It would have been a shame for Baby Joe Mesi to suffer his first defeat in front of the biggest crowd to ever attend a boxing match in Buffalo. Sugar Ray Leonard and the rest of the Mesi camp may have had that in mind when they scheduled 6-foot-6, 221-pound Tennessee Turkey Keith McKnight.
The most anticipated fight to ever grace the Buffalo area turned out to be no more then a glorified sparring session, with Mesi chasing the overmatched McKnight around the ring for six rounds, and felling him twice before referee Ken Zimmer mercifully ended the beating 1:07 into the sixth. The 6-1, 227-pound Mesi made up for his reach disadvantage by continually being the aggressor, and not letting McKnight hit from the outside. In fact, ESPN 2, which covered the bouts as part of their Friday Night Fights Series, made references to McKnight wearing earmuffs due to the Tennessee native keeping his hands at the sides of his head in a defensive posture for large portions of the fight.
Mesi, for his part, was relentless to the point of carelessness in his attack, and was tagged with a couple big counter left hooks when he left himself wide open. The only time he was in any real danger was at the end of the first round. Mesi was pummeling McKnight in the corner when McKight landed a left hook that sent Mesi staggering across the ring, and drew some apprehensive "oohs" from the 9,554 rabid fans in attendance.
Still, Mesi continued with the onslaught, staggering McKnight several times before getting him down late in the fourth round with a quick right. Mesi turned up the heat in the fifth, landing the biggest punch of the night at the end of the round.
The overhand right left McKnight slumped in the corner of the ring. He managed to get up at nine and was saved by the bell one second later. Mesi was again landing some telling blows in the sixth when Zimmer decided he had seen enough and called a finish to the bout.
"He was fighting back less," said Mesi. "He was off balance the whole round. I was staggering him with jabs. I thought it was a good stoppage, and Keith wasn't complaining one bit."
McKnight concurred with that assessment, saying, " They didn't think I was fighting back enough, and maybe I wasn't."
While Mesi's TKO performance went pretty much according to form, the atmosphere and crowd at Alumni Arena were no less then electric. Mesi may have been a little over anxious to please his loyal following; he was searching for the knockout since the opening bell.
"I thought I was ready for it," Mesi said. "I had a lot of fights here in Buffalo, but nothing compared to this. This venue here, these people are right on top of you. It was incredible.
"It had an impact on my performance ... I was a little too excited, and I should have slowed down my pace a little bit."
All in all, it was a banner night for the arena, featuring a mix of a few students and a host of celebrities that included Bills and Sabres players such as Ruben Brown and Rhett Warrener. The majority of the crowd, however, was comprised of good old Buffalonians who, were it not for the fights, may never have come within five miles of the secluded Amherst campus.
This led to some favorite sporting-event past times, such as urinating in the sinks and smoking in the bathrooms. Indeed, due in part to a lackluster undercard, some of the hardest punches of the night were thrown in the stands.
While there may not have been the noblest of activities taking place, it was a refreshing change from the stagnant atmosphere that pervades the majority of sporting events at Alumni, whose audiences are typically made up of families and unusually reserved college kids.
The noise level in the building was intense, and Ron Katz, the matchmaker for Sugar Ray Boxing, proclaimed to have goose bumps when Mesi entered the ring. It was comparable to the atmosphere at the then Marine Midland Arena when the Sabres reached the Stanley Cup Finals in '99. That alone is shocking considering how miniscule the Baby Joe fight is compared to the Stanley Cup Finals in the national scope.
Mesi is still a few fights away from serious contenders and a title shot. Still, he is a regional phenomenon who with Sugar Ray has the potential to be a cultural one. He has everything America would want in a champion: good looks, charm, intelligence, and charisma.
The question that still remains is whether or not he has the size, strength, or boxing skills.