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"Baby" Joe Is Still a Champion to All His Fans

By Tony Farina

Joe Mesi could take a hit.
With Cuomo during Mesi’s run for Senate....

Once the top ranked heavyweight contender in the world, "Baby" Joe Mesi was at ringside last week for the Thursday night Fight on the Falls boxing card at the Conference and Event C enter in his official capacity as a deputy commissioner of the New York State Athletic Commission (NYSAC).

But while the Tonawanda native still attracts a crowd wherever he goes, his days of ring glory and standing-room-only performances in Western New York are now a part of local sports history, and some of that yesteryear fame was achieved in Niagara Falls at the old Convention Center (now the site of the Seneca Casino).

"Baby" Joe scored two TKO victories before packed houses in Niagara Falls in 2001, the 19th and 20th wins on his march to one of the longest string of unbeaten records in professional boxing history, 36 in all.

On April 27, 2001, "Baby" Joe disposed of Jorge Luis Gonzalez, one of the best Cuban amateur fighters to ever lace up a pair of gloves, in round four of a scheduled 10-round bout. Gonzalez's career included 31 wins in 39 professional fights, 27 by knockout. It was a huge night for boxing and for "Baby" Joe fans as the juggernaut rolled on.

A few months later(July 27), again at the Convention Center, "Baby" Joe stopped "Smokin" Bert Cooper, who once fought for the heavyweight title against Michael Mooerer, on a TKO in the seventh round of a scheduled 10-round fight. Fans went wild cheering on the undefeated local hero on his climb to national prominence. The legend had begun to build.

But last week, in Niagara Falls, Joe was not in the ring, he was an official of the NYSAC and he sat with Chairman Melvina Lathan to watch young fighters try to follow in his boxing footsteps, perhaps one day achieving the fame that "Baby" Joe reached in his career.

"It was nice, a great venue," said the former ring great in an interview about the Falls boxing card. "The fights were competitive, but sales could have been a little better."

Niagara Falls native Nick Casal, a recent headliner who had been scheduled to fight in the main event, had his fight called off when the NYSAC denied his opponent a license due to concerns about recent eye surgery. Casal is hoping to regain his career after suffering a very serious head injury when he was attacked in May of 2012 by a man with a crowbar.

"Nick is still young enough (29) to come back," said "Baby" Joe about the canceled fight. "Things happen, that's boxing. But we're here to protect the fighters and that's what we do. "Ironically, I'm working for the same commission that denied me a license in my return from an injury, and I take my role in protecting fighters very seriously. Melvina does a terrific job in that regard, and I'm glad to be a part of protecting the game."

As far as the local boxing scene is concerned, "Baby" Joe says welterweight contender Vincent Arroyo, who has been bothered by medical issues, "is the best in Western New York right now."

It is his belief that fighters need to be active in the community, like he was, in order to gain fan support and win a following among the fans.

"They (the boxers) need to get out in the community, go to events, like fundraisers, and get their name out there," says the former ring star who credits his father, Jack, with helping him to win that incredible fan support that he enjoyed when he was boxing, and still does.

And "Baby" Joe also believes the fighters need to be patient with their careers, and "need to take their time moving forward." And continuing on the local scene, he's also impressed with Greg Brady who replaced Casal's main event fight by scoring a TKO over Joel Shojgreen in the second round after getting knocked down in the first round.

"Sometimes fighters quit or stop fighting after getting knocked down, which is part of the game," said "Baby" Joe. "But I like it that Greg got up and won. That's impressive."

"Baby" Joe is also a supporter of legalizing Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) in New York, which he called safer than boxing, as a way to protect the competitors and provide a revenue stream for the state.

"Right now, a lot of it is going on behind closed doors, and that's not healthy for anyone," said "Baby" Joe. "It should be regulated by the NYSAC, and Melvina is in my corner on this."

As for the boxing game in general, "Baby" Joe said it is being dominated by Europeans, and he blamed a lot of it the fact that some fighters just won't fight each other, partly because of heavy regulations, and for other reasons, like the failure of Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao to reach agreement on a long-awaited fight that would capture the boxing world's attention.

