The uncrowned son of Buffalo: Joe Mesi, local boxing legend discusses his life and career
If “Baby” Joe Mesi’s career has shown anything, it was that a kid from Buffalo could become a legend.
He had an unblemished record of 36-0 and the city of Buffalo behind him when his career stopped short.
Mesi refused to be defeated and adopted a fighter mentality.
“As awesome as it is to fight on HBO in Madison Square Garden and HBO at Mandalay Bay and MGM, those are not my highlights,” Mesi said. “My highlights are fighting HBO, ESPN, national television, in downtown buffalo with 18,000 of your family and friends and supporters. I had a secret weapon. I had Buffalo.”
Through his 15-year career, the Buffalo native was cheered on and celebrated by his home city. Their support doesn’t just come from his accomplishments: Mesi earned their respect through fighting for every dollar he earned.
But Mesi was never able to contend for the world heavyweight title.
An MRI revealed that Mesi suffered from a subdural hematoma, a head injury when blood collects on the brain’s surface, from his fight against Vassily Jirov.
“I have no repercussions from boxing or from the bleeds,” Mesi said. “In my heart, I believe I could have continued my career successfully and I could have become the heavyweight champion.”
Fighting through a loss
Yet, for his loved ones, seeing Mesi box was a struggle.
Although he was a beast in the ring, not knowing if he would come out as the same man he was prior to his injury, took a toll on his wife, Michelle Mesi.
Michelle remembers it being tough to watch her husband continue to box.
“Those experiences are not really mine to share,” Michelle said. “But they were very hard to watch. Joe went through a transformation and during that process hit some very low points.”
Mesi left boxing without being able to complete for the heavyweight title.
Over a two-year span, Mesi fought numerous legal battles with the Nevada court system with hopes to return to the ring.
But Mesi never fought in the ring again.
“After the injury and when he made his comeback, mostly because of the realization that he could get hurt again,” she said. “I did love watching him walk out to the ring, his eyes looked like he was a different person and you just knew he was in beast mode. I still love watching the videos of that today.”
His transition from the ring to the “real world” wasn’t easy.
“My injury was in 2004. [The years] 2005 and 2006 was a drawn out legal battle with Nevada State Supreme court,” Mesi said. “A depressive two years for me. What I considered my two best years of boxing or would have been, according to my age and fitness level. I was pretty upset about that and I was depressed and I turned to drinking and I did drugs. I was unhappy, I was a miserable person not knowing where my future was going to bring me.”
Mesi had to fight his way out of another loss and he did. Mesi was approached with an opportunity to jump into a new career, medical device sales with St. Jude Medical. Mesi was hesitant to do something he’s never done before.
“I’m not exactly a trained salesman, but I have a good rapport with my surgeons and doctors. I have this little niche territory of Buffalo,” Mesi said. “It keeps me out of trouble and I don’t have to get punched in the face any more.”
Mesi’s boxing mentality carried over into his professional life. He continues to work hard at what he does, knowing that if he puts in the work he simply cannot lose.
“Sales is personality based, know your product, which I do,” Mesi said. “I kind of ignorantly walked in and I didn’t have anything to lose and I care. You know I care about the technology. I care about the patient, I care about what the physicians needs are. I’ve always been that type of person that’s never changed.”
Life in the ring
Starting a career late and fighting to succeed has been a recurring theme Mesi’s life. He started boxing at 19. Mesi had always been a quick learner even though he wasn’t always the most graceful athlete.
“In high school, senior year, he got voted cutest smile and most clumsy,” said longtime friend and bartender at Blue Bull Tavern, P.J. Bryniarski. “So, he is still really clumsy and he is the worst driver in the world too but he hasn’t changed or anything, he’s Joe… He was the fat pudgy kid and least athletic of our friends.”
What Mesi did have was a strong mind and work ethic, which helped him get through maturing late both physically and mentally.
“After high school, I realized I’m not doing anything but getting fatter,” Mesi said. “My father said to us [him and his brother] ‘why don’t you guys go to the Buffalo Police Athletic League gym and it’s free, they have boxing there, you guys love boxing.’ My brother’s eyes lit up and he was like come on let’s go. And he would beat me up every day.”
The rest is history.
Mesi started winning amateur bouts all over the New York area, even winning the Golden Gloves boxing tournament. It wasn’t until later in his career that he realized what it meant to defeat the boxers he went up against.
“I beat these guys I shouldn’t have been beating and I didn’t know that then,” Mesi said. “Had I known that going into the ring, I probably would have been mentally defeated.”
Mesi looks back on a boxing tournament in Lowell, Massachusetts as his launching pad.
“You have to win six fights in a row all week long, it’s a lot. They kept saying Joe you’re next and I would go in and I would win. The crowd would be quiet and I would come out of the ring and they (his corner) would be like ‘Do you know who you just beat’ and I was like ‘No who was it?’ And they were like ‘That guy has been around for years.’ I would go up again and the crowd would be quiet again,” Mesi said. “I think I was successful because I didn’t know any better.”
After each fight, his close-knit friend group would celebrate. Not knowing when Mesi would lose, they took advantage of every winning moment.
“We were entourage before the show ‘Entourage,’” Bryniarski said. “He never lost so there was a lot of celebrating. When you go 36-0, there was at least 36 times we celebrated right there.”
The celebrations included meeting celebrities and former and current presidents. The lifestyle of boxing consisted of being tough and charismatic.
Mesi recalls the first time he met our current President Donald Trump fondly.
“Meeting Trump was awesome,” Mesi said. “I was a little foggy after that fight, that was after Monte Barrett at Madison Square Garden. But he was great, he was fantastic. That was when Donald was Donald.”
Mesi couldn’t believe his own stardom at times, going from a small town pudgy kid to a superstar promoted by “Sugar” Ray Leonard.
His fight nights are still some of the best moments the city of Buffalo has had. And even though he was never able to ultimately compete for the heavyweight title, many believe he had what it took to be a champion.
“He was really damn good, he was really good,” Bryniarski said. “His legs were big, he threw hard. He could hit you and he had the stamina to go a long way and box you, exciting boxing, the way it is supposed to be -- not just standing there throwing a punch here and there.”
Boxer to family man
The overall transformation – from boxer to family man – has given Mesi many new challenges, including raising three children with his wife Michelle.
For Mesi, becoming a father wasn’t the easiest transition, but it was a necessary one.
Mesi said being a father is the “greatest job in the world.”
“All of those hard times, confusion and learning experiences led him to where he is at today,” Michelle said. “Which, in my opinion, is right where the universe intended him to be.”
Jeremy Torres is an assistant sports editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org