The two-foot-high statue of St. Joseph remains firmly on top of Jack Mesi's dining room table. Nearly eight months after he brought the 150-year-old family heirloom out for its annual month-long stay celebrating the saint's feast day, he hasn't put it away, and he hasn't stopped praying. "He's going to take care of it," Mesi, a proud Catholic from the Buffalo suburb of Tonawanda, N.Y., says of St. Joseph.
The saint has some work to do. Mesi's son, Joe, is an undefeated heavyweight, a small star managed by his father who seemed on the brink of becoming one of boxing's bright lights. Earlier this year, he had risen to the No. 1 ranking of the World Boxing Council, and had hopes that his next fight would be for a major title.
In his last fight on March 13 in Las Vegas, however, Mesi was knocked down three times in the final two rounds by Vassily Jirov and suffered numerous blows to the head. Mesi complained of a headache and dizziness following the fight and the Nevada State Athletic Commission suspended him for medical reasons.
Since then, Mesi has remained suspended because his camp has not provided medical records the commission requested, Nevada officials said. Thomas Hauser, the Pulitzer Prize nominated, best-selling author, reported on the boxing Web site SecondsOut.com that doctors who reviewed the results of five MRI exams on Joe Mesi found that the boxer suffered at least three and possibly four subdural hematomas (bleeding on the brain) during his bout with Jirov. Subdural hematomas, the leading cause of death in the boxing ring, trigger a lifetime ban in Nevada and, under the Muhammad Ali Act of 2000, the rest of the United States must honor the ban. Most foreign countries honor the suspension, too.
"It's very frustrating and very disappointing," said Keith Kizer, Nevada's chief deputy attorney general. "We want to see the records from them the chairman requested back in March."
The Mesis, while acknowledging that they have not fully complied with Nevada's requests, have been steadfast in their belief that Joe Mesi should be allowed to fight again and have enlisted the services of a lawyer to help get him reinstated. In August, Mesi's camp finally acknowledged a small brain bleed, but insists the 30-year-old is fine.
"They can't stop it," Jack Mesi said, referring to Joe's ring return. "We have the records. Medical science is on our side. The legalities are in our favor. They really have to stretch to stop us."
Joe Mesi said: "I've had reports from more than one doctor saying that I am back to my normal self, healthy and, in their opinion, I am ready to box again.
"I feel completely myself."
A City's Favorite Son
Articulate, handsome, family-oriented with a strong middle-class upbringing, Mesi, 6 feet 1 and 230 pounds, seems to revel in his charitable work as much as in his quest for a title. In a city that is starving for a championship and has become begrudgingly accustomed to the Bills and Sabres losing in recent years, Mesi has become what the back of his robe reads: "The Third Franchise." He has compiled a 29-0 record with 25 knockouts, making him the biggest winner in town. He has drawn at least 10,000 to each of his three fights at HSBC Arena. Turn on the radio and you'll hear him pitching meat products. Turn on the television and you'll see him selling cars.
"Joe's an icon," said Jack Mesi, a 59-year-old retired D.C. and Buffalo police officer who takes considerable pride in managing his son's career. Jack has been at Joe's side since Day One of amateurs, through the 1996 Olympic trials, where Joe was an alternate to the U.S. team.
Jack Mesi told his son early in his career that he would sacrifice for his career. He did not know then how much they would go through.
"He said, 'Listen, you decide to do it and I'll do whatever it takes because I believe in you. . . . In 10 years, you're going to kick yourself if you don't try it,' " Joe Mesi said.
Tragedy seemed to haunt the Mesis almost every step of the way.
Joe Mesi's grandfather, the 1929 national amateur boxing champion, became ill in 1996 while Mesi was training for the Olympics in Colorado Springs. He died in February 1997. Mesi also lost an uncle, a former Buffalo Golden Gloves champion who helped get him interested in boxing. Then Joe's mother, who never was comfortable with her son boxing, died in 2000 after a long battle with cancer.
"She was by far the biggest fan," Joe Mesi said. "She loved the attention I got, the attention she got, she loved everything around it. . . . She loved everything right up until fight night."
In August, Jack Mesi was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He had surgery in October.
At one point, Jack Mesi's family members told him he had to end his son's career. "My family would say you got to stop him," he said. "[I said] I'm not telling him to fight."
Managing Joe's career did not come without a price for Jack Mesi. He nearly went bankrupt and had to refinance his home, sell property and borrow money from his sister early in Joe's career to keep him a free agent and away from "the sharks" of boxing, as he likes to say.
"[It was] very dangerous there financially for a while," he said.
A boxing novice in the beginning, Jack Mesi claims he always meant to turn the job over to someone else, but he couldn't find anyone who could do a better job. There were some rough moments -- at one point, the Mesis paid Sugar Ray Leonard Boxing $100,000 to get out of a contract -- but father and son persevered.
"He's not only my father, he's my best friend," Joe Mesi said.
Jack Mesi said, "We're as close as a father and son relationship as you can get."
Sitting in the living room of the ranch house where Jack Mesi still conducts all of his boxing business, the Mesis can laugh at the thought of nearly losing everything.
"As concerned as we were about everything coming up, we were having a blast," Joe Mesi said.
"Look, when you got a dream . . . What good is life without your dream?" Jack Mesi added from across the room. "How could you say it's not worth it? [We were] number one in the world."
