(This is the second of two stories looking at Buffalo's future in boxing. Today's installment looks at Western New York's top young fighters.)
To say the scene was hysterical would be an understatement. Nearly 10,000 boxing fans crammed into a basketball arena that barely contained them.
It was the type of crowd one might expect to see in Philadelphia, Detroit, Los Angeles or any other big-time fight town.
Yet this was the University at Buffalo's Alumni Arena, and people showed up in droves to see Joe Mesi dispatch an overmatched foe they wouldn't have recognized if he had shown up at their prefight tailgate party.
Hector Alejandro Jr. was in that mob in April 2002. The young fighter and South Park High graduate could hardly believe his eyes. He had never seen anything like this, not in Western New York.
"I told myself, 'That is going to be me one day, fighting in front of my hometown crowd,' " said Alejandro, a lightweight who was in the midst of a two-year layoff, pondering his future after losing his third pro bout. "I felt emotional, excited, happy. I was on my feet, going crazy and throwing punches in the air just thinking about it."
Alejandro wasn't the only one inspired. A group of three young Western New Yorkers is hoping not only to capitalize on Mesi's boxing fortunes, but also to surpass his accomplishments in their own regards.
Middleweight Les Ralston, welterweight Nick Casal and Alejandro are chasing world championship dreams. No one can say for sure whether any of them will come close to glory -- and even if they do they're still several fights away. But they're headed in the right direction.
"We're all right there," said Casal, a Niagara Falls native. "We have a good group of fighters, and if we stay on course we'll keep getting people interested in boxing again."
Ralston, who will turn 24 Saturday, is the most experienced of the trio. The Sweet Home High grad is 14-1 with seven knockouts and already has fought on national TV. He has sparred with rising star Jermain Taylor and former champions Hector Camacho and Carl Daniels.
Alejandro, 25, has been the busiest, winning seven straight bouts in the past 16 months to raise his mark to 9-1 with six knockouts. The South Park High grad made major changes to his support staff after his lone loss. Williamsville-based boxing businessman Rick Glaser was brought in to guide Alejandro's career, while trainer Ricky Diaz came aboard to assist Hector Alejandro Sr., the Police Athletic League boxing coach.
Casal is the most highly regarded prospect from a national scope. The 19-year-old slugger turned pro in June under the auspices of Shelly Finkel, an influential manager whose clients include Mike Tyson and Fernando Vargas. Casal is 4-0 with four knockouts, and major promoters are starting to jockey for his services.
"This is the next generation of fighters," Glaser said. "At least one of these guys is going to grab the spotlight and shine for all of Western New York."
Over the past eight years, three fighters from the region have challenged for world championships. Kenmore's Brian LaSpada fought for the WBA cruiserweight belt in 1996. Ross Thompson of South Buffalo and Billy Irwin of Niagara Falls, Ont., fought for the IBF title at junior middleweight and lightweight, respectively, in 2000.
Mesi never fought for a world title and probably never will because of brain injuries suffered in his last bout. Yet LaSpada, Thompson and Irwin packaged together couldn't garner a fraction of the attention Mesi received here the past three years.
Mesi's local appeal was multifaceted. He competed in the sport's alpha division, accumulating a string of knockouts. His charisma made it easy for local companies to sponsor him. He was embraced by the Italian-American community. And while La-Spada and Thompson spent much of their careers in Las Vegas, Mesi embraced Buffalo as his home base.
Was Western New York's fascination with Mesi lightning in a bottle? Did he draw 15,000 fans to watch him fight overmatched opponents because of a convergence of elements that can't be reconstructed?
"You don't need to be a heavyweight," Finkel said. "It mattered a lot when it came to Joe Mesi's allure, but it's not the end-all. You need a kid who can punch and get a win streak behind him."
Said Ralston: "If people like you, it doesn't matter how much you weigh. They'll support you."
Casal, already looking forward to being a promoter once his boxing days are over, noted it would be a nice hook to assemble a card featuring area fighters in three of boxing's most historic divisions.
"We have a good chance in Buffalo to embrace the smaller guys," Casal said. "We have three fighters who (were) accomplished amateurs now competing in three of the original weight classes: lightweight, welterweight and middleweight. That would be a good way to promote a fight here."
The Ralston, Casal and Alejandro camps all agree that local exposure is critical to bolstering a fan base. None of the three has fought in the 716 area code.
Ralston was on a card in Rochester over the summer, but he and his father, former light heavyweight contender Jimmy Ralston, have been jonesing to fight in Buffalo for years. They are exploring the idea of putting together a show in the Flickinger Center this winter.
"My next goal is to get fights here, to get the crowds behind me and the media to follow me," Ralston said. "It's tough to get media exposure when you have to keep fighting out of town. Once I start fighting in Buffalo, I think I can draw the crowds Mesi did."
Managers publicly laud Joe and father and co-manager Jack Mesi for laying the groundwork for local prizefighters to follow, but most grumble behind the scenes that the Mesis didn't do nearly enough.
Neither Ralston nor Alejandro ever appeared on a Mesi undercard (Casal didn't turn pro until after Mesi's last bout). Instead, the Mesis would award spots on their local shows to lacking club fighters who could sell a few extra tickets to family and friends.
"I think the future of Buffalo boxing is very bright, but I don't think Joe or Jack Mesi did anything to build up local boxing other than Joe Mesi," said Glaser, an unabashed Mesi critic. "They suppressed the local landscape of professional boxing so nobody would steal any thunder from Joe. They basically hid local prospects from the public.
"I think it would be much bigger right now if Les Ralston or Hector Alejandro had appeared on those undercards. These guys might now be walking into main events here in Buffalo rather than going on the road to build their careers up."
All the handouts in the world can't help a boxer who doesn't have the skills to enrapture an audience. The most significant factor in creating a buzz is winning impressively.
"You'd like to capture people's imagination," Finkel said, "and get them saying 'This kid is really special.' "
Boxing in general is a dying sport, but fight fans around the country will be envious of Western New York if homegrown prospects continue to emerge.
It's a trend that could sustain itself if at least one promising fighter can come along every two or three years. Glaser estimated that in area gyms there are at least 12 teenagers who will turn pro over the next two years. That group wouldn't include Casal's little brother, Anthony, a sharp southpaw with designs on making the 2008 Olympics.
"The young boxers in Buffalo will see how we do and hopefully they'll follow in our footsteps," Ralston said. "Just like Mesi is an inspiration to us, hopefully we'll be an inspiration to the next generation."