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By David Staba

Someday, a Joe Mesi fight will answer more questions than it raises about the heavyweight contender from Tonawanda.

It probably won't be Saturday's matchup with Vassiliy Jirov, though.

Which isn't a knock on Jirov -- the guy's won 33 of 34 career fights, has never been knocked out and took part in last year's Fight of the Year, according to most fistic sources.

Unfortunately for Jirov's heavyweight credentials, all but one of those bouts were under the cruiserweight limit. The Kazakhstanian couldn't stop trial horse Adolpho Washington, a puffed-up former light-heavyweight, and had to settle for a 10-round decision in July 2001. The showing didn't exactly shake the sport's glamour division, especially since Washington was once knocked out by a television camera. Honest. In a 1993 challenge of WBA light-heavy titlist Virgil Hill, Washington whacked his head against the camera and suffered a cut that forced an 11th-round stoppage.

Jirov could use a well-placed TV rig during Saturday's bout against Mesi, the co-feature on an HBO broadcast headlined by the clash between Sugar Shane Mosley and Winky Wright for the undisputed junior middleweight (154 pound) title. His style -- straight-ahead aggression based on a relentless stream of body shots and backed up by a very solid chin -- could make for the most exciting fight of Mesi's pro career. USA Today boxing writer Dan Raphael, not one normally prone to gush, called the match "a potential fight of the year candidate" when it was announced in January.

That analysis was based largely on Jirov's performance against James Toney last April, which was hailed by "Ring Magazine" and myriad other boxing outlets as 2003's best contest. In that fight, Toney's skill and power eventually overcame Jirov's aggression and conditioning. The former middleweight titlist dominated the late rounds, putting Jirov down in the 12th to seal a unanimous, but hard-earned, decision.

Toney moved up to heavyweight for his next fight, a ninth-round knockout that earned him widespread recognition as Fighter of the Year and, hopefully, ended Holyfield's days as a contender.

Jirov stayed at cruiser, winning two fights before the end of the year. He was in line for a title shot in the under-200-pound class, but turned that down when the offer came to fight Mesi.

That decision calls Jirov's motivation into question. A heavyweight without power may make for an exciting fight, but he's going to have an extremely tough time moving up in rankings dominated by guys up to 50 pounds heavier. Regardless of how he fares against Mesi, he could easily drop back down to cruiser. That's led to speculation that moving up is more about the payday than pursuing the heavyweight championship.

For Mesi, the fight is about exposure and trying to erase the doubts raised during his last HBO outing, a 10-round survival against Monte Barrett in December. After getting smacked around in a similar fashion to most Mesi foes for the first half of the fight, Barrett turned the fight by going southpaw in the sixth. Mesi looked befuddled by the switch, and got sent to the canvas for the first time in his pro career a round later. While he recovered quickly and did enough to hold on to his early lead, a majority decision against an unknown opponent did far less for his profile than the half-round knockouts of Robert Davis and DaVarryl Williamson in his previous two outings.

Of course, delirious crowds at HSBC Arena fueled those quick blowouts. Boxing's most historic venue, Madison Square Garden, hosted the Barrett fight and Saturday marks Mesi's debut in Vegas, the sport's biggest modern-day stage.

Jirov's southpaw stance, conditioning and work-rate -- he averaged more than 90 punches per round against Toney, a pace unheard of among the more ponderous heavyweights -- will help Mesi work on the flaws in his undefeated veneer that appeared against Barrett. But in terms of public and media perception, it's an almost-no-win situation.

If Mesi wins quickly, the rap will be that he knocked out a blown-up, outclassed cruiserweight. If, as Raphael predicted, Jirov can survive Mesi's power during the first few rounds and extend things toward the scheduled 10-round limit, doubters will again question his power and killer instinct, not to mention his ability to hang with the bigger heavyweights surrounding him in the Top 10.

If Jirov pulls off an upset, it puts Mesi's climb toward a title shot on indefinite hold. While one loss shouldn't ruin a good fighter's career, in this case, it would turn doubts into obvious shortcomings, and almost surely douse HBO's infatuation with their favorite up-and-coming heavyweight.

Part of that dynamic is due to the skepticism about white heavyweights that exists among much of the sport's fan base, and near-unanimous disbelief in the media. Thank the overhyped likes of almost a century's worth of Great White Dopes, fighters whose fame had far more to do with melanin deficiency than actual fistic ability. The memory of Gerry Cooney and Jerry Quarry, to name the two most recent, still lurks in the back of many minds.

Which isn't fair to Mesi. Quarry was a tough, but extremely limited, fighter whose fan appeal kept him fighting far too long for his own good.

Already punchy from two decades of leading with his face, Quarry was talked into a comeback bout at age 47 against a nobody. He took a horrid beating, accelerating the disintegration of his brain. He died in 1999, barely able to communicate or walk.

Cooney's life story isn't as dramatic, but his career had even less substance. He beat up way-over-the-hill versions of Jimmy Young, Ron Lyle and Ken Norton, springboarding him into a title fight against Larry Holmes without ever having beaten a contender who was anywhere near his peak. After getting knocked out by Holmes, he never won another fight of substance, his last two comebacks ended by brutal knockouts inflicted by Michael Spinks and George Foreman.

Mesi has yet to prove he has Quarry's toughness and will never have Cooney's left hook. But he's already shown better hand speed and movement than either ever demonstrated, as well as superior defensive skills and the ability to recover after getting hurt that Cooney never developed.

Some analysts, including Ron Borges of the Boston Globe, have said Mesi's original tentative opponent for this fight, former titlist Michael Moorer, would have been a truer test. But that has more to do with name than ability. Moorer, though, hasn't won a meaningful fight since his 1997 decision over Vaughn Bean, his final successful defense of the IBF title he lost to Evander Holyfield. In the interim, he got bounced off the canvas like a basketball before getting stopped by Holyfield. That was Holyfield's last knockout win. He also got destroyed in 30 seconds the last time he fought anyone you've ever heard of, David Tua in 2002.

Moorer, while a southpaw who likely still has more whack to his punches than Jirov, would have been little more than Mesi's Ron Lyle or Ken Norton -- an impressive name for the resume, but no real threat in practice.

Mesi and his father and manager, Jack, have been talking about a fight against Mike Tyson at Ralph Wilson Stadium this summer for almost a year. Nothing involving Tyson can be accurately predicted until it actually happens, but a huge fight against someone, quite possibly for one of the world title belts floating around, is in the offing if Mesi wins Saturday.

For anyone who doubts Mesi's worthiness to challenge for a title, look no farther than the fight between IBF belt-holder Chris Byrd and Andrew Golota scheduled for April 17. Golota's main claim to contention remains beating the hell out of a faded Riddick Bowe twice, only to get disqualified because he couldn't stop himself from throwing left hooks at Bowe's groin. Those bouts, of course, took place almost eight years ago. In the interim, the Foul Pole got destroyed by Lennox Lewis, quit in a fight he was winning against Michael Grant and knocked out in the third by Tyson, a result that became a no-contest when Iron Mike tested positive for weed after the fight.

While there are certainly valid doubts about Mesi's abilities and experience, it's difficult to argue that he's any less qualified to fight for a world title than Golota. At least as long as he beats Jirov.

If he does that, people can keep asking questions. But they won't stop Mesi from getting a shot at a title, quite possibly in front of an enormous hometown crowd.

David Staba is the sports editor of the Niagara Falls Reporter. He welcomes e-mail at dstaba13@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com March 9 2004