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Articles of 2010

The Itch Lingers, And Whispers, And Summons

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“Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable. —Clergyman Sydney Smith (1771-1845)

Joe Mesi sometimes tiptoes into his daughter Juliet Joelles room at night, and watches the three and a half-year-old slumbering peacefully. She looks so peaceful, so snug, so content. He pulls her blanket up to cover her body, and says a little prayer of thanks.

Six years after his world was turned upside down, and shaken like a martini by a cement mixer, after docs told him he suffered bleeding on his brain from the blows he absorbed during a ten round tussle with Vassiliy Jirov, the 36-year-old Mesi communicates with a higher power his gratitude.

He sends thanks for Juliet, and for his wife Michele, and stepdaughter Hope, and for a fullfilling job selling medical equipment for Stryker, a Kalamazoo, Michigan based medical technology firm which develops and produces medical implants, surgical and imaging technologies.

But there are moments, throughout the day, when the Mesi slips from a spell of gratitude, into a sphere of what might have been. And, what could still be.
****

His record, unchanged since he took out Shannon Miller in the first round on Oct. 12, 2007, stands at 36-0.

36-0, with 29 KOs.

He thinks about that record, and runs through the sad state of the heavyweight division, which consists of two standouts named Klitschko, and a spate of nonetitities. And he gets an Itch. He tries, for a spell, to quell The Itch. To consider the solid living hes making selling equipment for Stryker, and showing surgeons how to implement the gear correctly in ORs, while clad in scrubs. But the image of himself in scrubs fades, and he sees himself clad in shorts, boots, and gloves. Standing across from a Klitschko. Scratching that Itch, that urge that fellow fighters can attest lingers, sometimes far longer than is conceivable, or advisable.

Once upon a time, Mesi was on the fast track to a title shot. Hed been managed skillfully by his father, Jack, and had taken baby steps up the heavyweight ladder. From David Izon, to DeVarryl Williamson, to Monte Barrett. Jirov, a career cruiserweight, was to be a half step up in caliber from Barrett, and the fight was to be presented in Vegas.

No Buffalo style home cooking. No home field advantage. The rugged Kazakh, with a 33-1 mark, would be a hurdle that could be pridefully cited, once traversed.

Mesi got the win on March 13, 2004. But the price was considerable. He was knocked to the mat three times in the last two rounds by Jirov, and barely made it to the final bell. He was granted a majority decision on the undercard to the Winky Wright-Shane Mosley scrap; but all concerned, at least publically, were looking on the bright side after the narrow win. His heart was cited, and HBO would be plowing ahead with their option to show his bouts. I proved my point, Mesi said. Jirovs style was a problem, but Im ready to move up the ladder. Im satisfied with my performance.

Satisfied, but cautious. He went to get an MRI afterward, four days after the battle, and the readings showed abnormalities. The MRIs showed a subdural hematoma, bleeding on the surface of the brain. By April, word had leaked about the brain scans, and his career wasnt on hold, it was on life support. By June, pundit were weighing in, telling him to walk away. Understandable on their part; no one wants to see someone take undo risk in the ring. But Mesi fought that call, after a June MRI showed that the brain bleeds had healed, and he offered evidence from doctors who were of the belief that hed be at no more risk for a lethal brain injury, after suffering the brain bleed, now apparently healed up, than someone who had not been similarly afflicted. He sat before the Nevada State Athletic Commission, and pleaded for his license to be restored.

I dont want to read about him in an obituary, one doctor said, as he gave the thumbs down.

But Mesi kept pleading his case, and fattening the bank accounts of lawyers who headed up his case. He broke down the powers that be in Nevada, and in February of 2006, a Nevada judge ruled that his suspension couldnt last longer than his license.

On April 1, free of irony, he got back in the ring, against Ron Bellamy, in Puerto Rico. I may have something to prove to everyone, Mesi said. But the main thing is I have the opportunity to dictate my own career. If I lose the next couple of fights, Ill go away. I just didnt want to go out on someone elses terms.

In a year and half, he fought seven times, winning all the bouts. His opponents ranged from mediocre to sub mediocre, and for the most part, it was apparent that elements that were in place before were MIA during the comeback. He looked slower, most glaringly. Behind the scenes, Mesi says, he battled the blues. Uncertainty over being able to pursue his passion, he told TSS, kept him in a negative funk for much of the time. In his last fight, to this point, he met Shannon Miller, a limited but willing combatant, in Rhode Island, in October 2007. Mesi won by TKO in the first. But the comeback came to a halt. The passion wasnt present.

