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Forgotten Warriors: Jesse James Leija

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  • Forgotten Warriors: Jesse James Leija

    Known as "The Texas Tornado", Jesse James Leija was for a long time a world class contender and briefly he also held the WBC super featherweight title. He has also won the minor IBA lightweight title and has fought in 8 world title bouts altogether. Not a very hard puncher, Leija relied primarily on his natural boxing instincts and warrior mentality to win. He was also very tough and has only been knocked out for real at the end of his career, once. Almost all his other stoppages are by corner retirement and one is a cut stoppage. He was a game never say die come forward fighter who came to fight. He was never in a boring fight. And for that, I included him among my forgotten warriors.

    Born in San Antonio, 8 July 1966, he also grew up in the Spurs city, in a Mexican-American family. As amateur, he won the San Antonio Golden Gloves in 1988 and then went to the Olympic trials where he lost in the first round of the trials to Kelcie Banks. His record here is 23-5. Standing only 5'5 but built like a tank, Leija turned pro in October 1988, aged 22. He won his first fight by TKO1, fighting at featherweight. He put together a record of 26-0 and won the NABF feather title in March '92 by technical decision in 9 against Jose Luis Martinez and also stopped the former IBF-champion Troy Dorsey by corner retirement in 5 that same year, before challenging the long-reigning WBC super feather champ Azumah "Professor" Nelson, one of the best fighters ever to come out of Africa. The fight took place 10 September '93 at the Alamodrome in San Antonio and after 12 furious rounds fought at a high pace and with some great action, Nelson was first proclaimed the winner by a split decision. However, some time later, the verdict was changed into a draw, due to a scoring error by one judge. This controversy prompted a rematch, which happened on 7 May next year, this time at MGM Grand in Vegas. This time, Leija knocked Nelson down in round 2 with a right hand (becoming the second man to do that, after Salvador Sanchez) and went on to achieve glory as he won by a unanimous decision, 117-109, 117-110 and 114-113. It was Nelson's first loss at 130 and his first overall since 1990, when he lost to Pernell Whitaker for the world lightweight title. However, this great triumph wouldn't last too long and Leija found himself losing the title in his first defense against the new rising star: Gabriel Ruelas, a fast and slick fighter. The fight was 17 September at MGM and Leija found himself on the canvas at the end of the second round from a right uppercut. He bounced back in round 5 and put Ruelas down with a counter right. In round 10, Leija was hit low twice. He had a comeback in round 11 after taking a lot of punishment, but in the 12th he was put down again by a straight right. In the end, he lost the fight and his title with the scores of 111-115, 109-115 and 108-116. Ruelas just proved the wrong opponent and was fresher and younger of the two, also hungrier.

    He went back on track by beating Jeff Mayweather by UD10 in May '95, almost 8 months after the Ruelas fight. He then scored a KO7 against Rodney Garrett, before he signed to fight Oscar de la Hoya on 15 December that same year. De la Hoya was taller by almost 6 inches at 5'10 1/2 and younger by 6 1/2 years and was simply too much for Leija with his speed, power and boxing IQ. It was the fight for Oscar's WBO lightweight title, the first lightweight title fight for Leija. In round 2, Leija was in the middle of an exchange when he was caught with a left hook and dropped. He made the count at 9. De la Hoya started swarming him and hit him with a combination punctuated by a left hook and down went Leija again. It was right before the end of the round and Leija beat the count, but his corner threw the towel in. The official result: 2nd round retirement. He wouldn't fare much better in his next fight, which was for his old WBC super feather title and against his old nemesis: Azumah Nelson. It was on 1 June '96 at Boulder Station Hotel in Vegas when a rejuvenated Azumah sent Leija down in the first round with a tremendous right hand. It looked like an early knockout was in the making, but the tough Leija managed to beat the count and finish the round. He came back into the fight and won a couple rounds, but was stopped in round 6 after sustaining more punishment due to 2 severe right eye cuts. That was his last fight at 130 and he went back to fighting lower-level fighters for a while. He won the vacant NABF lightweight title in March '97 by decisioning Joel Perez. On 11 July '98, just 3 days after his 32nd birthday, he took on Nelson for the fourth time in a fight for the vacant IBA lightweight title. Again, Texan Tornado would have his revenge and after Nelson broke his hand in the fifth round, he took over to win comfortably on the scorecards. It was Nelson's last fight in 10 years, when he had one more special fight against Jeff Fenech. For Leija, this meant a shot at the IBF title held by Shane Mosley, the best lightweight at the time. Mosley was 29-0 and undefeated and also 5 years younger. He put Leija down three times before he had to retire after round 9, 14 November that year.