They were. The WBC stripped Joe Mesi of the ranking, however, this fall. And whether he ever again ascends to such heights remains to be seen.
"I didn't achieve my goal," Joe Mesi said. "My goal wasn't to be the number one heavyweight contender in the world. My goal was to be the heavyweight champion of the world. I'm kind of obsessed like that. If anyone who really knows me when I set out to do something [knows] I'm going to finish it. But even if I don't achieve it I'm not going to let someone else tell me I can't. I want to be the deciding factor."
The Mesis knew early on their story had the makings of something for which boxing has pined for decades. Talented, white, American heavyweights -- indeed, Great White Hopes -- have become rare, and when they do rise, title shots often follow because of fan interest. Mesi appears to have the talent and the image.
"My sense is Joe Mesi had the potential to be very, very good for boxing. . . . Now, the only thing good for boxing Joe could do is retire," Hauser said. "And the worst thing in the world for boxing would be if Joe fought again because if he fights again and comes out okay, then it sends the wrong message."
Most boxing observers familiar with the Mesi case believe Nevada hasn't received complete medical information from the Mesis because the material would lead to a lifetime ban.
According to Hauser, one of the few outside the Mesi camp to see a report on Joe's MRI exams, the first MRI exam on March 17 showed a left parietal hematoma pressing on the left side of Joe Mesi's brain. A March 25 MRI exam apparently was misread and the problem appeared to be resolved. However, the next MRI exam on April 8 showed two subdural hematomas that went undetected in initial readings. The next MRI exam on April 27 showed the two subdural hematomas were still present. Mesi finally had a clean MRI exam on May 27, according to Hauser.
But without having seen any results, Nevada can't act. A March 19 certified letter from commission chairman John Bailey, obtained by the Buffalo News, ordered Joe Mesi to be cleared by "a neurologist and/or neurosurgeon and undergo another MRI of the brain" and to stay out of the gym. The Nevada commission bases its rule on hematomas on the belief by some doctors that anyone who has suffered bleeding on the brain has a higher tendency to bleed again.
"It's not in our hands," said Marc Ratner, executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission. "This whole process, it's up to the Mesi camp to get us everything before we can even have a meeting."
The Mesis' desire to keep fighting has raised some eyebrows in the boxing community.
"If there's nothing wrong with the guy why not get [the medical records] to the commission?" Kizer said. "Even if there's something wrong, maybe even more so that you'd want him to get to the commission's doctors. Either way, you should want the commission's doctors to have the records [as soon as possible]."
Mesi's camp twice has made moves to avoid sending the records, according to Kizer. At one point, Stuart Campbell, Mesi's Tulsa-based lawyer, contacted Nevada and offered to have a doctor of the commission's choosing examine Joe Mesi, Kizer said. The commission declined. Kizer also said that, earlier this summer, he was informed that Campbell planned to submit only the clean MRI exam from May.
If Mesi submits his medical records, they will go to the state's five-person medical advisory board. A hearing with recommendations from the board to the commission would follow. Mesi would have an opportunity to speak before commissioners decided his status.
"It's a sad situation," said Ron Katz, the matchmaker for Sugar Ray Leonard Boxing, Mesi's former promoter. "I would expect that out of any manager of a fighter. But when the manager is also the father of the boxer -- if the information that has come to light is correct -- then shame on him for possibly endangering the health and well-being of his son."
Weighing the Odds
The Mesis bristle at the notion that the father has anything but his son's best interest in mind, and some in the medical community don't think a fully healed subdural hematoma would harm Joe Mesi if he fought again.
Robert Cantu, chief of neurosurgery and director of sports medicine at Emerson Hospital in Concord, Mass., is widely regarded as one of the country's top sports medicine authorities. He is one of the doctors who examined Joe Mesi. While he can't speak about Mesi because of doctor-patient confidentiality, Cantu explained why he believes a collision-sport athlete can return to competition after recovery from a subdural hematoma.
"There's no evidence he's at greater risk for a brain bleed than if he ever had the first brain bleed," Cantu said. "And that's the reason we've got many athletes playing football, rugby -- all kinds of sports -- that have gone back after a subdural hematoma, especially one that did not require surgical incision."
David Hovdo, the director of neuroscience research at the UCLA School of Medicine, takes each collision-sport athlete who suffered a subdural hematoma on a case-by-case basis.
"If [the subdural hematomas] were mild it's debatable, but I would probably say no, he's not at any increased risk," Hovdo said, based on his limited knowledge of Joe Mesi's situation.
Hovdo doesn't believe someone could suffer three subdural hematomas from one fight and thinks the other subdurals were actually related to the original subdural.
"You can have a subdural," he said. "Or you can have three different bleeds within the brain all spontaneously happen at one time. But that would be pretty remarkable."
At this point it might be remarkable if Joe Mesi ever steps into a ring again. The fighter vows that his desire to box will not lead to a decision he later regrets.
"There's a lot of things I could do in life," he said. "I'm educated. It's gonna hurt, but I could live with [never boxing again]. But I'm confident. I'm picturing myself fighting again."
If he does, Jack Mesi will keep the St. Joseph statue out a little longer.
"I might leave it out the whole year and celebrate after we get cleared."