By Zach Arnold | March 24, 2013
If you click the picture, you can view a video feature that ESPN produced and aired on their Sunday night edition of Sportscenter. The piece is about Garrett “G-Money” Holeve, a 23-year old young man with Down’s Syndrome and Rheumatoid Arthritis, who is currently involved in amateur MMA fights in the state of Florida. The amateur MMA fights involving Garrett are being regulated by the International Sport Karate/Kickboxing Association (ISKA), one of the many approved sanctioning bodies that Florida’s beleaguered athletic commission allows to regulate bouts. Garrett currently trains at American Top Team in Weston, Florida and has many friends in Mixed Martial Arts, including Stephan Bonnar.
Perhaps I should remind you of my radio interview last week with Sherdog about the state of affairs with Florida’s athletic commission.
Garrett and his family have started a non-profit (Garrett’s Fight) to raise money for special needs athletes, especially those who want to be active in combat sports. Their goal is to get MMA as an approved sport in the Special Olympics.
The Broward-Palm Beach New Times did a profile article on Garrett last December. It’s well worth your time to read. One paragraph from the article stuck out to me:
“For someone with Down syndrome, Garrett is extremely high functioning. Still, his cognitive ability is roughly equivalent to that of a 12-year-old’s. 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.”
BBC News just published an article in the last 24 hours talking about Down’s Syndrome being linked to brain protein loss. MedPage Today just published preliminary results from a new brain study regarding the effects of repeated blows to the head.
When you watch the ESPN feature on Garrett and his parents, it’s really well-produced and very honest. Stuart Scott did the intro and outro on Sportscenter. Tom Rinaldi, known in ESPN inner circles as the guy you get to narrate a video to make people cry(ask Mike Greenberg), did the voiceover on the feature. You couldn’t find two bigger names at ESPN who will treat MMA with respect than Stuart Scott & Tom Rinaldi.
When I watched the feature on Sportscenter, I was absolutely conflicted. My heart said that this was a great story. My mind said this story would cause major controversy and that there was trouble on the way. I could sense immediately that the way the story was presented, it would be the feel-good-story-of-the-year reaction on social media. However, I also knew that the internal reaction from those in the business — especially well-regarded regulators — would be sheer horror.
After the Sunday night feature, 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. One respected athletic inspector said that allowing Garrett Holeve to fight in an MMA bout was exploitative, no matter if the audience cheered and gave Holeve a standing ovation after the fight. The concept of allowing someone with Down’s Syndrome (limited cognitive ability & brain issues) to take punches and get slammed drew a swiftly negative reaction amongst the people I interviewed.
What also drew my attention (and the attention of others) was that the epicenter of this feature was Florida. The fact that Florida’s commission (via the ISKA) allowed this to happen and that any doctor gave clearance for Garrett Holeve to fight. As Garrett’s father, Mitch, noted in the ESPN feature, he’s received negative feedback from people close to him who feel he is putting his son in tremendous danger.
The general public’s reaction to the piece is what I thought it would (touching). The reaction from those inside the business has been largely sour. Should Florida tell the ISKA to stop further sanctioning Garrett Holeve from fighting in the future? If Holeve applies for a professional license to do MMA in Florida, should Cynthia Hefren & Frank Gentile give him a license?
Exit questions: a) Would ESPN have showed the ending to Garrett Holeve’s fight if he got knocked out? b) if Holeve had gotten injured during the fight they aired, would they have spiked the feature because it wasn’t a heartwarming ending?