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HBO's Latest Heavyweight Prospects
Set to Chomp Down on the Big Apple

Oct 6, 2003  By Alex Pierpaoli
Backing a fighter and bankrolling him with a generous multi-fight network deal is one of the biggest gambles in professional sports, especially when that fighter weighs more than two hundred pounds. At heavyweight, up there where the chins are more than six feet in the air, it may be too late, financially speaking, when that chin is revealed to be little more than balsa wood. Sometimes plans have been made and subsequent fights have already been discussed only to find out the latest prospect cutting a meteoric swath toward the title is little more than an over-promoted pretender with glass in his jaw and butterflies the size of magpies in his belly.

A true heavyweight's legs can turn to Jell-o from a well-placed bolt to the head even if the punch isn't a Shavers or Foreman bomb. A one hundred ninety something pound Roy Jones just about starched the far bulkier John Ruiz in round four of their March bout, which serves as a recent reminder that power isn't the only thing that wobbles legs, rings bells and turns out the lights. But it is power and that one punch capability to put an opponent to sleep that makes heavyweights, especially aggressive power-punching heavyweights, the most lucrative commodity in the sport. On Saturday night, big time boxing returns to Madison Square Garden in an intriguing co-feature of heavyweight prospects matched tough enough that 2003's upset streak might just continue in the middle of a Manhattan snowstorm.

In the Main Event at MSG, Vitali Klitschko faces Nova Scotia's Kirk Johnson in a title elimination bout that becomes even more interesting now that it seems likely Lennox Lewis’ silhouette can be seen disappearing into the sunset of retirement.

The older Klitschko is coming off his career high performance of June at LA's Staples Center against the Heavyweight King Lennox Lewis. Klitschko's cut eye, a grisly wound which required 60 stitches to repair, caused the ringside physician to stop the bout after six exciting rounds. Klitschko howled in protest of the stoppage. Even with half his face awash in blood, it appeared on both the scorecards and to the assembled crowd that Vitali had usurped the title and boxing had a new Heavyweight King. However, the gash in Klitschko's eye was caused by the seam of the Champion's glove in a legal scoring punch, which made the abbreviated fight a TKO victory for Lewis.

Vitali had to settle for a moral victory against Lewis and more importantly he had won back the admiration of HBO just in time to benefit from a schedule devoid of meaningful heavyweight challengers and match-ups too ho-hum to merit much attention. With Klitschko's gritty effort against Lewis and his refusal to sit back and wait for the ponderous Briton to decide whether or not he would finally retire, Klitschko was matched against Canadian Kirk Johnson, the man he replaced versus Lewis back in June when Johnson tore his left pectoral muscle.

Having erased the doubts about his courage and mental toughness versus Lewis, Klitschko has managed to exorcise most of the demons around his TKO loss to Chris Byrd. Though Klitschko may have been leading on the scorecards against Byrd, he tore his rotator in the same manner Sonny Liston did against Then Cassius Clay, he was missing. In Kirk Johnson, Klitschko faces a talented defensive fighter who may not have the defensive artiste’ of Byrd, but he should be able to make the Ukrainian miss. Johnson's quick hands will have to make Klitschko pay when he leaves himself open and at 250 plus pounds he has the pop to do it, any heavyweight does if he catches a guy with something he didn't see coming.

Kirk Johnson isn’t well known for packing a wallop but Oleg Maskaev and Lou Savarese were victims of rather grotesque looking highlight reel knockouts at the hands of the Canadian and a well-placed shot may be able to produce the same results versus Klitschko. Johnson is the more skilled fighter in this match-up and his smart fast hands may be able to get something going against the aggressive but predictable Ukrainian.

In the second half of HBO’s Doubleheader, Baby Joe Mesi takes a baby-step up in class against New Yorker Monte Barrett. Mesi is a handsome, clean living, Buffalo, New York franchise, and most of all, he fights like a bull. In his best moments Mesi’s explosive punching style resembles a photo negative of Iron Mike Tyson highlights from the mid nineties. Mesi can close the distance on a taller quicker opponent behind a leaping, and often, knockdown producing left hook. Although extremely untested, Mesi has finished off D and C quality opponents with merciless violence that has many boxing experts wondering aloud if he’s really as good as his record and knockout highlights suggest thus far.

In Monte Barrett, Mesi faces a durable but somewhat inconsistent journeyman with the chance to make the most out of his opportunity on the Pay-TV network. If Barrett enters the ring without the nervous jitters that could be expected at a Garden loaded with what is rumored to be more than 10,000 Buffalo natives, he may be able to extend Mesi into the middle or late rounds where Mesi is painfully inexperienced.

Once infatuated with the Klitschko brothers, Vitali and Wladimir, HBO now seems content to package and sell the alternate combo pack of Vitali’s massive size and power along with the explosive aggression and charisma of Buffalo’s Joe Mesi. Although both of the favorites on HBO’s card should emerge victorious, both men may need more than expected to defeat their opponents. And in a year of upsets like 2003 don’t think for one minute that the victors in any bout are a foregone conclusion.

Alex Pierpaoli has followed the Sweet Science for the past 17 years and is an avid boxing fan/writer. He has a degree in English from the University of Maine. Send comments or questions to:

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