There's not a lot of time left and Jesse James Leija understands that as well as anyone. You stay in this game too long and some day they'll have to pull you aside and remind you how to spell your name or find your way home.
Leija knows all about the guys who stay in too long, who start taking punches that never would have touched them 10 years ago.
That's when it's scary, when it isn't fun anymore. And Leija knows that's when it's time to get out, time to take a final bow and leave the ring for good.
The problem is convincing yourself to go.
That's why this fight is so important to Leija (47-6-2, 19 KOs). He can peek over Arturo Gatti's shoulder and see the finish line a little ways up ahead, the end of a long and tough career. And winning Gatti's WBC super-lightweight title would make it all a little sweeter when he reaches it.
He also knows Gatti has been in more than a few wars in his career.
“I don't know how much it (a ring war) takes out of you, but it's not good for your health,” Leija said on a recent conference call promoting his fight with Gatti (38-6, 29 KOs) set for Saturday night at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City. “I feel that it slows you down and you're not as sharp as you once were. You take punishment to give punishment. Once you get hit a lot, you get used to it and that's never good. That's why I've always worked on my defense because I don't like getting hit.”
Then he's not going to like Saturday night and his appointment with Gatti.
But Leija, who fights out of San Antonio, knows what he's getting into. He's been fighting pro for more than 16 years, winning fights against guys like Azumah Nelson, Louie Espinoza and Troy Dorsey in 1992, a fight Leija calls one of the toughest of his career.
But after so many years, retirement becomes a big tease.
Leija's manager – Lester Bedford – thought Leija was going to hang them up following his loss to Kostya Tszyu back in January 2003.
“I thought that was a pretty good exit for him,” Bedford said. “I saw James sitting on the bench after the fight and he said, 'You know, I could have won that fight.' He fought a helluva fight for six rounds. I didn't think he'd want to continue on, have to go through the grind of fighting two or three non-title fights to get his feet back underneath him.”
But he did. And now, with four wins since his loss to Tszyu – including a split-decision win over Francisco Bojada in July – he's getting the fight he says he's wanted for years.
“I didn't think I would ever get this fight, but after the Bojada fight, there was hope,” Leija said. “I wish it would have happened years ago, but I'm glad it's happening now.”
Against Gatti, Leija will be facing the hometown favorite. But he's fought on the road and won before.
Gatti, knowing he's a giant step closer to a big-money fight with Floyd Mayweather Jr., following Mayweather's hammering of Henry Bruseles on Saturday night, can't afford to look too far ahead. If he even glances past Leija, he could lose. And the Mayweather fight might go to Leija.
“I don't like to talk about it,” Gatti said of the possible matchup with Mayweather. “Jesse James is on my mind.”
He better be.