Monday, February 19, 2007


Joe Mesi isn’t like the other pugs you’ll come across in this game.

As soon as he opens his mouth you know he’s different than the rest of them. He’s articulate and insightful and he expresses himself like maybe your neighbor the schoolteacher would. And that’s fitting, because after all, he does have an education that allows him to teach school if that’s the path he decides he wants to go down when all of this is over.

He’s not mean looking or imposing like say a Mike Tyson, and he doesn’t particularly look like a fighter. His jet-black hair, mahogany eyes, olive skin and handsome features make him look like an unassuming Italian guy you might see making pizzas behind the counter at your local pizzeria. He’s not a freakish giant with bulging muscles like a lot of these other heavyweights lurking around the rings of the world today - and maybe all of that is his problem.

But those things would only be a little problem and that would only be part of the story.

"Baby" Joe Mesi, and he doesn’t want you to call him "Baby" anymore, was on an incredible storybook-like run of boxing success until he ran into a right hand thrown by former Cruiserweight titlist Vasiliy "The Tiger" Jirov on a spring night in Las Vegas nearly three years ago. Mesi was undefeated, he was fighting for the second time in a row on HBO and he was being talked about as the next Rocky Marciano. You see, Joe Mesi was going to be the next great American heavyweight.

Mesi had already been anointed as the third professional sports franchise from Buffalo, New York because of his ability to draw nearly twenty thousand fans to the HSBC Arena on the nights that he fought. The fans went wild for him and his fights were more like events than athletic pursuits. Many people, if given the choice to see the Buffalo Sabres play hockey, the Buffalo Bills play football or to watch Mesi fight would go see Joe.

And so, by the time Joe Mesi came into that fight against Jirov he did so with a lifetime of promise. He had a sparkling record of 28-0 (25)KO’s, was rated as the #1 contender by the World Boxing Council and he was in preliminary discussions to fight Mike Tyson in a big money fight in Buffalo.

Mesi had won practically every round against Jirov until, with twenty seconds left in the ninth round, he was decked with a rather innocuous looking right hand to the side of the head. It was at that moment that the sweet life that Joe Mesi had known began to unravel like a spool of thread dropped down a flight of stairs.

Under the furious assault of Jirov, Mesi would crumple down to the floor two more times in the tenth and final round. Although a battered, bloodied and humbled Mesi was declared the winner of the fight by unanimous decision the damage had been done.

It was not until several weeks later that it would be revealed that Joe Mesi had suffered the nastiest condition in all of boxing and a term that no fighter ever wants to hear - subdural hematoma. In layman’s terms, subdural hematoma means bleeding on the brain, which for boxers usually means the end of the story.

But for Joe Mesi, the story was just beginning. What would follow was an unbelievable, twisted, soap opera that played out in court rooms, doctors offices and in newspaper stories across the country and around the world. The issue was this - Joe Mesi suffered bleeding on his brain but he wasn’t going to stop boxing and he wasn’t going to let the Nevada State Athletic Commission or their doctors tell him otherwise.

When asked to recall the Jirov fight and what led up to him having his boxing license suspended, Mesi, who is forever honest, like the schoolteacher he was trained to be, had this to say. "For the Jirov fight I was in great condition. In the ninth round I threw 90 punches. It wasn’t Jirov’s power in the tenth round that was putting me down. I was hurt and I was hurt badly, obviously. I was injured. It wasn’t his hard punches putting me down. I just didn’t have my whereabouts. Jirov’s very strong and he hit me and hurt me, no doubt. But I was just going down not because of conditioning problems, but just because of the injury. I was just injured and hurt and I didn’t have my whereabouts."

Throughout the odyssey to regain his right to fight and get licenses to fight, Mesi’s father and manager, Jack, has been with him every step of the way. In fact, his father has pushed as hard as anyone to get his son back in the ring and to face more of the same types of punches that threaten his son’s very life. Jack has come under heavy criticism for his stance and for his decision to see Joe back in the ring.

The son has his own thoughts on the criticism leveled at his Dad. "It’s very unfortunate because my father has nothing to do with this. I’m a thirty-three year old man and I make my own decisions. I make the decision whether I want to continue or whether I don’t want to continue. My father has been behind me, supporting me throughout my whole career and will continue to be no matter what I do. But, I’ve made the decision to continue because of what the doctors have told me. I haven’t gotten one negative response from any of the doctors that I’ve visited. Therefore, I’m going continue with my pursuit to become heavyweight champion."

The questions many fans and many in the boxing business have asked is, "What exactly is the danger for Joe Mesi to return to active fighting?" Because of the unknown answer to that question the major networks have shown no inclination to bring Mesi back to their airwaves.

Of the four comeback fights he has had since returning to the ring in April 2006 only one has been shown on live television in the United States. The networks, already leery of the reputation boxing has in the mainstream sports world, would prefer that if something fatal is going to happen to Mesi that it not take place on their airwaves.

