Garrett Holeve, an MMA Fighter With Down Syndrome, Is Changing the Sport
“I’m dangerous,” 23-year-old Garrett Holeve warns as he bounces around a bedroom in his parents’ suburban, single-story house, throwing punches and kicks. A pungent combination of protein-powered farts, dirty laundry, and ball sweat permeates the air.
“I’ll hurt a guy real bad,” Garrett brags. “I’ll be covered in too much blood, and I’ll keep hurting him. Kick him in the mouth so hard the mouth guard flies out.”
The words don’t roll off his tongue. They bunch up in his throat and pour out in a slurred manner that’s difficult to understand. This is just one of the ways Garrett’s Down syndrome manifests itself.
“Oh, umm,” he stammers frequently when looking for an answer. “Finding a fight takes time. My friend Chris is going to get me a fight.”
He carries other telltale physical characteristics of the genetic condition: small ears that look like half-hearts, almond-shaped eyes, wide hands with short fingers, and a small, round mouth. Further affecting his health is rheumatoid arthritis that afflicts his right knee.
Garrett stands five feet tall and weighs 136 pounds. But he can drop to 125 pounds in a few days to make weight for his beloved sport, mixed martial arts. His black wifebeater reveals the tattoo of a black Punisher skull engulfed in black flames near his left shoulder. His neck and arms are solid muscle, large enough to make clear that his fists could permanently alter the alignment of an opponent’s nose.
Here, in a modest home in one of Cooper City‘s gated communities, the floor is littered with kettlebells, a curl bar, a medicine ball, dumbbells, and two towel-covered milk crates that serve as makeshift pushup stands. Framed on the wall is the white tape in which MMA megastar Tito Ortiz wrapped his wrists for a recent Las Vegas fight. There’s a poster of sharks, pictures of a half-dozen other professional fighters, and some torn-out pages of a Hooter’s calendar featuring bikini-clad butts.
Playing on the flat-screen TV set is a DVD of Garrett’s first exhibition bout earlier this year against a guy named Antonio Martin at Seminole Immokalee Casino. The crowd roars when Garrett throws a spinning backfist, but back in his room, the young man isn’t paying attention. He’s kneeing an imaginary opponent in the face before dropping to his knees to pound the thin, smelly air into submission. He then lifts his shirt and flexes his abs, a solid undefined wall of muscle padded by pasty white flesh. “This is the new me,” he says enthusiastically.
For someone with Down syndrome, Garrett is extremely high functioning. Still, his cognitive ability is roughly equivalent to that of a 12-year-old. His reading and math skills are at a third-grade level. He can’t tell if a cashier gives him correct change after he buys a slice of pizza, his mom says, and it’s unlikely he’ll be able to understand this entire article.
But Garrett has found salvation in MMA, a combative sport that John McCain dubbed “human cockfighting.” Though it was once banned in a dozen states for its gruesome brutality, nowadays jujitsu black belts of the umpteenth degree battle Olympics-grade wrestlers in refereed yet still-violent face-offs. This more polished competition has been masterminded by the Ultimate Fighting Championship, or UFC, the largest and most profitable promotion company in the world.
The sport has allowed Garrett to reinvent himself — mind and body. At the gym, he’s not Garrett Holeve, the guy with Down syndrome. He’s G-Money, an up-and-coming fighter with big ambitions.
“I will go for a contract for the UFC, get the contract, sign it, and be on UFC,” Garrett declares.
But there’s a problem. Even though he has spent countless hours training at American Top Team Weston, Garrett can’t find a fair fight. People who run the Special Olympics have given little indication they will ever allow the sport, and it’s unclear how many parents of special-needs’ people would even allow their children to pursue MMA. And though he has fought two exhibitions against abled competitors, few fighters want to be the one who knocks out a guy with Down syndrome or, worse, gets knocked out by him.
Visualizing his first professional fight, Garrett snaps his foot into the air and says, “That’s the kick I do,” demonstrating an impressive combination of limberness, balance, and power. “Knockout.”
During an ultrasound, Susan Holeve asked the doctor to double-check that everything was OK — that all the limbs were intact and the bone growth looked normal. At a Lamaze class, she questioned how often a child with a disability is born. She got blank stares. “Nobody asks that at Lamaze,” she says. “That’s just not a question people ask.”
Doctors assured her everything was fine. Ultrasound and other test results looked good.
Then, around 3 a.m. on October 11, 1989, she snapped out of a dream in which she was eating hamburgers and having a baby to discover her water had broken. Having gone through a long and involved labor three years earlier with her first son, Zachary, Susan and her burly, bald husband, Mitch, assumed she had plenty of time to get to the nearby hospital in Hollywood. They miscalculated. Susan was in precipitous labor.