He entered into a new arena, the political fray, and while vying for a state Senator slot, told constituents that he was steering clear of the ring while aiming to snag a seat in the 61st District. Am I retired from boxing? No, the Democrat Mesi said. Am I going to box again? Maybe not, he added. I never made any plans to have a teary-eyed retirement press conference.
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The Senate race didnt go his way. There was as much, if not more, back-room knifefighting than found in the fight game. His opponent in the primary, which he won, tried to take him down with the assertion that a local billionaire improperly funded him. In the real runoff, last November, Mesi lagged the victor, by a 54-46 margin. Mesi stayed in the arena, and took a post running the Senate majority office. But that stint came to an end last July, when the disgracefully dysfunctional pols in Albany plummeted to new depths. Republicans engineered a coup, to toss the balance of power from the Dems to the GOP, and Mesi had to resign amid the upheaval. He dusted himself back up, and ironically enough, soon found himself selling Craniomaxillofacial and nuerological-related medical equipment for Stryker, a global leader in med tech. The Stryker gear is all stuff that pertains to the ex (?) fighter, who is well acquainted with the facial and nuerological irregularities that the devices service. Ive been doing this nine months, and I really do love it, he says. It keeps me mobile, and helping people, and earning a living. In this Buffalo-Rochester area, I am known by some of the dcotors, who may know about my hematomas, my broken orbital, my fractured jaw.

And yet The Itch remains.
**

The Itch flared up on June 19 in Niagara Falls, NY, , when Mesi checked out Hasim Rahman, a former heavyweight titlist, battling Shannon Miller, the last man Mesi had fought with. Rahman stopped Miller, but in the fourth, not the first as Joe had, and Mesis motor started whirring.

What if?

What if I committed two, three months, was properly motivated by a high hurdle, like a fight with Rahman, or Cris Arreola?

I am happy with what I accomplished, he says. But I could still box. I would. If the opponent were right. The Klitschkos, Arreola, Rahman…those fights inspire me. Rahman and me, we are marketable in this part of the country. I mean, I like Rock, but I was not impressed. Yes, if its the right offer, it keeps me interested.

Mesi doesnt try and spin the past, present himself as a world beater who stands as a tragic example of the cruel nature of fate, of what it can do do to the best laid plans. I think I couldve captured a title, he says. I think i would have been fully accepted as an exciting fighter. But…the story might not be finished.

No, he doesnt think hed get a license, quite likely, in Nevada or NY. An Indian reservation might play host, Mesi says, as he scratches The Itch in his head.

Maybe The Itch cant be serviced full-on with the same efficiency, but Mesi would still love to get both feet back in the boxing waters as an analyst, a broadcaster.

I want to stay close to the sport, he says. I think I can be a great asset. I dont have to box to be that asset. I have a passion, and I can show it being ringside.
***

The Itch can persist, lingering in a mans mind long after the first grays appear. It can subside, and flare up, like a pesky lower back sprain. The Itch, in fight game terms, is synonymous with hopefulness, unless it isnt scratched, and lingers too long, and becomes something potentially more odious. The man can count all his blessings, tally up the checkmarks of positivity he enjoys, but The Itch is an entity that clings stubbornly, often immune to benign neglect, or the passage of time, or common sense. As one gets older, one typically gains more respect, or at least understanding, for those who seek to service The Itch, in any arena, even if the attempt reads as quixotic. As you get older, you ponder mortality more, and it starts to seep in that, until we get back a report from an afterlife, it looks like well all have just one shot on this plane to do what we want to do.

The risk averse will tsk tsk Joe Mesi as he entertains a re-entry to the most dangerous game, and lobby him to think of Juliet Joelle snuggled safely in her bed. They will urge him to shrug off The Itch, ignore it, bargain with it, banish it with fierce urgency. But it will remain. Most likely it will remain, challenging Mesi, planting seeds of regret, demanding a final reckoning.

Articles of 2010

Judah To Fight Mbuza March 5 In NJ

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Totowa, NJ – Kathy Duva, Main Events CEO, announced their promotional firm won the purse bid held at IBF headquarters in East Orange, NJ, Thursday. The bid was for the right to hold the IBF's junior welterweight title fight between Zab Judah of Brooklyn, NY and Las Vegas, and South Africa's Kaizer Mabuza.

IBF Championships Chairman, Lindsay Tucker explained, “It is a 50-50 split of the earnings between the two fighters. Kaizer is ranked No. 1 by the IBF, and Judah is No. 2. Where the fight will be held is up to the winning bidder.”

