“The Texas Tornado” – Jesse James Leija WBC & IBA Champion
By Ken Hissner, Doghouse Boxing (Jan 2, 2011)
Have you ever seen a young prospect and thought “I like this kid and I bet he’s going to turn out to be a champion? Well, that’s what this writer thought when he first saw Jesse James Leija in one of his early preliminary fights. He had that “star” quality and coming out of a fight town like San Antonio how could he miss?

Leija was a former two-time world champion who fought the best fighters of his era. Among these fighters were Oscar “Golden Boy” De La Hoya, Azuma Nelson (4x), Kostya Tszyu, “Sugar” Shane Mosley, Gabriel Ruelas, Troy Dorsey, Louie Espinoza, Steve McCrory, Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward.

Leija didn’t enter a gym until he was 19. His parents were against him boxing and insisted he graduate from high school before ever boxing. He was tired of being called too small for football and even boxing. He wanted to prove people wrong.

Leija’s father, Jesse, the first boxer from San Antonio to make it to the Golden Gloves finals was right there with him. He was going to make sure his son had the best of trainer’s right to his very last fight some 17 years later. “My dad was always open minded enough to let some other trainers work with him whether it was Ronnie Shields, Manny Steward, Don Kahn or Richie Giachetti, Lester Bedford was my manager,” said Leija.

In 3 years of fighting Leija had a 23-5 record winning the Texas Golden Gloves. He made it to the semi-finals of the Olympic trials in 1988 losing a close decision to Kelcie Banks who had over 500 amateur bouts and was a two-time world amateur champion. In October of 1998 he made his debut stopping Oscar Davis in the first round. He finally made it to Las Vegas in his fourteenth straight win stopping Bobby McCarthy, 10-1-1, in the fifth round.

Several fights later Leija ran into spoiler Edward Parker, 21-4-2, of Houston in October of 1990, in a fight ending in a 10 round draw. Parker had won the championship at the LA Forum’s super featherweight tournament in Inglewood. Just 2 fight later Leija defeated Mark Fernandez, 25-7-1, in early 1991. At years end he defeated 1984 Olympian Steve McCrory, 30-3-1, and brother of welter champ Milt McCrory. “McCrory was quick and had a sneaky punch,” said Leija.

Next up would be Leija’s first title bout for the NABF featherweight title defeating Jose Luis Martinez, 18-4-1, by technical decision in the ninth round. Following this was fellow Texan and former IBF featherweight champion Troy Dorsey, 13-5-4, from Mansfield, TX. “We are great friends now but were enemies then. Years later I told him he was getting to me with all the pressure and I probably couldn’t go another 2 rounds,” said Leija. Dorsey was stopped after the sixth round with a bad cut.

In March of 1993 Leija was matched with the former WBA bantam and BO featherweight champion Louie Espinosa, 45-6-2, in an NABF title bout. “It was a brutal fight. I had 5 cuts,” said Leija. He won the 12 rounder, improving his record to 26-0-1. This set up a WBC super featherweight title bout against future Hall of Famer Azuma “the Professor” Nelson, 37-2-1, who would be making his sixteenth title defense. It would be the first of 4 fights against each other. It would be held in the Alamodome, in San Antonio in September of 1993.

Leija started to open up after about a minute into the first round to the delight of the fans. Nelson was known to take awhile to get started and seemed to lose the early rounds. In the fourth round Leija drove Nelson into the ropes with a flurry. He would back off respecting the champion’s power and experience. Leija took 3 of the first 4 rounds. In the seventh round Nelson landed 3 left hooks in a row.

In the ninth an accidental head butt opened a cut over Leija’s left eye. Nelson was using the jab more. It seemed Leija had the fight won going into the eleventh. “I can’t remember who said it in the corner after the tenth but Leija was told not to take any chances. Though we thought he was well ahead as it turned out he needed those last 2 rounds,” said Manny Steward. Steward worked the corner.

Leija and the fans were celebrating what looked like a new champion would be crowned. The local judge had it 115-113 for Leija. Then a 118-112 for Nelson seemed unbelievable. The final judge had it for Nelson to retain his title my majority decision. Some 20 minutes later it was discovered the last judge scored his card wrong making it a 115-115 draw. Nelson still retained his title by a draw. “I thought I won the fight,” said Leija.

It would take 8 months for the rematch. This time the fight would be held at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas in May of 1994. “I had problems making weight for the second fight,” said Leija. The first round started with nelson firing bombs but few landed. All of a sudden halfway through the round a right drops Nelson. Several more times Leija lands a good right but Nelson weathers the storm.

In the corner after the first round you had Don Kahn, Miguel Diaz and Jesse Leija speaking in different languages but all saying the same thing. Stay away and don’t get careless. Leija simply replied “give me my mouth piece”.

This fight was not up for grabs in the twelfth and final round like their first contest. It didn’t matter to Leija he was going out after Nelson. It was the seventeenth defense for Nelson. Leija would score one knockdown over Nelson. While his handlers were jumping up and down, Leija was met by Nelson who had come over to congratulate him as they exchanged words of respect. The scores were 114-113, 117-110 and 117-109 all in favor of the NEW champion Jesse James Leija.

It would be a short reign for Leija who in just over 4 months at the same Vegas site lost to Gabriel, Ruelas, 38-2, of CA, over 12 rounds. “I knew I lost the fight and would move up to lightweight,” said Leija. He would defeat Jeff Mayweather, 29-6-4, and stop Rodney Garnett, 20-3, in 7 rounds.

In December of 1995 Leija would meet the “Golden Boy” Oscar De La Hoya at Madison Square Garden for the WBO Lightweight title. In Leija’s corner would be Richie Giatchetti. At the halfway mark of the round Leija got in some good body shots but the bigger De La Hoya would usually counter him after being hit. With a minute to go DeLaHoya landed several good punches.

