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G-Money: In The Cage With Down Syndrome

Walk into the American Top Team gym in Weston, Florida. Take in the sounds first.

Loud music. Men yelling instructions. Gloved fists finding their targets.

Keep going toward the caged mat where two fighters are head to head, chest to chest, each trying to get the other on the ground.

After two or three rounds, they’re both tired, exhausted. They go down.

Garrett Holeve is on top, but he’s panting. Finding the energy to keep striking John De Jesus is hard. Neither moves much for a few seconds.

“You look like a couple of turds,” yelled Mitch Holeve. “Get up, G!”

The sparring continues one round after the other from 9:30 a.m. to just about noon on Oct. 18. Garrett and De Jesus take short breaks for water. While he catches his breath, Garrett talks trash into the lens of a camera filming him from the edge of the mat.

“You need to watch out, David,” he warned. “I’m coming for you.”

‘My name is Garrett, and I have Down syndrome.’

His name is Garrett, but everyone calls him “G-Money” or simply “G.” He is trained in mixed martial arts, commonly referred to as MMA, and he has Down syndrome, a genetic condition that causes a person to have 47 chromosomes instead of the typical 46.

On their own, those simple facts could have been overlooked – just details in a young man’s life. Combined, though, they have raised public concern.

On Aug. 23, 2013, G was prepared to fight David “Cerebral Assassin” Steffan, an MMA fighter from Nebraska and Special Olympian born with cerebral palsy.

Both fighters were ready and willing to get into the cage in Immokalee, Florida that night, but 20 minutes before the fight was scheduled to begin, the Florida State Boxing Commission issued a cease-and-desist order to the promoter and killed the fight.

G’s wrestling coach Jason Chavarria said G was humiliated. “At that moment, they said, ‘G-Money, you’re handicapped. You can’t do this.’”

The state of Florida was telling him he couldn’t fight because of his disability, and so were the promoter and the media.

After over four years of training, people were suddenly telling G he wasn’t a fighter.

The fight, which would have been held to standard Florida amateur MMA rules, was made into a “mockery.” Chavarria said it was made to look something like a “bum fight.”

Mitch Holeve, G’s dad, was not particularly surprised.

He believes G has been discriminated against from the beginning. After the Immokalee fight was stopped, Mitch tried once again to have the fight sanctioned, but the difficulties he faced and new rules set in place that seemed directed at G confirmed his suspicions.

Mitch realized he would have to pursue legal channels if G was going to have his fight.

“He had the right to do what he wanted to do, and they had to give him the opportunity,” he said. “They couldn’t discriminate against him just because he has an extra chromosome.”

With the support of Disability Rights Florida, a statewide protection and advocacy not-for-profit corporation, Senior Attorney Amanda Heystek and the National Down Syndrome Society, the Holeves have taken G’s fight to federal court seeking an injunction.

The Holeves have also started a petition on change.org calling for the Florida State Boxing Commission and its amateur sanctioning organizations to allow G to fight.

“He’s not going to leave me alone about fighting,” Mitch said. “Therefore, I can’t leave it alone. I want to support what he’s doing. It’s not wrong, so we’re not going to leave it alone.”

Eventually, Mitch did find a promoter in a state willing to sanction the match, sponsored by Fighting for Autism. On Nov. 8, G and the Cerebral Assassin will have their time in the cage.

They will have to travel to Missouri, but they will have their chance to prove their naysayers wrong.

Though he may have been embarrassed in August 2013, G is more confident now than ever before. He said he will win the fight, and he has no fear going into the match he’s been waiting over a year for.

“I’m not afraid of anything,” he said. “Sometimes, you’re going to get hit, but you just have to learn to take it.”

Mitch said G is entitled to get punched in the face if he wants to; he’s been trained to cope with the hit, recover and strike back.

G started training in MMA after his dad challenged all three of his sons to train with him at American Top Team – G was the only one who accepted. The idea may have been Mitch’s, but the persistence and passion have come from G.

The second of three sons, G has chosen his own path, and his parents support him just as they have supported his brothers.

Mitch said MMA is G’s vehicle for expressing himself. His youngest son, Logan Holeve, uses art as his vehicle. One is not more acceptable than the other.

“Garrett’s just an artist in the cage.”

People have often underestimated G. No hard feelings, though; they just inspire him to work harder because he loves to prove those people wrong.

“I know what I’m supposed to do,” G said. “I’ll go in there and fight hard, finish hard. I will represent for my camp, for my team and for ATT.”

Just One of the Guys

G celebrated his 25th birthday on Oct. 11. On a dry-erase board in his gym, someone wrote “HAPPY BIRTHDAY G-MONEY!!” in bold red letters.