Judah (39-6, 26 KOs) is promoted by Main Events and his own firm Super Judah Promotions, and Branco Milenkovic, of South Africa, promotes Mabuza (23-6-3, 14 KOs).

Kathy Duva confirmed the fight will take place at Prudential Center in Newark, NJ, late February or early March this year as part of Main Events' Brick City Boxing Series.  (Saturday Update: the fight is March 5th, in NJ at the Pru Center. The bout will be part of a PPV card.)

“We are very happy that Zab has the opportunity to fight for the IBF Junior Welterweight title right here in New Jersey.  Winning this fight will put Zab right in the mix with the winner of Bradley-Alexander and Amir Khan.” Duva elaborated, ” Zab will work very hard to win this fight so that he will be one step closer to his ultimate goal of unifying all of the Junior Welterweight titles by the end of 2011!”

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Articles of 2010

UFC 125 Preview: Frankie Edgar Vs. Gray Maynard

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UFC_Edgar_and_Maynard_Dec._2010
Few predicted Frankie Edgar would grab the UFC lightweight championship last year but he did. Most felt he would eventually win it but Edgar not only took the title, he beat one of the best mixed martial artists in history to do it.

Edgar (13-1) has emerged from the milieu of nondescript MMA fighters to become one of the more brilliant performers for Ultimate Fighting Championship. Next comes a rematch with Gray “The Bully” Maynard (11-0) tomorrow at the MGM Grand Casino in Las Vegas. UFC 125 will be televised on pay-per-view.

All it took was not one, but two victories over BJ Penn.

If you’re not familiar with Penn, he’s one of the most versatile fighters in MMA history and had been nearly unbeatable in the 155-pound lightweight division. That is until he clashed with Edgar. Until he met New Jersey’s Edgar, the Hawaiian fighter chopped down lightweight opponents with ease. It was only the heavier welterweights he had problems against. Namely: Canada’s Georges St. Pierre.

Edgar showed poise, speed and grit in defeating Penn in back-to-back fights. The world took notice.

“You know, if I keep winning fights, the respect will come eventually,” said Edgar during a conference call.

Now Edgar will find out if he can avenge the only loss on his record.

“I just think I grew as a fighter. You know, mentally, you know, physically I, you know, possess differently skills, increased – you know, I think I boxed and got better, my Jiu-Jitsu got better and, you know, just have much more experience now,” Edgar says.

Maynard seeks to find out if Edgar has added any more fighting tools to his repertoire. Back in April 2008, the artillery shelled out was not enough to beat the Las Vegas fighter.

“It’s a perfect time. He had the chance and, you know, he took it and the time is now for me and I’m prepared,” said Maynard (11-0). “Any time you’re going up against the top in the world, you evolve and change and so I’m prepared for a new fight, so it will be good. I’m pumped for it.”

Though Maynard’s record indicates he is unbeaten that’s not entirely true. He did suffer a defeat to Nate Diaz during The Ultimate Fighter series and subsequently avenged that loss last January.

The UFC lightweight title is in Maynard’s bull’s eye.

“Looking to take the belt for sure,” said Maynard. “We’ll see on January 1.”

Edgar versus Maynard should be a good one.

Other bouts:

Nate Diaz (13-5) faces Dong Hyun Kim (13-0-1) in another welterweight tussle. Diaz is the only fighter with a win over Maynard. Anyone watching TUF remembers Maynard tapping out from a Diaz guillotine choke. The Modesto fighter has a tough fight against South Korea’s Kim.

Chris Leben (21-6) fights Brian Stann (9-3) in a middleweight fight. Leben is a veteran of MMA and if an opponent is not ready for a rough and tumble fight, well, that fighter is not going to win. Stann dropped down from light heavyweight and we’ll see if the cut in weight benefits the Marine.

Brandon Vera (11-5) meets Thiago Silva (14-2) in a light heavyweight match up. Vera is trying to rally back to the promising fighter he was tabbed several years back. Silva is a very tough customer and eager to crash the elite. A victory by either fighter could mean a ticket to the big time.

Clay Guida (27-8) versus Takanori Gomi (32-6) in a lightweight bout. Guida has become one of the most feared fighters without a title. No one has an easy time with the long-haired fighter. Gomi lost to Kenny Florian but knocked out Tyson Griffin. Can he survive Guida?

Marcus “The Irish Hand Grenade” Davis (22-8) clashes with Jeremy Stephens (18-6) in another lightweight fight. Davis is a go-for-broke kind of fighter and is looking to get back in the win column after a tumultuous battle with Nate Diaz last August. Stephens needs a win too. In his last bout he lost to Melvin Guillard.

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Articles of 2010

Borges Looks Back, And Forward With Hope

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PacquiaoClottey_Booth_6

As the end of another year approaches, there’s no need to invoke Charles Dickens to describe what went on in boxing. It was neither the best of times nor the worst of times. It was just too much time spent on The Fight That Never Took Place.

For the second straight year the sport could not deliver The Fight, the only one fans universally wanted and even casual fans craved – the mix between Floyd Mayweather, Jr. vs. Manny Pacquiao.  No one has to be singled out for blame for that failure because this time there’s plenty to go around on both sides. The larger issue is what does it say about a sport when it cannot deliver its top event?

What would the NFL be without the Super Bowl? Where would major league baseball be without the World Series? Golf without the Masters? College basketball without March Madness?

They would all be less than they could be and so it was with boxing this year. Having said that, the sport was not without its signature moments. It was not bereft of nights that left those of us with an abiding (and often unrequited) love for prize fighting with good reason to hope for the future.

Three times promoter Bob Arum took the sport into massive stadium venues just like the good (very) old days and each time boxing drew a far larger crowd than its many critics expected. Twice those fights involved the sport’s leading ambassador, Pacquiao, who brought in crowds of 40,000 to 50,000 fans into Cowboys Stadium against inferior opponents Joshua Clottey and Antonio Margarito. Imagine what he might have done had Mayweather been in the opposite corner?

While both fights were, as expected, lopsided affairs, they showcased the one boxer who has transcended his sport’s confining walls to become a cultural icon and world celebrity. Pacquiao alone put boxing (or at least one boxer) on the cover of TIME and into the pages of such varied publications as Esquire, GQ, The Wall Street Journal, the American Airlines in-flight magazine and even Atlantic Monthly.

As history has proven time and again, that is what happens when boxing has a compelling personality to sell it and Pacquiao is that. Mayweather is such a person as well,  but for different reasons.

The one night he appeared in a boxing ring, he set the year’s pay-per-view standard against Shane Mosley while also leaving a first hint of dark mystery when he was staggered by two stinging right hands in the second round.

Mayweather was momentarily in trouble for the first time in his career but the moment passed quickly and Mosley never had another. By the end he had been made to look old and futile, a faded athlete who’d had his chance and was unable to do anything with it. So it goes in this harsh sport when the sands are running out of the hour glass.

As always there were some surprising upsets, most notably Jason Litzau’s domination of an uninterested and out of shape Celestino Caballero and Sergio Martinez’s one-punch demolishment of Paul Williams. The latter was not so much an upset as it was a stunning reminder that when someone makes a mistake against a highly skilled opponent in this sport they don’t end up embarrassed. They end up unconscious.

SHOWTIME did all it could to further the future of the sport, offering up a continuation of its interminably long but still bold Super Six super middleweight tournament as well as the launching of a short form bantamweight tournament which already gave fans to two stirring and surprising finishes with Joseph Agbeko decisioning Jhonny Perez and Abner Mares upsetting Victor Darchinyan in a battle of contusions.

While the Super Six has had its problems – including several of the original six pulling out – it also lifted the profile of former Olympic gold medalist Andre Ward from nearly unknown to the cusp of universal recognized as the best super middleweight in the world this side of Lucian Bute. If Ward continues winning he’ll get to Bute soon enough because that’s why SHOWTIME signed a TV deal with the Canadian and America may get its next boxing star if Ward proves to be what I think he is – which is still underrated and underappreciated.

HBO and HBO pay-per-view put on 23 shows, few of them compelling and many of them paying big money to the wrong people while doing little or nothing to grow the sport that has helped make their network rich. But they did have the knockout of the year – Martinez’s second round destruction of Williams – and some fights in the lower weight classes that were left you wanting more.

Two new names popped up who are causing the kind of fan reaction that also gives us hope for 2011 – American Brandon Rios and Mexican Saul Alvarez. They are two of the sport’s brightest young prospects because each comes to the arena the old-fashioned way – carrying nothing but bad intentions.
Aggression and knockouts still sell boxing faster than anything else and each exhibited plenty of both this year and left fans wanting to see more. Alvarez is already a star in Mexico without having yet won a world title and Rios is the definition of “promise.’’ Whether the star will continue to shine and promise will be fulfilled may be answered next year and so we wait anxiously to find out.

Backed by Golden Boy Promotions, there is no reason 2011 shouldn’t be Alvarez’s year and if it is people will notice and remember him because he has a crowd-pleasing style that is all about what sells most.