In the second round at the halfway point DeLaHoya landed a long right. Just under a minute to go in the round Leija got dropped with a left hook. He beat the count and tried fighting back but DeLaHoya got him in the corner and dropped him with a right hand. He beat the count as the bell sounded ending the round when his corner waved it off. “He was too big, too strong and the hardest puncher I ever faced,” said Leija.

It was almost 2 years since Leija last fought Nelson. He would once again drop down to 130 for the first time since their fight. It was June of 1996 and it would be Nelson’s WC title in Las Vegas. With just over 10 seconds to go in the first round Leija was pulling back jabbing when an over hand right dropped him. “I never recovered from that punch,” said Leija.

In the fifth round a left hook opened a nasty cut on the top of Leija’s right eyelid. He looked very sluggish coming out in the sixth round. The fight would be stopped in that round by referee Richard Steele who stepped in between the fighters and called a halt at 1:58.

In March of 1997 Leija defeated Joel Perez, 23-0, for the vacant NABF lightweight title. ‘I would be stripped of my title due to the way my cut eye was patched up,” said Leija. He would post 2 more wins in 1997 before signing for a rematch with Perez in January.

It would be no contest this time with Leija winning big over the 12 rounds to regain the NABF title. In July of 1994 he would sign for a fourth match with Nelson. It would be for the vacant IBA title in San Antonio. “I got off to a slow start remembering getting stopped in our last fight,” said Leija. Once he got started he would take the IBA title at 135 by wide scores of 119-110, 116-112 (twice).

“Every time Nelson would hit you it would hurt. He put everything behind it. He would stare at yu to intimidate you. Before our first fight he showed up in San Antonio 2 weeks in advance and wanted to know if I wanted to spar with him,” said Leija. Can you believe it?

Leija signed to meet “Sugar” Shane Mosley in November of 1998. He would do his best early but in the sixth round got dropped. Mosley would lose a point for pushing Leija. In the eighth and ninth rounds Leija got dropped again. “I had a cartridge problem on the side and it didn’t help going into this fight. “Shane is really a nice guy. He has incredible speed. I had to drop 17 pounds in 3 weeks. It was my toughest fight up to that point,” said Leija. It would be his last at 135.

Leia would be off for 9 months before coming back to win 3 in a row before meeting Juan Lazcano, 23-2-1, in August of 2000. He had won 9 in a row and 8 by knockout. “We fought on Showtime and the fan voting had me ahead 10-0 in rounds,” said Leija. Lleija would lose by split decision.

Before the year was out he would defeat Philadelphia’s Ivan Robinson over 10 rounds. He had Robinson down in the eighth round. “It was a good fight,” said Leija. After that he stopped Fred Ladd, 45-5, in 3 rounds. He would meet Hector Camacho, Jr., 32-0, next in Brooklyn, NY, at Key Span Park. It was televised and had a controversial ending.

“Camacho got cut in the fifth round and wouldn’t come out. “Of all the times I got cut and fought on I couldn’t believe it,” said Leija. This writer remembers it well. They should have given the fight to Leija by technical knockout. They gave the decision to Camacho and reversed it to a no-contest 3 weeks later.

In January of 2002 Leija would fight Micky Ward, 37-10, in San Antonio. “He could really hit to the body so I tried blocking as many as I cold. I got head butted and cut on my eye brow which took 27 stitches,” said Leija. They went to the scorecards and Leija was awarded the technical win.

After being off for a year Leija came back against Kostya Tszyu, 29-1, in Melbourne, AUSTR. Tszyu’s IBF, WBC and Super WBA titles were on the line. He had won 11 straight since suffering his first defeat. “It took 32 hours to get there from TX,” said Leija. When Leija would back up Tszyu he would get the advantage. “Kostya couldn’t fight well backing up,” said Manny Steward.

Tszyu was 14-1 in title bouts. In the sixth round a straight right broke Leija’s ear drum. With a minute to go in the round Leija got hit very low without a warning from the referee. At the end of the sixth his corner stopped the fight. Before the year was out Leija would score a pair of knockouts.

In April of 2004 leija defeated Marteze Logan, 13-7-1, after taking 25 stitches at the hairline. He won by a technical decision in 8. In July of 2004 Leija would once again be put up against a young 21 year old top prospect named Francisco Bojado, 16-1, who had won his last 7 fights. There were high hopes for Bojado. By this time Leija was 38, some 17 years the senior.

The fight would be held in Atlantic City, NJ. Leija would take the young Mexican to school. Though he took a knee in the second round the fight was not as close as the judge’s had it. “I had a damaged cartridge problem since 1995 sparring with Golden Johnson,” said Leija. Bojado got the first vote 95-94. Leija would take the other two by 95-984 and 965-93 for a split decision victory.

In January of 2005 Leija would come to the well once too often with Atlantic City’s favorite son Arturo “Thunder” Gatti, 38-6, for his WBC light welterweight title. Leija would be knocked down twice in the fifth round losing to Gatti. He would announce his retirement the week after this fight due to elbow and rib problems after this fight at the age of 38. “Gatti was strong and really surprised me when he came out with a lot of jabs,” said Leija.

Leija’s final record was 47-7-2, with 19 knockouts. He appeared on HBO 9 times. Today he works with the homeless and special needs children. Handicapped and underprivileged children learn to play baseball in what is called the “Miracle League”.

“I am also training fighters at my “ChampionFit Gym (championfitgym@jessejamesleija.com) in San Antonio. He has a good young prospect in lightweight Omar Figueroa, 10-0-1, with 8 knockouts having just fought on Telefutura in November. Jesse James Leija fought to become a world champion and now joins the fight in helping others to achieve their goals.

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