USA TODAY: Support shown for MMA bout between disabled fighters


garrett-holeve.jpg(This story will appear in Thursday’s edition of USA TODAY.)

An amateur mixed martial arts fight set for Aug. 3 in Florida promises a first for its combatants – and perhaps the sport at large.

Garrett Holeve and David Steffan, who suffer from Down syndrome and mild cerebral palsy respectively, are stepping into the cage for a full-speed fight at a King of the Casino event at the Seminole Immokalee Casino in Immokalee, Fla.

Steffan, a former Special Olympian and current Paralympic Games competitor, is aware some will question whether their respective disabilities should rule out a fight, and he’s ready to prove doubters wrong.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for both of us to show the world that we belong in there just like everyone else,” he told USA TODAY Sports and MMAjunkie.com (www.mmajunkie.com).

Special Olympics Vice President Kirsten Seckler expressed support for the pair and wasn’t entirely surprised they pursued the bout, given that the sports organization doesn’t hold competitions in MMA. Even after she was reminded of the sometimes-violent nature of MMA, Seckler said they deserve to compete as much as any other person.

“If they choose to participate in an activity that’s outside of the Special Olympics, then that’s their choice,” Seckler said. “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.”

In March, Holeve, 23, who lives with his family in Cooper City, Fla., was documented in a touching ESPN Sports Center feature about his efforts to become a fighter with the famed American Top Team, which is home to UFC fighters such as Antonio Silva, Glover Teixeira and Dustin Poirier. The piece inspired Steffan to contact Holeve’s father, Mitch, and volunteer himself as a potential opponent.

“Watching Garrett’s special, I believe that everybody deserves a shot,” said the 28-year-old Steffan, who earlier this year fought in his first muay Thai bout and trains MMA in his native Nebraska. “Garrett’s trained as hard as I have, and he’s had a couple of exhibition fights. A disability, in my mind, is only one if you let it be.”

Yet Mitch Holeve admitted it’s been a struggle to get promoters and commissions to give his son a chance. He said he tried to set up a fight for Garrett against another opponent this month in Oklahoma, only to have the promoter’s financier threaten to cancel the event if the bout took place.

He said the Florida State Boxing Commission also discouraged him from booking the fight with Steffan, so he approached King of the Casino promoter Mark Shopp, who employs an independent sanctioning body not affiliated with the Association of Boxing Commissions.

“There’s no outlet for these guys to do it,” Mitch Holeve said. “They’re entitled to fulfill their dreams, too. If they were practicing judo, they could go to the Special Olympics to compete, but there’s no place for people with special needs to compete (in MMA), and they wanted to compete. So we’re trying to make it happen.”

In an email, Director of Communications Tajiana Ancora-Brown from the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which oversees the Florida State Boxing Commission, said the regulatory body licenses independent sanctioning bodies such as the one employed by Shopp, but “is not involved in their sanctioning decisions.”

It’s actually the third time Holeve has put his MMA skills to the test since his father dared him to start training in 2010. But it’s also the most serious, as his previous bouts were considered exhibitions. Mitch Holeve said his son has put on 10 pounds of muscle after fighting an exhibition fight at 130 pounds and has a body fat percentage around six or seven percent.

Garrett Holeve put on the bulk to accommodate Steffan, who competed at 155 pounds in kickboxing. They’ll compete over three, three-minute rounds at a catchweight of 140 pounds under modified rules that mirror amateur bouts, which require shin protectors and forbid striking to the head of a grounded opponent, according to promoter Shopp, who said the event will be staffed by medical professionals.

“If it makes them happy, why take it away from a person?” Shopp said. “It’s not like they’re doing it on the street; they’re doing it on a professional level.”

Mitch Holeve stressed that his son’s bout is not a precursor to a professional career in MMA, nor do they mean to bring negative attention to the sport.

“I have the conversation with my son every day about whether or not he wants to do this, and this is something he direly wants to do,” he said. “It’s another test for (Garrett) to see where he’s at. Garrett understands and I understand that he’s never going to become a professional fighter, so he’s an amateur, and he’s followed the progression.

“I can’t change being supportive of my son just because he’s going into a contest where he’s not being protected by the referee or his opponent.”

And while the father said he couldn’t bring himself to curtail his son’s pursuit of MMA, he acknowledged a recent attempt to talk him out of fighting after he suffered a cut during a training session.

“It has not been an easy training camp for Dad,” Mitch Holeve said. “For me personally, it’s a tough spot because it’s my kid. If I remove myself, which I try to sometimes, these are two guys that are chasing their dreams.

“I don’t know if there’s going to be another opportunity for these guys to fight someone else again. The message that we try to send is that Garrett has taken this to the extreme, but martial arts has given him a lot.”

(Pictured: Garrett Holeve)

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