Baby Joe Mesi is no stranger to the annual Buffalo Veteran Boxers Association Ring 44 Hall of Fame Induction and Dinner ceremony. He's pretty much a regular at this gala, where he's enjoyed listening to stories from the golden era of the sport in Western New York.
Mesi will enjoy hearing those in attendance spin a good yarn about the area's legends once again, but he'll really enjoy the stories recalling his rise to Hall of Fame status.
The 37-year-old Town of Tonawandan headlines this year's induction class tonight at Salvatore's Italian Gardens. Mesi is one of four who will be honored during the annual dinner ceremony, which begins at 6 p.m.
"It's great to be recognized," said Mesi, who hasn't officially retired but hasn't fought since October 2007. "I'm probably one of the youngest inductees. It's great to be recognized because guys like [Ring 44 president] Jack Green and his group are continuing to do what they can to keep the sport alive in Western New York. It's a really great honor for me to be included with the names of the past."
Others to be inducted include Alan "Ponyboy" Kemp, Harry Fuller and Dick Loadman.
Kemp won three Golden Gloves titles while juggling a job and courses at Canisius College during the 1960s and went 12-2 as a pro. Fuller, of Niagara Falls, compiled a record of 66-18-11 from 1925 to '34, fighting many of the top boxers of his era. Loadman was a tough fighter who was stopped once in 190 bouts from 1912 to '23.
Don Patterson, the New York State Golden Gloves chairman, will be honored as the Buffalo Veteran Boxers Association Ring 44 Man of the Year, while Rudy Ngayot, a 19-year-old Buffalo PAL boxer, will receive Amateur of the Year laurels from the association. There are still some dinner tickets available, according to Green (call 856-9365).
A good number of tickets have already been scooped up by family and friends of Mesi, who serves as the most recent link to Western New York's rich boxing past. Mesi joins a Hall whose membership includes former world champions Jimmy Slattery, Rocky Kansas, George Nichols, Jimmy Goodrich, Frank Erne and Tommy Paul, along with fellow contenders Jackie Donnelly, Bobby Scanlon, Jimmy Ralston and Tommy Hicks.
Regarded by some as Buffalo's "Third Franchise" during his climb up the world rankings, Mesi attracted area boxing fans and those who just wanted to be part of a special ride from 2002 to '04, during his quest to become world champion. He drew more than 47,000 combined for his final four WNY bouts (three at HSBC Arena, one at UB's Alumni Arena), nearly 12,000 per event.
To put that in perspective, the last eight pro cards staged in Buffalo and Niagara Falls have drawn fewer than 13,000 total fans.
"The fact is it had nothing to do with the sport of boxing," Mesi said. "There are boxing fans here. It just had to do with Buffalo people supporting their own. The Buffalo people are the best. They're very loyal to their own and I couldn't have done it anywhere else like I did it here."
While Mesi's world-class talent played a big role in his Hall of Fame selection, his impact on the local boxing scene can't be overlooked.
"He did know Buffalo had a rich boxing history," Green said. "He made a conscientious decision to have his career based in Buffalo. Up until then boxing was part of Buffalo's past, but Mesi brought in Sugar Ray Leonard's [promotional organization], ESPN and HBO to Buffalo. Mesi did link that bridge to Buffalo's history and what we have today. He brought the boxing world to Buffalo and that rejuvenated boxing [here]."
While Mesi never lost a fight as a professional (36-0, 29 KOs), his career stalled just as he reached No. 1 on the World Boxing Council title-contender rankings. The 1996 U.S. Olympic Team alternate suffered multiple brain bleeds during a 10-round decision over Vassiliy Jirov on March 13, 2004 in Las Vegas. He was placed on medical suspension by the Nevada Boxing Commission after the bout and sued that body after being denied reinstatement.
He won the nearly two-year legal battle when a Nevada judge overturned the suspension because he didn't believe an active suspension should last longer than a boxing license. However, since the health standards regarding the issuing of boxing licenses differ per state -- Mesi couldn't get licensed in states with strict guidelines, like New York.
He fought seven times after the suspension -- his last a first-round KO of Shannon Miller on Oct. 12, 2007 in Lincoln, R.I., to win the WBC United States title.
"I do believe Joe Mesi would have won the world championship had he not had that injury," Green said.
Mesi, who also won North American Boxing Federation and New York State title belts during his career, admits there was a time he was very depressed after the injury. He was on the cusp of fighting for the same championship held by boxing legends Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Evander Holyfield.
Then like a sneaky uppercut, it hit him.
"I realized I was very blessed," Mesi said. "I had a blast. I can't be so selfish and stingy. I would have loved my title shot but sometimes things happen. I just realized there's other things in life than boxing."
While Mesi doesn't plan on stepping into the ring to fight anytime soon (he admits he still listens to offers), he's kept busy.
There was the unsuccessful run for the state Senate in 2008. He briefly managed the state Senate majority office in Buffalo in 2009.
He now sells devices for St. Jude Medical, working with doctors who help patients deal with chronic pain. He also serves as deputy boxing commissioner for the New York State Athletic Commission, but his most important job -- and toughest challenge to date -- is fatherhood.
Mesi's no longer the only baby in his household as he and his wife, Michelle, welcomed Juliet into the world 16 months ago. Mesi also has a 13-year-old stepdaughter, Hope.
"Boxing was easy," Mesi said. "It came more natural to me. The parent thing is one of the most difficult things in the world and one of the most enjoyable things in the world.
"I'm in a very happy place now with my family and my job."