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I Took That Punch as a Man
March 29, 2013 3:41 PM   Subscribe

23-year-old Garrett Holeve is an aspiring MMA fighter from Cooper City, Florida, just north of Miami. He trains six days a week, and has fought in amateur exhibition matches. He also has Down syndrome. This is his story

Despite support from some in the MMA community, including former UFC Light Heavyweight Stephan Bonnar, Holeve has had difficulty finding a fight.

The decision to allow him to fight at all is not without controversy. According to a review of the ESPN feature story by Zach Arnold at FightOpinion.com, 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.

Holeve also faces criticism closer to home. His aunt and uncle thoroughly disapprove. My brother-in-law basically told me to my face that I was a bad father for letting my kid do this, Holeve's father Mitch says.

Holeve himself doesn't appear to have any reservations. His fights speak for themselves.
Garrett "G-Money" Holeve

vs. Antonio "El Toro" Martin — 02 Dec. 2011
vs. Mike "Monster" Wilson — 23 Feb. 2013

posted by ob1quixote (33 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
I'm not saying this isn't a complex issue, because it is. But this is the only time I can think of off the top of my head that I can even consider approving of sport-fighting, and that ain't nothin'.

Garrett's dad particularly comes out of this looking pretty amazing, simply as a man who wants give his son the best thing for his son, not the best thing in the opinion of those around him.

Thanks for this thought-provoking post.
posted by Poppa Bear at 4:17 PM on March 29, 2013 [5 favorites]


Down's is a mild intellectual disability, right? Meaning, we can be reasonably certain that he's choosing this for himself?
posted by downing street memo at 4:38 PM on March 29, 2013


"Down's is a mild intellectual disability, right? Meaning, we can be reasonably certain that he's choosing this for himself?"

Eh. The video says that he has the mental acuity of an eight- or nine-year-old. While folks with Down syndrome often have more strength than other folks, they tend to have a slower reaction time, so I'd honestly be really worried about him getting seriously hurt.
posted by klangklangston at 4:41 PM on March 29, 2013


Man, parenting is hard. What a great kid.
posted by iamabot at 4:45 PM on March 29, 2013


I have to admit that this is a tough one. My sympathies are being pulled every which way.
posted by jonmc at 4:56 PM on March 29, 2013


It is tricky. FWIW, all i could think watching him fight is 'Man, his reaction time is a bit too slow' and also 'Holy shit, this kid is tough as a motherfucker'. I think that as long as he's having a good time, let him fight. It's obviously helping him.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 5:16 PM on March 29, 2013


Just as a tangential question: does the special olympics have MMA, boxing or wrestling?
posted by jonmc at 5:18 PM on March 29, 2013


The boost of morale and confidence he will get from this is enough to outweigh any other consideration. He was not in danger, other than superficially.

I think a lot of credit and balls goes to "Monster" Wilson for not being afraid to say he was going to make him feel what getting hit by a real punch feels like, and for being so enthusiastic about helping create this experience for Garret.
posted by TheRedArmy at 5:23 PM on March 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


jonmc: Just as a tangential question: does the special olympics have MMA, boxing or wrestling?
They only have Judo in the Special Olympics at this time.
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.
posted by ob1quixote at 5:37 PM on March 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


I understand how this could be a conflicting story. There is something about the idea of a young man with a cognitive disability being encouraged to pursue a hobby that involves getting pounded in the face repeatedly that doesn't feel right.

However, though the ESPN piece seemed to leave it a little vague (sort of implying that the fight featured in the piece was no-holds-barred), the first linked article in the FPP makes it pretty clear that Garrett is never going to be put in a truly dangerous situation:
"As for finding the other fighter, we're not telling anyone to take a dive. We tell them to hit him, kick him, and punch him. We tell them to keep their guard up because he's gonna get ya. But we're not putting him in there in a full-on fight. It's just an exhibition"
Assuming this is true, I don't see anything wrong with Garrett continuing with an activity that he clearly enjoys and has drastically improved his physical (seriously, he is almost unrecognizable from his much heavier, pre-MMA training self) and emotional health.
posted by The Gooch at 6:04 PM on March 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


It's hard for me to understand how an activity that improves self-esteem and fitness, teaches teamwork and discipline and gives someone like Holeve an outlet to be passionate about could be a bad thing (Chris Strauss, 'difficulty finding a fight' link)

Yea, it is a complete mystery what people could possibly be objecting to about this. Can anyone give him a hint?

It's interesting, really, that the story of this guy not being able to find anyone to fight against reminds me of the similar stories of women trying to compete against men in many sports - pretty much the same risk/reward calculation for the potential male opponents.
posted by jacalata at 6:06 PM on March 29, 2013


Down syndrome causes some physical abnormalities and tends to reduce life expectancy. I'd worry that he could be at greater risk for, say, an exercise-induced heart attack. Have any doctors with specific knowledge of the medical effects of Down syndrome weighed in on this?
posted by Mitrovarr at 6:11 PM on March 29, 2013


People with Down syndrome get early onset Alzheimer's due to neuronal degeneration. Even a light case of dementia pugilistica may exacerbate it in his later years.

