By Thomas Hauser
On April 22, 2004, this writer recounted reports that Joe Mesi suffered a subdural hematoma (bleeding on the surface of his brain) after his March 13th victory in Las Vegas over Vassiliy Jirov. Following the fight, Mesi complained of a headache. Later in the month, he went to a neurologist in Buffalo, who ordered various tests including an MRI.
"It's all nonsense," Jack Mesi (Joe's father and manager) said at the time. "I've heard the rumors and I don't know what they're talking about. How can someone make up stories like this? There's utterly no truth to them. It's just ridiculous. Joe had an MRI, and there was nothing more serious than a concussion."
After Mesi-Jirov, Mesi was suspended by the Nevada State Athletic Commission because of the knockdowns he suffered. On March 19th, John Bailey (chairman of the NSAC) sent a letter to Mesi informing the boxer that his suspension would not be lifted until he underwent a new MRI of the brain and forwarded to the commission the results of that MRI and all other medical evaluations performed on him subsequent to the Jirov fight
Nevada has a policy that no one who has suffered from bleeding in the brain can fight again. In addition, Section 467.017(3) of the Nevada Administrative Code states, "The commission will not issue or renew a license to engage in unarmed combat to an applicant who has suffered a cerebral hemorrhage."
All states and Native American reservations that are members of the Association of Boxing Commissions are required to honor medical suspensions by other jurisdictions.
On May 11, 2004, an attorney named Stuart Campbell from Tulsa, Oklahoma (the home base of Mesi's promoter Tony Holden), sent a letter to the NSAC. The letter referenced "rumors and false accusations" being made in the media and said that Mesi had scheduled an appointment with one of the top neurosurgeons in the country. It then promised to provide the commission with information regarding Mesi's status so that he could be cleared to continue his career.
The neurosurgeon in question is believed to be Dr. Robert Cantu.
In early June, Campbell sent a second letter to the Nevada State Athletic Commission stating that Mesi was ready to come to Nevada and undergo MRI testing by a neurologist of the NSAC's choosing. And on June 14th, Mesi told the Associated Press, "My health is great. I'm just looking forward to progressing my career. We're hoping to make an announcement in the next week or so."
Meanwhile, the Mesi camp has yet to forward to the NSAC the documents requested by John Bailey on March 19th. And its offer to have the fighter undergo a new MRI appears to be an attempt to circumvent the fact that Joe Mesi had at least five MRIs subsequent to the Jirov fight. More specifically, Secondsout has been told the following:
A March 17, 2004, MRI revealed a left parietal subdural hematoma (a hemorrhage pressing on the left side of Mesi's brain).
A March 25, 2004, MRI appears to have been misread in that there was an internal belief that the problem had been resolved.
An April 8, 2004, MRI is believed to have shown two additional subdural hematomas that had gone undetected in the initial readings. In other words, Joe Mesi may have suffered not one but THREE subdural hematomas.
An April 27, 2004, MRI showed that the two hematomas discovered on April 8th were still present.
A May 27, 2004, MRI was normal.
All of the MRIs were conducted at the same imaging facility. They were read by two different radiologists.
Mesi's lawyers might still make the argument that a fighter who has suffered a subdural hematoma is no more at risk in the ring than any other fighter. Or they could claim that, even if Mesi is denied a license to fight in Nevada, his suspension should be lifted to allow him to fight in another state. But that's not their present position. At the moment, they're denying that there was a subdural hematoma.
Here, the thoughts of Dr. Neil Martin (chief of neurosurgery at the UCLA Medical Center) are instructive. "Although medical studies are limited on boxers," Dr. Martin states, "the proof is right in front of you. If a fighter bled once in his brain, he has proved he is susceptible and can bleed again. You don't need years of research to prove it. The risks are too high to keep fighting."
Meanwhile, Nevada's chief deputy attorney general Keith Kizer (who represents the NSAC) says, "Whatever the facts might be, we're not going to pass the buck to another state. A fighter can't be taken off suspension until he's fit to fight." And without prejudging the case, Kizer adds, "If it turns out that a great athlete like Joe Mesi can't continue his career, it would be a shame, but nothing like the tragedy of Joe Mesi or any other fighter dying in the ring."
Joe Mesi's situation highlights the unacceptable variation in boxing medical regulations from state to state. Some jurisdictions require extensive testing before a boxer is allowed to enter the ring. But in other states, a warm body seems to suffice. For example, if the same set of facts had unfolded following a fight in Utah, then, most likely, Mesi would not be on medical suspension today and would be free to fight.
There has been talk that Mesi might seek a fight outside of the United States and beyond the jurisdiction of the Association of Boxing Commissions. Were such a fight to happen, the ABC could permanently suspend any promoter, manager, trainer, or other licensee who was involved with it.
In that regard, Tony Holden says, "I don't believe the reports that Joe suffered a subdural hematoma. I've asked Jack; and Jack tells me that, other than having had a concussion, Joe is fine. I've lost a kid in the ring [Randie Carver]; so believe me, I'm sensitive to the issue. I'll support Joe in every way possible. But whatever the final decision of the authorities is, I'll abide by it. There's no way I'll take Joe beyond the reach of the ABC."
Last year, before his son fought at Madison Square Garden, Jack Mesi was asked if he was concerned that Joe might get hurt in the ring. In response, Jack answered, "I cross my fingers every time because there are no guarantees in boxing."
Joe Mesi is lucky he's alive today. If in fact he suffered a subdural hematoma and is allowed to fight again by the powers that be in boxing, it will fuel arguments that the sport should be banned.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
June 17, 2004