Friday, February 23, 2007

Baby Joe

Part of Western New York exhaled a bit on the night of Feb. 22.

Baby Joe Mesi didn't die during a boxing match.

That's a little blunt, but true. Mesi is Western New York's representative in the world of heavyweight boxing. His career has been a fascinating one, filled with some odd and unexpected turns.

Mesi came out of the amateur ranks as a good but not great prospect. He slowly worked his way through the heavyweight division, with the emphasis on slowly. Mesi won every bout, but he sure took his time about fighting anyone who might be a challenge to him. He also had an odd period of time when he was promoted by Sugar Ray Leonard, featuring a rather messy divorce.

Still, Mesi was a drawing card in his home region, pulling in five-figure crowds. Mesi also came across as being articulate, handsome and genuine. Yes, he's white, and as promoter Don King once said about someone else like that, "He's got the complexion to attract attention."

Then came disaster. Mesi was in control of a fight three years ago against Vassiliy Jirov when he was knocked down in the final rounds. Doctors discovered that Mesi had suffered two brain bleeds during that bout. The Nevada boxing commissioner decided not to issue Mesi a license, since brain bleeds should not be trifled with. There was some sadness there, since Mesi was on the verge of a major payday -- probably in Buffalo -- and a shot at one of the many heavyweight championships. It must have been tough to be so close to a dream and have it taken away.

But Mesi continued to fight, this time for his right to fight. The jarring part about that is that practically no one in the general public understands why someone would take up boxing unless they had to do so for economic reasons. There are easier ways of making a living that getting punched in the head. That's particularly true for Mesi, who seemed tailor-make for a career as a boxing commentator on television. The well of good feelings for Mesi contained wishes that he get out of the sport after being lucky at least once.

Mesi won a legal battle for the chance to fight again, and has taken on a few nobodies -- and that's being kind -- in under-regulated locations that will give him a license to fight. On Feb. 22, the location was Chester, West Virginia. That night's opponent was George Linberger, who hadn't fought in more than a year and hadn't missed a chocolate cake in more than a week. Timber! It took two minutes, and Mesi was done with his night's work.

Watching a Mesi fight these days is an odd experience. His current class of opponent offers no threat to his health, more or less, but we still hold our collective breathes at the opening bell. His fans still want him to do well, but they are afraid of what one punch, lucky or skillful, could do. They can't bear to watch, but they can't look away.

What's more, it's tough to know what the end game for Mesi is. He doesn't figure to get that big money bout that once was at the end of his rainbow, especially since he has so few options for fighting locations. The sanctioning bodies would get ripped for allowing Mesi to fight for a championship, considering his health history. And if you aren't going to win glory or riches in the ring, what's the point?

Even so, Baby Joe Mesi soldiers on. After all, fighters fight. Perhaps he'll win a few more bouts, then lose a couple against decent fighters and get out of the business with his faculties intact. That's not much of a best-case scenario, but it sure beats the alternatives.

No comments: