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Boxing and the Law: Mesi Licensed to Fight

BY David Berlin ON April 10, 2006
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Joe Mesi’s lawyers have done what his doctors could not – paved the way for “Baby” Joe to once again enter a boxing ring.

On March 13, 2004, at the Mandalay Bay Resort in Las Vegas, Mesi edged out Vassiliy Jirov over ten rounds for a 94-93 decision win. Mesi cruised through the early rounds, easily outboxing “The Tiger,” but the tenacious Jirov eventually found his mark, putting Mesi down once in the ninth and twice in the tenth. The damage inflicted by Jirov was not enough to salvage a victory for the Kazakhstani, but it was enough to prompt the Nevada State Athletic Commission to place Mesi on medical suspension.

Joe Mesi, with the help of his doctors and lawyers, spent the next two years trying to get his suspension lifted. Hamlet might have blamed “the law’s delay,” but this time the delay was occasioned by Mesi himself. For many months, Mesi would not disclose his medical records, clearly reluctant to reveal the extent of his injuries. Mesi underwent five MRIs between March 17 and May 27, 2004. The first four revealed bleeding on the brain; Mesi had suffered two subdural hematomas in the Jirov fight, and he aggravated the condition when he attempted to move a dresser in early April. By May 27, the blood had been reabsorbed into the brain and the MRI was normal.

Mesi’s attorney initially acknowledged only the clean May 27 MRI, but the Nevada Commission was as dogged as Jirov, and insisted on receiving all of Mesi’s medical records before taking action on Mesi’s suspension. In August Mesi’s team finally admitted that the fighter had suffered a subdural hematoma, and by January 2005 all medicals had been provided to the Commission.

The Commission sent the matter to its Medical Advisory Board, which held a hearing on April 18, 2005. The Board unanimously recommended to the Commission that Mesi not be removed from medical suspension. On June 9, 2005, a hearing before the Commission yielded the same result. Noting that Mesi had suffered “multiple, bilateral subdural hematomas” during the Jirov fight, that “ubdural hematomas are the leading cause of death in boxers” and that “[t]here was no objective data or even real-life example of a boxer who had suffered multiple subdural hematomas returning to the ring without incident,” the Commission voted unanimously not to remove Mesi from medical suspension.

Mesi could not convince the Commission that he was medically fit to box. So he turned to the courts, and, almost by mistake, received a favorable ruling. But this ruling had nothing to do with Joe Mesi’s medical condition or his medical fitness to box. The judge found merit in a legal argument that was never presented to the Commission and occupied only a single paragraph in Mesi’s 27-page brief to the Court. It was practically a throwaway – until the judge caught the ball.

The Honorable Douglas W. Herndon, District Court Judge of the Eighth Judicial District Court in Las Vegas, Nevada, in a decision dated December 19, 2005 and filed on February 14, 2006, held that the Commission “did not have jurisdiction to continue [Mesi’s] medical suspension after the date of expiration of his boxing license, that date being December 31, 2004.” He ordered the Commission “to remove [Mesi’s] license from medical suspension.” In other words, the Commission’s power to suspend Mesi’s boxing license ended when the license itself expired on December 31, 2004.

The ruling makes legal sense, but not boxing sense. Because it makes legal sense, Keith Kizer, chief legal counsel for the Nevada Commission and the man who will replace Marc Ratner as executive director in May, has stated that the Commission will not file an appeal. Judge Herndon’s decision becomes legal precedent, and it seems likely that other states will follow his reasoning.

It is a decision that could have disastrous consequences for “Baby” Joe, and far-reaching implications for the sport of boxing.

The Professional Boxing Safety Act of 1996 mandates that state and tribal boxing commissions abide by the medical suspension of a boxer imposed by any other commission in the United States. The Court’s decision in the Mesi case dilutes the effectiveness of that law. Now a boxer under medical suspension simply needs to wait until his license expires; at that point the suspension will end and he will be free to apply for a license anywhere he chooses. Since boxing commissions issue licenses for a period of one year or less, that wait can be very short. In Nevada, for example, where the licensing period corresponds to the calendar year, a boxer who is suspended because he was injured in a bout, let us say, on December 10, will celebrate the new year and the end of his suspension three weeks later. With the expiration of the license, and the medical suspension with it, federal law no longer prohibits another commission from allowing the boxer to enter the squared circle.

To boxers who have been barred from the ring because a commission has determined that a medical condition makes getting into that ring particularly dangerous, the word goes out: Applications are being accepted. And they are being accepted by states with the softest commissions. The commission shopping that is already rampant in the sport will become more rampant. Boxers suspended by commissions with careful oversight and stringent medical standards will head to states with weak commissions and weak medical standards.

