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Baby Joe Mesi Spars in Puerto Rico

BY Michael Woods ON February 27, 2006
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Boxers aren't like you and me.

To be successful, they can't be. Any fighter, if he spent much time mulling over the risks of the sport and the potential hazards to his health, wouldn't have much time to execute his trade.

Are they brave? Are they crazy?

It's a debate for another day, and another 2,500 words. Let's just leave it at this: boxers aren't like you and me.

Joe Mesi, the once – and as unlikely it may have seemed over the last two years – and future heavyweight contender from Buffalo, certainly isn't like you or me.

If we had been in a war of attrition on March 13, 2004, against a skilled veteran, and then a post-fight MRI told us that our brain showed hematomas, even if they were minute, we'd say adios.

We'd channel Roberto Duran. No mas.

We'd find another occupation.

But for Joe Mesi, 32, it isn't that simple. Boxing isn't merely an occupation.

The average US worker will hold 10 different jobs in his lifetime. Mesi isn't interested in securing No. 2 just yet.

Something that damn well would dissuade us from continuing on the pugilism path, a subdural hematoma, gave Mesi slight pause.

He and his father Jack saw specialists, took scads of pictures of his brain, had experts examine them, and listened to the physicians.

Doctors with impressive credentials – we're not talking diploma-mill ding-a-lings with

Fisher Price stethoscopes – told the Mesis that he was no more likely to suffer further trauma to his brain than any other fighter and so the duo decided to plow on.

Me, I'm out the door when I hear the words "subdural hematoma" and "Michael Woods" in the same sentence. I'm off to search for job No. 6. I'm spending time on Monster.com to figure out my next path. But that's why they fight 'em, and I write about 'em.

Different breeds.

On Feb. 16 during a card at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City, I stood two feet from Joe Mesi and locked eyes with him. I'd just chewed a piece of Dentyne. I asked him point blank:

Joe, you're coming back after two years of inactivity while you fought to get a license to fight after being stripped of that right. You're aiming to fight in April. You haven't faced a live foe in more than two years. When you lace on the gloves, and step into the ring and hear the bell clang in that very first sparring session, won't you be nervous? Won't you be a little bit gun shy when that first overhand right comes your way?

Mesi answered me immediately and firmly.

"No. None. I have no worries about taking punches. I've done the research. I've talked to experts. I have no doubts."

I searched his eyes. I believe I have a solid built-in BS detector. He didn't look down, or fumble words. Mesi didn't hem and haw.

He betrayed zero fear about stepping back into the ring and facing an oversized man intent on inflicting harm upon him.

I pressed.

Joe, you've been getting in shape in Houston for a month. Your weight is down from 270 to about 248 or so. You've done pad work, bag work. But now comes sparring. You're going to Puerto Rico, where your trainer Juan DeLeon is from, and you're going to engage in the first sparring you've done since MRIs showed brain trauma. Won't you be nervous? Just a little bit?

Mesi smiled. He didn't flinch, or get defensive. He's answered this so many times, he'd be forgiven if he was slightly curt. "Nope," was all he said.

One week after the show at the Hammerstein Ballroom, Joe Mesi had gloves laced on. He had his head gear firmly attached. His trainer, Juan DeLeon, had addressed him the day before. "Tomorrow we spar," he said, matter-of-factly. "OK," Joe said, matter-of-factly.

The next day, Joe got up at 6 AM. He ran 4 1/2 miles, came back to his residence, ate, showered. He went back out and did weights at 11 AM. Back home, he showered and then rested. After doing a local appearance, it was on to the gym.

It was now 6:45 PM. Juan DeLeon, father Jack Mesi (with a video camera) and DeLeon's brother, the former cruiserweight standout Sugar DeLeon, clustered together in a Yauco gym. Hands were taped. There was some shadowboxing. A little sweat appeared. It was time.

The DeLeons and father Jack were about to see their friend, his son, face fire. Was there an extra element of interest? Sure. Were hearts pounding and were fists clenched with unchecked anxiety. Not likely. But were blood pressures up a point or two? They had to have been. But seemingly Team Mesi is all able to keep on point, and not let any shadows of doubt creep in. That's no small feat. "The opposition" had, after all, presented ample evidence in their stance to bar Baby Joe from plying his trade.

Across from Mesi stood a Puerto Rican pro, a kid nicknamed Eguin. He'd fought in international tourneys as an amateur, Juan DeLeon said. Had fought about 7, 8 pro fights.

There were no directives given to Eguin. No whispered pleas to hold back.

The bell rang. The two circled. Tentative jabs, to stretch out tight tendons, were delivered. The gym was quiet. This wasn't just any day of sparring.

Joe made him miss. Slipped. Ducked. Moved. Then Eguin connected. Joe's head tipped back a bit. And then tilted back forward.

The DeLeons and Jack watched. No ill effects.

Mesi went to his corner after three minutes.

Juan DeLeon asked him how he felt. "I feel great," was the answer.

Round 2. Joe showed more offense. His muscle memories came to the fore. "Show me the Puerto Rican style," Carlos DeLeon called. Fancy footwork followed. After the second round, Carlos DeLeon was impressed. "Joe is the champ without the belt," he said aloud.

Round 3. Joe stepped it up. Caught the kid with the left hook to the body, made him wince. Action stopped, while the kid caught his breath.

