It’s been nearly a decade since Tonawanda’s own Joe Mesi stepped into the ring for his last professional fight against Shannon Miller in 2007, a bout "Baby" Joe won with a round one TKO. However, despite his disappearance from the limelight, Mesi is still in Buffalo, and still representing, working in, and boasting about the city he loves.
Mesi grew up in Tonawanda and attended Sweet Home High School, playing a variety of sports, including football and swimming. It was after he graduated at around 19 that he began getting into what had run in his family blood and would soon elevate him to the national stage: boxing.
"My grandfather was an amateur champion, my uncle was an amateur champion, and back in those days, when you were a golden glover, you were like a celebrity," said Mesi.
"My father was a police office and said there was a Police Athletic League gym where you can go mess around for free. My brother and I went there and just never stopped going," he said.
From there, "Baby" Joe’s career skyrocketed. He would go on to win three New York State Golden Glove championships in 1993, 1995 and 1996, as well as become an alternate for the United States in the 1996 Olympics.
"I’d fought a few local fights in Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse and had my amateur license and I was winning. Then I thought I’d go to the Golden Gloves and get my butt kicked, but I didn’t. When you win those tournaments, you advance to the national tournaments," said Mesi.
"My first national tournament you had to win a fight five or six nights in a row, and I thought I’d get knocked out early, but I didn’t, I won all the fights. I remember thinking at that time that I had more than I believed I did."
Mesi would soon after begin his illustrious 10-year professional career in 1997, and Buffalo’s boxing king, "Baby" Joe, was born.
For him, the most memorable fights were not on the big stages in New York City or Las Vegas, but at home at the old HSBC Arena, now KeyBank Center.
"Everybody wants to fight at MGM Grand or Mandalay Bay or Madison Square Garden, and I did that. But I loved fighting in Buffalo. Those were my biggest and most memorable nights, where I had the same HBO and ESPN coverage but not at Madison Square Garden, in Buffalo," said Mesi.
"Baby" Joe went 36-0 in the entirety of his career, going unbeaten before his retirement. His 29th victory against 1996 Olympic gold medalist Vassiliy Jirov on March 13th, 2004, at the Mandalay Bay Casino in Las Vegas was one of the highest and most memorable points of his career, but would lead to his lowest soon after.
Mesi won through a unanimous judges’ decision, but suffered a subdural hematoma, or internal bleeding in the brain. This would lead to the suspension of his boxing license by the Nevada commission due to medical reasons.
"I made it to Vegas and it was great. It was an HBO fight, and in my opinion, it was my best fight. I fought a really talented, gold-medalist fighter and I had my best performance," said Mesi.
"After the fight, I don’t have a lot of memory, so I think my injury may have been a bit more serious then. It was a great experience, it just didn’t end the way I wanted it to."
"Baby" Joe never made it back to the star-studded and big-time fights that he had been a part of in years past, but his legacy as a phenomenal fighter is never in doubt.
"I fought four or five times in lesser-known states on lesser known networks, and [my team] kept saying one more fight, and that they’ll bring us back on HBO, and they weren’t," said Mesi. "I remember after the last fight in 2007 being on the plane and whispering to my wife that I was done."
With Mesi now having settled down in the city he loves, reflecting on the support he received from Buffalo back in his fighting days is a prime example of just how incredible the city can be.
"That’s why Buffalo is so great – we support our own. Even when the Bills and Sabres stink, we’re there. I have no doubt that if I was from Chicago or Houston or Los Angeles, I would not have had the support, I would have been a dime a dozen. I was blessed to be from Western New York and that’s the only way I would ever get 18,000 people in one building," he said.
"I loved traveling the world and fighting in other cities, but when I fought here, it was electric. There’s nothing else like it."
When the boxing door closed on Mesi, another door opened for him: politics.
"I love this community. I love going to Children’s Hospital and Roswell. I’d been asked in the past about running and I thought why not give it a shot, but it didn’t work out," said Mesi. "You’ll learn in life that everything happens for a reason, and at that time it wasn’t meant to be."
Mesi admitted that he’d "never say never" at the possibility of running again, but is very happy with his current work as a medical sales manager, as well as being a husband and father.
"I love it. I think God has put me on this path. There were no accidents, no injuries, everything that happened was supposed to happen," said Mesi. "Right now, with my wife, my three kids, and the job that I’m doing, everything has led me to this day, and I love what I’m doing."
The now 43-year-old Mesi is still often recognized around Western New York, and told how he heard someone shout "Buffalo’s third franchise" while pumping gas recently, a name he hadn’t been called in a long time. Although his fighting days are over, one thing is certain: unlike the former Buffalo Braves of the 1970s, this "franchise" is not going anywhere.
Adam Gorski is a junior at Cardinal O’Hara High School.