Garrett Holeve, an MMA Fighter With Down Syndrome, Is on His Way to Changing the Sport

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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.

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Chris Sweeney