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"Baby Joe" is turning pro.

Joe Mesi, the Town of Tonawanda boxer who came within one fight of joining the United States Olympic Team in 1996, will make his professional debut Saturday night in New York City.

The 23-year-old heavyweight will face Dwane Lee Cason -- a 6-foot, 210-pounder from North Carolina -- in a four-rounder that will open the first boxing show ever at the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem.

The 6-foot-1 1/2 , 227-pound Mesi (pronounced "Macy") said his goal is to become heavyweight champion.

"I think it could be easily attained for me. I was very close to the Olympics and I think I could have gone to the 2000 Olympics, but we chose to take this route. And I think it's going to be successful," he said.

Mesi's bout will be part of the undercard of a Home Box Office heavyweight doubleheader featuring Lou Savarese vs. David Izonritei and Hasim Rahman vs. Obed Sullivan.

Although Mesi has never fought beyond the three-round amateur limit, he said he has sparred up to seven rounds with pro heavyweights.

"I'm not too concerned with that (longer bouts). I'm in much better shape and I'm more relaxed," Mesi said by phone from his New Jersey hotel.

Mesi, a Sweet Home High graduate who compiled a 49-9 amateur record, also said he has no misgivings about fighting without protective headgear for the first time.

"I'm actually excited to get rid of it. It gets in the way for me. I don't think it's going to make much difference. I'm told that you don't miss it at all," he said.

Mesi said he has never seen his opponent.

"He's not someone I'm familiar with. It makes it more difficult, actually. I'll play it by ear," he said.

About 14 family members, including parents Barbara and Jack Mesi, plan to attend.

"I can't keep them away," said Jack, the retired Buffalo police detective who has been Joe's manager throughout his career.

Joe said he plans to continue to work with trainer Juan Antonio Leon. He said he will work at the Northwest Community Center in Buffalo as well as in gyms in the Houston area.

Young Mesi would have represented the U.S. at the Atlanta Games had he defeated Lawrence Clay-Bey in the super heavyweight finals of the Olympic trials in April 1996. However, Clay-Bey's right hook caught Mesi on the jaw and knocked him down.

Mesi struggled to his feet and took an eight-count before the referee stopped it at 1:36 of the first round of the nationally televised bout.

Mesi's amateur career ended on Sept. 6 when he lost a decision to Dominick Guinn of Hot Springs, Ark., in a bout at the USA Boxing training camp in Marquette, Mich.

Since then, Mesi, who has signed to be represented by agent Bob Spagnola of Galveston, Texas, has prepared for his pro debut by training in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and in Monticello.

"Originally, our plan was to head for the next Olympics," Joe Mesi said. "But I really wasn't treated that well in the amateurs. There was no way around the system for me. Some guys have the easy ride, but I did not. . . . I had to threaten lawsuits twice to continue my career. Things just weren't working out."

Mesi said his second professional bout is scheduled for Nov. 25 against an undetermined opponent in El Paso, Texas.

He said he hopes eventually to fight in Buffalo.

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