The 48th Round

This past week, heavyweight fighter Joe Mesi and Sugar Ray Leonard ended their legal dispute by coming to a settlement that allowed Mesi to seek other promotional offers and end his association with SRLB.

Mesi then reportedly signed a promotional agreement with Tony Holden.

Mesi had sought to get out of the deal because Leonard's organization had not made good on one component of the contract, which was to deliver a fight on HBO or Showtime by December 31 of last year. As it turns out, there was no December date being discussed, and though a fight was proposed to former heavyweight contender Michael Grant, it apparently was never brought up to Jack Mesi, Joe's father and manager.

Of course it wasn't, because one would have to wonder why in the world Mesi, who is not exactly the biggest heavyweight in the world, would consider a fight against a 6'7″ guy with some ring skills to be the optimum career move, especially as there were plenty of other people he could have fought.

A fight with Frans Botha was subsequently discussed, but SRLB was never able to deliver on that fight.

So Mesi decided to walk.

Both sides are compelled to stay silent about the settlement, but it looks like $100,000 was the price tag for Mesi's freedom.

That'll turn out to be a bargain.

We have written at length, both in “Operation Cleanup: A Blueprint for Boxing Reform” and this volume, about what we perceive to be the inherent dishonesty of Bjorn Rebney, president of Sugar Ray Leonard Boxing. None of the claims coming out of the Mesi camp sound foreign. And juxtaposing some of the clauses in the contract against what really happened serves to illustrate what has gone wrong in SRL's relationship not just with Mesi but in every fighter the company has dealt with.

Mesi's contract with SRLB not only guaranteed four fights during the calendar year 2002, but also what kind of fights they would be, and/or where they would be.

For example, the contract specifies that “Bout #2 shall take place on June 7, 2002 at the Turning Stone Casino during the Boxing Hall of Fame weekend on Sugar Ray Leonard Presents ESPN2's Friday Night Fights and shall be a ten (10) or twelve (12) round Main Event bout. The purse for this bout shall be a minimum of $30,000.00.”

Well, when he wrote this contract, Rebney, an attorney, had no guarantees or commitments from Turning Stone regarding the June bout. In fact, there were no substantive conversations. Besides, promoter Mike Acri had put on the show at Turning Stone during Hall of Fame weekend for the last six years, with the exception of 2001, when the Ali-Frazier women's fight took place. Did Rebney ever endeavor to contact Acri to place Mesi on this show? No, he did not.

Instead, what he chose to do, after Acri was in place, was to directly approach the Oneida Indian Nation, which runs Turning Stone, and demand a site fee of $118,000 for the ESPN show. He was politely turned down.

That led Rebney on a mad search for a site. The people of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina came to his rescue, with $75,000 in front money to serve as hosts for the June show, which was to include Mesi in the main event. Rebney never produced the card in Myrtle Beach, but never returned the money either, leading to a nasty legal entanglement, which includes a “cease and desist” order from the state of South Carolina.

The point is, though, that Rebney had no reservations (pardon the pun) whatsoever about guaranteeing a site for a fight that he could in no way assure anyone he could produce. Given those parameters, any misrepresentation is believable.

Under the Mesi agreement, the purse for Bout #3 “shall be $35,000.00 or the parties would split the net revenue generated by the event – 60% Athlete and 40% SRLB, whichever is greater (I had to add the punctuation).”

The problem is, it was Rebney's full intention that this “net revenue” would not include the television money realized from the fight – $52,000, or thereabouts, as per the company's contract with ESPN. Rebney told the camp, “Oh no, that's Ray's money”, which, translated, means – “We will be absolutely delighted to grab 40% of a live gate figure that Joe Mesi is 100% responsible for generating; an amount of money which, in fact, could have been attained with or without our involvement. In other words, a 40% 'tax' is a small price to pay for being associated with the great Sugar Ray Leonard, regardless of whether his presence means jackshit in the city of Buffalo.”

So what gives someone like Rebney the idea that he has that kind of leverage?

Well, perhaps that's something John McCain, the great protector of television interests in boxing, should be clued into. You see, SRLB's strength with Mesi resided almost completely in the fact that it appeared to be the most painless way for the heavyweight to get himself onto ESPN. Mesi, who was 21-0, drawing considerable crowds, and breaking into the rankings before becoming involved with Leonard's group, somehow could not get a date with ESPN on his own.

Instead, he was “encouraged” to get together with one of the promoters who was already “doing business” with the network at the time, i.e., Russell Peltz, Arthur Pelullo, and SRL/Bjorn Rebney.

For the uninitiated, that is NOT exactly analogous to walking into a room and being given the choice of sleeping with Heather Graham, Charlize Theron, or Denise Richards.

There's obviously something wrong with the picture. You can debate the actual abilities of Mesi all day long, but the fact is, he brings something to the table that most fighters don't – a “hometown” atmosphere and strength as a ticket-seller. As long as he was willing to fight opponents the caliber of Talmadge Griffis and David Izon, why SHOULDN'T the network have been willing to do business with him?

I can't answer that question. ESPN probably WOULDN'T answer that question. But no doubt, somewhere down the line, there's going to be a situation where a lawsuit ISN'T settled, and a question similar to it is going to have to be answered in a courtroom.

At that point, McCain, and the others who think like him, may very well get a taste of how foolish they've really been.

As if we haven't given them that already.

Copyright 2003 Total Action Inc.