Friend of our site

MMA Headlines


Bleacher Report

MMA Fighting

MMA Torch

MMA Weekly

Sherdog (News)

Sherdog (Articles)

Liver Kick

MMA Junkie

MMA Mania

MMA Ratings

Rating Fights

Yahoo MMA Blog

MMA Betting

Search this site

Latest Articles

News Corner

MMA Rising

Audio Corner


Sherdog Radio

Video Corner

Fight Hub

Special thanks to...

Link Rolodex

Site Index

To access our list of posting topics and archives, click here.

Friend of our site

Buy and sell MMA photos at MMA Prints

Site feedback

Fox Sports: "Zach Arnold's Fight Opinion site is one of the best spots on the Web for thought-provoking MMA pieces."

« | Home | »

Behind the scenes, many are upset about ESPN’s Down’s Syndrome fighter video

By Zach Arnold | March 27, 2013

Print Friendly and PDF

In private conversations, many important players who are involved in the fight industry (both boxing & MMA) are upset by what they saw with ESPN profiling Garrett Holeve, a young man with Down’s Syndrome who is participating in amateur MMA fights. However, there is trepidation of speaking out in public due to fear of retribution & backlash.

On Sunday night, we posted the following item: Florida allows young man with Down’s Syndrome & Rheumatoid Arthritis to do MMA fights

Last Thursday, ESPN PR posted the following pitch for their Sunday night video feature on Garrett Holeve:

Garrett Holeve, 23, was born with Down Syndrome and has spent the last three years training his body and mind for the rigors of MMA fighting. While some question the decision to allow Holeve to engage in such physical competition, the sport has given him a sense of fight – a belonging, purpose and acceptance – that extends beyond the ring. Tom Rinaldi reports.

“He’s got all these problems you know, all these limitations. But he keeps driving through, he keeps fighting through you know. And you can’t ask more from a person than that” – Rodrigo “Baga” Ramos, Garrett’s coach, on the motivation Garrett provides to the other fighters at the gym.

The fight involving Garrett Holeve that ESPN aired was from February 23rd, 2013 in Sunny Isles, Florida at the Newport Beachfront Hotel.

When ESPN aired the feature on Garrett Holeve, I knew what the reaction would be on social media and what the reaction would be inside the fight industry. Here’s a clue: two very, very different and vociferous responses. Amongst sports fans on social media, the video package was heralded as a profile-in-courage and something to be celebrated. Take this comment for example:

Pls RT this inspirational story of strength,courage,determination & how far 1 can go if u believe …..

Writer Daniel Serrano characterized the ESPN video this way:

Holeve’s father said people called him sick for letting his son fight, accusing him of exploiting Holeve and putting him at unnecessary risk. I say he’s a hero, because if he really wanted to, Holeve’s father could have prevented his son from fighting. He could have made a compelling argument as to why his son wasn’t ring-ready and should be barred from competition. But he didn’t.

Instead, he treated his son like a human being. He didn’t look at him like a disabled kid who needs to be coddled and protected from the real world. He honored his son’s decision and training and let him fight.

This item Jordan Breen wrote (January 8th, 2013) titled Should Garrett Holeve, MMA fighter with Down Syndrome, be given a fair fight? pretty much is the opinion that as long as Garrett isn’t involved in a full-fledged pro MMA fight, the situation is OK.

Inside the industry, however, a lot of individuals are angry and terrified by what they saw on television Sunday night.

The top regulators are upset, not so much with the way ESPN portrayed Garrett Holeve but rather the fact that someone with Down’s Syndrome is in a position to do amateur MMA fights in Florida. Fight lawyers who normally are cautious with their words were anything but hedging their vernacular in disgust. Reputable doctors went ballistic at what they saw as the dangerous exploitation of a young man with a serious health condition.

Due to the high-profile nature of the two individuals I’m about to relay comments from, I can’t reveal their names. However, they are serious names in their respective fields and have sharp track records.

First, a comment from a prominent lawyer in the fight industry:

“This is exploitative and unethical. You should speak with a neurologist about the impact of repeated brain trauma to someone who already has Down’s Syndrome. The injuries will also make his arthritis worse. To me, this is outrageous. Not everyone who wants to do something should have the chance. I bet his reaction speeds are also diminished because of the Down’s Syndrome. So who are they going to match him up with? Healthy MMA fighters with faster reaction times? Or another fighter with Down’s? … The job of the commission, the doctors, and the ref is to protect his health and welfare. Allowing him to step in the ring is already failing him in that duty. … Just because this kid wants to do something doesn’t mean he should. Would we let him drive a bus? Would we let him fly a plane? Would we let him join the military and go fight in Afghanistan? So what’s the difference? That he’s only going to hurt, maybe kill himself, not others? If so, that’s just unconscionable.”

