A 24-year-old with Down syndrome is suing in federal court after he was allegedly denied the opportunity to compete in the sport he loves due to his disability.

After training in mixed martial arts for more than four years, Garrett Holeve is looking to take his competition to the next level. However, the Cooper City, Fla. man says his efforts to move from exhibition matches to participating in amateur bouts have been thwarted because he has Down syndrome.

Holeve was scheduled to participate in a mixed martial arts match last August, but at the last minute the event was called off after the Florida Boxing Commission issued a cease and desist order.

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Holeve is now accusing state regulators and two sanctioning organizations — which administer amateur mixed martial arts competitions — of disability discrimination.

In a lawsuit filed this week in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida, Holeve alleges that the World Fighting Organization backed off plans to sanction his 2013 fight under pressure from state regulators.

More recently, Holeve found a new promoter who requested that the International Sport Karate Association sanction a bout later this month, but the lawsuit contends that the company declined to do so indicating that Holeve could instead compete in an exhibition match where there would be no scoring and no winner.

“Anything I want to do is my decision, this my life and my choice is to fight MMA,” Holeve said. “I have trained hard for years and deserve a regular MMA fight.”

Holeve’s case is drawing national attention. An online petition calling on regulators and sanctioning bodies to let him fight competitively has garnered more than 2,900 signatures.

“We are concerned that Garrett is being discriminated against based on his disability, in this case Down syndrome,” said Sara Hart Weir of the National Down Syndrome Society which is backing Holeve in his legal fight. “What Garrett is asking for is full inclusion and full participation in the sport of his choosing and we stand behind Garrett and his family as they fight to ensure Garrett can achieve his own hopes, dreams and aspirations.”

For their part, however, the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which includes the Florida Boxing Commission, “disagrees with the allegations,” said agency spokeswoman Tajiana Ancora-Brown.

The agency intervened in the event Holeve was scheduled to participate in solely because it was unsanctioned, she indicated.

“As a regulatory agency, we take any occurrences of unsanctioned bouts very seriously. Upon becoming aware of the unsanctioned bout, we quickly took action,” Ancora-Brown wrote in an email to Disability Scoop. “The issuance of the cease and desist notice as a result of an unsanctioned bout was not related to individual participants.”

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