By Lyle Fitzsimmons
If only boxing were as simple as Facebook.
There, if asked about a tumultuous relationship with the sport that made him a hero in his native Western New York and got him within a fight or two of a try at a heavyweight title, Joe Mesi could simply say “It’s complicated” and log off.
In reality, though, it’s not quite so easily explained.
Now just a few weeks short of his 36th birthday and two years removed from his last for-pay appearance in a ring, Mesi is committedly non-committal on whether he’ll ever renew his quest for a title belt, or, at the very least, risk a record that’s read “36-0, 29 KOs” since 2007.
“We’re getting close to the two-year anniversary since I last boxed, so, no, I guess I really wouldn’t be considered an active fighter,” he said Sunday, in a BoxingScene.com interview.
“Could I be? Would I be? Yes, if the right offer came along. And by the right offer, I mean the right opponent in the right state at the right time for the right money.
“I still think I could beat a lot of heavyweights, but it remains to be seen if I’ll ever get the opportunity.”
Known as “Baby Joe” to an adoring Buffalo-area fan base, Mesi began his professional career in 1997 and reeled off 28 wins against increasingly stiffer competition before meeting ex-cruiserweight champ Vassiliy Jirov in a March 13, 2004 bout in Las Vegas that changed his career path for good.
Clearly ahead through eight rounds, Mesi tired noticeably and was punished in the final six minutes before escaping with a one-point decision on all three scorecards.
It was later revealed that Mesi had suffered a subdural hematoma – commonly referred to as “bleeding on the brain” – which resulted in suspension from the Nevada Athletic Commission and automatic denial of attempts to renew his boxing license there after it expired in 2005.
A two-year hiatus from the ring ended when he was licensed to fight in Puerto Rico and scored an eight-round decision over Ronald Bellamy in April 2006, then won six more fights over the subsequent 18 months in locales including Montreal, Russellville, Ark., Manistee, Mich. and Chester, W.Va.
His most recent fight – a one-round TKO of Shannon Miller on Oct. 12, 2007 in Lincoln, R.I. – was to be followed by a bout with Terry Smith a few months later, before a shoulder injury scrubbed the scheduled date and Mesi was eventually pulled away by other interests, primarily politics.
A run for a vacant Buffalo-area seat in the New York State Senate ended in defeat for Mesi against Republican challenger Michael Ranzenhofer last November, though he bounced back happily when he was married 10 days later.
He and his new wife, Michelle, are expecting their first child in late March 2010, and Mesi recently took a job with Stryker, a Michigan-based medical technology company that, among other things, provides equipment to diagnose and treat patients with subdural hematomas.
If nothing else, score one for irony.
“I’ve considered a lot of things and the offers come in from time to time, but they’re usually on the ESPN level, and, while I love ESPN and had great times fighting there, they don’t really interest me,” he said.
“I’ve never fought for the money, and there was a time I would have fought for free, but I’m 35 now and my situation has changed. I’ve accepted a job, I’m married and expecting a child, so it would have to be for a lot of money and it would have to be worth my time.”
The door to a Mesi ring return was propped slightly open recently, when the aforementioned Nevada commission announced a slight change in policy relating to prospective licensees who’ve suffered brain bleeds either in the ring or out.
Rather than a blanket disqualification from licensing, the commission will now review such applications on a case-by-case basis, according to Executive Director Keith Kizer.
Kizer said the change arose from discussion on the commission’s Medical Advisory Committee, during which Chairman Albert Capanna cited successful recoveries from head injuries sustained in auto accidents and other sports like hockey and football, where athletes were again allowed to compete “after a safe amount of time.”
Capanna also pointed out that “in the case of Joe Mesi, he was not cleared to resume his Nevada career; but in the case of Marco Antonio Barrera, who had a craniotomy, he was cleared by the board and the commission.”
Board member Todd Chapman’s motion to rewrite the rule’s language was unanimous approved.
Specifically, the existing rule will be amended to read “If an applicant for a license to engage in unarmed combat or an unarmed combatant has suffered a serious head injury, including cerebral hemorrhage, the applicant or unarmed combatant must have his application for a license or for renewal of a license reviewed by the commission before a license is issued or renewed.”
