Best I’ve Faced: Jesse James Leija
A pro for 16 years, Jesse James Leija never shied away from anyone and fought many of the best fighters of his generation.
The Texan held the WBC junior lightweight title briefly in 1994. However, it’s his four-fight series with Azumah Nelson that he is best known for. Leija would hold a 2-1-1 edge over his illustrious Hall of fame opponent.
Leija initially turned pro after a short amateur career that saw him lose out to Kelcie Banks in the 1988 Olympic trials. Leija quietly made his way through the ranks, winning 26 of his first 27 bouts against the likes of 1984 Olympic gold medalist Steve McCrory (UD 10), former IBF featherweight titleholder Troy Dorsey (TKO 5) and former two-weight world champion Louie Espinoza (UD 12).
In September 1993, Leija stepped up from 126 to 130 when he was matched with Nelson on the undercard of Pernell Whitaker-Julio Cesar Chavez. After 12 close rounds, the contest ended in a draw.
Eight months later Leija was granted the rematch, and this time he relieved the Ghanian of his title by winning a unanimous decision 114-113, 117-110 and 117-109. The Texan’s reign lasted just 4 months before he was bested by Gabriel Ruelas.
Leija would continue to test himself, fighting a who’s who of boxing’s lower weights. He lost inside the distance in back-to-back fights, first to Oscar De La Hoya and then in the rubbermatch against Nelson.
Eighteen months of rebuilding with seven wins earned Leija a fourth bout with Nelson, and this time Leija would get the nod, by unanimous decision. The win was parlayed into a title shot against Shane Mosley in the fall of 1998. With just three weeks’ notice, Leija showed huge heart but retired on his stool at the conclusion of the ninth frame.
Leija stayed active until 2005, winning several fights, against the talented Ivan Robinson, Mickey Ward and uber-talent Francisco Bojado. He fought twice for portions of the junior welterweight championship, against Kostya Tszyu and Arturo Gatti.
He retired aged 38 following the loss to Gatti with a record of 47-7-2, 19 knockouts.
But it is likely to be his link to Nelson that will stand the test of time.
“Oh yeah people are always going to remember that,” Leija told RingTV.com “You can’t mention Azumah Nelson without mentioning my name and you can’t mention my name without mentioning Azumah Nelson. I’m in great, great company if that’s the case.
“Those fights were hard, I don’t think they slowed me down or affected me, but to be able to share the ring with Azumah Nelson for 42 rounds you have to learn something. You fight that many rounds and not learn anything you’d be crazy. It made me a better fighter, being a better fighter made me a better person.
“When you go through a war like that with someone it humbles you, it lets you experience what the world’s about, what the fight game’s about.”
Though the two don’t have regular contact, when they do see each other it’s a special bond they share.
“I saw him maybe three years ago at the WBC convention. He was with my mom, dad, my sons, all taking pictures, all talking. He comes up and hugs me and kisses me on the cheek, we just embrace, like a bond that you can never break. I’m so honored to have been in the ring with him and to know him as a friend. We don’t see each other, he’s in Africa, but when we do it’s like seeing a long lost brother.”
There were several high points in the Texan’s career – unsurprisingly the bouts with Nelson feature highly.
“I think the first fight with Azumah here in San Antonio, in front of 60,000 people and going the distance with him and thinking I won, that was a proud moment afterwards.
“And then winning the second fight with Azumah Nelson in Vegas.
“There were several [proud moments], even losing to Oscar De La Hoya, walking into the ring before the fight I had a proud moment because I reflected that here’s a guy that didn’t start fighting until he was 19, fought two years in the amateurs, had only around 40 amateur fights, then I turned pro and here I am at Madison Square Garden, fighting the great Oscar De La Hoya.”
When asked if there was anyone he didn’t fight that he wish he had, he said it was more about the timing of his fight with Arturo Gatti than anything else.
