AS HE BASKED inthe glow of a unanimous-decision victory over a 41-year-old pug named RonBellamy last Saturday, Joe Mesi admitted to feeling butterflies before thefight. After all, it was the first time the 32-year-old, once one of theup-and-comers of the heavyweight division, had fought in two years. He knewhe'd be rusty.
Mesi foughtbefore just 2,000 spectators in a tiny arena in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, but hisreturn to the ring reverberated throughout the boxing world, which viewed hiscomeback with queasy curiosity. Boxers take their lives in their hands wheneverthey fight, but Mesi was pushing his luck more than most. In March 2004, afterhe suffered two subdural hematomas--blood clots on the brain--in a win overVassiliy Jirov, Mesi was placed on indefinite medical suspension by the NevadaAthletic Commission. At the time Mesi was 29-0 with 25 knockouts and ranked asthe WBC's No. 1 contender, but the ruling was essentially a death sentence forhis career. The suburban Buffalo native was banned from fighting anywhere inthe U.S., including Puerto Rico.
The Nevadacommission had reason to be skittish: Subdural hematomas are the leading causeof ring deaths. But Mesi insisted his brain injuries were minor and, with thebacking of several high-profile neurologists who said he had healed enough tofight, he went to court to get the suspension lifted. After a 20-month legalbattle, a Nevada judge ruled in December that the state could no longer enforcethe nationwide ban because Mesi's boxing license had expired.
It was a legalloophole: The court didn't agree he was healthy, but Mesi was free to fight inany state that gave him medical clearance. "The judge ruled by the letterof the law, and he was right," says Nevada deputy attorney general KeithKizer. "But that doesn't change the fact that we are concerned for thesafety of Joe Mesi."
Boxing officialsin Nevada and New York say it's unlikely that Mesi would be cleared to fight intheir states, but in February the Puerto Rico Boxing Commission licensed him,clearing the way for an eight-round bout with Bellamy. Mesi was a shadow of thefighter he once was. "I give myself a C-plus," he said. By the seventhround Bellamy had landed several telling head punches, and Mesi's right eye wasstarting to close. But after the judges' decision he was upbeat, saying hehoped to fight again in June and planned to be the champion of the star-starvedheavyweight division. "I was not concerned about my health by anymeans," he said.