By Thomas Hauser
December 6 was supposed to be Joe Mesi's night. The regional phenomenon from Buffalo with a 27-0 record and eighteen knockouts in his last eighteen fights was going national.
Boxing needs a feel-good story. HBO needs a new marketable heavyweight. Put the two together and you've got Joe Mesi. One could even imagine an HBO mini-series entitled Joe Mesi and Boxing: A Love Story.
Let's start with character development. The 30-year-old Mesi is articulate and outgoing; a perfectionist with a good work ethic. The available evidence points to his being a genuinely nice guy; friendly with an aura that conjures up images of Jay Leno. He engages in extensive community service and actively works to raise public awareness with regard to the need for organ donations. The latter endeavor is in memory of his cousin, Genelle Shanor, who died at age 32 while awaiting a kidney transplant. Several years ago, Mesi took and passed the preliminary examination to become a New York State trooper. For good measure, in 2001, he graduated from Erie Community College. In terms of boxing economics, it doesn't hurt that he's white.
The words that come out of Mesi's mouth sound like a Hollywood screenplay written in a more innocent era . . . "My faith, my family, and my community are the things that are most important to me . . . I love where I was born and raised and plan on living here for my entire life . . . I'm a people person. I like people; I care about people . . . My parents are my biggest heroes. My father is more than my father; he's my best friend. I look forward to having children someday, and my father is the kind of parent I hope to be."
Meanwhile, boxing fans have become familiar with the details of the Joe Mesi story. He was a multi-sport athlete in high school, and the sport he loved most changed with the seasons. He played nose tackle and guard in football. In baseball, he was a catcher. He also wrestled. Then came a time when he was out of sports, working as a bartender. He ate a lot of chicken wings and his weight ballooned to 290 pounds. Disgusted with his condition, he went to a PAL gym to hit the heavy-bag and work out a bit. After a few months, he decided to give boxing a try. That's a tough way to lose weight. Most people would opt for aerobics.
Mesi was 21 when he took up boxing. Two years later, in the penultimate bout at the 1996 Olympic Trials, he decisioned Lawrence Clay-Bey. Then came one last fight against Clay-Bey, with the winner going to Atlanta. "I got stopped in the first round," Mesi recalls. "I was on my feet at five, but it was a good stoppage. That's the most hurt I've been so far as an amateur or a pro. I look back on that now and the truth is, I was in way over my head. I'd only been boxing for two years. But I was there."
Mesi settled for being the US super-heavyweight alternate in Atlanta. A year later, he made his pro debut with a second-round knockout of Dwayne Cason at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. He's now ranked #4 amongst the heavyweights by the WBC and #9 by the WBA.
"I think I'm good for boxing," Mesi said earlier this month. "And I'm happy to help a sport that has a bad name right now. I know that some people question my chin and heart because I haven't been tested yet in the pros. But look at what I accomplished as an amateur. Most of the guys I faced as I moved ahead in big tournaments had been boxing since they were twelve years old. I'd been boxing for less than two years. My skills weren't nearly as good as theirs. I got as far as I did because of my toughness and heart. And I'm still learning. I'm moving slowly as a professional because I don't have as much experience as a lot of the other guys have. If the critics don't want to believe in me, that's fine; they don't have to. I believe in myself. I'm not trying to be the best fighter ever; just the best that I can be. And I'm a fighter; don't get that wrong. I'm a good fighter; I'm a tough fighter. I can punch and I can take a punch. Don't take me lightly."
Still, as Mesi suggests, there are critics who note that the few recognizable names on his ledger were long past their prime when he fought them. "Joe Mesi," they say, "isn't a serious contender. And he isn't in boxing to win the heavyweight title; only to make as much money as he can without ever being seriously tested. We're always told that the next fight will be the big one, but it never happens. Every fight is against a guy who could never fight or is washed up or is coming up in weight and can't take a punch. That might play in Buffalo, but it wouldn't play in a real fight town where they know boxing like Detroit or Chicago or New York."
Much of this criticism has been aimed Joe's father. Jack Mesi worked in law enforcement for 37 years; thirty of them as a cop in Buffalo. Jack is Joe's manager and has been accused of being the ultimate stage father, living through and over-protecting his son. Often, he hangs on Joe's shoulder during interviews, occasionally interrupting to add a thought or finish a sentence for him.
"Yes, my dream is unfolding before my eyes," Jack acknowledges. But then he adds, "This is about Joe, not me."
Mesi's December 6th coming-out party in New York was held at Madison Square Garden as the first half of an HBO doubleheader. His opponent was 32-year-old Monte Barrett, who sported a record of 29 wins, 2 losses, and 16 knockouts with decision victories over faded lions like Greg Page, Phil Jackson, and Tim Witherspoon.
"Don't count me out," Barrett warned before the fight. "People say that I'm Joe's biggest test, but I look at Joe as my biggest opportunity."
Mesi said simply, "Monte is the next logical step in my career."
It was the first fight card in the big Garden arena in 26 months and the first of any kind at the Garden since April 2002. Duva Boxing was the lead promoter, and ticket sales were humming until a late-autumn blizzard dumped 12-to-18 inches of snow on the New York metropoplitan area. That limited sales to a shade over 12,000 with 10,823 fans actually coming through the turnstiles.
