A Fighter's Chance: The Adaptive Athletes of MMA

Fightland Blog

By Aaron Broverman

A year from now, the Brazilian jiu-jitsu world will change forever.

That's when a group of disabled grapplers and an MMA legend will unite in the New York-New Jersey area to stage Grappler's Heart—the world's first grappling tournament for all BJJ martial artists with disabilities.

Grappler's Heart is the brainchild of Dr. Jon Gelber, an orthopedist with a sports medicine specialty who runs FightMedicine.net—a website featuring articles on injury management in combat sports. It was while looking for contributors for his website that the idea for Grappler's Heart began to germinate in his head.

“I started to reach out to people who used mixed martial arts, jiu-jitsu or other forms of grappling to battle illnesses or disabilities,” says Gelber, receiving his first article from a woman with bipolar disorder who uses jiu-jitsu to better organize her life.

“From there, I just started reaching out to more people, and the more people I reached out to, or the more people I heard about, the more inspired and impressed I became, as to how grappling can really provide an outlet to help overcome disability.”

Gelber wondered if any Paralympic or adapted sports organizations had thought of Brazilian jiu-jitsu as a means of helping people with disabilities either return to athletic competition or start for the first time, and though they were very supportive of the idea, they didn't know where to start, so the doctor took it upon himself to organize a tournament that would do just that.

“I thought someone needed to step up and get these things done, so I decided to take on the role,” he says. “Anytime I see anyone overcome a challenge, it not only reminds me of the drive I have to overcome challenges, but also it inspires me to watch people do the same. I've always rooted for the underdog and to me, it's awe-inspiring.”

Lead with a Legend

With his one-man mission established, Gelber set about assembling a board of directors to assist him that features a who's-who of pro MMA fighters and BJJ practitioners with disabilities and one UFC legend—Pat Militech.

Even those with only a passing interest in combat sports are aware of Pat Miletich's pedigree. The future UFC Hall of Famer was the organization's first welterweight champion and first welterweight tournament winner. His training camp, Miletich Fighting Systems, was one of the most decorated in the game, producing 14 world champions, across various MMA organizations, including five in the UFC—among them: Matt Hughes, Jens Pulver and Tim Sylvia.

So what makes one of the most decorated fighters and MMA coaches of all-time get involved in a tournament for grapplers with disabilities?

“I've trained law enforcement and military for a lot of years and a lot of those soldiers are coming back with disabilities. Whether it be situations that they've dealt with from what they've seen and gone through, or amputations from I.E.Ds, it's very trying for those guys,” says Militech.

“There are a lot of different programs to help them get back in society and I think grappling and mixed martial arts are a great way to do that because there is a lot of camaraderie and a lot of team aspects that they're used to and it helps a lot with their transition.”

But while the military's wounded warriors were his initial inspiration to join the Grappler's Heart board, Miletich has experience training those with all types of disabilities, including children with severe ADHD and behavioral disabilities, people who are deaf and hearing impaired and people who are severely diabetic.

“The qualities I see most in people who have overcome things like that are that their hearts are big and that their brains allow them to take the difference and uniqueness they have and apply it so it works in their favor,” says Miletich.

Look Ma, No Legs

Take fellow board member Nick Ackerman. The double, below-the-knee, bilateral amputee wandered into Militech's gym in Battendorf, Iowa just looking for a workout and was immediately encouraged to roll by the girl at the front desk. Not knowing a thing about Brazilian jiu-jitsu, or who Pat Miletich was, he was immediately thrown in with UFC sharks like Jeremy Horn and Jens Pulver.

“I had a few things that worked really well,” says Ackerman. “Dave Menne taught me the guillotine choke and how to set it up correctly. I guillotined Brock Lesnar twice in a row in 30 seconds when he came and worked out with us. Granted, Brock isn't so great at jiu-jitsu, but he's got a huge neck and if you set it up right, you can guillotine just about anybody.”

Of course, Ackerman himself wasn't just anybody. At the time that he wandered into Miletich's gym in 2001-02, he was in the best shape of his life, having just won the NCAA National Wrestling Championship for Simpson College against an opponent who not only had both legs, but also was on a 60-match undefeated streak. For most, the win was nothing short of miraculous, so much so that it was named the number one sports moment in NCAA history, but for Ackerman, it was just another day at the office.