    Despite another setback, he kept on fighting and scored a UD10 against Ivan Robinson in November 2000, after dropping a split decision to then-rising contender Juan Lazcano just before that. In July next year he fought the 32-0 Hector Camacho jr, but the fight ended as a no-contest after 5 rounds after Camacho got cut by an accidental headbutt. Also his next fight against famed toughman Micky Ward ended after 5 rounds due to a headbutt, but this time the fight went to the scorecards and Leija won by a close split decision. That was in January 2002 and Leija had to wait till the next January to fight against the undisputed light welter champion Kostya Tszyu. It was 19 January 2003 at Telstra Superdome in Melbourne, where Tszyu was based. Leija did much better than expected and put up a good fight, but he suffered a perforated right eardrum from Tszyu's hard punches and had to quit after 6 rounds. Overall, he was the busier fighter, but landed 105 blows to Tszyu's 171. This fight pretty much spelled the end of his prime and now he was 36 years old, but still it wasn't the last the world had seen of Jesse James Leija, it would turn out. After winning 2 fights by ko and 1 by a technical decision, he was matched against the up and coming prospect Francisco Bojado in a sort of eliminator for the WBC title fight, 24 June 2004. Bojado was only 21 and he had power, knocking Leija down in round 2, but Leija's experience and ring guile started to show and in the end, two judges scored the fight for him while the third scored it for Bojado. Bojado would retire after this loss and came back 3 years later, but had a short comeback which ended unsuccessfully. Leija then had his 8th and final world title fight against the WBC champion Arturo "Thunder" Gatti, 29 January 2005 in Gatti's adopted hometown of Atlantic City. The fight was rather even and both guys landed their share of clean punches, until the 5th round, when Gatti landed a right hook as Leija was moving away and it put Leija down. He got up and went right back at it, exchanging with Gatti-which was never too clever! Gatti then took control and put Leija down again with a punch on top of his head. As Leija attempted to get up obviously groggy, the referee stopped it. Although he ended his long career in a disappointing knockout loss, he still gave a good account of himself once again, showing he was not afraid to mix it up with the ultimate warrior Gatti.

    He was 38 when he retired, after 16 years of fighting and a record of 47 wins, 19 by ko, 7 losses and 2 draws. After retirement, he founded a boxing promotion company called Leija & Battah Promotions. His cousin is Louie Leija, who fought from 1992 and 2010 and was a journeyman mostly at featherweight. Jesse James Leija was a fighter who liked to roughen up his opponents and fight on the inside. But his lack of power made it difficult for him to succee at an era where power really mattered and was full of hard hitters. He still hit hard enough for his opponents to take him seriously and was physically strong. I hope you enjoyed this presentation of another FORGOTTEN WARRIOR.

  • #2
    --- Jesse James and Bojado too!

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    • #3
      Originally posted by LondonRingRules View Post
      --- Jesse James and Bojado too!
      Hm? I mentioned Bojado. What's funny is that Leija said in an interview I read last night that he felt like Azumah had put the jinx on him right before that 1996 fight.

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      • #4
        I had never seen the second Nelson-Leija fight, so I wanted to see and score it.
        1. Nelson 10-9
        2. Leija 10-8 *knockdown
        3. Nelson 10-9
        4. Nelson 10-9
        5. Leija 10-9
        6. Leija 10-9
        7. Leija 10-9
        8. Leija 10-9
        9. Leija 10-8 *point deduction (a suspicious one)
        10. even 10-10
        11. Leija 10-9
        12. Nelson 10-9

        Final result: Leija wins 116-111. I had almost the same score as two of the judges (117-110), but gave Nelson the last round on activity. Leija had some good shots there, but wasn't active enough to earn it. Round 8 was a swing round, Azumah had a good comeback but Leija also came back after that and scored with a combo. All in all, Leija was Azumah's bogeyman that night. After round 4, Nelson pretty much couldn't do it right. Leija commanded the fight and put on a marvelous performance, very accurate punching and good defense and head movement. The judge who had it 114-113 (some foreigner called Kamel Yousef) was way off. No way was it that close.

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        • #5
          --- Thanks for the vid, Boz. Might watch that. Jesse a bit before my viewing time, so I knew the name, but not the guy when we were introduced in Houston at a fight.

          i was shocked how Tyny he is, in fact I was shocked how small many were one on one even on my weight class. and I ain't a big guy.

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          • #6
            Originally posted by LondonRingRules View Post
            --- Thanks for the vid, Boz. Might watch that. Jesse a bit before my viewing time, so I knew the name, but not the guy when we were introduced in Houston at a fight.

            i was shocked how Tyny he is, in fact I was shocked how small many were one on one even on my weight class. and I ain't a big guy.
            YW. So, you were a boxer?

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