Fighting for his faith

Buffalo, N.Y., Feb 9, 2013 / 04:53 pm (CNA).- Ask “Baby” Joe Mesi how such a devout Catholic could step into a boxing ring to punch another guy for twelve rounds and his response begins with a laugh and an anecdote.

The fact that his unbeaten pro career ended prematurely is no laughing matter, but the lessons he learned along the way and ability to carry his faith along the way are priceless victories.

A 1996 U.S. Olympic alternate, “Baby Joe” – as Mesi was known in the ring – went on to a professional journey from 1997-2007 that saw him finish with an amazing 36-0 won-lost record, with 29 of those victories coming by knockout.  The former number one heavyweight contender in the world was glistening in his sport’s spotlight.

“There were several,” he says when asked about his proudest moment in boxing.  “I got to fight in Madison Square Garden.  I got to fight in Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas.  I got to fight in my hometown (Buffalo, New York), on HBO.  Another was being chosen to be an Olympic torchbearer, the last one, lighting the flame right before the ball dropped on New Year’s Eve, prior to the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics.”

Now 40 years old, his career was cut short by something that caused him to question his faith, which had been as solid as his punches.

“After my head injury in 2004 I wondered why God – when my next fight would be a title shot – would do this… it would sometimes lead me to fall off my path.  But He had a bigger and better plan and I’m living it right now.”

Back then the injury, of course, led Mesi to many neurosurgeons.  And today?  Baby Joe is still visiting those same specialists, but now it’s in his role with St. Jude, working to sell medical devices to those doctors.

It might have been a surprise that Baby Joe went into a boxing career, seeing as how he was picked on as a kid.  Nowadays that behavior has an all too common name, and Mesi, as a result, has started a foundation called Champs Against Bullying to combat it.

“As a former athlete and former boxer I thought it’d be good to voice my thoughts on this, especially since I was bullied as a kid.  I wasn’t real big and when my big brother Thomas wasn’t there, I experienced it,” Mesi explains.  “So I know how people feel and felt that my story and how I overcame it would be heard.  I even want to talk to parents about when their child is being bullied.  We had a couple suicides in Western New York last year by kids who were being bullied.  Now there’s even online bullying.  Kids’ grades are slipping and they are emotionally damaged.”

His good works don’t end there.  There is also the Baby Joe Mesi Fight for Organ Donors, “to create awareness for the importance of organ donation and raise money and help support hospitals that do transplant procedures,” he says.  “My cousin, Genelle Shanor, had kidney failure and a couple transplants and we were real close – like a sister – and she lost her battle at the height of my popularity, which provided the opportunity to raise awareness and we’ve made a lot of impact with the foundation… (Society is) so into recycling – paper, glass, etc. – but we don’t do enough about re-using our organs.  So many lives can be improved and saved.”

His generous spirit obviously comes from his Catholic faith, the early roots of which he reflects on.  “I always had a special relationship with God.  To this day I still have my holy box.  When I was young I took a shoe box from my father and started filling it with, say, a rosary or a prayer card and things like that, and to this day it’s in my nightstand… I think that comes from my background, my upbringing, watching my parents be good people and be good to others.  I rarely if ever pray for myself.  I’m too blessed to pray for myself.”

There is one exception to that rule, and it came during his boxing career.

“The one time I would pray for myself was to be safe, for me and my opponent both, and for neither of us to get hurt.  I’m friends with my competitors and still talk to them, and in each one of my fights – 85 amateur and 36 pro fights – I put a scapular in my boots and socks and would touch them before each match… when I was getting introduced, as a way to keep God with me before, during, and after the fight and in training and not wanting anyone to get hurt.”

So then as for going in the squared circle to punch someone for possibly as many as twelve rounds?  “I often struggled with that.  People ask me, for such a nice guy, where did you get this anger?  But in looking at boxers, this is just a talent God gave them and they’re all family men and it doesn’t make us evil people.  We’d help each other up off the mat and hug each other and learn about each other.  It’s a wonderful sport.  It’s challenging to differentiate a godly man with a boxer.  You’d have to be in my shoes to understand.  I’ve at times never felt closer to God than because of boxing.”

Mesi appeared headed to transition from boxing into politics, running for a New York State Senate seat in 2008, but fell just short.

“When I lost I was miserably depressed for months.  I got married a couple days after the loss yet wasn’t myself.  Then God handed me this job (with St. Jude) months later and I just love it.  Maybe He wanted me to see, this is not for you.  He had another plan for me.”

Now more than four years since he married Michelle, there is a new “Baby Joe” Mesi in the form of the couple’s six month old son.  He is a little brother to Hope and Juliet.  The three will no doubt hear first-hand the message that the former heavyweight wants the junior high and high school student-athletes of today to hear.

“Keep your faith,” Mesi urges.  “Some may not want to be so public with it and that’s fine too at that age, but keep a place for it.

“The other message is, never give up.  I think back to my boxing career.  I wasn’t the biggest, fastest, or strongest, but I worked hard and that’s why I was as successful as I was.  Don’t be afraid of talent.  I’d rather go up against – in sales, boxing or anything – talent than hard work.  Everyone I boxed was more experienced than me, stronger and faster, but I worked harder because I had to.  Always work hard.  You don’t have to be the best, just give your best.  If you give your absolute best you’ll be surprised how far you go.”

Posted with permission from the Catholic Sports Association, an organization dedicated to highlighting Catholic sports professionals and enriching junior high and high school student-athletes with Catholic sports articles, conferences, a Web series, and other programs.

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