Susan Holeve, G’s mom, said despite his age, G’s critics say he has the cognitive ability of an 8-year-old. They ask her if she would throw a child into the cage.

“Well, if he was fighting another 8-year-old, then so be it,” Susan said.

She hears the same argument from people who think G shouldn’t be allowed to drink, much less get drunk, which he can, nor be allowed to get a tattoo, which he has.

Susan and Mitch said they are “thrilled” their son has had these opportunities, the same opportunities his two brothers and so many other young men have every day.

The first time their son came home from a night out with the guys, Susan recalled being nervous but excited for him.

“When he came in with his shoes in his hands, sneaking in,” she said, “and we were awake, although he didn’t know it – it was, ‘Good. He’s home,’ just like with the other boys, ‘But yay! He got to do it.’”

The only thing G hasn’t yet been able to do is drive, and that’s not for a lack of trying.

He’s confident with women – looking for that Miss America type – and enjoys Bud Light or Corona with a lime. He lives with his parents because he wants to and keeps his own day-to-day schedule.

And the MMA fighting – that’s his choice, too. No one has told him he has to continue to fight.

“I choose my battles,” G said. “It’s my decision to do this sport. I love mixed martial arts.”

Susan said, “He does not have the cognitive ability of a 25-year-old grown man, but he has the ability to make decisions for himself.”

The Florida State Boxing Commission seemed to disagree on the night of G’s fight. In Susan’s eyes, the commission and those in agreement have questioned not only G’s ability to make the right decisions for himself, but also his parents’ ability to know what their son is capable of.

Before the public knew of G’s MMA life, questions like “Does he know what he’s getting into?” and  “Does he know he could get hurt?” were never asked. G played basketball, baseball and football when he was growing up, and no one questioned it. He went to “regular” school and “regular” summer camp.

“This is really the first time someone said, ‘Nope! You can’t do it, and we won’t let you,’” Susan said. “That’s really never happened before. I wouldn’t stand for it if it had.”

If G didn’t understand what he was getting himself into when he entered the cage with his opponents, his fighting wouldn’t be a question; it wouldn’t happen.

Susan believes part of the problem is people see others like G being sheltered every day. She said parents too often deny kids with Down syndrome and other disabilities the small things in life and allow their children to become dependent on them.

Encouraging such dependency was never an option for the Holeves.

Throughout her pregnancy, Susan felt something was wrong with the baby. She recalled discussing this “strange intuition” one day with a friend who said, “Well, you know it’s not something horrendous like Down syndrome.”

But almost immediately after G was born, Susan looked at him and knew that was it.

She described the first four weeks after G’s birth as a “black hole” full of “depression, angst” and “horrible thoughts.” She was not alone, though. Through the darkness, Mitch stayed positive and never faltered.

“I was, ‘Why me?’” Susan said. “And he was, ‘Why not? Who are we to be exempt from such a thing?’”

After that first month, Susan left the depression behind and took action with her husband. In late 1989, in their Cooper City living room with pale peach carpet and little to no furniture, the Holeves started the Broward County Gold Coast Down Syndrome Organization with three other families. They enrolled G in early intervention programs. They established a support system at a time when few resources were available for families like their own.

They pushed forward.

After surviving the hard part – the “darkness of the diagnosis” as Susan called it – the Holeves raised G with one question in mind: “What do we do to make him the best he can be?”

Twenty-five years later, Mitch hopes people will stop judging G long enough to learn something from him.

“They [people with disabilities] are just like you and I. They’re human beings,” Mitch said. “I can’t wait until it’s over because everyone’s just going to step back and say, ‘What’s the big deal? What was the big deal?’"

Grudge Match

G has big dreams.

He’d like to get a place of his own in California where he can bask in the spotlight and reward his team for all of their support. He wants to be “the best dude out there” not just in the cage but out on the streets – he wants to be good to people and set an example for others like him.

Mitch and Susan can’t deny being nervous sometimes. Susan could deal with just about anything but a broken neck, and Mitch can’t help but feel nervous for all of his fighters because he knows the risks they’re taking.

But they all take it one step at a time.

G has earned the respect of his teammates and supporters from all over, and he has developed respect for himself.

Mitch said that’s part of the battle: “You have to believe in yourself before anybody else is going to believe in you.”

The journey that started for the Holeves four years ago is not over yet, and there is no telling where it will go.

For now, though, the Nov. 8 match is approaching, and getting into the cage with David Steffan is all G can think about.

“I just want to go in there and beat the s**t out of him!” he said. “That belt is mine!”

Katie is a reporter who can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.