This is the first of two stories looking at Buffalo's future in boxing. Today's installment looks at the city as a possible site of national boxing events.
Our sports landscape has never looked so barren.
The Buffalo Bills are slogging through a 3-5 campaign. The Buffalo Sabres almost certainly will be locked out for the entire season and perhaps even into 2005-06. The University at Buffalo football team is a national joke. Joe Mesi's brain injuries will prevent the undefeated heavyweight from ever having another meaningful fight.
Just to find a fun sporting diversion in Western New York, it's enough to make somebody want to strike a deal with the devil.
Or maybe Don King?
"Buffalo, hear my cry," King bellowed over the phone recently. "V-i-c-t-o-r-y! Yay, yay! Buffalo, let's roll."
King is bullish on Western New York as an emerging fight destination, and he's not the only boxing power broker with similar exuberance these days.
Several times in recent weeks the region has been mentioned as a possible site for a world championship bout, and although the concept hasn't fully materialized, many in the fight game predict it's bound to happen.
Promoters, managers and TV networks were dazzled by the remarkable crowds that turned out for Mesi. Venues in a variety of sizes and the region's burgeoning casino industry are additional enticements. The NHL lockout also adds weight in considering how sports-hungry a city will be when looking for a good excuse not to shovel snow.
"There's a market in Buffalo to bring a major, major boxing event," said Steve Nelson, the Rochester-based manager of former undisputed heavyweight champ Hasim Rahman.
"The town was waiting anxiously to see Joe Mesi in a world championship fight. In lieu of that, a marquee championship fight will do well in Buffalo."
A collection of Hall of Famers -- from Henry Armstrong to Fritzie Zivic -- fought in Buffalo when it remained a popular fight location into the 1970s.
Two decades ago, Buffalo still was hosting major championship bouts. On the same night in Memorial Auditorium in 1984, Livingstone Bramble knocked out WBA lightweight champ Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini and Gene Hatcher defeated WBA junior welterweight champ Johnny Bumphus. One year later, Tony Tubbs beat WBA heavyweight champ Greg Page in the Aud.
Buffalo hasn't hosted a world title fight since then, but promoters are wondering if Mesi's emergence as a heavyweight contender triggered a reawakening.
"A new generation of fight fans was created," Nelson said.
Any events staged in Western New York, however, won't have the benefit of Mesi fighting in the main event. The suspended Town of Tonawanda native is grappling with the notion his career is finished, but other local prospects such as middleweight Les Ralston, welterweight Nick Casal and lightweight Hector Alejandro eventually could ride the wave -- or leave their own.
A sleeping giant
Even if a local superstar doesn't emerge, some boxing executives are optimistic shows can succeed here. They compare it to smaller-market sports cities such as Indianapolis and Memphis, which have landed major bouts in recent years.
"Buffalo is a great fight town with loyal fans," King said. "If you bring them something they want, they will respond. If you present to them a product that is worthy of their dollars and time, they will be there.
"It's going to be a thrill for me to awaken the sleeping giant."
Tony Holden, however, claimed any boxing show in Western New York could be in trouble without the involvement of Joe and his father and co-manager, Jack Mesi.
Holden resigned as Joe Mesi's promoter this summer yet would like to forge a business partnership with his former client. Holden not only wants to help ease Mesi into life after boxing but also said their teamwork could be successful in bringing quality events here.
"There's plenty of good boxing promoters eyeing Buffalo, but I would be surprised if they took that jump," Holden said. "The missing piece of the puzzle is Joe and Jack Mesi. Jack developed such huge sponsorship money there to defray costs.
"Promoters will have a difficult time to produce without their help. Buffalo is, without a doubt, the best fan-base town I've ever promoted in, but it's an expensive town to do boxing in. Arenas are expensive. The unions do make it more expensive to staff. The Mesis set up a safety net where they had sponsors to cover that."
Nelson is sold on the idea Buffalo is a boxing town, not just a Mesi town.
"You give a lot of credit to Joe Mesi," said Nelson, a veteran manager who has worked with Gerry Cooney, James "Bonecrusher" Smith and Oscar De La Hoya. "Joe Mesi showed you could sell a lot of seats in Buffalo for a nontitle fight against nondescript opposition.
"I believe the people who came to those shows, besides enjoying Joe Mesi, were enjoying the evening. They got a taste of what boxing has to offer. They didn't get the main course that only happens with a great world championship fight."
Holden has been negotiating with a former Mesi sponsor, Casino Niagara, to produce a series of boxing events.
Casinos and boxing go together like Fridays and fish fries. Seneca Niagara Casino and the freshly opened Niagara Fallsview Casino could get into the game, and that would only help the area's chances at becoming a premier pugilistic destination.
