Mesi aware of health issues but still determined

3/28/2006 - Boxing

Boxing isn't for the faint of heart. No matter how much you describe it as a science, a sporting event, or an art, at the end of the day, it's a fight. People get hurt in fights -- sometimes permanently -- and some even die in particularly tragic circumstances.

This is not news to Joe Mesi. He's a smart man, one who has seen the best and worst of this game, whether it was happening to him or one of his peers. He has even gone as far as fighting for two years in courtrooms just to have the right to step back into the ring and put himself in the line of fire once again. Sure, it's not rational.

Boxing's not rational.

But we love it, warts and all, and we keep watching and keep thrilling to the feats of athletes who do things we will never do. That opportunity to do something unique, something that will stand the test of time, that's the addictive part to a fighter.

"Boxing is a very difficult road; it's hard and I love it," Mesi told MaxBoxing on Monday afternoon while in the final stages of preparation for his comeback fight Saturday against Ronald Bellamy in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico. "It's the 'hard' that makes it great. I love it because it's not something everyone can do or will do. I want to achieve something great, and I think this is something I can achieve.

"I think I was put on this earth not only to be a good boxer, but to help other people, and I think it's a way to leave my mark on the world -- by boxing and helping other people through boxing. I think this was a minor setback, and it all happened for a reason."

If you've been out of the loop for the last two years, Mesi's "minor setback" was bleeding on the brain suffered in a decision win over Vassiliy Jirov in March 2004, and a subsequent medical suspension due to the injuries suffered in the bout. Since then, Mesi's fights have been conducted in a suit and tie as he fought (with a clean bill of health from neurologists) with little success to regain his right to fight. Last December, though, a District Court judge in Nevada lifted his medical suspension, and Mesi, while not immediately licensed, was free to pursue licensure.

First stop: Puerto Rico, where he has been training for his comeback with trainers Carlos and Juan De Leon.

"There were a lot of reasons," said the Buffalo native when asked why he picked Puerto Rico for the site of his return. "Carlos 'Sugar' De Leon and his brother Juan are my trainers, so it's kind of a tribute to them, and also, the commission here was one of the first to step up and support me, saying, 'This guy's healthy and he passed his tests -- of course he can fight here.' And they also fought hard for me to get me licensed, knowing that I'm competent enough to return to the ring. There are several commissions now that are eager to have me fight there, but now, it's Puerto Rico."

And for one night, the island that spawned Benitez, Ortiz, Gomez and Trinidad will play host to an Italian-American heavyweight with the eyes of the boxing world on him. And it doesn't even matter that the fighter standing across the ring from him Saturday is a 6-foot-5 journeyman from North Carolina with a less-than-stellar 14-4-4 record (nine KOs) who has been knocked out in two of his last three bouts (he dropped a decision in the other one). This is all about Mesi, who doesn't even know much about the 41-year-old Bellamy himself.

"I know his name, where he's from, I know he's big and a journeyman type," said Mesi, 29-0 with 25 KOs. "It's a tuneup fight, but I have to take it seriously, as if he's another fighter in the way of my goal."

For Mesi, that goal is trying to recapture the buzz that was all his before the Jirov fight. Sure, he got dropped and faded late against Monte Barrett in his previous bout, but the Jirov fight was going to put Mesi in prime position to not only challenge for a piece of the heavyweight crown, it was going to also put him in the Mike Tyson sweepstakes.

That was then, this is now. And everything has changed. Now he's fighting a 41-year-old "opponent" who is still considered dangerous mainly because anyone who hits Mesi in the head will be considered dangerous. It's something Mesi will have to deal with for the rest of his career, no matter what he does from here on out.

"It may be a question that's brought up by a few people," Mesi admits. "However, think back to when [Evander] Holyfield had that hole in his heart, and that was all people talked about -- how crazy he is and this and that. He fought once or twice and it went away, never to be talked about again. I don't know if it's gonna be like that and just go away, but there will come a time when it will be more forgotten about than not."

Now is not that time, and every other question posed to Mesi these days is about his health and how he's feeling. The answers, repeated over and over, sound almost rehearsed at this point, but he still responds to each question willingly, including the one about his first sparring session after his suspension was lifted.

"It was great," he said. "Obviously I was a little heavy, around 250 pounds when I sparred -- I'm 237 now -- but it felt really good. Obviously nothing hurt me and I felt great. I'm sparring really well right now, and I'm eager for the first."

And in some strange way, if Mesi goes through the rest of his career with no ill effects from the injuries suffered in the Jirov fight, he may look back on this two-year break as a blessing, something he wouldn't exactly call it now, even though at 32, he's probably in his physical prime.

"The two years can never be given back to me," he said. "However, I do feel that I'm going to be a different and more complete fighter. And you'll see me as a fresh fighter."

He's fresh, not only physically, but mentally as well, and after two years of torture, with his first comeback fight just days away, those old fightin' feelings are coming back to him.

"It's strange," he muses. "It's a very exciting feeling, but at the same time, it's a kinda nervous one that I had somewhat forgotten about. But it's these types of feelings and emotions that I've missed for two years. It's the small things -- the week of the fight jitters and the excitement that leads up to the fight -- these are the things that I've missed, and they're what I'm grateful for right now."

He's grateful. Go figure. After competing in a sport that could have killed him, after dealing with a media that called him a hype job because of his complexion and his sizeable fan following, and after being turned away again and again when he tried to come back to this hardest of games, he's happy to be back.

This is how fighters operate. Take away the calm and collected veneer and the boy-next-door looks and attitude, and inside Joe Mesi is a fighter. We don't understand what that means -- we would say, "Bleeding on the brain? I'm out." Mesi doesn't think that way, and neither does Ronald Bellamy, or any other fighter.

So don't knock it, appreciate it.

Mesi, barring any catastrophes like tripping over a corner stool or hitting his head on the ring post on the way to the ring, will probably win on Saturday night. Bellamy's not being brought in to win; Mesi's being given him to get a small measure of confidence back in a live situation. After Saturday, though, the real fun begins.

"We'd like to have an active year, four or five fights, a couple of tuneups and then maybe talking to ESPN about doing some fights, we're not really sure," said Mesi when asked about his future plans. "It won't be before the end of the year before the HBO-level fights, but we're taking one step at a time."

And in a heavyweight division that needs some excitement, no matter how it gets it, Mesi is just what the doctor ordered, no pun intended. He's not trying to rush himself, though.

"I'm only going to move at the rate of speed I need to move," he said. "I can't be worried about my surroundings and who's in the division. I'm going to move as fast or as slow as I need to move, and that will be based solely on my performances. The division is in need of a solid, exciting heavyweight, which I think that I am, but I can't be too involved with the surroundings around me."

Two years of fighting, waiting and praying comes to an end on Saturday. Mesi says he hasn't lost a step in his time away from the ring, but he was always good at saying the right thing. There's no more talking once that bell rings, and an entire sport will be holding it's breath until "Baby Joe" takes that first clean shot and simply shakes it off and keeps fighting. Then he becomes just another heavyweight in a wide-open division.

That's all he's ever wanted.