“Absolutely I expected to win,” he says. “A year prior to winning that national title I looked in the mirror everyday, multiple times a day, looked in my own eyes and said 'National Champ' out loud. At first, it's kind of funny. It doesn't make a lot of sense; you're like…Yeah right. But, after you say it a couple hundred times, you start to believe it. Once you believe it, people around you believe it, and part way through that senior season, I was destroying people. Even through the finals, I knew he was 63-0, I knew he was defending national champ, but there was no way he was going to beat me that day.”

Ackerman's victory was a dominant performance, but he wasn't always such a force. For much of his wrestling career, he lost every single time he stepped on the mat. Until he took his circumstance, (caused by a bacterial meningitis infection at 18 months) and did what Pat Miletich said—made it work for him.

“In third grade, I stood out because I wrestled on my knees, but that's the only way I knew how to. I don't know what it's like to not do that, so when it comes to overcoming adversity that's just normal for me.”

“I didn't do well at it for many years. I would just get beat on and lose. I hadn't figured out how to adapt my situation and exploit what I had going for me, or keep people from using my advantages. It wasn't until eight years into wrestling that things started clicking and working for me.”

It was then that he went to an Iowa State Buckeyes wrestling camp and the coaches let him in on a little secret.

“They would talk about not necessarily needing to know 100 moves, 100 different combinations, or counters-to-counters. They taught that if you know one move and nobody in the country can stop it, you keep doing that.”

The Cerebral (Palsy) Assassin

One 27-year-old jiu-jitsu practitioner on the Grappler's Heart board—Romeo Barnes of Washington D.C.—has taken that advice, as a man with cerebral palsy, all the way to earning his Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt—quite possibly the first person on earth with C.P. to do so.

“When I was training with Lloyd Irvin, they had this thing called a Game Plan, which really does work,” says Barnes.

“When you compete, you get to your best position as fast as possible. You have three ways from getting to your best position from every other position and once you get to your best position, you have three finishes from that position and three finishes off those finishes. I took that concept and I ran with it.”

Now training and competing under 4th degree black belt Roberto “Maguilla” Marques at Maguilla BJJ and Combat Club in Silver Spring, Maryland, Barnes has always been able to adapt jiu-jitsu to his disability, despite not being able to stand at all.

“You have to use your body the way your body works,” he says. “Jiu-jitsu isn't designed for us to do it – we're supposed to fail. This is the way other people think, so you have to do it in a way that works for you.”

What works for him off his back, (since he can't close his legs for full-guard) is to work off his side in half-guard. On top, his grips are unbreakable, he posts constantly and makes sure to keep his arms in the right place—away from the threat of armbars. Basically, he uses his arms the way most Brazilian jiu-jitsu artists use their legs. Finally, his head serves as an extra appendage, pinning his opponent's free limbs down to the mat while he gets in position for a submission.

“You have to experiment,” says Barnes. “Your hands are your friends and your head is basically an extra arm. I use my head all the time.”

Barnes began his Brazilian jiu-jitsu journey in August 2005, just before his senior year in high school. It was through seven years of experimentation, then honing and refining the techniques that worked best for him, that he earned his black belt.

It wasn't smooth sailing by any means. Barnes has faced many challenges as an African-American gay man with cerebral palsy and before he found poetry and jiu-jitsu, his struggle accepting his sexuality had left him feeling suicidal.

Then, in 2010, while training as a purple belt, he went in for a routine surgery to replace an internal baclofen pump, (a muscle relaxant to ease spasticity) and got two life-threatening infections, resulting in two more surgeries.

When he finally did return to the mat in February the next year, Maguilla told him that he'd be promoted to brown belt in December, but that's not exactly what happened.

“He calls me up—on his knees because that's how he promotes me—the brown belt is sitting next to him and he starts taking his belt off. I was like…If this is what I think it is, I don't know what I'm going to do because this is not supposed to be happening, and he starts crying, says a bunch of stuff about life and says…Today you're not going to brown belt, you're going to black belt.

 To this day, Maguilla has never told Barnes why he decided to skip brown belt and promote him all the way to black, or whether the two surgeries had anything to do with it. Regardless, Barnes wears his belt proudly, but knows that this only the beginning and he will continue to have to prove himself in training and competition.

“With black belt, it's like you begin again,” he says. “As a person with a disability you always have to prove your skills. There are people who don't want to train with you because they're afraid they'll hurt you and in those cases I say, just go grab them because you have to show them that you know what you're doing.”

