It’s by chance that Juan DeLeon met Joe Mesi. DeLeon was working out with his son, Juan Carlos, at the gym one day when he was approached by Mesi’s father, Jack.
Jack was looking for a trainer to make his then 280-pound son Joe an Olympic athlete. While other trainers at Boys and Girls Club on Babcock Street balked at the challenge, DeLeon, with the help of two nearby translators since he didn’t speak English at the time, essentially said, “Why not?” and accepted the challenge.
Why? While Mesi seemed a bit portly, his hand speed intrigued DeLeon because fast hands are lethal.
Three months after that initial meeting, Mesi had already shed 35 pounds and was on the disciplined path that led to him earning 1996 Olympic alternate status and culminated with him becoming the world No. 1 heavyweight title contender in 2004.
DeLeon, along with his brothers Carlos and Angel, took their place next to Mesi in the Buffalo Veterans Boxers Ring 44 Hall of Fame on Friday night. The brothers, better known in boxing circles as Team DeLeon, were the big names honored this year by Ring 44 at the annual dinner induction ceremony at Salvatore’s Italian Gardens.
Boxing writer and Ring 44 Historian Emeritus Angelo Prospero, late trainer Tony Pinto and late middleweight Paulie Mahoney also were inducted into the Ring 44 Hall, while 17-year-old K’Shawn Agee of Casal’s Boxing in Niagara Falls was honored as Ring 44’s Amateur Boxer of the Year. Rick Diaz and his son Adalberto Herman Diaz-Padilla were honored as Ring 44’s Men of the Year.
A crowd of roughly 160 attended the dinner, including former world champion Iran Barkley and Channel 4 sports anchor Lauren Brill, a longtime boxing fan who assisted Ring 44 President Jack Green with master of ceremony duties.
The three DeLeons all contributed in their unique ways to Mesi’s in-ring success, with Juan implementing training techniques he learned from the likes of Angelo Dundee and Emanuel Steward, former world cruiserweight champion Carlos teaching with in-ring tactics, and Angel, a former pro whose career was cut short by diabetes, with strength training.
“The three of them made Joe No. 1,” Jack Mesi said. “I saw Juan bring Joe from a non-boxer to a premier No. 1-ranked skilled, scientific fighter all on his own. We were just blessed to have him as a trainer.”
“This means a lot for the DeLeon family,” Juan DeLeon said, “first because everything starts from my brother Carlos. … Me and my brother Angel tried to follow in his footsteps. We never made it” as boxers.
But they’ve left their impact on the sport as teachers. Juan makes his fighters work. He’s a relentless task master, something he learned by being part of the training camp of Carlos during his four championship reigns.
Team DeLeon has helped two other fighters earn shots at the world title, including Mariusz Wach, who went the distance in losing to champion Wladimir Klitschko in 2012.
“I was able to receive some help to become a champion so as a former champion I need to pass the knowledge along to future champions,” said Carlos DeLeon. “I’m really proud of my younger brother,” Juan, “because he wasn’t able to become a champion but he was able to become one of the best trainers” in the sport.
Pinto worked at the Tonawanda Chevy Plant during the day and trained boxers at night for 35 years until his death in 1970 at age 58. He fought during the 1920s and ’30s but left his mark locally on sport by working with a who’s who of talent, including fellow Ring 44 Hall of Famers Joey Giambra, Vic Brown, Dennis Cudney and Dick Topinko.
“My father was a very honorable man,” said George Pinto, who participated in televised boxing demonstrations during the late 1940s and early ’50s. “He believed in many ways the fight game imitated life … if you trained hard, played by the rules and stay focused you’d be successful.”
Prospero, who started the Rochester Boxing Association in the 1970s, covered a who’s who of boxing during the sport’s height in popularity during the 1970s and ’80s for top national publications, including Ring Magazine. The Canisius College product was inducted into the state boxing hall of fame last March.
Mahoney went 31-15-1 (14 KOs) from 1934-42. He passed away in 1983 in California.
Agee is the third Casal’s boxer to earn Amateur of the Year status, joining Nick Casal and his brother Anthony in that club. Agee (27-3) is a five-time Junior Olympic champion, four-time Silver Gloves champion and one-time junior Golden Gloves champion.
“I’m truly blessed to have a good circle,” Agee said. “My circle is filled with positive people. They feed me support … it just makes me want to work harder.”