida, in early August, the state presented them with a cease-and-desist order addressed to Shopp, which stated that the bout was unsanctioned.

The Florida State Boxing Commission has not returned repeated calls from HLN seeking information regarding the cancelation of the fight.

Watch more: Dad with Down syndrome son: Don't feel sorry

Mitch Holeve reached out to the National Down Syndrome Society for their comment on Garrett's situation, and he replied in a statement Holeve read to HLN: "The National Down Syndrome Society supports Garrett 100% in his right to compete in the sport of his choosing like any other athlete. He's been given no reason for why he can't compete. This is his life, his work, his sport, and his right and we'd like to understand why he is being blocked from competing."

HLN attempted to contact Shopp several times to learn more about the cancelation of the fight, but the calls were not returned.

A simple "no" isn't enough to halt Garrett Holeve's determination, though. His father said Steffan will meet with the Nebraska commission to see if the fight can take place there.

"It's our belief, based on conversations with others who have tried and people within the MMA community, that getting it done in any state isn't going to be easy, " Mitch Holeve said.

But that doesn't mean they will stop fighting.

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