Rahman Returns: Another Chapter in Buffalo-Area Boxing
By Lyle Fitzsimmons,
Contributing Boxing Editor
It's been a long time waiting for Joe Mesi.
Nearly seven years -- six years, eight months and 19 days, to be exact -- have passed since the Buffalo-area heavyweight made his last working appearance in a Western New York ring.
With a 97-second KO of then-prospect DaVarryl Williamson at the downtown HSBC Arena on Sept. 27, 2003, the unbeaten Mesi became a national name of substance, and warranted breathless billing as the region's "third sports franchise" -- alongside the NHL's Sabres and NFL's Bills.
Needless to say, the fairy tale didn't end as the locals had planned.
And now, nearly seven years later -- six years, eight months and 19 days, to be exact -- the effort to fill the void created by his demise will begin again about 20 miles to the north.
Under his own fledgling X-Cel Worldwide Promotions banner, company president & CEO Nick Garone puts on his fifth area show in 20 months -- this time headlined by former heavyweight champion Hasim Rahman -- on Saturday night at the Niagara Falls Conference Center.
The event, whose venue is within walking distance of the famous watery landmark, follows up a show Garone assembled at the nearby Seneca Niagara Casino Events Center -- also in the city named for the cataract -- in November 2008. Prior to his arrival, Niagara Falls had hosted just four fight cards, including two headlined by Mesi in 2001, since 1947.
Hasim Rahman will face Shannon Miller in a scheduled 10-round main event.
After the Niagara Falls debut, Garone promoted three subsequent shows at the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center -- in downtown Buffalo -- in 2009, ending a drought that stretched back to Mesi's six shows between 1998 and 2003. Before Mesi, the last card in Buffalo had featured a Roberto Duran-Tony Biglen main event at the since-demolished Memorial Auditorium in March 1992.
"Niagara Falls is one of the most beautiful places in the world and I love being up there," said Garone, a Long Island native with a master's degree from Syracuse University. "I married a girl from Niagara Falls and we own a summer house in Youngstown on Lake Ontario. I love the people and the area.
"It is a wide-open market. Over the past two years I have developed great relationships and have invested a great deal of time, money and resources to the community. I have had a lot of people that have approached me to tell me that they are thankful I am doing these shows because Western New York has some great young talent without a platform to showcase."
Rahman, who's fought five times in Rochester -- 87 miles to the east -- will face journeyman Shannon Miller in a scheduled 10-round main event. It's his second bout since a seven-round stoppage loss to Wladimir Klitschko in a failed bid for the IBF/IBO/WBO championships in December 2008.
His most successful days came in 2001 and again in 2005-06, when he twice held shares of the heavyweight title, initially with an upset KO of Lennox Lewis to claim the IBF/IBO/WBC belts and later when he was awarded WBC recognition upon the retirement of Vitali Klitschko.
He was KO'd by Lewis in an immediate rematch to end his first reign and the second was curtailed via stoppage by Oleg Maskaev, just five months after a majority draw against James Toney in his lone successful defense in Atlantic City.
Miller, ironically, was Mesi's last foe in September 2007, losing by first- round TKO in Lincoln, R.I.
Garone hopes Rahman's big name can still draw a varied crowd.
"People in the boxing business can not be particular," he said. "We want everyone to come out and enjoy a night out with their family, sons, daughters, friends, etc. We want visiting tourists to come because it would be a great event to see while on vacation in a beautiful city. We expect the hardcore fans to be there to support boxing in general, since Joe Mesi is one of my biggest supporters.
"He is an icon in the area we like to see his fans attend the events. And the casino-goers are a big part of our market to begin with, so we accommodate them as best we can and try to drive traffic to the casinos, because if we can do that they will support us as well."
And while Rahman is actually property of a co-promotional outfit -- The Empire Sports and Entertainment Inc. -- Garone's most-recent signee, unbeaten former Canadian Olympian Donnie Orr, will appear in an eight-round middleweight feature against John Mackey.
Several other X-Cel fighters, including former heavyweight title challenger Michael Grant and Niagara Falls-based junior welterweight Nick Casal, are expected to attend, as is Mesi.
