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Mesi fighting for love of sport and to prove critics wrong Controversy follows return after 2 years

CAROLINA, Puerto Rico -- Joe Mesi has spent the past month living in paradise while waiting for his opportunity to return to the ring. He has been staying in a hotel located a sand wedge away from a magnificent beach on the Atlantic Ocean along a lively stretch in suburban San Juan. It really can't get much better.

The Town of Tonawanda heavyweight's passion for the area has become so strong that he's thinking about buying a house and setting up shop here. It would be an ideal getaway from detractors and boxing authorities who claimed he should never fight again. But his real escape isn't 85-degree weather and continuous sunshine away from the mainland.

It's always been the gym.

Mesi ballooned to 280 pounds a few months ago but trimmed down to 237 pounds for his official weigh-in Friday. He looked healthy and strong while anticipating his first fight in more than two years. He weighed in at 227 pounds for that bout. He's scheduled for an eight-round fight with 41-year-old journeyman Ron Bellamy today in Mario Morales Coliseum in nearby Guaynabo, Puerto Rico.

"This is what I miss," Mesi said after his weigh-in. "I miss the weigh-ins and the press and the stare-downs. It's the stuff that makes you nervous, but when you're not doing it for a couple years, you miss it. Right now, I'm very excited. The adrenaline is pumping."

Mesi has been sidelined since March 13, 2004, when he suffered at least two brain bleeds during a victory over Vassiliy Jirov in Las Vegas.

The Nevada State Athletic Commission suspended him, which prohibited him from fighting in the United States. A judge later ruled that Nevada couldn't sustain the suspension once his boxing license expired.

The controversy over his return and the popularity of the people surrounding him has made for big news in Puerto Rico, where boxing is second only to baseball among the territory's major sports. Mesi's trainers, Juan and Carlos "Sugar" De Leon, are local legends on this island of about 4 million people.

"Boxing is everything here," Mesi said. "That's what I do. That's my living. Come to where the boxing is great and big. The weather is good, and all they do is eat and sleep boxing. More importantly, my trainers know the area. It fits."

Today's event is considered a tuneup for Mesi (29-0, with 25 knockouts), but he knows the boxing community will be watching. People want to see if he's a shred of the fighter that once made him the World Boxing Council's top-ranked contender and carried him within a whisker of a monster payday. Others wonder if it will be two boxers and a funeral.

Bellamy (14-4-4, nine KOs) is an imposing but inexperienced 6-foot-5, 249-pound man who has been carted from the ring twice in his last three fights. He's a part time police officer in North Carolina who played basketball for the University of North Carolina-Charlotte in the 1980s. The bout, part of the undercard for flyweights Jose Lopez and Ilido Julio, will be televised only in Puerto Rico.

Mesi remained undeterred this week by claims he's risking his life by climbing back into the ring while reaffirming his health. He equated the subdural hematomas, which he said were smaller than the head of a pin, to minor cuts that mend themselves and eventually fade. Buffalo-based neurologist Robert Cantu, who is attending the fight, supported that assessment Friday after the weigh-in.

"I want to be heavyweight champion more than anything in the world but not enough to kill myself," Mesi said. "I can do without boxing. I would be OK with it. I'm that confident in my return, that confident in myself and my health."

Nevada officials have taken a different position while fearing Mesi could suffer long-term damage, if not death. The Puerto Rican Boxing Commission granted him a license a few weeks ago, saying Mesi passed all medical exams. It was another reason he wanted the first fight of his comeback to be staged here.

People who have suggested Mesi should retire have recent evidence to support their argument. Less than two weeks ago, welterweight Kevin Payne died following an eight-round victory in Indiana. Officials feared Payne, 34, might have had a pre-existing brain injury that contributed to his death.

"Casual fans hear 'subdural hematoma' and get scared," said Jack Mesi, his father and manager. "Insiders in boxing, the real fighters, know better. The commissions don't know. We have taken every test known to man and passed them all. If they come up with another one tomorrow, we'll take it."

No matter the testimony of experts or the rulings of judges, Mesi has been hounded by an underlying and undying question: Why would he resume his career after being told of the risks?

The answer is simple: Mesi believes he's at no greater danger than any other fighter, and he doesn't want outside forces running his life. He said the money he earns from this fight will be minimal, but there's no denying the possibility that big money could be ahead if he again ascends the world rankings.

"If I'm injured, I'm injured. But I'm not injured," he said. "Saying that, I'm not going to allow somebody else to dictate the rules and dictate my career and my future. I would rather go in the ring and lose a few times. Then I could tell myself that I gave it my best."

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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