In case anyone has forgotten, here's a little history on the fighter known as "Baby" Joe who took his hometown by storm as a boxer and at one point ranked as the number one heavyweight contender in the world by the WBC before an unfortunate injury against former cruiserweight champion Vassily Jirov in March of 2004 derailed his bid for a title shot.

The Tonawanda-born son of a Buffalo policeman had come within striking distance of delivering a world championship to Western New York and his thousands of adoring fans before being sidelined for two years by the injury in the Jirov fight which he won by unanimous decision.

"Baby" Joe challenged the findings that he had suffered internal brain bleeding but the Nevada Gaming Commission suspended him nonetheless and he was effectively sidelined for two years at the height of his boxing career and while he later returned to win seven more fights, his title contender days were over.

The fighter who fought before standing room only crowds at HSBC arena and Alumni Arena at the University of Buffalo and in Niagara Falls would never fight again in New York and he retired from boxing after scoring a TKO win over Shannon Miller in October of 2007 in Lincoln, R. I.

While "Baby" Joe's boxing career was over, he nonetheless had given his fans a terrific ride and put Buffalo and Western New York on the international stage in the sport of boxing, winning every one of his 36 professional fights, one of the longest undefeated streaks in the history of the heavyweight division with 29 of his wins coming by way of knockout.

"Baby" Joe Mesi came to be known as Buffalo's "third professional franchise," the Bills and Sabres being the other two, and fans turned out by the thousands to cheer him on when he fought at home on his storied climb up the ranks of the heavyweight division. The fans were hoping that this popular fighter would bring home a world championship, and until the injury setback, that goal was within reach.

Even as "Baby" Joe ascended the boxing heights, he resisted calls to take his camp to more glorious and potentially more lucrative surroundings because he was not only fighting for himself, but for all of Western New York where his loyalty remained throughout his boxing career, a loyalty that was returned by his fans.

"Baby" Joe started boxing at 19, a little later than most fighters, but his career was marked by success from the beginning. Joe was a three-time New York State Golden Gloves champ and defeated future heavyweight titleholder Hasim Rahman to win the Empire State Games championship in 1993.

Also in the ring as an amateur, "Baby" Joe was a 1996 Olympic Team alternate, winning against the German and English representatives before the games started that year.

His professional titles include New York State Heavyweight champ, WBC US heavyweight champion, and North American Boxing Federation heavyweight champion.

As for things today, the ex-fighter makes his living as a medical sales representative with St. Jude Medical where, somewhat ironically given his own bout with a head injury, he calls on neurosurgeons and pain management physicians, selling surgical implants to help patients suffering from chronic pain.

"Baby" Joe is also continuing his organ donation campaign and is very actively involved in Champs Against Bullying where he spends considerable time talking to people about the bullying issues that many young people face.

"Baby" Joe is also an investor in an off-shore gaming site, Main Event Sportsbook & Casino or www.MESIcasino.com (see illustration), a way for sports fans to place legal bets on sporting events from the comfort of their homes.

"Let's face it, gaming is here to stay," says "Baby" Joe. That's the way it is here in this state and around the country. These sites just give fans an opportunity to make a bet from home, if they choose.

Joe is also a member of the Amherst Youth Foundation Board and is a member of the Good Government Club of Western New York.

"Baby" Joe and his wife Michelle, a local business owner, have three children: Hope Brakefield, 16, a class president and honor student; Juliet Mesi, 3, and another "Baby" Joe, 18 months old.

Wherever he goes in Western New York, he is still recognized as "Baby" Joe and people stop to tell him about the time they saw him fight locally, and carry the Western New York banner so proudly for his hometown. He remains a beloved sports figure and a true sports hero in the hometown he never left, even when he was one of the top ranked fighters in the world.

Here's a salute to a real hometown hero who never forgot his roots and who brought incredible excitement to all his fans who couldn't wait to see him jump through the ring ropes, shadow box to get his game together, and raise his arms, almost Rocky-like, in victory to the roars of his adoring fans. Who will ever forget what he brought to this community in his brief but spectacular moment in the sun.

As one fan said recently at a luncheon where he was speaking, "We still love you, Joe, and you still look like you could get in the ring again and bring home a championship."

"Baby" Joe Mesi will never fight again, but his fans will never forget.



Niagara Falls Reporter - Publisher Frank Parlato Jr. www.niagarafallsreporter.com

Mar 04, 2014