“Like being hit by a four-by-four!”

Grappler's Heart board member and Bellator MMA fighter Keith Miner knows what he's doing and he does it without his favored right hand.

In May 2000, during a summer job clearing trees from power lines, the then 19-year-old Miner was feeding trees into a wood chipper when the driver of the truck it was on pulled forward without telling anyone. The sudden jerk forward caused Miner to trip, sucking his hand, wrist and forearm into the blades.

“It was like laying your hand out for a chef to just start dicing,” says Miner, who remembers every moment of that day, from the searing hot pain, to getting to the hospital under his own recognizance, and finally being given something that knocked him out. The road back was long and arduous. Without his dominant hand, he had to relearn how to do everything with his left.

“God has given me quite a work ethic, so I locked myself in my room and started writing in my journal: Aa, Bb, Cc, trying to learn to write again,” says Miner. “My brother is left-handed, so he showed me tricks that I'd never think of as a right-handed person. The accident changed everything.”

Deeply Depressed, Miner would leave physiotherapy with tears in his eyes. Unable to bend his elbow or his shoulder due to scar tissue, his doctors had to break those areas just to get his flexibility back. In his struggle to get out of the wood chipper, Miner pulled every muscle from his neck to his butt and herniated or cracked seven thoracic vertebrae in his spine—from T2 to T8.

“I did a lot of damage trying to rip myself out of that thing. The rehab was extensive. Even now, 14 years later, I still find myself reaching for things with my right hand,” he says.

Soon however, life returned to normal. Miner moved from Pennsylvania to Denton, Texas, met his wife, started a family and opened a number of Smoothie King franchises. But just as Miner was beginning to settle into domesticity, a regular customer would forever alter his life again—this time for the better.

Kirk “The Groundskeeper” Gibson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt and pro MMA fighter kept buying smoothies at Miner's store and bugging him to give BJJ a try, until finally, Miner decided to take him up on it.

“Brazilian jiu-jitsu became something that one, I enjoyed—I loved the competition—and two, I picked  up really fast. It just snowballed from there. My coaches wanted to see what I could do in MMA and it turns out I do pretty well.”

Holding a 5-5 professional record, Miner says he just keeps his right hand up for defense and strikes with his left, but every so often he'll throw the right for devastating results.

“I very rarely hit my teammates with it because I've learned that since there is no wrist, and no recoil in the wrist, they say it's like being hit by a four-by-four or baseball bat. It's just straight power,” says Miner. “There are names that you've heard of that I've watched get rocked by it.”

Miner started training mixed martial arts on April 2nd 2008 and became the first professional amputee fighter in the world on October 4th 2008.

“It was a ride. I learned a lot from that fight, I learned a lot about myself,” says Miner. “Even though I lost, I had to cry a little bit because it had been a long journey. I was told by doctors that due to my spinal injury, I couldn't do this and due to my hand, I couldn't do that. At one point, you start to believe that, but I knew, even then, that it was B.S.”

A big part of that ride was getting a fight in the first place. Nobody wanted to give Miner an amateur fight because of his missing hand. But, he and his coaches persevered, sending videos to Freestyle Cage Fighting in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which agreed to give him a shot. Still, even now, with ten professional fights under his belt, Miner's fight to be taken seriously as a competitor rages on.

“I was going to fight one more time in Pennsylvania, but they denied me,” says Miner. “I understand what I'm doing is very unique and I understand that I've purposely requested fights with some pretty tough guys, but a lot of times, it's just met with a lot of negativity. It's an automatic, 'He can't' and that's one of the main reasons why I've done it, to show it can be done.”

Garrett's Fight

No one can relate to Keith Miner's struggle for fights better than 24-year-old mixed martial arts fighter Garrett “G-Money” Holeve and his father Mitch.

Both men are on the board of Grappler's Heart and both are on a quest to get Garrett his first professionally sanctioned MMA fight. But while Miner has been granted that opportunity several times in spite of his missing hand, Holeve, a fighter who just happens to have Down's Syndrome, has met with stiffer resistance.

“For the most part, the reaction has been positive. Most of the negativity I feel comes from the fight commissions made up of people that, quite frankly, are in the sport, but don't train,” says Mitch.

People like those representing the State of Florida who, in August 2013, issued a “cease and desist” order to stop a fight between Holeve and David Steffan, a fighter with cerebral palsy, just moments before it was about to take place.