The lawyer in question not only says that Florida’s athletic commission (Cynthia Hefren & Frank Gentile) & the ISKA have big liability concerns by allowing Holeve to fight, they also are putting themselves in a legal bind if opponents are told to take it easy on the young man and not to do a real fight. Plus, it puts the opponents in a no-win situation. If the opponent beats up Garrett Holeve, they’re beating up someone who has Down’s Syndrome. If the opponent loses, then they just lost to someone with a disability.

Now, the medical issues arising from Florida’s commission (via the ISKA) allowing Garrett Holeve to participate in MMA fights. Here is how one upper-echelon fight doctor summarized the situation:

“Concerns: skeletal — instability of the first two cervical vertebrae [must] be ruled out via an x-ray examination. Other musculoskeletal issues: scoliosis and hyperflexible joints (making sure he knows when to tap).

“Cardiac malformations — frequent, and likely [Garrett] should have an Echocardiogram, regardless of age, with any type of murmur.

“Visual — given how cross-eyed he was, I do not think he would pass a simple vision test.”

The issue of spinal stenosis was also discussed.

To bring this full circle, the doctor raised another important legal question that should worry Florida’s athletic commission and the ISKA should a major accident happen with Garrett Holeve during an MMA fight.

“Informed consent of signing a contract — really? I would not let my [child] sign a form for combat sports and she is an A student.”

Topics: Florida, Media, MMA, Zach Arnold | 15 Comments » | Permalink | Trackback |

15 Responses to “Behind the scenes, many are upset about ESPN’s Down’s Syndrome fighter video”

  1. Steve4192 says:

    This is basically the Kyle Maynard story all over again.

    • joe black says:

      It’s great he works out. It’s great he has an interested in this so called sport. It is NOT acceptable to let him fight. The Special Olympics has no interest in combat sports for special needs kids and adults. Sounds like his parents are perpetuating this fantasy that he can actually be a MMA fighter with a hard kicking, hard hitting real fight.
      He cannot understand the ramifications of potential injury or the impact any head trauma can have on his live. Perhaps his parents should consider a real job he actually can do like so many other special needs adults instead of this fantasy of becoming a MMA fighter.

      • Mark says:

        That’s a very good point: if the special olympics announced there would be an MMA event people would freak out. But one guy doing it is a feel good story.

        Although they obviously wouldn’t do it since you can’t “all be winners” if you get KTFO’ed.

  2. 45 Huddle says:

    1) To show you how crazy The Underground has become…. The majority of the comments were positive for the ESPN piece. That place has just gone completely to the sh!tter.

    2) The good thing is that I don’t think this has much teeth. It won’t be a story in a month. But the problem is if there are more downs individuals competing in MMA in the future.

    3) Florida really is a horrible state.

    4) “Instead, he treated his son like a human being. He didn’t look at him like a disabled kid who needs to be coddled and protected from the real world. He honored his son’s decision and training and let him fight.”

    Only he is not a regular human being. And he does need protection. Which is why typically the state will put somebody legally in charge of a downs individual. The father should not be “honoring” his son’s decision, because his son is not mentally qualified to render his own decision in a situation like this. If anything, it makes me think that the father should no longer be the legal guardian.

    I have no problem with a downs individual to train. I bet it can do wonders for their coordination and self esteem. But they have no business competing.

    • Mark says:

      The good thing is that I don’t think this has much teeth. It won’t be a story in a month. But the problem is if there are more downs individuals competing in MMA in the future.

      Of course. None of these MMA Media Panic stories ever have teeth. If I had a dollar for every “WE’RE IN TROUBLE WITH THE MAINSTREAM MEDIA!!!!” story that was posted on some MMA website, I could buy the UFC.

      MMA just isn’t taken seriously enough by the mainstream, unless somebody dies in a UFC fight, to get pounced on.

      • Zach Arnold says:

        In this case, I don’t think anyone cares about what the media thinks and would rather see the authorities act in the right manner here. Low expectations are already built into the cake.

        • Mark says:

          I’m sure they do, and probably care about most of the issues raised.

