Very few in boxing history can claim to have won ‘em all. In today’s era, very few attempt to fight them all. Jesse James Leija takes great pride in the fact that he can at least subscribe to the latter in reflecting upon his sixteen plus year career.
“I honestly have no regrets,” Leija told TheSweetScience.com during an exclusive interview. “There are certain aspects of my career where maybe if I did things different in life, I would have done better in the ring, but I had a great career and faced the best in every division I campaigned.”
A quick glance at his resume reminds us of the fighters he fought that were considered pound for pound among the best in the world over the past decade: Azumah Nelson and Gabriel Ruelas at super featherweight, Oscar De La Hoya and Shane Mosley at lightweight, Kostya Tszyu at light welterweight. The International Boxing Hall of Fame has already enshrined Nelson and De la Hoya. Mosley and Tszyu will one day follow, most likely in their first year of eligibility.
For Leija, now retired at the age of thirty-eight, there will most likely be no plaque in his honor. But honor is not limited to a picture and a brief career description on a wall in Canastota. Leija can – and does – take great pride in the fact that, through it all, he loved his job and was there for his family for the entire run. He also continuously gives back to the community of San Antonio, Texas, where he was born, raised and still resides. Golf tournaments, a youth foundation, a Miracle League Handicap Sports program, and even his own sausage line are among the many things that will keep Leija busy now that he has officially hung up the gloves. Since he’s only three weeks removed from his last fight – a fourth round stoppage to WBC light welterweight champion Arturo Gatti on January 29 – the transition is still ongoing.
“The hardest thing about retirement so far is looking to immediately fill that void. I’m a family guy and love being there for my wife and kids. But I already had so much going on in addition to boxing that, now that I’m not fighting or training for a fight, it’s like I have too much time on my hands. That period immediately after retirement is the rough part – if you have nothing to retire to,” Leija said. “Then you mind starts going crazy.”
Three weeks is hardly sufficient time to completely remove the sport from your blood, especially when it is a sport you have participated in for half of your life.
Having kept a childhood promise to not follow in his fighting father’s footsteps until graduating from high school, Leija’s entrance into the sport came at a relatively late age. He was a natural and only stayed in the non-pay ranks for less than two years, compiling an amateur record of 23-5 along the way. Truly following in the footsteps of his father James Sr., who was the first San Antonian ever to make it to the National Golden Gloves finals, Leija won the San Antonio Golden Gloves in 1988 and parlayed the win into an invitation to the 1988 Olympic Trials. His hopes of joining an all-star team that boasted Riddick Bowe, Ray Mercer, Roy Jones Jr., Kennedy McKinney and Michael Carbajal ended when eventual Olympian Kelcie Banks outpointed him.
As he would demonstrate in his pro career, Leija didn’t let the loss deter his hopes of living out the dream, so he turned pro in October 1988, shortly after the Olympic Trials. His first round stoppage of Oscar Davis would be the first of fifteen consecutive times that Jesse James would have his arm raised in victory. The first speed bump in his career came when Rickey Parker held him to a ten-round draw late in 1990. It would be the only blemish in his first five years as a pro, as he rattled off another eleven wins over the course of the next eighteen months. Notable among the list of those conquered were Miguel Arrozal, former world champion Troy Dorsey, and Louie Espinoza, all of whom Leija conquered in a two year span. The win over Espinoza (UD12) earned the Texan a mandatory ranking for the WBC super featherweight crown. The champion was the already legendary Azumah Nelson, aka The Professor, who would go on to fight Leija four times in a series that would define Jesse James’ career.
“Undoubtedly, the four fights I had with Azumah are what I look back upon in recalling the greatest thrills of my career,” Leija insisted.” Any time you have a chance to go forty-two rounds with one of the all-time greats in Nelson, you’re bound to learn something.”
In their first encounter, Leija learned two things: (1) that he had what it took to become a world champion, and (2) that boxing politics can serve as a greater opponent than the man staring at you from the opposite corner.
Having the privilege of fighting his first world title fight not only in his hometown, but in front of over 63,000 fans on the co-feature to the Pernell Whitaker-Julio Cesar Chavez PPV show, Leija was determined to end Nelson’s striking run of road victories. Nelson traveled to Australia to steamroll Jeff Fenech the prior year, which was a makeup performance for a draw that many viewed as a Fenech win in Vegas the year before their rematch. A year after the Fenech win, The Professor took his road show to Mexico, where he eked out a split decision over Gabriel Ruelas. Seven months later it was Leija’s turn to be defeated in front of his own fans (or so the long-reigning two-division champion had thought).
Leija had other plans and took the fight to Nelson. At the final bell, many in the capacity crowd believed Leija would become the second fighter from San Antonio in boxing history to capture a world title, with Robert Quiroga being the first. But the judges saw a different fight than most of those in attendance and at home watching on PPV. Initially the judges awarded the contest as a split decision win for Nelson. Leija was still coming to grips with what was announced as the first loss of his professional career – when ring announcer Jimmy Lennon Jr. came back several minutes later to announce a scoring discrepancy. The announcement was enough to tease the crowd into believing that the decision would be reversed, but the judges only met them halfway, ruling the fight a split decision draw.
Discouraged but determined, Leija knew he had to take it up a notch in the mandated rematch nine months later. Promoter Don King once again became synonymous with boxing history in May 1994, when he staged “Revenge: The Rematches” at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. It became the first time five world titles were staged in one night, and Leija-Nelson II led off the pay-per-view portion of the show. Twelve rounds later, Leija would become the only fighter ever to conquer Nelson in a rematch, dropping the legend in the second round en route to a clear cut unanimous decision. “Without a doubt, the pinnacle of my career” is how Leija recalls the title-winning effort.