I'm not saying he shouldn't fight, but if I was his parent I would try to steer him away from sports with head shots.
posted by benzenedream at 6:43 PM on March 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


He's got the cognitive ability of a twelve-year-old.

At 12, you can't get a tattoo, drive, vote, drink, consent to sex or join the military. Yet, somehow people think that he has the necessary discretion to consent to fight in MMA?

Come on,people.
posted by DWRoelands at 6:57 PM on March 29, 2013


I doubt anyone who has commented here trains to or has fought. As someone who has done both, the place where you train is special, it's a brotherhood, it's a place where you become close to people that beat the everliving shit out of you everyday, it's unlike anywhere else.

Garrett has a shorter life span than we do and his parents are making sure that he is the happiest that he can be for as long as it lasts. He is surrounded by people that love him, support him and push him to be better.

When your child wants something, and everyone around you tells you that he can't have it, you don't care, you want to provide it for them.
posted by hiddenknives at 7:13 PM on March 29, 2013 [7 favorites]


When I was 8 years old, I really wanted to be a pro wrestler, and yet my asshole parents wouldn't let me get into the ring with Rowdy Roddy Piper or Hulk Hogan. I mean, shit, I wanted to do it so badly and they kept me from my dream.
posted by item at 7:24 PM on March 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


it's unlike anywhere else.

I can appreciate that. I'm sure it's true. And you're right about the value of opinions coming from people who have no real knowledge of the sport or its culture.

But I'm wondering about the other fighters—who are inside that culture and do understand. You're an MMA competitor. Somebody tells you, "We have a match for you. He's a tough, trained fighter, but his condition limits his intellectual capacity to that of an [x]-year-old." Do you consider that a relevant factor in deciding whether to take the fight?
posted by cribcage at 7:34 PM on March 29, 2013


At least use his IQ. Then we could hook into the conversations that are already going on about the value of IQ as a measure of anything. Trying to measure his intellectual capacity by comparing it to the Platonic ideal of a twelve year old is ludicrous.
posted by LogicalDash at 7:42 PM on March 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


Watching his exhibition fights, it's clear that in each case the promoters paired him up with a more experienced fighter who was able to control the pace and give him the opportunity to demonstrate what he had learned while keeping him safe. In essence, they were controlled sparring matches. I have no problem with that, and it was nice to see how much he had learned in the year or so between the first and second bouts.

If those had been real fights, his opponents could have really hurt him. The kid has the heart to be a real martial artist, but he's never going to be a pro fighter.
posted by tdismukes at 8:06 PM on March 29, 2013 [7 favorites]


tdsimukes is spot on. Garrett's opponents could have put him away quickly--they are much faster and more coordinated. His skills and heart have earned him respect--these weren't freakshow bouts, or Make-A-Wish exercises--but controlled sparring matches is the right characterization. He might not see it that way, but it is clear his opponents do.
posted by oneironaut at 8:38 PM on March 29, 2013 [4 favorites]


"He's got the cognitive ability of a twelve-year-old. "

I thought the video said he was at an 8 or 9-year-old level.
posted by klangklangston at 8:47 PM on March 29, 2013


I doubt anyone who has commented here trains to or has fought.

Wrong.

As someone who has done both, the place where you train is special, it's a brotherhood, it's a place where you become close to people that beat the everliving shit out of you everyday, it's unlike anywhere else.

I agree, but I still wear headgear. Camaraderie doesn't protect your neurons.
posted by benzenedream at 9:06 PM on March 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've seen multiple people with varying levels of downs syndrome do varying things from masturbating on a public bus in front of about six elementary school students to physically assaulting me at a concert.

Because of these experiences, I do not support the idea of teaching someone with a mental disability such as this the skills for fighting. He might be completely out of his league against trained MMA fighters, but there's no reason to suspect he can't and wouldn't beat the living fuck out of/kill a regular person for completely unworthy reasons if he lost his emotional control in public.
posted by GoingToShopping at 9:13 PM on March 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


This would have been a horrific story if he got in the ring with a serious competitor, particularly someone striking-oriented, that somehow did not know of his condition and treated him like any other opponent.

I think amateur competition would be fine for him, if the pool of amateur competitors in the US consistently included more novices, like the kind you can find at judo or BJJ tournament, where novices can fight other hobbyist novices who have also been training for only 2-3 years. The people that compete in amateur MMA in the US still skew toward people who have spent a lot of time in at least one discipline — local muay Thai champs, former collegiate wrestlers and the like.

It'd be great if there was something like the amateur Shooto system in Japan, where there are folks that are trying MMA as their first foray into combat sports and can compete against each other in the shallow end, relatively safely.

