AS HE BASKED in
the glow of a unanimous-decision victory over a 41-year-old pug named Ron
Bellamy last Saturday, Joe Mesi admitted to feeling butterflies before the
fight. After all, it was the first time the 32-year-old, once one of the
up-and-comers of the heavyweight division, had fought in two years. He knew
he'd be rusty.
before just 2,000 spectators in a tiny arena in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, but his
return to the ring reverberated throughout the boxing world, which viewed his
comeback with queasy curiosity. Boxers take their lives in their hands whenever
they fight, but Mesi was pushing his luck more than most. In March 2004, after
he suffered two subdural hematomas--blood clots on the brain--in a win over
Vassiliy Jirov, Mesi was placed on indefinite medical suspension by the Nevada
Athletic Commission. At the time Mesi was 29-0 with 25 knockouts and ranked as
the WBC's No. 1 contender, but the ruling was essentially a death sentence for
his career. The suburban Buffalo native was banned from fighting anywhere in
the U.S., including Puerto Rico.
commission had reason to be skittish: Subdural hematomas are the leading cause
of ring deaths. But Mesi insisted his brain injuries were minor and, with the
backing of several high-profile neurologists who said he had healed enough to
fight, he went to court to get the suspension lifted. After a 20-month legal
battle, a Nevada judge ruled in December that the state could no longer enforce
the nationwide ban because Mesi's boxing license had expired.
It was a legal
loophole: The court didn't agree he was healthy, but Mesi was free to fight in
any state that gave him medical clearance. "The judge ruled by the letter
of the law, and he was right," says Nevada deputy attorney general Keith
Kizer. "But that doesn't change the fact that we are concerned for the
safety of Joe Mesi."
in Nevada and New York say it's unlikely that Mesi would be cleared to fight in
their states, but in February the Puerto Rico Boxing Commission licensed him,
clearing the way for an eight-round bout with Bellamy. Mesi was a shadow of the
fighter he once was. "I give myself a C-plus," he said. By the seventh
round Bellamy had landed several telling head punches, and Mesi's right eye was
starting to close. But after the judges' decision he was upbeat, saying he
hoped to fight again in June and planned to be the champion of the star-starved
heavyweight division. "I was not concerned about my health by any
means," he said.