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Too Disabled to Fight?


As children we are taught that the sky is the limit regardless of race, sex, or religion. But what if we are limited by a disability?

This is the predicament 23-year-old Garrett Holeve and 28-year-old David Steffan face in becoming mixed martial artists. Although Holeve has Down syndrome and Steffan has Cerebral Palsy, they were set to face off in an MMA event held Aug. 3. That was until the Florida State Boxing Commission stepped in moments before the fight.

In a statement given to MMA Insider, the commission states that discrimination was not a factor in issuing a cease and desist order. “As a regulatory agency, we do not take unsanctioned combat sport events lightly. In this case, the amateur sanctioning organization hosting the event sanctioned all but one bout. As a result, the Florida State Boxing Commission is obligated by law to take action. It is the commission’s duty to ensure the safety of everyone involved and to regulate the sport fairly.”

On one hand, the state’s argument for stopping the fight is justified. According to the Cerebral Palsy Alliance, an organization that assists families living with the condition, this is a disease that directly affect the brain and a person’s ability to move. The individual loses muscle control and can fall into an epileptic seizure at any time. Any of these symptoms coupled with a blow to the head can be fatal.

Holeve and Steffan had agreed to the fight eight weeks before their scheduled bout and the organizers of “King of the Casino” were aware of their conditions. While the commission was well within its rights, their timing and reasoning for the stoppage is debatable. Were either of the fighters in serious danger, medical staff stood ringside; in addition to friends, family, and trainers. If all involved knew of the risk Holeve and Steffan were taking, why stop the amateur fighters from chasing their dream?

The commission alludes to ensuring everyone’s safety, which they half-heartedly do. However, they failed to regulate the sport fairly. Fairness would have been allowing Holeve and Steffan to compete. Fairness is what got World Series of Fighting lightweight Nick Newell to his undefeated MMA record.

Newell was born with a left arm that ended at his elbow due to a condition called congenital amputation. While it is not nearly as severe as Down syndrome or Cerebral Palsy, he still begins his matches with a physical disadvantage. On Aug. 10, Newell gained his 10th straight victory by defeating Keon Caldwell at WSOF 4. Seven of his ten victories have come by submission.

If Newell’s story has taught us anything it’s that the impossible is always possible.

Before retiring from MMA competition in 2012, UFC Hall of Famer Stephan Bonnar set up “Garrett’s Fight,” a non-profit organization named after Holeve. Their goal is to provide opportunities for athletes with special needs by having them participate in MMA related activities. It is an outlet for those aspiring to move beyond the limitations society places.

Holeve and Steffan were on their way to living their dream until the state of Florida stepped in.

On Aug. 12, Holeve posted “#letgarrettfight it’s been a week still not happy- it’s my right to fight stop discrimination,” to his twitter page. He definitely has the right to fight. We all have that right. Unless people tell us we can’t because, you know, we’re disabled.