          But there’s an annoying Chicken Little mentality with MMA sites (not so much this one, you’re one of the level headed writers.) It probably stems from the past, of people remembering the damage the media did to the SEG-era of UFC (although a lot of writers weren’t even fans back then.)

          But you can go back through any MMA site archive and see some ridiculous reporting on things they were paranoid the media was going to pick up on to discredit the sport. Anything from GSP greasing against Penn, to Franca & Sherk failing drug tests for the same fight, to Seth Petruzelli saying he was paid to stand against Kimbo, to the ref stopping the Warren/Curran fight far too late, among many other stories. All of those were going to stoke the media fire to bring down MMA, and were all forgotten in 2 weeks. Not that they didn’t matter and that people didn’t honestly care, but they’re giving the media too much credit for giving a crap about MMA. I don’t think they’d ever jump on a story unless somebody died in a UFC fight. They didn’t even pick up on MMA’s Chris Benoit story with Justin Levens.

  3. 45 Huddle says:

    Speaking of fighters with a reduced capacity of cognitive thinking skills…. Nick Diaz is suing the Quebec AC and trying to either get GSP’s title removed or get an immediate rematch. Pure insanity.

    For a guy who likes to “keep it real”, he sure likes to get his lawyer as quickly as possible.

    What is it about GSP that his opponents turn into the equivalent of a psycho ex-girlfriend? Between BJ Penn and now Nick Diaz… It’s like they are unable to handle the loss to GSP with any sort of dignity. And it’s not like GSP is a disrespectful guy.

    Perhaps Diaz should stop the lawsuit… And use that money to hire a good wrestling coach.

    When Dana White says that Cesar Gracie is part of the problem…. He really wasn’t joking. That team is a special kind of toxic.

    • Jay B. says:

      Couple of outlets are agreeing that Diaz has a legitimate reason to file a complaint. Which I find ridiculous but hey some people want clarification on the bias weigh in preferential treatment that GSP allegedly got. MMAfighting is referencing Hopkins fight and Ringside MMA 13 along with Last GSP fight in Canada as a tool for bias treatment.

      • 45 Huddle says:

        Yes…. but he is expecting an instant rematch or GSP to get stripped of the title. This has nothing to do with GSP. He weighed in as asked. He beat Diaz up for 5 rounds. Diaz comes across like a sore loser now.

        • Jay B. says:

          Not to the some of these “Credible” media outlets, thats all I am saying. He clearly comes off as a whiner looking for a way back into the picture. Diaz doesnt wanna earn anything, he just wants to be shot straight to the top. And we all know its not going to happen. Quebec will probably just shrug this crap off and push him to the side.

  4. Black Dog says:

    This is a serious moral question that athletic commissions will have to examine.

    On one hand, I applaud the young man’s courage, and the fact that his main battle is to be accepted in society as a human being. People with Down’s Syndrome and other such afflictions can work and make their way in life; they need not be shut away in the room they grew up in or in some institution.

    As an athlete, and as one who is applying all his physical and mental strength in a good purpose, absolutely I support him. But as an MMA fighter? I don’t know. I’m not an expert on medicine or on ethics, but my instinct says no way.

    I would be more likely to say ESPN was the exploiter of this fellow before his parents; but aside from that, I think now the commissions need to examine just who can, and who cannot fight.

    Looking at the Fallon Fox matter, there were good points made about her male bone structure, etc., and how that can be an unfair advantage. Separate subject, but similar points to be made.

    I want to wish the kid luck, but honestly if I was a relative or friend, I would fear for him.

  5. JGH says:

    Instead of letting this young man prove himself, so many are determined that he is ‘less than’ because he has Down Syndrome. He is probably MORE THAN you could ever hope to be. You should all be embarrassed to be such ignorant and judgmental jerks. Are you ‘regular’ people afraid he’s going to kick your ignorant asses? You all are so ignorant that there isn’t a word for you just yet. There are different forms and ‘levels’ of Down Syndrome. Some would not be able to compete at MMA levels, but many certainly can. Why don’t you all give him a chance before you let your ignorance shine so brightly?

  6. […] 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 […]

  7. […] marciales con capacidades diferentes participaran en un deporte de combates como bárbaro y explotador, y pinto a los mismos peleadores como personas incapaces de entender lo que están […]


To prove you're a person (not a spam script), type the security word shown in the picture.
Anti-spam image