I've never really known what to think about boxing. In elementary school I did a report on Cassius Clay and learned a little about his rivalry with Joe Frazier, but I was most concerned with the cool fight names like Thrilla in Manila and Rumble in the Jungle.
Parsing out the lyrics of Billy Joel's We Didn't Start the Fire took a couple years even after I thought I knew the song, and there's a bit about "Liston beats Patterson" in there. Somehow I processed that Leon Spinks was on the cover of SI once. Ali (nee Clay) lit the torch at Atlanta 1996. But I also think I first learned who Mike Tyson was from The Simpsons. Sometime in my teenage years I learned a little more about Jack Johnson and Jack Dempsey.
I still have never seen the Rocky films, other than the snippets that make it into in-stadium pump-up packages when you're going on the power play or have a runner in scoring position or whatever. And I've never seen Cinderella Man, but I don't think either of those would have done much to change my unconscious view of boxing as a sport whose best days came well before my time.
Sports heartbreak sticks with you because you get that "what might have been" that allows you to create an almost realistic fantasy. You're not changing too much to fantasize about a Temple victory in Amherst in 2008 - all that has to change is one of the four guys surrounding Naaman get his hand on the ball.
But "what might have been" is a dangerous road. It's a hell of a lot harder to fantasize about a world where Buffalo didn't suffer a precipitous decline for four decades. Instead of changing the position of one guy's hand, the timing of his jump, you're engaging in a hopelessly complex series of decisions even with the benefit of hindsight.
To make it to my point, I think "Baby" Joe Mesi was the perfect person for Buffalo to adopt a native son. Sure we've had Western New Yorkers make it to the top of several sports, but boxing and Buffalo fit together almost too well. It's hard for me to imagine a Buffalo-born golfer or tennis player get quite the same support as Baby Joe did.
By 2004, Mesi had piled up a record of 28-0 heading into a bout with Vassily Jirov in Las Vegas. Only three of those victories had come by decision, and only five had gone longer than five rounds. Mesi ended fights on his own terms, and he ended them fast. Heading into the fight he held the #1 Heavyweight ranking from the World Boxing Council and many, especially in Buffalo, felt it was a matter of time until he earned a date with one of the Klitschko brothers. It's hard to imagine now, but there was a lot of hope surrounding the guy. A different kind of hope from the one that a few years later would say "Hey, maybe T.O. can get us to 8-8!"
Usually sports heartbreak comes fast. A goal in soccer can come out of literally nowhere. A field goal can sail wide and there's no deliberation. No good. Sometimes, though it's drawn out, which only makes the end worse, as with injuries that are far worse than they looked.
Against Jirov, Mesi was unable to get the quick knockout that had become his M.O., but was well on his way to winning the fight on most watchers' scorecards. Despite having been challenged deep into fights only rarely in his career, and needing only to play defense without losing the final two rounds too egregiously, Baby Joe continued to go for the knockout, and was knocked down by Jirov in the ninth round when an aggressive punch failed to land and he left his head exposed.
Mesi would be knocked down twice more in the tenth round, though he did win the fight by unanimous decision. An MRI after the fight revealed that he had suffered one, maybe two, subdural hematomas - bleeding on the surface of the brain - as a result of the fight.
Ultimately, this turned into one of those slow heartbreaks, just like the decline of Buffalo, and of boxing itself. Mesi was immediately suspended by the Nevada Boxing Commission, whose decision was recognized and enforced by every other state. A couple years of trials and appeals kept a faint glimmer alive, and Mesi did return for a handful more fights before retiring, still undefeated. He has of course moved onto politics, but we'll ignore that.
The Bull Run editors worked hard to not just fill this list with Bills and Sabres stuff. And while this isn't the gutpunch of a playoff exit or gruesome injury, I feel strongly that in another world, Joe Mesi could have been one of Buffalo's greatest sons. This isn't a few inches with Buffalo on the cusp of a championship, or a referee's decision, or a sucker-punch reminder that for some people Western New York isn't the most desirable place in the country to live. This is a worst moment because with Baby Joe, we didn't even get to the cusp of a championship or to a place where we can pinpoint one decision. We never even got a chance to welcome a native son home, championshipless but celebrated for flying so close to the sun. Instead we lost him just as soon as it became clear that he was capable of getting close.