He wraps tape around his hands on fight day, just inches from the Punisher skull tattooed on his shoulder. He puts on his mouthpiece and shinguards.
June 30, 2014|By Emily Miller and Erika Pesantes, Sun Sentinel
“I’m a fighter,” he says. “I am tough as steel.”
South Florida’s Garrett Holeve is a mixed martial arts athlete with Down syndrome. He’s 24. And after training many years, he has become a standout MMA fighter.
He faces off against competitors with fierce-sounding names like “Monster” and “Cerebral Assassin.” He was featured in an ESPN special. He’s philanthropic, giving classes to children with disabilities. And he’s looking forward to his next big accomplishment: getting in a cage to compete in a bona fide sanctioned match.
“He’s really dedicated,” said Miami MMA fighter Mike “Monster” Wilson, who fought Holeve in February last year. “He’s a tough dude. He knows what he’s doing.”
Holeve’s match with Wilson in Sunny Isles Beach was an informal one that Wilson was discouraged from participating in.
Naysayers were afraid Wilson would look like a bully and knock out Holeve, harming a man with a disability, Wilson said. But Wilson wanted Holeve to experience a good fight, he said.
“I didn’t take it easy on him, but at the same time, I wasn’t going 100 percent,” Wilson said. “He has to experience what a fight is really about.”
During the bout, which aired on ESPN, Holeve absorbed punches, landed punches and even slammed Wilson to the ground.
“He came charging at me as soon as the bell rang. The crowd was really impressed,” he said. “He picked me up high and slammed me.”
“If you can’t see him fighting, you can’t really know how skilled he’ll be,” Holeve’s striking coach, Eric Morel, said. “The only thing holding him back is his Down syndrome. He trains so much he’s able to close that gap.”
“People take it easy on him and there’s an obvious reason why, but they also respect him for what he does,” Morel said. “If you work hard and have that much passion, who are we to limit you from showing your abilities or from following your dreams.”
Learning to fight
When it all started about four years ago, trips to the gym served as a way to keep Holeve busy.
He had just graduated from Cooper City High, his friends had left for college and he had aged out of the basketball league he played in for nearly 10 years.
Going to the gym “was social for him,” said his father, Mitch Holeve. “He loves people.”
He started going to the gym with his dad; that soon turned into much more.
Holeve, who goes by the moniker G-Money, started practicing jiu-jitsu in 2010 — he has a blue belt in that martial art — and progressed to kickboxing. He set his sights on becoming a mixed martial arts fighter.
In his four years of training, he has competed in 11 matches in the three disciplines, the elder Holeve said. Combat techniques of mixed martial arts include kicking, punching, wrestling and grappling on the ground.
“I love the sport,” the younger Holeve said, adding that fighting makes him feel alive. “I won’t back down. I won’t quit.”
Morel, one of his coaches, said Holeve brings more passion and dedication than most fighters. He needs to go beyond because of the limitations of Down syndrome, a genetic condition that causes delays in physical and intellectual development.
Morel said he does not know of another fighter with Down syndrome, and the Florida State Boxing Commission does not have a record of whether there has been an amateur fighter with the disability.
Holeve’s condition doesn’t affect his training capabilites, said Morel, who has known Holeve for about four years and started coaching him one-on-one last November.
“He knows how to listen, how to follow instructions,” he said. “With his passion and dedication, he can be as good as anyone.”
Holeve does struggle with determining when to react, which could influence his performance in the cage, Morel said.
Holeve experienced his first big win this year. He competed in a jiu-jitsu tournament and, for the first time, his opponent submitted, or “tapped out.”
Holeve, who is 5 feet tall and weighs 140 pounds, lives with his family in Cooper City and trains at American Top Team Gym in Weston. His regimen calls for a minimum of two hours at the gym each night, on top of working with a trainer and practicing at home by himself.
His amateur-wrestling coach, Jason Chavarria, said Holeve trains even when he’s not in motion. He watches instructional videos and reviews MMA matches on YouTube. His success is based on his work ethic and discipline, the coach said.
“He dreams of it, you know. It’s his life,” Chavarria said. “He obsesses on it day and night. He’s just a warrior.”
Holeve helps train children at the Weston gym. During a recent youth class, Holeve led boys across the floor with a cushion in hand, encouraging them to raise their knees higher and kick harder.
“Hands up!” he reminded the boys, fixing their fighting stance and modeling proper form for them. “Up more. Like this.”
Chavarria said Holeve is better with the younger set, ages 3 to 6, and is gentle and empathetic when they get hurt. “He’s really good with kids. He calms them down,” Chavarria said. “They just soak up whatever he says.”
Mitch Holeve said his son’s training has helped him mature. His son also is happier and better at handling his emotions, he said.
“Being a man who played sports his whole life and is addicted to sports and having three boys, it would always be nice to have one of them doing a sport in some way,” he said. “But no, I never thought it would be Garrett.”
There’s a saying in the Holeve household: Don’t underestimate G-Money.
“You’ll get embarrassed,” his father said. “Don’t let your guard down because he’s got some skills.”
Family members have never treated Holeve differently because of his disability, his father said. Holeve often figures out things on his own.
When the elder Holeve told his son he needed to start being more financially responsible, the younger Holeve picked up landscaping jobs around the neighborhood and even got a job assisting at a Cooper City pet groomer next to his favorite lunch spot, Ray’s Pizza.
The exhibition matches that Holeve has fought in so far are considered demonstrations that don’t allow scoring.
In August at Seminole Casino in Immokalee, he almost got to fulfill his dream of competing in a sanctioned match. But just minutes before the bout, it was called off.
The Florida State Boxing Commission said it could not allow the bout because it was unsanctioned.
An advocacy group subsequently filed a federal lawsuit on Holeve’s behalf alleging the commission and other entities deliberately refused to let him compete in the match, as well as a second bout, because of his disability. The lawsuit is pending.
If and when Holeve participates in a sanctioned match, it’s expected to be against David Steffan, a 29-year-old with mild cerebral palsy nicknamed the “Cerebral Assassin.”
When Steffan first saw Holeve on ESPN, he found a kindred spirit.
“It’s exactly what I believe in,” Steffan said. “Achieve your dreams no matter what they are.”
Fighting has definitely changed Holeve for the better, Holeve said.
“People respect me — like a man,” he said. “I will never stop fighting.”
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