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Friday, December 8, 2023 | Back issues
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Athlete With Disability Can Challenge Fight Ban

TALLAHASSEE (CN) - A mixed martial arts fighter with Down syndrome may pursue claims that an amateur-fight sponsor violated his rights by banning him from fights, a federal judge ruled.

Florida licenses amateur sanctioning organizations such as the World Fighting Organization (WFO) and the International Sport Karate Association (ISKA) to organize and supervise mixed martial arts events. The sanctioning organizations approve amateur fighting events and clear fighters for participation, without the state's interference in the approval process, according to court papers.

Sanctioned fights must be approved by an organization, while mixed martial arts exhibitions may take place without such approval.

Garrett Holeve, a Florida man who has Down syndrome, claimed WFO, ISKA and the state's boxing commission barred him from mixed martial arts events based on his disability, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

According to Holeve's federal complaint, ISKA approved his participation in 2013 and 2014 exhibitions, but not in sanctioned fights. Holeve said the organization noted that the state would never let him take part in a fighting event.

The fighter also challenged WFO's alleged refusal to let him fight, and the state's cease and desist order in response to Holeve's attempt to participate in a fight without approval from any sanctioning organization.

U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle last week found that the state had no role in Holeve's alleged exclusion from sanctioned fights.

"That the state blocked an unsanctioned fight from going forward in violation of state law does not indicate the state would not allow a sanctioned fight to go forward," Hinkle wrote in the Dec. 29 order.

The Florida State Boxing Commission canceled a bout between Holeve and a Special Olympian with cerebral palsy in August 2013, just minutes before the opening bell. The state denied the decision was based on discrimination against Holeve.

"The commission does not get involved in the sanctioning decisions of ASOs," a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation told NBC's Today News. "As a regulatory agency, we take any occurrences of unsanctioned bouts very seriously. Upon becoming aware of the unsanctioned bout, we quickly took action. In fact, the issuance of the cease and desist notice as a result of an unsanctioned bout was not related to individual participants."

There is no evidence that Florida was asked to decide or ever opined on Holeve's participation in mixed martial arts fights, according to Hinkle's ruling.

ISKA, however, may be liable for violating Holeve's rights if the fighter can prove the organization blocked him from a legal fight, the court concluded.

ISKA must prove at trial that Holeve only sought to participate in exhibitions, for which he received approval, the order adds. The trial is set to begin Thursday, Jan. 22.

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