Regardless, I find Garrett very impressive, and I hope he keeps training.
posted by ignignokt at 9:20 PM on March 29, 2013


As far as safety is concerned, I'd much rather have my kid doing MMA than football, or even soccer. The serious injury rate is much lower. Even pro fights only involve 15 minutes of combat, and a substantial portion of that can be grappling rather than striking.

Also, what hiddenknives said about the gym is spot on. The people you train with become family, actually, they are often more supportive of your goals than family, because they know how tough it is, and how much work it takes. That's gotta be good for a kid like this.

I don't think he'll ever be a serious contender, though, he definitely lacks speed and accuracy. But he has heart, and he should be able to get recognized for that.
posted by bashos_frog at 10:10 PM on March 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


GoingToShopping, the effects of the syndrome range from barely perceptible to severe. Even in cases in which cognition and behavior are strongly affected, violent behavior is an exception, not the rule. Not to downplay your experiences, but the burden of proof would frankly be upon you to demonstrate that Garrett is a ticking time bomb. Let's please not return to the days of shame and institutionalization.
posted by vverse23 at 10:23 PM on March 29, 2013 [11 favorites]


At 12, you can't get a tattoo, drive, vote, drink, consent to sex or join the military.

Except Garrett is an adult and has a tattoo, drinks, and has consented to sex.
posted by elsietheeel at 10:56 PM on March 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


elsietheeel: At 12, you can't get a tattoo, drive, vote, drink, consent to sex or join the military.

Except Garrett is an adult and has a tattoo, drinks, and has consented to sex.
He's voted too.
posted by ob1quixote at 12:18 AM on March 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


People with cognitive disabilities are not children. Adulthood is a complex psychological and social construct, and capacity a complex medical and legal concept. Those using the "mental age" argument are quite a long way down the slippery slope that leads to permanently denying a large proportion of citizens the right to personal self-determination.
posted by howfar at 4:47 AM on March 30, 2013 [7 favorites]


Down syndrome causes some physical abnormalities and tends to reduce life expectancy.

I would especially be concerned about this fellow's ability to lie on his chest (or to be thrown down onto the mat and subjected to a submission move, on his chest) as those with Downs are susceptible to breathing problems in that position.

I haven't got into the links, though, so my apologies if I am just sounding ignant.

That being said, I found hiddenknives's assessment of the benefits that Holeve could gain, socially and as relate to personal development, to be very convincing. And I also find it quite believable that other fighters will be willing to give Holeve a proper experience as a peer and aficionado, as opposed to a ranked competitor.
posted by mr. digits at 7:29 AM on March 30, 2013


I've seen multiple people with varying levels of downs syndrome do varying things from masturbating on a public bus in front of about six elementary school students to physically assaulting me at a concert.

This is really the spectrum upon which you chart your experiences with the developmentally disabled? Masturbation to violence? Really? I spent a year as an orderly at a state institution for the developmentally disabled on a "behavior unit" (read: sexual deviancy, violence) and even then I recognize the residents I worked with as personalities -- as people. With senses of humor and feelings and problems and concerns. Honestly, this comment is so fucking disgusting I don't know where to begin with it.
posted by to sir with millipedes at 1:55 PM on March 30, 2013 [8 favorites]


"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."

This is exactly correct. Outsiders just see the fights, but with the exception of the absolute elite, the training is where it's at. The fights exist to give you something to work towards, something to train harder for. You do need to do them, I believe, to train a fight sport properly, but training for them is the far better experience. The self confidence, discipline, camaraderie, pride... it really is like nothing else. Even in training, the percentage of time Garrett actually spends doing full-contact sparring (especially stand-up sparring) is probably really small. The bulk of his time will be spent doing things like drills, strength and conditioning, and running. In this way, fight sports are not very different from training for any other sports. The fights are what motivate you, but ultimately, you spend a whole lot of time doing pushups. Actual fighting is what most fighters do the least of. (Caveat: I do know some gyms who just spend a whole lot of time sparring, but they're a minority).

Anyway, it sounds like the few fights he has had are all exhibition matches and that his father ensures his son only fights on shows where he will be respected and against opponents who respect him. This all seems perfectly fine to me. The FightOpinion guy sounds worried about how this will reflect on the sport, and I do understand that. Everyone who has an interest in promoting fight sports and keeping (or making) them legal in their area watches this stuff like a hawk. I cringe every time a show promotor advertises their event with really violent language and imagery, because the media still loves a "human cockfighting" story and that kind of stuff provokes knee-jerk reactions from politicians. But in my opinion, the footage of that most recent fight reflects really well on everyone involved. It seems like a really positive, safe environment and Garrett actually has better skill and technique than plenty of fighters I've seen in "real" amateur MMA bouts.
posted by retrograde at 2:31 PM on March 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


When a song by 50 Cent ends on the radio and the DJ announces a Chris Brown track, Garrett looks up midchew and says, "I'll beat the shit out of him," referring to Brown. Why? "Because he beats women."

I like the cut of your jib, sir.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 4:40 PM on March 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


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