After what he's been through over the past two years, kick-starting the local professional boxing scene he helped spawn is less a challenge than a joy for Allan Tremblay.
The chief executive officer of Orion Sports Management, which produced a series of professional shows on both sides of the river between late 2000 and early 2003, was back in Niagara Falls last week, checking out potential venues and talking about his own go-round with cancer.
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"Last February, I had blown up so much, you wouldn't have recognized me," the again-slim, silver-haired promoter told the Niagara Falls Reporter. "Now I've got a clean bill of health, I'm in fighting trim and I'm ready to get things going again."
Tremblay and the Brampton, Ont.-based Orion created the modern boxing market in Western New York and Southern Ontario with a series of promotions featuring Joe Mesi, including the unbeaten heavyweight's first bouts against name opponents.
Mesi dispatched former contenders Jorge Luis Gonzalez and Bert Cooper during Orion promotions at the former Niagara Falls Convention and Civic Center in April and July 2001, respectively.
Those shows drew crowds of better than 5,000 to Niagara Falls to see the Tonawanda heavyweight, who was then little known outside boxing circles. Mesi's knockout wins and the publicity they generated launched his career on an upward path that included steadily growing crowds at the University of Buffalo and HSBC Arena, the Top 10 of several organizations and a lucrative contract with HBO.
Tremblay operated on a fight-by-fight deal with Mesi and his father and manager, Jack, for the Niagara Falls promotions. Team Mesi signed a multi-fight deal with Sugar Ray Leonard Boxing in early 2002, an arrangement that ultimately cost the fighter nearly $100,000 to flee.
Promoter Tony Holden landed Mesi the HBO deal, which came to a skidding halt along with Mesi's career when he suffered at least one subdural hematoma in the final rounds of his last fight, a narrow 10-round decision over Vassiliy Jirov in April.
Though the Mesis maintain that they'll challenge the suspension dealt by the Nevada Athletic Commission, which effectively prevents Mesi from fighting anywhere in the United States or Canada, they have yet to launch legal action or submit the medical records demanded by the Nevada licensing body.
Meanwhile, Jack Mesi has been fighting his own battle with prostate cancer.
"I've always had a good relationship with the Mesis," Tremblay said. "I know they're going through some tough times right now, but hopefully, things will work out for the best."
While Mesi climbed the heavyweight rankings, Tremblay nurtured his own group of fighters, including Niagara Falls middleweight Tommy Huff.
The star of the Orion stable has been Steve Molitor, a super bantamweight who improved to 19-0 with a shutout win over Pedro Javier Torres in Sarnia, Ont., in June.
Tremblay believes Molitor, a slick boxer-puncher, is a few fights from challenging for one of the title belts issued by the sport's myriad sanctioning bodies. He'd like to put at least one of those stepping-stone fights, and possibly a title bout, in Niagara Falls.
With three casinos within a few miles of each other on either side of the river, Tremblay believes the Niagara Falls area is a natural to become a boxing destination, a place where professional promotions aren't a novelty, but a regular occurrence.
He said featuring local talent is a key to making that happen. In addition to Molitor and Huff, Tremblay said he's had discussions with Buffalo middleweight Les Ralston, whose only loss in 15 fights came against fellow unbeaten prospect Sergio Mora in a fight televised by NBC in May.
"Of course, we'd also offer a spot to Nick Casal," Tremblay said of the Niagara Falls welterweight whose four knockout wins in as many pro outings, the most recent on the undercard of Danny Williams' upset of Mike Tyson in July, have his star on the rise.
Sponsorship, from the casinos or elsewhere, will be crucial to turning Tremblay's plans into reality, he said. He's had talks with officials from Fallsview Casino on the Canadian side, and would like to do the same with Seneca Niagara leaders. Tremblay is also working on developing sponsorship deals with non-casino businesses, as Team Mesi did to support Joe's career.
"I'll sit down and talk with anyone who's interested in getting involved," Tremblay said.
While Seneca Niagara now occupies the venue where Tremblay promoted two Mesi fights, as well as a Canadian Heavyweight Championship tilt between Donovan "Razor" Ruddock and Egerton Marcus in October 2001, a number of venues remain that are smaller, but large enough to start rebuilding the market.
There's the Flickinger Center at Erie Community College's downtown Buffalo campus, where Mesi fought twice early in his career. Fallsview Casino has its own theater suitable for a boxing card. Tremblay toured Conference Center Niagara Falls, the most likely venue in downtown Niagara Falls, N.Y., last week, and came away impressed with its potential.
Big-name promoters like Don King were impressed enough by the turnout for Mesi's fights in Western New York to consider staging world-class shows here, even without the hometown attraction, according to last week's Buffalo News story by Tim Graham.
Tremblay's plan to put on smaller, yet high-quality, cards on a bimonthly or even monthly basis would help build the market needed to make regular championship fights a reality. Fighting regularly on either side of the river would also create a following for the growing corps of local fighters, which would in turn help sell tickets for less frequent larger promotions.
Casal's Boxing Club is also working to build the local market. The Oct. 30 amateur show at the Wintergarden, co-sponsored by Casal's, Smokin' Joe Enterprises and the Niagara Falls Reporter, drew a capacity crowd, and plans for a follow-up on Jan. 1, 2005, have already been announced.
And where boxing grows, television normally follows. Places like Biloxi, Miss., and Fresno, Calif., which have nowhere near the international name recognition of Niagara Falls, have become mini-Meccas for the sport. Regular events in areas like those generate tourist dollars and garner valuable television exposure on ESPN2, FOX Sports Net and other cable outlets.
Boxing and casinos have been a natural fit everywhere else, and there's no reason they couldn't be here, as well. Tremblay has shown repeatedly that he knows how to get things done, and get them done with a degree of class too often missing in the most violent of sports.
To turn that vision into reality, all he needs now is enough people sensible enough to share it.
If you weren't at the Wintergarden for the Oct. 30 show and missed its several airings on Lockport Community Television over the past few weeks, an account of the evening is available online at Rabbit Punch Boxing (www.rabbitpunchboxing.com/franzcasal.html).
Its author, 11-year-old Franz Ross, helped Yours Truly with the commentary for several of the fights featuring boxers from Casal's during the LCTV broadcast.
He understands the sport better than many who get paid handsomely to write and/or talk about it, and if you read his description and other columns on the Web site, you'd never guess his age.
|Niagara Falls Reporter||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||Nov. 16 2004|