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FIGHTING AT HOME HAS A NICE RING TO IT FOR MESI

After five years of pugilistic wandering, heavyweight "Baby" Joe Mesi finally gets to show his stuff for the home folks.

The 24-year-old Town of Tonawanda native (pronounced "Macy") will be the local attraction on Thursday night's "Heavyweight Explosion" pay-per-view card at Erie Community College's Flickinger Center, 21 Oak St.

His scheduled bout with "Irish" Mike O'Grady of Pittsburgh will be the undefeated Mesi's fifth pro fight and, if things go according to his plan, his final four-rounder before stepping up to six-round contests.

Early today, Mesi's agent, Bob Spagnola, said McGrady may cancel because of an illness in his family. A backup opponent was being sought. Later, McGrady's manager, Don Spinetti, said McGrady had agreed to come.

Mesi turned pro last November after a 49-9 amateur career that brought him within one fight of making the U.S. Olympic team in 1996. Although he occasionally trains in Buffalo, this will be Mesi's first Western New York appearance since March 1993, when he knocked out David Printup of Cattaraugus on an amateur card at the J.B. Weber Veterans of Foreign Wars Post in Lackawanna.

"It probably was my third or fourth amateur fight," Mesi recalled.

Mesi, a Sweet Home graduate who interrupted his D'Youville College education for boxing, said he's undergoing "some nerves" about making his hometown pro debut.

"I'm not too nervous because I've had 60 amateur fights. This will be my fifth professional fight and I've learned to kind of control myself and have some patience in the ring. I'm much more relaxed," he said before Monday's sparring session at the Northwest Buffalo Community Center.

Although Mesi and Spagnola, of Houston, know little of McGrady (a 35-year-old who sports a 8-9 record with one KO), they agree that this will be the most experienced opponent Mesi has faced on a road he hopes leads to a world championship.

"They're bringing me along careful," Mesi said. "They're picking good opponents that are going to test me, that will make me work, but that I should do well with.

"I haven't seen (McGrady) much. He's fought some big name fighters, some other Olympians and things like that. And he's got twice as much experience as I do. So I'm going to have to be cautious and just take it one round at a time."

Mesi, 6-foot-1 and about 225 pounds, said he probably will outweigh the 6-1 McGrady by about 15 pounds.

Since turning pro at New York's Apollo Theater on Nov. 1, Mesi has fought just under seven rounds against lightly experienced opponents. He's scored two first-round knockouts, one second-round KO, and won a unanimous decision. In his last bout, he stopped Darrell Spratt in the first round at Baton Rouge, La., on Feb. 20.

Mesi said the four bouts have served as a good transition from the amateur to professional styles.

"In my first one or two fights, I was real aggressive in the ring, amateurish," he said. "In the amateurs you have to be very busy and throw a lot of punches because you only have three three-minute rounds to work with and the judges are looking for the busiest fighter.

"In the pros, you have more rounds to work with and you can be a much more relaxed fighter, throw less punches and actually do a little less. And now in my last couple fights, I've learned to do that," he said. "If a knockout comes, it comes. I don't try to knock them out. If I win by decision, that's fine."

The Baton Rouge bout marked Mesi's return from a flu-like illness that flattened him for much of the winter.

"We had to cancel a couple fights in January," he said. "The whole month of January was wasted. I lost a lot of weight and was sick. But I bounced back pretty good."

Although he still calls the Town of Tonawanda home, Mesi has moved to Houston to train at the Main Street Gym, also known as the "House of Pain."

"It's so cold here in the winter . . . you can't run outside. I like to run outdoors. So I go where it's warmer in Houston," he said. "Another big reason is because it's the home of the heavyweights, it's great sparring. I spar Lou Savarese, Alonzo Highsmith. . . . Guys that have 20 to 30 professional fights to my four. And they're teaching me some big things in the ring. They kind of help me out. They take me under their wing."

The tentative schedule has the Mesi-O'Grady bout somewhere between 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. on a seven-bout all-heavyweight program that starts at 8 p.m. The 10-round main event features Kirk Johnson (23-0) against Rocky Pepeli (19-10-1). Another 10-rounder matches Everett Mayo (10-3) and Michael Rush (14-3-1).

Tickets, priced between $75 and $20, are available at Ticketmaster (852-5000). The main events will be shown live, from 9 to 11 p.m., on the USSB Network (pay-per-view).

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