Unfortunately for the Texan, it was short-lived. Four months after capturing the super featherweight crown, Leija faced Ruelas, who believed that like Leija in the first Nelson fight, he was the victim of suspect scoring in his own fight with Azumah. Ruelas made the most of his second chance at fifteen minutes of fame in taking a unanimous decision in what turned out to be one of the best fights on 1994. Ruelas overcame a knockdown and a point deduction late in the fight to score two knockdowns of his own. The first knockdown resulted in Leija tearing ligaments in his ankle. He climbed bravely off of the canvas and fought on, but the injury and Ruelas’ persistence were simply too much to overcome.
It would be the last time that Leija would enter or leave the ring as world champion.
Determined not to let his first loss keep him down, Leija returned to the ring in 1995 with two wins before the end of summer. The second win, a seventh-round stoppage of Rodney Garnett, came in the main event of a pay-per-view telecast in his hometown of San Antonio. Most notable among the telecast was one of the guest announcers for the evening, the then-lightweight champion Oscar De La Hoya. It was especially notable because five months later the two would square off in what was the return of boxing to Madison Square Garden, which hadn’t staged a fight card since Pernell Whitaker wrested the welterweight crown from Buddy McGirt in March 1993.
Leija didn’t get to share the stage for very long. De La Hoya steamrolled him in two rounds. Among other frustrations that evening was the fact that the fight before Leija’s was between Gatti and Tracy Harris Patterson. Leija wanted a crack at any of the super featherweight champions, but James was forced to move up in weight and accept a lucrative offer for what he knew was a no-hoper going in. James watched the legend of Gatti jumpstart that night, as Arturo sputtered across the finish line in eking out a razor thin decision over Patterson to win the IBF super featherweight crown. Leija knew their paths would cross one day. Little did he know he would have to wait a decade.
“For whatever reason, the fight never materialized. When Patterson won the title that summer, my team expressed an interest in fighting him. When Gatti won the title, we contacted Main Events about a fight in 1996. But things turned out the way they did and I just accepted the opportunities that came my way in waiting for the fight.”
What came along the way were two more bouts with Nelson. Six months after suffering the first stoppage loss of his career, Leija again found himself forced to call it an evening before the final bell. He was dropped early and suffered a nasty gash before the bout was halted after six rounds. It was his second straight defeat on HBO and he thought it might be his last opportunity. But Leija didn’t give up. He went home and regrouped. He returned to action with a seven bout winning streak in fights staged in San Antonio, Corpus Christi and South Pedro Island.
The last of the lucky seven was the fourth and final bout with Nelson, which headlined a PPV show that featured Kostya Tszyu’s return to respectability. Five years before he would face Tszyu on Showtime, Leija would break the 1-1-1 tie with a hard-fought unanimous decision over Nelson. It was the only time in Nelson’s career where he lost a fight where a major world title was not on the line – the two fought for the vacant IBA title that evening – but it would also be the closest that Leija would come to winning a world title.
Four months later, after Shane Mosley had several opponents turn down the chance to fight him, Leija stepped up and answered the call. What he hoped would be “the third time’s the charm” as far as his appearances on HBO ended up being his third strike – and third KO loss – as Shane stopped him inside of nine. At the fight’s end Shane and his father Jack told Leija: “Thanks for stepping up and fighting us… nobody else would.” Leija accepted the compliment, but not the fact that he would be forced to permanently accept the role of bridesmaid.
His best moments in the future would be in non-title affairs. Derailments to the careers of Hector Camacho Jr. and Francisco “Panchito” Bojado, coupled with wins over Ivan Robinson, Micky Ward and a points loss to Juan Lazcano, in what many view as one of the worst robberies in recent memory, would be Leija’s consolation prize for sticking it out through three different decades. After the Gatti loss, the seventh of his career against forty-seven wins and two draws, Leija confirmed a personal pre-fight premonition that his thirty-eight-year-old body had enough.
“A part of me knew that the Gatti fight would probably be the last of my career,” Leija said. “Of course, I wanted to continue on had I won, but the moment the fight ended I knew I fought my last fight. It just got to the point where there was too much wear and tear on my body. I separated my ribs four years ago and that kept coming back as a recurring injury. Then there were the torn ligaments in my elbow. The writing was on the wall that I needed to get out of the game.”
Though he ended the game with a loss, Leija takes pride in the fact that he ended it fighting for a world title. Not as a doormat for lesser opposition.
“One thing I can always say about my career was that I never lost a non-world title fight. I know the books show that I lost to Lazcano, but there isn’t a person alive outside of Lazcano and the judges who saw that fight and believe that he even came close to winning that night. All of my legit losses came against the best. Azumah, Ruelas back in the day, Gatti, Shane, Oscar, Tszyu – I mean, just about all of those guys are going to the Hall of Fame, with Azumah already there. I came up short in most of the A-list fights,” Leija said, “but nobody else from the second tier on down could ever view me as someone they could walk through. I take great pride in that.”
Leija also takes pride in the fact that despite the ups and downs, he did things his way, especially at the end of his career, when a decision had to be made whether he would be a full-time fighter or a full-time Dad. He opted for both, and could never understand why anyone would even make a choice between the two.
“I always say that you can’t worry about what happened yesterday,” Leija told me, “you can only change what can happen tomorrow. Sure, had I abandoned my family for months at a time, I might have been a better fighter. But it wouldn’t be worth it. I won a world title, fought well enough to be ranked among the top-ten in three weight classes for over a decade, and still had and have the time to watch my kids grow up. That is what’s most important to me. I’d rather be known as a good fighter and a great father and husband than be known as a great fighter whose family never knew or saw him. Those are the choices I made and I did the best I could. I didn’t take shortcuts and as a result I have no regrets. I am truly blessed.”
As are we, the boxing public, for having had the chance to witness one of the classiest acts of his generation.