Jesse James Leija is one of the few boxers who enjoyed a smooth transition to life outside the ring. And he’s done it by not staying too far from it. Leija Battah Promotions is a mainstay in the sport, having worked with everyone from the Premier Boxing Champions (PBC) series to Saul “Canelo” Alvarez.
But Leija is still more famously known for what he accomplished as a boxer. The former featherweight champion shared the ring with many legends of the sport and carved out his own fine legacy in the process. But his wars against Ghana’s Azumah Nelson stand out on his record. BoxingAfrica.com spoke to Leija about those famous battles and much more in this lengthy interview below. Read on!
Jesse, when we think of fighters who become of successful promoters, we think of superstars like Oscar De La Hoya. Could you give us some background on how you’ve been able to do so well with Leija Battah Promotions?
When most fighters retire, they have nothing to fall back on. I wanted to make sure that I had something. I opened a boxing and fitness gym. I wanted business professionals, regular people and so forth. And that took off.
One of my personal training clients suggested we start a promotional business. I told him that was the last thing I wanted to do because it’s such a tough sport. Especially the business side. But he had a great business mind and really wanted to do it. He said he would handle the business side and I should take care of the training/boxing side. And that was Mike Battah. He was a client of mine who became a partner.
It was a smooth transition from fighter to promoter but having someone like Mike made it much easier. He’s just a good businessman and that’s what you need, especially in boxing.
You had a storied career as a boxer and did it with few amateur fights. How were you able to develop the skills that made you a world champion?
My father was a boxer in the 50’s and 60’s. He came and tried doing it again in the early 70’s. He was the first San Antonio amateur to make it to the National Golden Gloves. He lost in the finals but to do that back then you had to be really good. My dad was real strong at his weight, 112lbs. He would take a lot of punishment to land his punches and knock you out.
After he lost in the finals, he turned pro. Back then, they were just fighting for the money. He didn’t want his kids fighting because the sport was brutal, so he didn’t let us. I’d ask him to teach us but he wouldn’t. When I was a sophomore in high school, I decided to give boxing a shot. Trained for five, six weeks, fought in the Golden Gloves and lost. I never even thought about it again until I was 19. I started up again, trained for only two-and-one-half years and made it to the 1988 Olympic trials. I lost to Kelcie Banks who was a great amateur. I had about 35 fights when I made it to the Olympic trials. So that was pretty cool.
Your father was training you throughout that?
Yes, my dad trained me. From the amateurs to the pros. My dad was smart enough to realize that he didn’t know everything. So he would ask my manager Lester Bedford to bring in other trainers. So we brought in Ronnie Shields, Don Kahn who used to be Alexis Arguello’s trainer, Richie Giachetti for the Oscar De La Hoya fight, Emmanuel Steward worked my corner a few times and more.
You built up a pretty big following in Texas, from Corpus Christie and all over as you were coming up in the ranks. Did your father’s reputation and local star power help?
Yeah, everyone knew my dad. The old-timers recognized the name. But when I made it to the Olympic trials, that gave me a big push. That got my name out there. After the trials, I just figured I might as well turn pro. What else am I going to do?
It took you only three years to go from the amateurs to professional and only five to get your first world title shot. What prepared you for that first title shot?
The Troy Dorsey fight was tough. It only lasted five rounds but it wasn’t easy. He was an aggressive fighter who constantly came toward you. But I think the fight that got me ready for a title shot was Louie Espinoza. He was that good. A former world champion who could punch like crazy. Steve McCrory also. And then the guys who were no names like Roy Muniz who prepared me too. I fought a lot of tough guys on the way up, whether I blew them out or not. I had a great manager who got me the right fights to help build up my career and prepare me each step of the way.
Your first fight with Azumah Nelson was in the Alamodome on the Pernell Whitaker-Julio Cesar Chavez undercard. How did it feel to be fighting in your backyard in front of one of the largest crowds in boxing history?
That was amazing. The atmosphere of 60,000 plus people. You can’t even describe it because it was so powerful. And then to come out and have my first world title fight in front of that kind of crowd, against a great world champion in Azumah Nelson. The nerves and every emotion was running high. It’s like trying to explain how you felt when you had your first child. You just can’t explain those emotions.
I thought I won the first fight with Azumah but I also know that I took the last three rounds off because I was trying to protect the lead and that came back to hurt me. I knew I belonged with these guys and I felt I proved myself as being an elite fighter. That fight just gave me a lot more confidence. I was disappointed that I didn’t win the world title but I was happy that I fought the great Azumah Nelson.
You were at your best in the rematch. You mentioned how much you learned about yourself in the first fight. What did you learn about him that helped you to improve your performance?