"When you work with a casino you're subsidized," King said. "You go into that event not worrying about whether you sell a ticket or not. In places like Buffalo (without a casino show) you got to be a promoter, beat the bushes and let people know, 'I have something so special you can't afford to miss it.' "
Casino or not, King considered Western New York for a January world title fight before the match fell apart. He won a purse bid to promote light heavyweight champ Antonio Tarver's mandatory title defense against Paul Briggs. Tarver, who became a hot property in May when he knocked out Roy Jones Jr., forfeited his WBC title to fight Glen Johnson instead, and the bout will take place in Los Angeles in December.
There have been early discussions to bring a heavyweight title fight to HSBC Arena early in 2005, perhaps pairing off winners from King's Saturday night card in Madison Square Garden: IBF champ Chris Byrd will fight Jameel McCline; WBA champ John Ruiz will take on Andrew Golota; Rahman will face Kali Meehan; and Evander Holyfield will fight Larry Donald.
"If Hasim wins, Buffalo will certainly be in the running," King said, noting that Rahman would be the mandatory contender for the Ruiz-Golota victor. "If I was a prognosticator and had the proper indications from the Buffalonians . . . I want them to cast their vote."
Playing their cards right
It's no secret Nelson has been eager for Rahman to fight in Buffalo. Rahman fought out of Rochester as an amateur and has a loyal following there. He has returned four times as a pro, most recently drawing 4,480 fans to Frontier Field on a damp July day to see him pummel pedestrian foe Terrence Lewis.
"Rochester is not big enough to have a world heavyweight championship bout," Nelson said, "but there's definitely an audience from Rochester that would be very happy to travel the hour to Buffalo."
Organizers for the Dec. 4 HBO match between rising middleweight star Jermain Taylor and former champ William Joppy considered Buffalo before looking elsewhere.
Holden said an intriguing card that took place last month probably would have landed in HSBC Arena if Mesi hadn't flattened one of the main event fighters in scant seconds.
The Oct. 2 show was headlined by Wladimir Klitschko and DaVarryl Williamson and featured IBF junior middleweight champ Kassim Ouma against Verno Phillips and Jeff Lacy versus Syd Vanderpool for the vacant IBF super middleweight title.
But the event went to Caesars Palace instead, mostly because Mesi obliterated Williamson in HSBC Arena in September 2003, and Holden didn't think local fans would pay to see Williamson again.
"That was a great card," Holden said. "If Klitschko had fought anybody but DaVarryl Williamson there was a good shot that card was coming to Buffalo."
WHEN THE STARS WERE OUT IN BUFFALO
A baker's dozen Hall of Famers who fought in Buffalo:
Henry Armstrong, who simultaneously held championships in the featherweight, lightweight and welterweight divisions, KO'd Joey Brown in the second round Nov. 23, 1937.
Carmen Basilio went 4-0 here in the early 1950s before winning the welterweight championship in 1955.
Ezzard Charles won four fights here, including a 14th-round TKO of Freddie Beshore on Aug. 15, 1950, six weeks before beating Joe Louis to win the heavyweight championship.
Jack Dempsey knocked out Ed "Gunboat" Smith on Dec. 30, 1918, six months before winning the heavyweight title from Jess Willard.
Rocky Graziano KO'd Henry Brimm in the fourth round May 16, 1950, two years before losing to Sugar Ray Robinson in a middleweight championship bout.
Barney "Battling" Levinsky, the light heavyweight champion, and Harry Greb battled to a no-decision in a nontitle bout Sept. 6, 1917, one of six no-decisions between them.
Joe Louis beat Steve Ketchel by knockout in the second round Jan. 11, 1937, three fights before topping James J. Braddock for the heavyweight championship.
Floyd Patterson, the former heavyweight champ, won a 10-rounder over Vic Brown on Aug. 21, 1971, four bouts before his career-ending loss to Muhammad Ali.
Willie Pep went 6-0 here from 1944 to '46 during his reign as featherweight champion.
Sugar Ray Robinson fought Henry Brimm twice here as welterweight champion, winning in 10 rounds March 16, 1948, and battling to a draw Feb. 15, 1949. He also scored a fifth-round TKO here over Jimmy Mandell on Sept. 18, 1945, a week before beating Jake LaMotta in Chicago.
Light heavyweight champion Maxie Rosenbloom went 1-1 against Buffalonian Jimmy Slattery here in the 1920s and retained his title with a 15-round decision over Lou Scozza on July 14, 1932.
Fritzie Zivic dropped Ronnie Beaudin in two rounds Nov. 26, 1940, two bouts after beating Armstrong for the welterweight title.
-- Compiled by Tom Borrelli - and Tim Graham
Next: Sizing up Buffalo's best boxers.