That is what boxing needs more of – fresh faces and new stars… so as fans we should root for guys like Alvarez, Ward, Rios and young Brit Amir Khan, who is a star in England but still a question mark with a questionable chin but a fighter’s heart here in the U.S.

Those guys and others not yet as well known are the future of boxing, a sport that for too long has been recycling the likes of Mosley (as it will again in May for one last beating against Pacquiao in a fight that's a joke), Bernard Hopkins (who can still fight although it is unclear why he bothers or where it’s all headed), Roy Jones and, sadly, even 48-year-old Evander Holyfield, who continues to delude himself but not many other people into believing he will soon unify the heavyweight title again.
If fighters like Ward, Alvarez, Rios, Khan, WBC welterweight champion Andre Berto and middleweight king Sergio Martinez continue their rise they could be the antidote for the art of the retread that Arum and Golden Boy have been forcing fans to buy the past few years at the expense of what boxing needs most – fresh faces.

The heavyweight division, which many believe determines the relevancy of boxing to the larger world, remains a vast desert of disinterest here in the US. The Klitschko brothers, Vitali and Wladimir, hold 75 per cent of the title belts but few peoples’ imaginations in the US, although to be fair they are European superstars and don’t really need U.S. cable TV money to thrive economically.

Each defended their titles twice this year, Vitali against lame competition (Albert Sosnowski and Shannon Briggs) and Wladimir against better fighters (Sam Peter and Eddie Chambers) but not competitive ones. Sadly, there is no American on the horizon to challenge them, a comment on the division and on our country, where the athletes who used to be Joe Louis or Muhammad Ali now opt for the easier and frankly safer road of the NFL or the NBA. Who can blame them considering all the nonsense a fighter has to go through to just make a living these days?

The one heavyweight match that would be compelling and might lift the sport up for at least a night would be either of the Klitschkos facing lippy WBA champion David Haye. The fast-talking Brit claims to not be ducking them but he’s had more maladies befall him after shouting from the rooftops how much he wants to challenge them that you have to wonder if Haye is simply a case of big hat no cattle syndrome.

For the sake of the sport, we should all be lighting candles each night in hopes our prayers will be answered and Haye will finally agree to meet one of them. It may not prove to be much of a fight but at least it will give us something to talk about for a few months.

Whatever Haye and the Klitschkos decide the fighter with the most upside at the moment however seems to be Sergio Martinez.  He has matinee idol looks, a big enough punch to put Paul Williams to sleep with one shot and a work ethic second to none. The Argentine fighter had a year for himself, starting with a drubbing of Kelly Pavlik followed by his demolishment of Williams. Those kinds of victories, coupled with his Oscar De La Hoya-like looks, are the type of things that if HBO or SHOWTIME would get behind him could allow Martinez to capture the attention of both fight fans and more casual ones.

In general, Hispanics fighters continued to dominate much of the sport’s front pages with Juan Manuel Marquez’s two victories in lightweight title fights leading that storyline. His war with Michael Katsidis is a strong candidate for Fight of the Year and his technical skill and calm demeanor make him the uncrowned challenger to Pacquiao. The two have unfinished business that should be settled this year if Arum stops standing in the way.

Two other fighters who gave us moments to remember in 2010 were Juan Manuel Lopez, who knocked out three solid opponents including highly respected Mexican warrior Rafael Marquez, and Giovani Segura, who won four times (that’s three years work for Mayweather) in 2010, all by knockout. Along the way, Segura defeated one of the great minimum weight fighters in history, slick Ivan Calderon, to win the belt on Aug. 28.

Lastly, boxing gave us another magical cinematic moment as well with the release of “The Fighter,’’ a film based on the life and hard times of junior welterweight scrapper Micky Ward. The film has won rave reviews and many awards and seems likely to have several of its actors nominated for Academy Awards, most notable Christian Bale for his sadly humorous portrayal of Ward’s troubled half brother, former fighter Dickie Ecklund.

Boxing has a long history of providing the framework for memorable movies and it did it again with “The Fighter,’’ a film that did more for boxing than any promoter did all year.

All in all, it wasn’t the best of years for boxing but it was a good year that picked up speed in the final months and, like that great golf shot you finally hit out of the rough on the 18th, left us with reasons to hope for a better year in 2011. If somehow it gives us Mayweather-Pacquiao, the emergence of Alvarez and Rios, the ascension of Martinez and Haye vs. the best available Klitschko in addition to the kind of solid performances that always come along, it could be a year to remember.

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