While Mesi has won all four of his comeback fights against soft opposition, he has scored only one knockout and that was against a fighter that had just 9 wins against 27 losses. Mesi has appeared far from the top of his form in those bouts, which is to be expected after over two years away from the ring. He admitted that for his first fight in his return that he had to lose 30 pounds in a relatively short amount of time. As a result, he languished to an eight-round unanimous decision win against Ronald Bellamy in Puerto Rico.

When asked about the perceived dangers of returning to the ring and the concern many have for him after having suffered what many believe should have been a career-ending injury, Mesi is defiant, yet convincing with his answer. "I’ve visited three of the best neurologists in the country. Dr. Robert Cantu, my lead neurologist out of Boston, Massachusetts, assures me that I’m at no greater risk when I enter the ring than my opponents."

Mesi says his doctors have pronounced him medically fit to return to the ring and he claims he has exhausted all avenues to ensure his health is fine. "I’ve had more MRI’s and blood work in the past few years than you can possibly imagine. I’ve taken more tests than you can imagine. For me and my team and my doctors there is no concern. If I was concerned I wouldn't be sitting here as an active, licensed fighter competing right now. I would not be doing it. I have too much to live for. There is no concern on my part. It’s a risky sport, we are all at risk, but I’m at no greater risk than my opponents. No doctor that I’ve visited, that treated me, that examined me said, ‘Don’t fight’. My doctors are world-renowned. I’ve talked to six, seven, eight of them. I’ve traveled around the world to see these doctors and get tested. These doctors have supported me. I feel very, very confident about my future in boxing."

If Mesi is angry with anyone about his two years away from the ring it is the Nevada State Athletic Commission. He says he can never get those two years of his career back and he blames it on the NSAC and their inability to see the same results that he and his doctors see. Mesi views the NSAC in a negative light and no matter what the medical evidence that he presented to them suggested, their answer for allowing him to fight again was always a resounding "No". The view of the NSAC was that Mesi suffered a life-threatening injury and that he should never step into a boxing ring again as an active participant.

Mesi paints the NSAC as unsympathetic to his plight and calls their very qualifications to make the determination on his boxing future into question. "Some of the Nevada commission doctors weren’t even neurologists", he says with some degree of incredulity.

When asked why some of the neurologists the commission had on their side denied his licensure, Mesi came back with this explanation. "Those neurologists said that because the rule is black and white and it’s a blanketed rule and they have to say that. But, now they have my reports and we think we can have them handle my case like any other cases, case by case. It can’t be so black and white."

Former heavyweight champion Riddick Bowe went through his own battles to return to the ring after it was revealed in a legal matter that he had apparently suffered brain damage from his years in boxing. The initial warning flags for Bowe were his erratic behavior and slurred speech. Bowe later decided he wanted to return to the ring and was also forced through a myriad of legal hoops. Bowe did eventually return to the ring after a lengthy self-imposed retirement and some time in prison but he was far from his top form and it remains to be seen whether he will continue to box.

Bowe is sympathetic towards Mesi’s plight and said this when asked to comment on the legal and medical battles that both he and Mesi have been forced to endure. "Well, it’s very frustrating. I sympathize with Joe. I’m willing to see whoever they want me to see, go through all of the trials and tribulations. I’ve been doing it, so it’s a piece of cake. I want to know for myself that I’m O.K. However, I know that I am and if there was anything wrong with me I wouldn’t fight."

For his part, Mesi is not looking back, especially now that he has been granted licenses to fight in several different states. He is now preparing to fight clubfighter George Lineberger on the VERSUS television network this Thursday night. Lineberger brings a record of 29-8-1 (25)KO into the fight and his claim to fame is that he has fought Eric "Butterbean" Esch twice. Although no world-beater, the 38 year-old Lineberger who hails from Akron, Ohio will be the most dangerous foe that Mesi has faced since the Jirov fight.

Lineberger is 6’3" tall and usually weighs in at around 250 pounds. In his last fight, he won a four-round decision over Butterbean. The fight, however, is taking place well underneath the boxing radar and far removed from the bright lights of Las Vegas or Atlantic City. Mesi will face Lineberger at the Mountaineer Race Track in Chester, West Virginia.

Whatever happens to Joe Mesi is anyone’s guess. Most see his future as bleak should he continue to fight and they are skeptical about his chances to regain his old form. Mesi, however, is convinced that he’ll someday be heavyweight champion of the world and that all of the perceived wrongs that he has suffered through over the past several years will eventually be righted.

When asked what impact he’s going to have on the heavyweight division, Mesi was quick to answer. "I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to bring excitement. I’m going to generate money. I’m going to generate fans. I’m the cash cow of the division. I’m the most marketable guy and I fight with excitement. I generate excitement and I’m going to bring that to the division. The heavyweight division needs it right now."

Some say that Joe Mesi is rolling the dice and gambling with his life. Here’s hoping he doesn’t come up snake-eyes.

February 2007

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