This is last in a series looking at Buffalo sports' greatest what-ifs. Today: What if undefeated boxer Joe Mesi's career was not derailed by injury?
“Baby” Joe Mesi might have fought Mike Tyson at Ralph Wilson Stadium, delivering one of the most memorable sporting events in the history of Western New York.
He might have faced Vitali Klitschko for the World Boxing Council heavyweight championship.
But those dreams were dashed once Mesi, the undefeated top contender from Tonawanda, suffered a head injury in his final big-time fight, a victory by unanimous decision against Vasilly Jirov in 2004 in Las Vegas. Days later, after MRI exams revealed subdural hematomas, or burst blood vessels on the surface of his brain, Mesi’s boxing license was indefinitely suspended for medical reasons by the athletic commissions in Nevada and New York, effectively nixing his prospective fight against Tyson and crippling his title pursuit at the apex of his career.
But what if the injury had never happened? What if Mesi had somehow avoided the right hand to the back of the head from Jirov that hobbled him in the ninth round of their 10-round bout and ostensibly short-circuited his lofty aspirations?
“To me, Joe Mesi-Mike Tyson at Ralph Wilson Stadium could have been one of the biggest fights in history,” Mesi’s former boxing promoter, Tony Holden, said this week. “Because I honestly think he would have sold it out. Are you kidding me? Mike Tyson coming to Buffalo to fight Joe Mesi? Of course he would have.
“Joe was the ‘Third Franchise’ in that town. You had the Bills, the Sabres and Joe Mesi.”
The Sweet Home High School graduate climbed from the local Police Athletic League circuit to become the No. 1 contender for the WBC heavyweight championship at the height of his 10-year pro career, which spanned from 1997 to 2007, his star buoyed by the legions of locals who flocked to his fights, packing KeyBank Center, then known as HSBC Arena, on three occasions.
The horde followed Mesi to New York City, where he defeated Monte Barrett by majority decision after 10 rounds on Dec. 6, 2003, at Madison Square Garden.
But three months later, Mesi’s ascent stalled following his victory against Jirov, the former undisputed cruiserweight champion and 1996 Olympic gold medalist, on March 13, 2004, at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino.
Mesi was knocked down three times in the final two rounds – he dropped to a knee after catching a right to the back of the head in the ninth, and was staggered twice more in the 10th – but had dominated Jirov so thoroughly to that point, he still won the fight by unanimous decision.
“I knew what this was all escalating to was our goal to fight at Ralph Wilson Stadium, now New Era,” Mesi said, detailing his career during an interview with The News before his 2018 induction into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame. “So we went from KeyBank Center, which was then HSBC Arena, to Madison Square Garden to Mandalay Bay. And fighting in Mandalay Bay, our goal was whoever is going to fight me next, whether it was Klitschko or Tyson or whoever is next, was coming to Buffalo. That was our plan. And coming to Buffalo for what we hoped would be 50,000 people. That was our goal.
“We had already met with the Bills, we had already met with the organization, and they were on board. And so was Tyson. Tyson at the time needed the money, so he was the easier draw and the bigger draw. It was pretty much a go. That was our plan. We always had a vision of where this would go.”
But Mesi didn’t fight again for 25 months, and never again stepped foot in a ring in Nevada or New York, despite waging lawsuits to circumvent or overturn his suspensions.
Mesi had seven more fights, all in smaller venues, before retiring in December 2007, two weeks after he turned 34, with a 36-0 record and 29 knockouts.
“For one thing, he would have been a super wealthy man,” Holden said, considering what might have happened had Mesi avoided injury against Jirov, “no matter what would have happened on his next fight.”
Tyson was in attendance at Mesi’s victory against Barrett at MSG.
Iron Mike had publicly expressed a desire to fight Mesi in Buffalo, but Tyson’s boxing licensee was also suspended by New York after he bit Lennox Lewis on the leg during a press conference in 2002.
“They couldn’t do it because the state wouldn’t lift (Tyson’s) suspension,” said Rick Glaser, an agent, broker and consultant who this year will be inducted into the New York Boxing Hall of Fame. “It would have been impossible.”
Of course, barring a successful appeal, Mesi and Tyson could have chosen a different location for the fight.
“It still could have happened. And if not here in Buffalo, then somewhere,” said Bob Caico, president of the Buffalo Veteran Boxers Association Ring 44. “It still would have been a nice money fight, and if he would have won like Danny Williams won, he would have been in line to fight Klitschko next."
Mesi might have beaten Tyson, who was well past his prime in 2004.
Three months after Mesi beat Jirov, Tyson was knocked out by Williams, a little-known British heavyweight, in Louisville, Ky.
Williams then fought Klitschko for the title, losing by technical knockout after eight rounds of punishment in Las Vegas.
“That actually could have been Joe’s path to the title shot,” Caico said.
The 6-foot-1-inch Mesi would have been a heavy underdog against the 6-foot-7-inch Klitschko, despite being two years younger and sharing an identical reach.
“He wouldn’t have beat Klitschko,” Glaser said. “As much as I like Joe, that’s not realistic. … The thrust that you can get by being able to punch down on somebody, the poundage per square inch is scary, compared to punching up.”
“From a fan standpoint you want to say, ‘Yeah, he’s got a puncher’s chance,’ ” Caico said, “but it would have been a tough fight.”
Even had Mesi lost to Klitschko, he might have had another shot at the WBC heavyweight championship in 2005, when Klitschko was sidelined by a back injury and Hasim Rahman defeated Barrett by unanimous decision for the interim title.
Mesi had beaten both Barrett and Rahman – edging Barrett in 2003 at MSG and Rahman as an amateur, though the two-time world champ developed into a far more fearsome pro.
Barrett, for what it’s worth, also fought for the World Boxing Association title, losing to Nikolay Valuev by TKO in 2006.
Holden, Mesi’s former promoter, said he has no doubt that Mesi would have been heavyweight champion, barring the head injury against Jirov or subsequent suspensions by the major state athletic commissions.
“From what I know, according to (Mesi’s neurosurgeon) Dr. Robert Cantu, the bleed was a vessel that didn’t affect anything,” Holden said. “It was a small vessel outside. Right or wrong, I don’t know, but he said that it wouldn’t have affected him anymore. If I’d have known that for a fact, I’d have fought for him. But with all these regulations (from Nevada and New York), honestly, he wouldn’t have won that.
“It was unfortunate. It all comes down to one punch in Las Vegas.”
Story topics: Baby Joe Mesi