Evidently, nobody who gave the order cared that, for someone with Down's syndrome, Garrett is extremely high functioning, or that he has fought some non-disabled opponents in exhibition matches.

“I've been told most of the boxing commissions or MMA commissions around the states are pretty much against anybody with Down's Syndrome, cerebral palsy, or any other special needs fighter. Even disabled vets, I think they'd like to keep out of the cage,” says his father.

“They cite fighter safety as their main argument,” Mitch continues. “You can't use that as an excuse because fighter safety is one thing, but it's a dangerous sport. I personally believe that they feel they need to protect the sport—that the sport can't afford a black eye. They're all scared to death of a headline like, 'Kid with Down's Syndrome gets Knocked Out.'”

Like most professional fighters, Garrett played sports his entire life. He also coaches kids, including one with Down's Syndrome, at the American Top Team gym that his father co-owns and put in Garrett's name, so it's not like Garrett himself isn't well aware of the possible risks.

“It's my life, it's not theirs,” says Garrett, referring to those who would bar him from fighting. “If I get knocked out, I get knocked out, but I'll be damned if I'm ever going to let that happen.”

Unlike some other adult-children with special needs, Garrett's parents are not his guardians. He makes all his own decisions. When his parents go on vacation, he is in charge—taking care of the house and cooking for himself.

“Unfortunately, Garrett gets painted with the stereotype too often,” says his dad. “People hear Down's Syndrome and they immediately assume the worst. They don't take time to meet him or talk to him and that's really where the prejudice and discrimination comes in. Garrett is in better physical shape than most people in our country and other than rheumatoid arthritis, he has no physical limitations.”

It didn't start out that way.  At five-foot tall, Garrett graduated high school weighing 175 lbs. However, since he started training with American Top Team in 2010, he dropped 40 lbs. It all began when the Davie gym opened ten minutes from Garrett's home in Cooper City and Mitch gently dared all of his sons to come try Brazilian jiu-jitsu with him. Garrett was the only taker and soon he was picking up techniques as fast, if not faster, than his Dad.

At first, head instructor Rodrigo “Baga” Ramos didn't know what he was going to do with a kid with Down's Syndrome. But, as Garrett progressed, he eventually transitioned into mixed martial arts before he asked for his first real fight in the cage.

“I took it like a man. I'm tough as nails,” says Garrett, in reference to the first real punch he ever took in an exhibition match with “Monster” Mike Wilson—a non-disabled fighter.

The fight for Garrett's first pro MMA bout is far from over. Through the Americans with Disabilities Act, he and his dad are working with a lawyer from Disability Rights of Florida who wants to sue the State of Florida and the World Fighting Organization. However, she also may have found an alternative to litigation.

“Our lawyer found a loophole in the Florida laws,” says Mitch. “The loophole states that if you're a not-for-profit, mixed martial arts school and you wanted to have your own event, you're allowed to do that and it doesn't have to be sanctioned by the state.”

So Holeve and his dad set up Garrett's Fight, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting mixed martial arts among people with disabilities. All they need now is a venue to redo the fight that was stopped in 2013. If anyone has one they think may be suitable, please get in contact with Mitch.

“My friends have got my back. They help me out,” assures Garrett who counts a number of UFC fighters, especially friend, mentor and training partner Stephan Bonnar, among those in his corner for the battle toward his first pro fight. There is one person however, who might really get the ball rolling, but doesn't seem to have the time—UFC president Dana White.

“Dana's met Garrett twice. Once at a fight and then this past year when Stephan was inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame,” says Mitch.

“Dana's been very polite to Garrett. However, I've been told Dana is too busy to concern himself with supporting him. I respect that Dana is running a business, and has kept his nose out of it. But, at the same time, I wish he would get out in front of this and support it.”

In his match with David Steffan, all Garrett Holeve wants to prove is that a professional mixed martial arts match can take place between two fighters with disabilities, that it can be done safely and that it can provide an even playing field.

This is exactly what John Gelber says Grappler's Heart aims to do for grapplers with disabilities.

“I would love as many people as possible,” he says. “So if you can make it to the New York/New Jersey area, visit our website and come down and compete.”


Aaron Broverman is a Brazilian jiu-jitsu blue belt with cerebral palsy and a freelance journalist. He is also on the board of Grappler's Heart and plans to compete at the tournament in 2015. You can see more of his work on his website.


Check out this related story:

No Easy Life: Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Cerebral Palsy