Jesse James Leija tells Sky Sports about bittersweet memories of an Oscar De La Hoya fight, a final triumph over hot talent, and receiving hard-earned respect.
Leija stands in the challenger’s corner of the ring, takes a deep breath and prepares for the fight. He is about to fight in front of tens of thousands of people, including prominent celebrities and legendary boxers.
The setting is Madison Square Garden in New York City and the man opposite is “Golden Boy” Oscar De La Hoya, with Leija attempting to become a two-weight world champion.
“I thought, look at this little kid from San Antonio standing in the ring at MSG. Now I’m fighting one of the biggest draws in boxing. I gave myself a ‘just a boy’ and I chased him. “
Leija had achieved the dream result for many boxers who embarked on their boxing journey, but that was by no means the plan.
While his father and uncle were professional boxers, Leija’s mother did not want him to get into the sport. He accepted his decision and didn’t visit the gym until he was 19 to get in shape and join the local police or fire department. Unfortunately for his mother, he excelled at the sport.
“My dad, Jesse, accepted that I had a talent for it and let me start boxing. In just two years, I was fighting in the Olympics. To do this after such a short period of time was is at that point that I thought, I’m good enough at this. “
After being knocked out at the Olympic trials, Leija turned professional with limited expectations.
“Going pro, there certainly wasn’t a huge plan to win world titles or fight under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden. In fact, my manager told me if I keep a sharp image and build a bit of a profile, I could go back to town after a few fights and find a good job at a local company. “
The Texan ended up spending 16 years as a professional, fought five Hall of Fame fighters and won a world title. His father was a constant presence in the area for all of these fights.
Leija is best known for having fought the great Azumah Nelson four times in four years. The first meeting was a controversial draw in his first inclination to a world title. But in the rematch at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, Leija convincingly beat the Ghanaian to win the WBC super featherweight title, becoming the third world champion in San Antonio history.
Many would think this would be the biggest moment in Leija’s career, after all he lost the belt in his first defense, a decision loss to Gabriel Ruelas.
Instead, it was that night against De La Hoya in December 1995 that he remembers most fondly, despite his corner throwing in the towel after two rounds.
“The difference between the other fighters and myself is that for me the highlight was not winning the world title but losing to De La Hoya.
“Because of the way my career started, I started the sport at only 19 and was only two years old as an amateur. Then I went to fight at Madison Square Garden against the ‘Golden Boy’ Oscar De La Hoya. I was like, woah! I shouldn’t even have been there. I only boxed to get back in shape.
“Unfortunately after the first few punches I knew we were on a different level in terms of power. I had gained weight because no one else wanted to fight it. It wasn’t going to hurt my career. . I really went there. That, but he caught me with a left hook. My corner stopped the fight but the whole event was a big moment for me. “
Leija would suffer another stopping loss to rival Nelson in a bid to regain her WBC super featherweight belt. But he then continued a seven-game winning streak over an 18-month span, culminating in another win over Nelson in their rubber match.
Leija was now 32 but still very popular in and around the lightweight limit. It was for this reason that he had the chance to become two-weight world champion again against undefeated ‘Sugar’ Shane Mosley.
“With Shane, it was one of the worst training camps I have ever had. I only got three weeks notice and had to drop 17 pounds in 21 days. It was one of the worst things I’ve been through. My corner pulled me out after nine laps. and after the fight my wife didn’t like how I looked, she wanted me to retire. “
Despite the horrible preparation, Mosley praised his opponent and still is to this day.
“Shane said I gave him one of the toughest fights at lightweight and it was after a three week training camp. He said it. Facebook recently. I’m proud of it. “
After the loss to Mosley, Leija still managed to challenge her skeptics. He fought for another six years, beating people like Micky Ward in 2002, before taking on Kostya Tszyu for the unified welterweight title in 2003.
“With Kostya, I have to admit that injuries had started to play a role. Mainly a rib injury that I had in the last five years of my career. If I got hit in this area it sidelined me for a few laps. My corner gave me one more lap that night, but I just couldn’t breathe. That said, what a fighter he was. We all fight with injuries, it’s part of the sport. “
Many expected a retirement announcement after the Tszyu fight, after all, he was now 36, but Leija would still have five fights.
“I didn’t want to be one of those fighters to make a comeback. I just wanted to get everything out of my body. I made sure to remove everything before I retire. I wanted to empty it to the point that the return was not possible. “
Surprisingly, he still had time to secure one last victory over Francisco Bojado. A fight that he is very proud to win.
“By then I would compare myself to a pet that should have been shot, but I kept coming and had a good night’s sleep.” Bojado was thought to be the next big Mexican star. He had all the skills you needed. He I just had neither the heart nor the dedication. He was just missing something. “
The end finally came against the late Arturo Gatti in 2005, and Leija retired at the age of 38. The absence of boxing was something he struggled with at the start.
“The first year of retirement was very difficult. I had never left the gym for almost 20 years before. When I didn’t need to go to the gym, I got depressed. I didn’t find life fulfilling at all.
“One day I told my wife I was going for a jog, but I just went and sat in my car in the garage. She saw me and asked me what was wrong. It struck me that I didn’t have to go. for a race because I was no longer a fighter.
“But my wife got me back in order and told me I had to run for my own health. This moment gave me the kick I needed. Busy yourself with living or dying.
Since that revelation, retirement has been pretty sweet for Leija.
“I opened a boxing gym shortly after, have been doing it for 17 years and opened a new one a fortnight ago. I mainly train business men and women as well as ‘San Antonio Spurs basketball team. We’ve been coaching them off season for years. “
His own promotion team, Leija Battah, works in partnership with old nemesis De La Hoya and his company Golden Boy.
“We’ve promoted loads of fights in Texas involving Canelo Alvarez, Adrien Broner, Marcos Maidana, Omar Figueroa, the list goes on. We’ve worked with Top Rank as well as Oscar. We’ve been involved in some real top fights. level.”
Looking back on a list of high caliber fights, Leija gives her verdict on the best opponent.
“I’ve fought so many good fighters. The strongest and the best should be De La Hoya. Just because he was the one stopping me like he did.
“The one with the most potential was Bojado, he just didn’t seem to have the heart or the dedication. He could have been the best of the bunch.”
In a final reflection on her career, it’s not a world title or the quality of the opposition faced that matters most to Leija.
“My career has been amazing. The fights I have had, the people I have met. I was friends with President George Bush Jnr, I met so many great people. But, more importantly, I ‘had a large following and was respected by the City of San Antonio.
“For me it is success, not boxing. That your people love you is the most important thing. The respect that I have earned and received in my community and in the world means everything to me.
“It’s easier to be a good boy than a bad guy.”