Mixed Martial Arts, or MMA, is arguably one of the more controversial competitive sports. Banned in New York, the sport is known for its brutal, bloody nature and the fighters that train for months to dominate one another in the cage. Yet strict regulations serve to protect the fighters and ensure fair judging, and, like many other martial art forms, there are skills associated with MMA that require dedication and hard work to develop.
Despite the controversies, however, MMA is legal in forty-nine states and has an active community and dedicated fan base. While the majority of MMA advocacy work involves promoting a more positive view of the sport, one fighter is straying from the norm. A lengthy section of Garrett Holeve’s career has been dedicated to fighting for his right to have access to the world of professional MMA fighting. Holeve, also known as ‘G Money’ in the MMA world, was set to enter the ring professionally for the first time. His opponent was David Steffan. Both individuals had worked hard not just to develop the necessary skills to get them to that point in their careers, but to overcome social stigma around fighters with disabilities. Minutes before their fight was scheduled to begin, the state of Florida issued a cease and desist letter, making their fight illegal. Holeve has Down syndrome, and Steffan has mild cerebral palsy, and both fighters believe this is the reason their fight was targeted. According to The Guardian, “Florida authorities deemed the contest a health risk.”
The HBO documentary attached below explores the career and passion of Holeve, as well as other individuals involved in these events. Recalling the canceled fight, David Steffan states, “It was heartbreaking. It was something I’ve never felt, ever, in my life…No one goes as far to get to know myself, or Garrett or any other fighter with disability. They see articles that just say ‘cerebral palsy and Down syndrome set to fight.’ So when people read that, they get scared.”
“I was kind of dead inside,” says Holeve.
Reflecting on the negative reaction in the press to the news of the fight, Susan Holeve, Garrett’s mother, explains, “I think people in general are either comfortable around people with an intellectual or physical disability, or they’re not. So I think the people who are uncomfortable watching it, are the people who would be uncomfortable sitting down and having a meal with Garrett.”
In November 2014, Holeve and Steffan made history in the world of mixed martial arts when promotor Brian Higginbotham agreed to host their fight in Missouri.
The Holeve family went on to sue the state of Florida for past discrimination and the opportunity to fight in the future. While the case was dropped, the judge ruled that the state of Florida must abide by the Americans with Disabilities Act, which means allowing Holeve to fight.
Critics of Holeve’s fighting have raised concerns for Holeve’s safety, and questions about his ability to make an informed decision to consent to fighting. Yet many disability rights advocates have stated their support of Holeve. According to Mark Priceman of the National Down Syndrome Society, “Garrett has the same rights that everyone else does. It doesn’t matter that he has Down syndrome: If he’s a fighter, he’s a fighter.” The National Down Syndrome Society also stated on their website that they stand with Disability Rights Florida and Garrett Holeve “in his right to compete in Mixed Martial Arts (MMA).” The NDSS also named Holeve a 2015 Champion of Change. In addition, according to USA Today Special Olympics Vice President Kirsten Seckler supports both Holeve and Steffan’s fighting, stating, “If they choose to participate in an activity that’s outside of the Special Olympics, then that’s their choice. People with intellectual disabilities might read slower or learn slower than others, but they can run marathons, hold jobs, go to school, get married and have babies. One of the things we like to show is that there are no limits.”
As Garrett himself puts it, “I think fighting injustice makes me stronger, more powerful.”
If you would like to learn more about Garrett Holeve, his fighting, or his non-profit organization, Garrett’s Fight Foundation, which “advocates for competitive opportunities for adaptive athletes,” you can visit the foundation’s website.
This video may begin with a commercial which was not chosen by or for the benefit of Rooted in Rights.
Disability Rights Florida and Disability Rights Washington, the publisher of Rooted in Rights, are the protection & advocacy systems for Florida and Washington, respectively, and are members of the National Disability Rights Network.