Round 4. "Be like Ali," Juan DeLeon directed. "Ali, Ali, Ali," he chanted. Joe obeyed, as much as a beefy Caucasian from Buffalo can anyway and floated like a beefy butterfly. The bell rang. Joe walked to his corner. No ill effects. DeLeon asked him the same thig he asks any of his fighters after sparring. "Did any punch hurt you?" "Nothing," came the reply. "I'm ready to get my belt."

After the session, he said, it resonated that he took some shots with no ill effect. But in the moment, he didn't exhale deeply in relief, as if he'd cleared a tough hurdle. "I didn't even think like that. I was thinking, 'How's my hand speed?' But I took a few hard shots. It crossed my mind that I took shots and I took them great," he said. "But it's not a concern to me. Not that I don't care about my safety. But I trust in my doctors and the research."

The next morning, the trainer asked for an assessment. "I'm a little sore," Joe said. "I'm happy."

They all watched a tape of the sparring. Joe laughed. He marveled that the layoff had been beneficial, to a point. He saw himself doing little things that he hadn't done before. Like when a hockey player is hurt and he has to sit up in the press box, he has the opportunity to see the game from a different angle, and it opens his eyes. Same thing with Mesi. He watched other fighters, lower weight guys. So his dipped and curved his front shoulder, while protecting his chin, a la Pretty Boy Floyd.

Sunday was a day of rest. It's 83 degrees there right now and Joe lay poolside and snagged some rays and some color. There will be another sparring session on Monday, Feb. 27.

Joe Mesi's re-debut will come on April Fool's Day. It'll be an eight-rounder, fought in Puerto Rico. April 1st, against a 41-year-old heavyweight out of North Carolina, Ronald Bellamy. He's 14-9, with four draws. He's been kayoed three times in his four losses.

He's perfect fodder for Mesi's re-ascension.

And April Fool's Day, the Mesis feel, is a fitting day for Baby Joe (29-0, 25 KOs) to return to the scene, and continue his quest for a championship belt. "It'll be April Fool's Day, for them, not us," he said.

SPEEDBAG

If you weren't placated fully by the naaaasty left hook Cal Brock unleashed to finish  off Zuri Lawrence on the Mosley/Vargas undercard, then advisor Johnny Bos will explain why Brock looked a tad soft for such an important bout.

"Calvin weighed 230 3/4 for this fight and this weight is good for him because he punches harder," Bos explained. You'll remember Brock impressing against Jameel McCline a year ago and he weighed just 218 then. "He was overtrained for that fight," Bos said. "It was his first big PPV test and he was too light." Bos concedes Cal could be maybe four rounds lighter in the future.

Next up for Brock (28-0, 22 KOs)?

A June 24 HBO date with Uzbeki heavy Timor Ibragimov (20-0, 12 KOs) Boxing After Dark.

Main Events current wunderkind, the Colombia welterweight who everyone's drooling over 21-year old Joel Julio (27-0, 24 KOs), will also be showcased. He'll fight Puerto Rican southpaw Carlos Quintana (22-0, 18 KOs).

Carl Moretti made the match and he and the ME crew are to be commended for putting their kids in with fellow unbeatens. I asked Moretti, on a scale of 1-10, 10 being most worried about his fighters' prospects, how sweated up he was about these fights.

"Eleven," he answered, chuckling. "I think both fights are 50-50. Quintana is a tall southpaw boxer/puncher and he's probably fought better competition than Julio to this point. Neither side had any hesitation in taking the fight." (Not a big surprise, because it's a WBA eliminator.)

Moretti continued the lowdown on the BAD Julio scrap. "Julio's hot right now, he's flavor of the month, but it's a difficult fight," the matchmaker said.

As for Brock's opposition, Timor Ibragimov, Moretti is quite right to consider that the Uzbeki will come into the bout with less to lose than Brock.

I asked Moretti if he's the better or worser Ibragimov (the other one being his cousin Sultan). "I look at him as the right-handed Ibragimov," said Moretti, again laughing. "But his cousin is more heralded."

Moretti said that this isn't simply a 'stay busy' bout for Brock, who's rated most highly by the IBF (No. 3). "The more exposure Calvin gets the better off he is when he gets a title shot," he said.

ME CEO Kathy Duva was ecstatic about Brock's performance against Lawrence. She emphatically denied a vicious rumor that's been floating around NY gyms for a spell –that Main Events isn't happy with Brock and wouldn't mind seeing him get beaten to get rid of him. "Whaaaat?" she said. "Whoever said that is a liar. He always does nothing but win. He's like Holyfield. People said he was too quiet. Cal does have personality. He's clever, he's sharp. And bottom line, he always steps up."

– Showtime execs, please accept this big fat hug from me because the Jeff Lacy/Joe Calzaghe fight is on "free" TV. We always rail, as well we should, when so many mediocre fights and crappy cards are foisted upon us on a pay-per-view basis. So it's only right that I heartily applaud the decision to offer a fight that could garner acceptable PPV numbers, especially across the pond, on regular cable. You guys took the long view, instead of the short, and you deserve props. Please keep it up, and you other execs out there, please follow this lead.

– In a couple days, I'll have Part I of a Joe Calzaghe overview on thesweetscience.com, the website with the very best quality of fight writing on the Net today. Thanks for reading.

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