Grant, who was stopped by Lewis in two rounds in 2000 and appeared on Garone's inaugural Niagara Falls card in 2008, recently signed to fight former two- division champion Tomasz Adamek this summer in Newark, N.J.
"Many promoters want this sport to succeed, but it is driven by two things, first dollars and secondly exposure," Garone said. "It is hard to compete when there is only a certain amount of television dates and it is not fairly distributed throughout the business. Most promoters that are putting on these shows have to finance the cards and then hope to recoup their investment through ticket sales, sponsors, etc.
"We as promoters have hurt ourselves because companies and sponsors see the confusion and don't want to become a part of that mess. Also, fighters that want that exposure and think that's what will get them to the next level naturally go with promoters that can get the television dates or have relationships that provide definite dates for them. A lot of times fighters don't realize that a smaller promoter might be a better fit because their careers can be monitored better instead of being a part of a roster that has 50/60 guys on it."
Still, the promoter holds out hope for markets like Niagara, and elsewhere.
"The bottom line is if you can offer a good product and work hard for your guys then eventually you can succeed," he said. "The thing I like the most about the last six months is that I am seeing more promoters work together to succeed. This tells me that the sport is going to be OK. A lot of times in the past promoters wouldn't help one another, which is senseless. This is a business we all love and we should support one another to make sure we don't become our own ruination."
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This week's title-fight schedule:
SATURDAY IBO junior flyweight title -- Kempton Park, South Africa
Hekkie Budler (champion) vs. Juanito Rubillar (No. 28 contender)
Budler (15-0, 5 KO): First title defense; Defeated Rubillar for vacant belt in February
Rubillar (48-14-7, 23 KO): Sixth title fight (0-5, 0 KO); Fought in seven countries, plus Guam
Fitzbitz says: "Four-month return match benefits the improving younger man." Budler by decision.
Vacant IBO super middleweight title -- Kempton Park, South Africa
Michael Bolling (No. 27 contender) vs. Isaac Chilemba (unranked)
Bolling (12-0, 10 KO): First title fight; First fight outside Australia
Chilemba (14-1, 8 KO): First title fight; Ranked 29th by IBO at 175 pounds
Fitzbitz says: "Bolling has the best win on either resume. I like him here." Bolling in 10.
Vacant IBO strawweight title -- Kempton Park, South Africa Gideon Buthelezi (No. 21 contender) vs. Ronelle Ferreras (No. 44 contender)
Buthelezi (9-2, 4 KO): First title fight; Never fought outside South Africa
Ferreras (8-3-1, 3 KO): First title fight; Three wins since starting career 5-0 (3-3-1, 1 KO)
Fitzbitz says: "A coin flip. So, when in doubt, pick the hometown fighter." Buthelezi by decision.
WBA super middleweight title -- Oakland, Calif. Andre Ward (champion) vs. Allan Green (No. 4 contender)
Ward (21-0, 13 KO): First title defense; Unbeaten at Oakland venue (2-0, 1 KO)
Green (29-1, 20 KO): First title fight; Six-fight win streak since 2007 (6-0, 4 KO)
Fitzbitz says: "Ward proves here that nice guys can be tough guys, too." Ward in 9.
WBC light flyweight title -- San Juan del Rio, Mexico
Rodel Mayol (champion) vs. Omar Nino (No. 1 contender)
Mayol (26-4-2, 20 KO): Second title defense; Technical draw against Nino in February
Nino (28-3-2, 11 KO): Fourth title fight (1-1, 1 NC, 0 KO); Held WBC title in 2006
Fitzbitz says: "Even with one win in four fights, Mayol just seems like he's got momentum." Mayol in 10.
Last week's picks: 2-0
Overall picks record: 204-70 (74.4 percent)
Lyle Fitzsimmons is an award-winning 21-year sports journalist, a full voting member of the Boxing Writers Association of America and a frequent contributor to sports radio talk shows throughout the U.S. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow him at twitter.com/fitzbitz and read more at fitzbitzonfights.wordpress.com..