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Why People With Down Syndrome Should Be Allowed to Compete in MMA

Respecting disabled people as human beings with agency sometimes means allowing them to be people in all of the ways that don't necessarily feel comfortable.
October 15, 2015, 5:55pm
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In the summer of 2013, Garrett "G Money" Holeve, an MMA fighter and self-advocate with Down syndrome received national attention when his fight against David "Cerebral Assassin" Steffan, a Special Olympian with cerebral palsy, was stopped by a last-minute cease-and-desist order from the Florida State Boxing Commission. The decision was a polarizing one. The pro-commission side dismissed the notion of disabled martial artists participating in a combat sport as barbaric and exploitive, and painted the fighters themselves as incapable of understanding what they were doing.


"While they're each to be applauded for their accomplishments, the same can't be said for those who are willing and eager to see them engage in a no-holds-barred fight in a cage for the supposed enjoyment of others," Bryant Gumbel argued on Real Sports, adding: "What I don't get is exposing a disabled person to an assortment of long-term risks that they may not even understand."

Holeve's supporter, including The National Down Syndrome Society, disagreed, arguing in favor of Holeve's agency as a human being who is capable of making his own decisions. "Mr. Holeve has been denied his rights to an equal opportunity," the NDSS declared in an official statement of support for G Money. They also helped to launch a petition urging the Florida State Boxing Commission to allow him to fight competitively. "Many MMA trainees seek to fight in official bouts as a natural progression in the sport. Mr. Holeve is no different—he wants to progress in the sport and needs to take the next step and he has tried to take the next step. But despite being qualified to fight an opponent of equal experience and ability, the Florida Boxing Commission, through amateur sanctioning organizations, has prevented Mr. Holeve from taking that next step."

Holeve and Steffan were able to have their match in Missouri in November 2014. G Money won that match by submission. In April of 2015, Holeve was awarded the National Down Syndrome Society's NDSS Self-Advocate of the Year Award for his work on behalf of his own to right to fight, and for his groundbreaking work on behalf of all adaptive athletes. And in August, thanks to the success of his petition, the fighter was finally able to compete against Steffan in his home state. The Cerebral Assassin won that match by decision.

Now Holeve is back in the spotlight thanks to a new documentary from The Guardian which follows the martial artist as he prepares to fight both his opponent and his detractors. The video has received attention both from the MMA media, and more mainstream sources like Time and People, and has reignited another round of debate about the safety and appropriateness of allowing disabled people to participate in combat sports.


Holeve's mother Susan cuts to the heart of the matter in the doc. "I think people, in general, are either comfortable around people with intellectual or physical disabilities, or they're not," she bluntly states. "So I think that people that are uncomfortable watching [Garrett fight] are the people that would be uncomfortable sitting down and having a meal with Garrett."

Our society might be getting better at accepting that disabled people exist—although that point is arguable, at best. Able-bodied people certainly seem to enjoy celebrating their disabled counterparts when they're "inspiring" in safe ways. But the issue becomes much thornier when it comes to actually accepting disabled people as autonomous human beings who will not always make decisions that don't challenge other people's preconceived notions of them (or us– in the interests of full disclosure, I am autistic). Whether it's sexuality or sports, abled people have a terrible track record when it comes to prioritizing our needs and desires and rights over abled their comfort regarding those needs, desires and rights.

Is MMA the healthiest and safest possible choice that Holeve could make in life? No. But it's not the healthiest and safest choice that any athlete could make. It is a full contact sport and it comes with risks. If Holeve is aware of these risks—and he certainly seems cognizant in the documentary—then it's not up to anyone else to make that decision for him. And if he wants to do it in front of an audience, then he's also allowed to make that choice, regardless of how anyone else fears that it will be perceived.

Instead of asking whether or not Holeve should be allowed to fight at all, perhaps the more helpful and productive question we should be asking is how can we make his chosen career as safe and fair as possible under the circumstances? Instead of fighting him, we can fight alongside him to create better circumstances for all disabled athletes.

This is part of what Holeve and his family are working toward with Garrett's Fight Foundation, a charity that strives to help adaptive athletes with modified training and individualized coaching. They also provide kickboxing therapy in conjunction with Fighting For Autism.

Anyone who is truly concerned about Holeve's health and future—and the predicament of any disabled martial artist—is more than welcome to put their money where their mouths are.