The Right to Fight: Should disabled people be allowed to compete in mixed martial arts?


On Saturday 3rd August 2013, two aspiring MMA competitors were minutes away from making history. 28-year-old David Steffan with cerebral palsy and 23-year-old Garrett Holeve with Down’s Syndrome were squaring up to take part in the first ever cage fight between two disabled mixed martial artists. But, just as another barrier to disability was about to be broken, the bout was cancelled. The State of Florida presented the fight promoter with a cease and desist order and the competition was over before the first punch had been thrown. But why?

It was a dream come true for David Steffan. A proven athlete, being a former member of the US Paralympic Men’s Team, and a fan of mixed martial arts, he was about to break through one of the most controversial issues to disabled sportspeople – the right to compete in a professional cage fight. His opponent, Garrett Holeve a stocky young brawler with Down’s Syndrome was to share in this international first.

A right to fight – David Steffan in training

Both had undergone weeks of gruelling physical training. Both had prepared themselves mentally to climb inside the cage for three rounds of fierce full contact combat. Regardless of the victor, the two of them would have proven something magnificent – that yet another no-go area for disabled sport had been conquered.

It was not to be, however. In a devastatingly cruel twist of fate, the State of Florida, who was playing host to this momentous occasion, weighed in with a cease and desist letter. The organisers of the fight had no choice but to call off the contest, much to the disappointment of both contenders, their respective training camps, not to mention their many fans and the disabled community at large.

What was the reason? Holeve’s father maintained it was an act of disability discrimination and stated that the authorities were preventing his son from doing his job. The WFO, the ‘World Fighting Organisaton’ refuted this claim, saying that the fight was halted on the grounds of safety.

But how can the safety of Steffan and Holeve have been at risk? They had, after all, been prepared by top trainers in the profession. More significantly, the pair had also received the requisite medical clearance. Both were ready and able to fight so how can their safety have aroused concern.

One reason, as suggested by ‘MMA Insider’ which did its best to investigate the story, is that the decision to call off the fight actually turned on a question of detail. The fight had originally been sanctioned as an amateur bout. However, for some unknown reason, the contest was reclassified as an exhibition match just days before it was due to take place. This meant that it supposedly fell into a grey area of law. The State of Florida rightly or wrongly came to the conclusion that the fight was now unsanctioned and so had to be stopped.

I do not purport to be an expert on this somewhat complicated area of regulatory legislation. Perhaps the State of Florida was forced to intervene due to the reclassification of the fight, perhaps not. Whether this sort of intervention would have occurred if the fight was a high profile bout between two well-known competitors with millions of dollars at stake is pure conjecture. The real question, as posed by ’MMA Insider’, is why the contest was reclassified at such short notice. The answer to this, is, as yet, unknown.

Negative press – HBO Sport’s Bryant Gumbel openly criticised the fight between Steffan and Holeve

It is worth noting that the proposed match between these two disabled fighters had received some negative press in the weeks leading up to the 3rd August. In particular, Bryant Gumbel, the HBO Sports presenter directly questioned the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation’s claim that it was not involved in the sanctioning of the bout.

Furthermore, Mitch Holeve, Garrett’s father is reported to have been actively discouraged by the Florida State Boxing Commission in trying to organise the square-off with Steffan in the first place. Could it be that the State of Florida was against the fight from the start? Was the regulatory technicality a mere excuse? And could such bad publicity from the likes of recognised sports commentators have twisted the arm of the regulatory body? We cannot be sure. Nevertheless, the fact remains that two disabled participants were unable to take part in an event for which they had been legitimately been.

No doubt, they will now face an even bigger fight to get back into the cage. I earnestly hope they succeed. No matter what one’s opinions are of such sports, the fact remains that disabled people should, in my opinion, be able to compete. Perhaps the only positive thing that can be taken from this confusing debacle is the fact that it has attracted considerable public attention. Both David Steffan and Garrett Holeve have received a great deal of support in their bid to show the world that disabled people have a place in mixed martial arts.

With any luck this unfortunate set back will be exactly just that and it won’t be long until another disability taboo has been broken.



  • Show Comments

    2 comments on “The Right to Fight: Should disabled people be allowed to compete in mixed martial arts?

    1. Chuck Grace on

      Nice write up! I doubt we’ll ever find out the true reasons the pin was ultimately pulled on these two athletes, but with any luck it will prove to be a mere setback on the road of their fighting careers.

      • Tony on

        Thanks for your comment, Chuck. I tend to agree with you. The reasoning behind the pulling of the fight does seem unclear. In one sense, it could be legitimately explained away as a legal irregularity. However, I’m not entirely convinced a regular professional bout between two able-bodied contenders would have been halted in the same way. Overall, however, I am pleased that they managed to get even that far. I think it’s only a matter of time before they try again and succeed.


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