One of those boxers is Joe Mesi. Barred from boxing in the state where Judge Herndon holds court, “Baby” Joe headed to Puerto Rico for his comeback bout on April 1. The undefeated heavyweight from Buffalo is an attractive commodity. And since the almighty dollar, too often in boxing and in life, outweighs other considerations – like health and safety – it was not difficult for Mesi to find a commission to play host to the fight, and a promoter to stage the fight.

As long as the decision in the Mesi case remains law, many men will follow in Mesi’s path. Not only leading men like Mesi, but also journeymen who earn their pay as fodder for prospects who are building their skills and their records. It seems inevitable that boxers who should not be fighting will find their way into the ring, and that the number of serious injuries and ring deaths will grow.

A sport that desperately needs greater uniformity is moved in the opposite direction by the Nevada court decision. And this step backward highlights, once again, the need for reform in boxing. The hole created by Judge Herndon’s decision can only be filled by legislation. Congress can amend the Boxing Safety Act to say that a boxer who is suspended for medical reasons by a commission must be medically cleared by that same commission, and that without such clearance no commission is permitted to license the boxer. Of course, the creation of a national commission would provide a more comprehensive solution. If a national commission issued licenses to boxers, even if a license expired, the same medical considerations which prompted a boxer to be suspended in the first place would keep the commission from issuing a new license.

But there is no national commission, and Nevada has no control over the decisions of the Puerto Rico or any other commission. Nevada can only control Nevada.

The Association of Boxing Commissions has tried to fill the void. It has presented a sensible solution in the form of a directive to its member commissions. The ABC has prescribed that when a boxer’s medical suspension is terminated due to the expiration of the boxer’s license, and the boxer applies to another commission for a license, that commission is “directed to contact the boxing commission which imposed the medical suspension; determine the basis of the medical suspension; and, then, carefully consider all of the facts and circumstances attendant to the said medical suspension in deciding to grant or deny the boxer a license.”

Unfortunately, state and tribal commissions are not bound by the directives of the ABC. Tim Lueckenhoff, the organization’s president, candidly acknowledges that “the ABC has no power at all. We send out directives but it is up to the commissions as to whether they will follow them.”

In the case of “Baby” Joe, it seems doubtful that the Puerto Rico Sports and Recreation Department followed the ABC’s directive in granting Mesi a license. Marc Ratner and Keith Kizer both made it clear to Puerto Rico that Mesi was no longer on suspension in Nevada only as a result of a court decision and not because he was medically cleared to fight – and further, that the decision of the Nevada Commission was that Mesi is not fit to fight. Puerto Rico did not request from Nevada Mesi’s medical records or transcripts of the Commission hearings which contained expert testimony about Mesi’s medical condition. That fact alone reveals how “carefully” the Puerto Rico commission considered the facts and circumstances attendant to Mesi’s medical suspension.

Puerto Rico’s failure to follow the ABC’s directive will go unpunished. “As long as Puerto Rico follows their law in issuing a boxing license, we won’t do anything,” says Lueckenhoff. The ABC president is clearly frustrated by the powerlessness of his organization, calling it a “toothless tiger.” And that, of course, is the problem. There is no central body in boxing with teeth, no central body with the authority to require and enforce appropriate medical standards.

Joe Mesi, back in boxing trunks after two years of fighting his battles in a suit and tie,  came out a winner in his comeback fight, and, more important, came out with a few lumps but no serious injuries. He pitched an eight-round shutout of Ron Bellamy, who entered the fight sporting a 14-4-4 record, with three losses in a row, two by knockout. Although Mesi had a more difficult time than expected, the distance fight allowed Mesi to shake off some of the ring rust that had accumulated during his long absence from the squared circle. Still, Bellamy was not the fighter to offer Mesi a true test in the ring, and probably not the fighter to test Mesi’s medical condition.

Stephan Johnson, who may have sustained bleeding on the brain in a TKO loss to Fitz Vanderpool on April 14, 1999 (a CAT scan was inconclusive), returned to the ring and won his next two fights. But on November 20, 1999, he was knocked out in the tenth round by Paul Vaden, and died fifteen days later from the brain injury he suffered in the fight.

Marc Ratner is concerned, noting “we’re in uncharted waters.” Mesi waded into those waters on April 1 on the island of Puerto Rico. As he pushes deeper out to sea, Mesi and his medical condition will face harder tests.

When Joe Mesi received a favorable decision from Judge Herndon, did he really win? On that question, the verdict is not yet in.

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