“The first one that comes to mind is Arturo Gatti,” he said. “We tried fighting him when I was a 130-pounder. They wouldn’t take me, the fight never happened when I was at my best weight.
“I fought him when I was 38 years old, that was the last fight of my career. That was a fight I wish I could have fought in my younger days at a better weight.”
Today Leija lives with his wife, Lisa. He has two sons: James, who’s looking to follow in his father’s footsteps as a boxer and Dean, who’s in college studying business management.
Aside from family, Leija is very busy with several other ventures.
“I have two boxing fitness gyms in San Antonio, where I train a couple hundred people, businessmen and women, amateur boxers, pro boxers,” he said. “I train the San Antonio Spurs every summer for two, three months.”
He’s also part of a flourishing promotional company with entrepreneur Mike Battah. Leija was Battah’s personal trainer for several years and a chance conversation after one of their sessions led to the two teaming up.
“Mike’s a great businessman, I know the sport of boxing so we did it,” said Leija. “We did a few fights here in town for Top Rank and they were successful. Then we said we need to get bigger fights and do more things.
“We flew up to meet Oscar De La Hoya and Richard Schaefer, we sat in a meeting and they said they’d partner up with us and put a few fights on in Texas. One of the first few was when we did the Canelo (Alvarez)-(Austin) Trout fight. With five weeks’ notice we put 40,000 people at the Alomodome. After that we became partners with Golden Boy.”
The sky seems the limit for the hard-working Leija.
“Boxing is like life, you have to make the best out of every opportunity that you get. If not, you’re not going to succeed,” he said with a smile. “I tell people life is like boxing: work hard and do the right thing and you can be successful in or out of the ring.”
Leija kindly took part in the ‘Best I’ve Faced’ series, picking the best fighters he fought during his impressive career in 10 key categories.
Best Skills – Francisco Bojado – You know what, I fought 57 times, so there are so many good guys, with great skills but sometimes it’s the fighter that when you’re near the end that you recognize more because he was the latest one. I think one of the guys who had one of the best skills of all the fighters I fought was probably Francisco Bojado. He had great power, he had great speed, he had combinations, quick hands, had a bit of everything. I think he’s someone that had everything, the whole package.
Of course Oscar De La Hoya had great skills, he was also much taller than I was, he had a lot of things going for him as well. For some reason and I even told people after the fight he (Bojado) is one of the best guys I fought cause he had everything – skill, speed, power, agility, flexibility – he had everything and then he knew how to fight. He was a great fighter. I just think he was lacking determination ÔÇªsomething was missing ’cause I was able to take all that away from him with bodyshots and headshots. [We] had a great strategy for the fight and it helped.
Best Jab – Oscar De La Hoya – He had that long, stiff, powerful jab. He was really a lefty but fights righty – that jab had so much power, and that hook of course, but he had a great jab. Shane Mosley had a great jab but he didn’t have the power behind it like Oscar did. I would have to say Oscar – he had the power and speed mainly because he’s a lefty, that jab’s gonna come at you hard.
Best Defense – Azumah Nelson – I think Azumah Nelson had a great defense. Shane Mosley’s defense was great, mainly because of his speed and his distance but he was so fast. But Azumah Nelson knew how defend and counter from the inside and not just step inside and make me miss. Azumah Nelson knew how to stay in the pocket and make you miss and make you pay while in the pocket. Some of the other guys like Shane Mosley, even Oscar, they used distance by backing away and that didn’t show you defense – that just showed you couldn’t reach them. Someone fights on the inside and makes you miss and pay that’s good defense. I think Azumah had that.
I would see [Mosley’s] punch but by the time I even thought about slipping or moving out the way it had already hit me and then there was another right behind it so fast.
Best Chin – Nelson – Guys that I could hit clean and not even blink, Azumah was one of them until I dropped him. As a matter of fact, I was the second guy ever to drop Azumah Nelson since Salvador Sanchez. That’s saying a lot, he’s fought everybody. I think I just threw everything in that one right hand, caught him off guard, hit him on the chin and dropped him. That was one of my claims to fame. That’s the type of chin he had.
