Slide of the Hardest Game Pt I (Revisited): the Case of Joe Mesi

24.05.04 - By Andrew Mullinder: Some time ago, I wrote an article for this website expressing the shock and revulsion I experienced after learning of Marco Antonio Barrera’s brain operation six years ago. How, I wondered, could the authorities who govern boxing be so inept that they could allow Barrera to fight two incandescent wars with Eric Morales and one with the power punching, Naseem Hamed, without knowing that the part of his anatomy they were all targeting had undergone major surgery? However, upon further assessment, far from shocking, the disparate nature of the various power structures – promoters, the alphabet sanctioning bodies and State Athletic Commissions – that hold the power in boxing, made such an incident inevitable.

When it is considered that the main concerns of promoting are financial rather than medical, and the sanctioning bodies are led by the IBF, who have been video taped accepting bribes, the WBA, of whom Bob Arum said that if "you want a fix…you bribe [Pepe] Cordero and he takes care of it" and the WBC, who in 1990 spent over $180,000 on general office expenses, more than $234,000 on "conferences", while not bothering to initiate a pension fund for retired boxers and spending a total of $35,000 on "life insurance for boxers", it is clear that the only realistic responsibility for medical provision within boxing lies with the State Athletic Commissions, which, in practice, it does. To a certain extent.

While a uniform and rigorous medical examination program would help make cases like that of Barrera impossible, and save the lives and improve the living standards of Boxers in general, each State Athletic Commission is autonomous and some are more rigorous than others. As Margaret Goodman MD, ever present ring doctor at big Las Vegas fights, recently pointed out in her regular ‘The Fight Doctor’ column in ‘The Ring Extra’ magazine, "Some merely require a physical and a warm body, while others request yearly Hepatitis/HIV testing, ophthalmologic testing, neurological exams, and MRI scans." Bearing this in mind, perhaps it is hardly surprising that Barrera managed to slip through the net, and, where a dangerous sport comes into contact with such inconsistent and often lacklustre medical infrastructure, it should have been obvious that such an incident would happen again.

Enter Joe Mesi. Mesi is a likeable and extremely popular heavyweight prospect from Buffalo, NY. Mesi has struggled in his last two fights, which, for him, represented a large step up in class. On both occasions, first against Monte Barrett and then against Vassily Jirov, Mesi has visited the canvas. In his fight against Jirov, he spent the last two rounds being battered from pillar to post and was literally hanging on to Jirov as the final bell rang. It has been reported by Thomas Hauser, in his column, that there are rumours of Mesi having complained of ‘headaches’ after the Jirov fight, and, after subsequent testing has allegedly been found to have suffered a sub-dural haematoma (bleeding on the surface of the brain caused by tearing of veins connecting the brain’s leathery covering (dura) to the brain itself). Dr Neil Martin, Chief of Neurosurgery at UCLA highlights the dangers Mesi faces and makes it clear, in no uncertain terms, that boxers who have suffered such injuries should not be passed as fit to fight on. He says, "If a fighter has bled once in the brain, he has proved he is susceptible and can bleed again. You don’t need years of research to prove it. The risks are too high to keep fighting".

It should be remembered that as things stand, the rumours regarding Joe Mesi’s medical condition are just that – rumours. But realistically, the chaotic nature of US medical examination means that he need only to avoid the two states (Nevada and New York) that demand the MRI tests which would highlight his condition, and he can fight on regardless. Of course, there will be those who argue that boxers, at the level which Mesi and Barrera operate, are handsomely rewarded for their risk, and it should be Mesi who decides on his own future. When this argument is injected with the emotive and persuasive realisation that to restrict people from perusing their chosen career is at direct odds with a society which enshrines free will and personal choice, it becomes clear that to dismiss it out of hand would be fatuous.

However, even within this context it impossible to ignore Jeff Wald, former promoter of George Foreman, among others, when he points out that "Virtually all of the Fortune 500 CEOs said ‘no’ to boxing. They don’t want their companies identified with the sport." What can often get ignored in the maelstrom of controversies such as that of Mesi, Barrera, and, for example, Duk Ko Kim and Michael Watson, is that beyond the human tragedy, boxing is presented as a barbarous and callous sport which leaves its participants irreparably damaged. How can boxing secure the funding essential for its survival when the preventative medical measures offered by some State Athletic Commissions would be considered gross negligence in other sports? Boxing must make the raising, standardisation and centralisation of the medical standards required to qualify for a boxing licence fundamental to any attempt to ‘clean up’ its image. Without such efforts, rumours like those surrounding Mesi, and incidents like that of Barrera and Watson, will occur more frequently than is necessary, and will continue to prevent boxing from achieving the moral credibility and mainstream popularity it once enjoyed.

Article posted on 24.05.2004

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