It was an interesting night. In the early rounds, Mesi was the aggressor and consistently beat Barrett to the punch. But by round four, he was frustrated by his opponent's elusiveness and began over-reaching with his blows. Then Barrett made some adjustments, started landing the more telling punches, and became the aggressor. Rounds nine and ten were gut-check time for Mesi, who was visibly tired and had never gone ten rounds before.
There were two knockdowns. In round five, Mesi caught Barrett at the end of a long right hand. In round seven, Barrett returned the favor with a left hook. Neither man was noticeably hurt by the knockdown blows; although it was the first time in Mesi's pro career that he tasted the canvas and, after the fight, his left eye was badly swollen.
Most observers thought that Mesi won rounds one, two, five, and six, while Barrett took the final four stanzas. The swing rounds were three and four. Tom Schreck scored the fight even at 94-94. Arthur Mercante Sr. and Joe Dwyer had it 95-93 and 94-93 in favor of Mesi. This writer scored it 95-93 for Barrett.
"I learned a lot from this," Mesi said afterward. "I could have been better."
But the real learning experience was still to come. Mesi is a huge ticker-seller in Buffalo, and it was assumed that he was the fighter that the Garden crowd most wanted to see.
After the conclusion of Mesi-Barrett, Vitali Klitschko and Kirk Johnsom made their way to the ring. And suddenly, the upper reaches of Madison Square Garden were awash in a sea of blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flags. Klitschko's fans had braved blizzard conditions; they were out in force; and they were loud.
The 6-foot-7-inch Klitschko had a 32-2 record with 31 knockouts. But the two defeats told more about him than his triumphs. Three years ago, he fought Chris Byrd in Germany and was ahead 89-82, 88-83, 88-83 on the judges' scorecards when a torn rotator cuff in his left shoulder forced him to quit. Then, on June 21st of this year, he was leading Lennox Lewis after six rounds when the fight was stopped because of dangerous cuts around his eye.
Klitschko looked good in losing to Byrd and Lewis. And against Lennox, he showed that he has a chin, which is a valuable commodity in a heavyweight. But one learns to question fighters whose best appearances are in losing efforts. The idea is to win the big ones.
Meanwhile, Johnson has a lot of talent. Prior to meeting Klitschko, the only blots on his record were a 1998 draw against Al Cole (in which three points were deducted for low blows) and a 2002 disqualification against John Ruiz that resulted from similar transgressions. Were it not for low blows, he might have been undefeated a week ago.
But Johnson has a problem. He eats too much. As a young prospect, he fought in the 220s under the nickname "Bubba." Now he looks as though his day job is working as a food-taster for MacDonald's. That view was confirmed when Johnson weighed in for Klitschko at 260 pounds. And yes; he was wearing a heavy warm-up suit at the weigh-in, but he was still grossly overweight. When Bubba entered the ring on Saturday night, his love-handles had love-handles and it was suggested that his nickname be changed to Blubber.
Klitschko annihilated Johnson in two rounds. No one had walked through Johnson like that before. But then again, Johnson had never come into the ring in such poor shape.
So what comes next?
Mesi-Barrett was the first bout in a three-fight Mesi-HBO contract. The plan had been for an HBO After Dark contest in Toronto or Rochester in late-winter followed by an HBO Championship Boxing extravaganza at Buffalo's Ralph Wilson Stadium next summer. Mesi was to step up in class to face a world-class opponent in one or both of those contests. Now the projected level of opposition might drop a bit. At the Garden, Joe showed heart, good hand-speed, and reasonable power in both hands. But if he can't handle the Monte Barretts of boxing more convincingly, it's hard to imagine him moving to the elite heavyweight level, even if today's elite heavyweights aren't so elite. Also, it should be noted that Mesi has been fighting now for nine years; six of them as a pro. He won't be able to cite the inexperience factor much longer.
As for Klitschko, there's irony in the fact that, a year ago, it was brother Wladimir who was being touted as the future of the heavyweight division. But then Wladimir got starched by Corrie Sanders and attention turned to Vitali.
Like his brother, Vitali is gracious and earnest. He also carries his chin high and his left hand extremely low. Vitali is ranked first by the WBC, and it will soon be now or never for Lewis-Klitschko II. If Lennox accepts the challenge, look for them to fight in Madison Square Garden early next summer. If not, Lewis will retire or be stripped of his title and Klitschko will fight the highest available contender for the WBC throne. At present, Vitali is followed in the WBC rankings by Corrie Sanders #2, David Tua #3, and Joe Mesi #4.
In other words, the heavyweight championship picture is on the verge of devolving into chaos. Roy Jones has the WBA title on hold. Chris Byrd is wearing a tainted IBF belt that virtually no one cares about. And Lamon Brewster will fight someone shortly for the unheralded WBO throne. It will be a while before there's a universally recognized heavyweight champion of the world again.
Meanwhile, at night's end on December 6th, New York was talking about Vitali Klitschko and Joe Mesi was on his way back to Buffalo.
Award winning author Thomas Hauser can be reached at
December 8, 2003.