For the rematch, I told myself that I was going to do the exact same thing, but pour it on in the last few rounds. I fought the same fight, I just didn’t coast. I dropped him in the second round but we really didn’t change anything as far as styles. We had Don Kahn helping out with that fight.
Your fought Gabriel Ruelas four months after winning the WBC super featherweight belt. No soft touches for your first title defense?
Nope. I knew Ruelas was a great fighter. Think about that: Who fights the number one challenger right after winning a world title? I didn’t really want to do that, but what happened was that Don King struck a deal with Ruelas to have him step aside so I could fight Azumah in the rematch. So they give Ruelas step-aside money.
I hadn’t stopped training since the camp for the first Azumah fight. I just stayed in the gym after that tough fight because I wanted the rematch and I wanted to be ready for it. So after the rematch, I took a break. I went to Puerto Rico, relaxed and, before I knew it, I came back and realized I had seven weeks to prepare for Ruelas. I killed myself to make 130. We went to Mackie Shilstone and he said, “I can get you to 130. You won’t have anything left but I can get you there.” I was on an 1,100 calorie-a-day diet for six or seven weeks. I had nothing left.
To make things worse, when I fought Gabe I got dropped in the first or second round and tore the ligaments in my right ankle. I didn’t have balance or power after that. So after that fight, I didn’t fight again for nine months. But it happened and I felt terrible for it.
Your losses, particularly in your prime, were to great fighters.
Aside from Gabe who is a great fighter, all my losses—except for Juan Lazcano because I didn’t lose that fight—were to Hall of Famers. Azumah Nelson, Arturo Gatti, Oscar De La Hoya, Shane Mosley and Kosta Tszyu.
Do you have any regrets as far as your career? For instance, when you fought De La Hoya he was a welterweight in a lightweight’s body. I’m sure it was lucrative. But would you do it again?
I wanted to be known as a guy who took the toughest fights he could. I dared to be great. That meant fighting the best guys out there. Most of those guys were bigger than I was but I was going to give it my all. With Shane Mosley, I had only three weeks to get ready for him. I lost 17lbs in 21 days to fight him. I was supposed to fight Ruelas again. I hurt my elbow in training so the fight was scratched. Two weeks later, they called me to fight Mosley for the world title. I couldn’t turn down a world title fight.
The third fight to Azumah, where he stopped you in six, came as a surprise to a lot of people.
I was excited to fight Azumah Nelson for a world title again. These are the kind of opportunities you live for. I was fighting at lightweight before that but worked my way down for that opportunity. He dropped me early in the first round and from that point on I didn’t remember anything. I was just fighting on instinct, out of my feet.
This is a funny story: I was going to write a book about my career and this was definitely going to be in it. I felt great that night; in the locker room, during the ring entrance and waiting in the ring. So Azumah is walking to the ring with his entourage. And they’re playing all these drums and all these instruments, right? Like some African song. And while he was walking in the ring, I felt something come over me like all of my energy drained from my body. I looked in my corner and said, “Man, something’s not right.” I’m not saying it’s voodoo but it felt like someone had put something on me. And then the fight happened and I got dropped so hard in the first round and remembered nothing after that.
The funniest part of it is that Azumah wrote a book. I don’t remember if he was referring to our second or fourth fight and he says the same thing – that he thinks we put a hex on him. I forgot what he called it in the book. But he said he felt something weird inside the ring…but that’s what he did to us! (Laughing)
I fought 42 rounds with Azumah and every one of those rounds was painful. If you were to compare boxing to a sport, Azumah would be a fullback. He had a strong mind, strong body. He was in so many amazing fights and it was hard to get the best of him. Not to mention all the tricks he had in his bag. He knew went to throw, when to relax, when to hit you hard and when to play mind games.
The first time I fought him, he came down to Texas a month in advance to acclimate to the climate here. We trained at the same gym but different hours so we didn’t cross each other. He gets there when I get there and has one of his trainers come and ask me if I wanted to spar. These are the kind of mind games he played. Basically, telling me, “I’m not worried about our fight. I’m going to beat you so let’s spar.” That’s the type of guy he was.
What were your fondest memories of your fighting career?
One of the great moments in my career was the first Azumah fight. The second obviously, winning a world title. Even losing to Oscar. The atmosphere in New York and the press, that was amazing. Kostya Tszyu in Australia. Those were memorable times in my career. TO bring all those people to Australia and to take your family to different parts of the world.
But the fights aren’t really the memorable times. That’s only one night. What about the three months before that? It’s the training that you remember the most. That’s where you become who you are. Early in my career I would go up to Virginia to work with Ronnie Shields. But I hated being away from home. S I moved all my camps to San Antonio so I could be closer to my wife and my kids.
At the end of the day, that is what really counts. The fans get the one night. And if they take anything away from their career I want them to remember that I took on every challenge and gave it my all.