Longform

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

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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."


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Chris Sweeney