Previously, it had said “the commission will not issue or renew a license to engage in unarmed combat to an applicant or unarmed combatant who has suffered cerebral hemorrhage.”
Kizer said the official change in policy will take effect Oct. 27.
“It was a disqualifying factor and now it’s going to be a case-by-case basis. Still, most cerebral hemorrhages will probably disqualify a fighter. Obviously, it’s boxing we’re talking about here,” Kizer said. “But with the increase in imaging and other medical review procedures, it’s something that can be looked at on a case-by-case basis by our doctors. It’s still going to be treated very seriously.”
Exactly what it all means to Mesi is still unclear.
Because his Nevada license expired in 2005, he would have to reapply for active status in the state.
At such time, Kizer said, his case would be medically reviewed and he would need to appear before the commission for a hearing on the matter.
“The more serious the history,” Kizer said, “the less likely the chances are of licensure.
“Any applicant would need to submit current medical records for review by a commission physician. Those records could also be compared and contrasted with the older medical records. Until that is done, it would be difficult to give any recommendations.”
Mesi admitted pursuit of a license is indeed something he’s considering, just to what’s out there.
“I think we will soon, out of curiosity to see how we’d be treated,” he said. “They made it out as if I was dying and on an iron lung, when in reality the injury was as minor as it could have been. I’m very much curious to see what would happen.
“I always thought it was as much political as it was medical, so I think we will pursue it, just to let them see where we are and hear what they think. I’d love for them to look at my case specifically and get their thoughts. I’d like to hear that opinion.”
And should that opinion result in a thumbs-up – given the current state of the heavyweight division – who knows?
“I would think every fighter in the world would love to box me,” Mesi said. “I’m only 35 and I haven’t gotten out of shape like I was during my suspension. I still believe I could beat a lot of the top heavyweights out there.
“Could I have been a champion? Yes. Would I have been the best heavyweight in the world? I don’t know. But I knew who I could beat and who I couldn’t. Certain guys and certain styles would always have given me problems, but the other guys – like the Tysons and the Tuas and the Arreolas and the Chambers – they were made for me.
“Could Chris Arreola on his best day hang with me? No. Probably not.”
* * * * * * * * * *
This week’s title-fight schedule:
WBA flyweight title – Osaka, Japan
Denkaosan Kaovichit (champion) vs. Daiki Kameda (No. 11 contender)
Kaovichit (47-1-1, 20 KO): Second title defense; Unbeaten since 2002 (27-0-1, 11 KO)
Kameda (15-1, 11 KO): Second career title fight; lost WBC title shot in 2007
FitzHitz says: Kaovichit by decision
WBA super featherweight title – Tokyo, Japan
Jorge Linares (champion) vs. Juan Carlos Salgado (No. 6 contender)
Linares (27-0, 18 KO): Second title defense; Ex-WBC champ at 126 pounds
Salgado (20-0-1, 14 KO): First career title fight; Seven-fight win streak since 2005 (7-0, 4 KO)
FitzHitz says: Linares in 6
WBC super bantamweight title – Tokyo, Japan
Toshiaki Nishioka (champion) vs. Ivan Hernandez (No. 5 contender)
Nishioka (34-4-3, 21 KO): Third title defense; Four failed WBC title shots at 118 pounds (0-2-2)
Hernandez (25-3-1, 15 KO): Fourth career title fight (1-2, 1 KO); Ex-WBO champ at 115 pounds
FitzHitz says: Nishioka by decision
WBO junior featherweight title – New York, N.Y.
Juan Manuel Lopez (champion) vs. Rogers Mtagwa (No. 9 contender)
Lopez (26-0, 24 KO): Fifth title defense; Fourteen-fight stoppage streak since 2006
Mtagwa (26-12-2, 18 KO): First career title fight; Three-fight win streak since 2007 (3-0, 1 KO)
FitzHitz says: Lopez in 3
Last week’s picks: 0-0
Overall picks record: 45-12 (78.9 percent)
Lyle Fitzsimmons is an award-winning 21-year sports journalist, a full voting member of the Boxing Writers Association of America and simply hopes Joe Mesi winds up as a happy, healthy father, whether he ever fights again or not. Reach him at [email protected] or follow him at twitter.com/fitzbitz.