Best Puncher – De La Hoya – I think Oscar. In every fight I had I was really well prepared and ready to go and just at the top of my game and Oscar drops me and stops me in the second round. That’s the power he had and I tell people Oscar knocked guys out at 130, 135, 140, 147, 154 and I think he dropped a couple of guys at 160. People always say fighters don’t take the power up with them in weight. Oscar did. If he was knocking guys out at 147, 154 and 160 can you imagine how strong he was when I fought him at 135?
You know what, maybe he was off, but Kostya Tszyu never hurt me, never in the five rounds that I fought, he never hit me and hurt me with anything. He busted my ear drum but that’s just air going into your ear and busting your drum, it’s not really power that causes that. He never hurt me or stunned me at all. I know he had power maybe he didn’t catch me right, maybe my defense was better than what I thought it was or anyone else thought.
Now Micky Ward’s power was incredible. His left hook was amazing. I remember when he would throw punches at me and just miss me, the first thing I would do is catch them with my gloves, the first thing I would think was, ‘Man, that would have hurt if he would have hit me.’ I never let him hit me to the body cleanly; he hit me to the head but to the body are the ones that can really hurt you, and he never caught me to the body. He caught me to the elbow several times and I could feel the power that he had and why he stops people with bodyshots.
Gatti had some great power. He was heavy-handed but I think just me not sparring for four weeks before our fight, it takes it’s toll, you’re not adjusted to it, you haven’t been hit for four weeks so even if you get hit by a guy who can punch a little bit it’s going to hurt you, plus he caught me clean with a good hook. But when guy with power hits you and you haven’t been hit in four weeks it’s going to take it’s toll and Gatti did a great job with it.
Best Handspeed – Shane Mosley – Shane Mosley by far. Your whole thing in training is for reaction. When you see something coming, you’re supposed to react to it, slip or dodge out the way. I would see his punch but by the time I even thought about slipping or moving out the way it had already hit me and then there was another right behind it so fast. I could imagine what people thought when they fight Sugar Ray Leonard or Floyd Mayweather. You see it coming but it’s too late to move, you’re not fast enough to get away from the punch, and that’s the type of speed Shane Mosley had.
Best Footspeed – Mosley – Mosley was great at moving his legs. His hands were fast and if his hands weren’t moving his legs were moving. And when his legs were moving they were so fast you couldn’t get close to him.
[Bojado] had great power, he had great speed, he had combinations, quick hands, had a bit of everything. I think he’s someone that had everything, the whole package.
Smartest – Nelson – He knew when to load up, he knew when to throw bodyshots, he knew when you were exhausted, when to push the fight, when to relax. He was great. As long as he was a world champion, 10 years, something like that, he knew every trick in the book. It was always a constant battle with him, more of the mind than anything else because you were going to try to figure out what he’s going to do next and he would lure you in to think he was hurt or slowing down and all of a sudden he’d throw a four-, five-punch combination – all of them with power. When you were in a clinch and thought you could take a little break he would hit you with a bodyshot. It was amazing. You never knew what to expect. You had to be on your toes every single second of every single round with Azumah.
Strongest – Micky Ward and Arturo Gatti – [They] were strong, physically strong guys. I think even Bojado was strong. Brute strength is what I’m talking about.
Best Overall – Bojado – I still think overall talent of every fighter that I have fought – I fought so many it’s really hard to say – but I just think talent, skill, speed, power … I have to say Francisco Bojado. I don’t know why he’s just the first guy I think of when I think of all those things combined. [I fought] Mosley and Oscar but for me Bojado had everything, but lacking that one thing which was maybe will-power. He had a chin, too. I hit him clean and nothing happened to him. I think whoever gave him all that money on the way up ruined him. It’s not just given to you, it’s earned. I think if he had will-power he could have been the next Oscar De La Hoya or the next great champion.