February/March 2012 - Issue V

Jesse James Leija: Heart of a Champion

Jesse James Leija definitely meant business inside the ring when he was fighting and now means business outside of the ring, literally, but that wasn’t always the case. Born into a family of professional boxers, it seems like it always made sense that he in turn would become a professional fighter as well. Although when this Champion, born in 1966 in San Antonio, Texas, first came home with a broken nose at the age of nineteen, his mother demanded that boxing wasn’t what he would be doing as a life-long career. "He would become a physical therapist," she said. But much to her dismay, Jesse, who was born James Leija and later added Jesse in honor of his father and grandfather, would soon find that upon wiping that bloody nose and sweat off of his face after the fight, that he knew that he wanted boxing to be a part of him for the rest of his life.

Starting at the "late" age of 19, Jesse James knew that he had to devote his entire heart, mind, body and soul into every fight if he wanted to turn pro, and in due time it all paid off. After only two short years as an amateur fighter, Jesse James Leija turned professional and in one of his early and decisive fights in October of 1988, Leija beat Oscar Davis by knockout in round one. It was then that James Leija would be dubbed "Jesse James" in honor of his father and grandfather, who were both a part of Jesse James’ professional boxing career, physically and emotionally. When asked what set him apart from other boxers out there trying to make a name for themselves in his day, Jesse James simply said, "I looked at it like a 24-hour job, worked out 3 to 4 hours a day, ate, slept, and thought about boxing technique all day long."

Jesse James was also nicknamed the Texas Tornado after more than a couple of ferocious and victorious fights. He also became known as the "Fighter from Texas That Could", and of course he has lived up to and exceeded the meaning of the name that had been bestowed upon him by his professional boxing predecessors and peers. With 47 wins out of 57, he holds an amazing fighting record, almost impeccable, most of which was due to his mindset throughout every fight, which was as he put it, "to treat every fight as if it was the first one, take advantage of the nervousness and fight through it all knowing that you’ve trained for that single moment your entire life." This went on fight after fight. Concerning his losses, Leija explains that he always challenged himself to fight the best boxers in the World, and "ironically, those were the only fighters that I lost to, the guys that were the absolute best, but that was my challenge because I always wanted to fight the best to see exactly where I stood," said Leija. Most, if not all, of the fighters that Leija lost to were bigger, faster, and usually out of his weight category, for example: Oscar de La Hoya, Azumah Nelson, Shane Mosely, Kostya Tszyu, Gabriel Ruelas, and Arturo Gatti, all of whom had been world champions. Yet, upon looking back at and listening-in on some of these fights, the commentators always had something very important to say about Leija, and it was that "he fought like a champ and had the heart of a warrior."

....I live by the creed that I will never be satisfied....

Jesse James Leija never backed away from a fight, regardless of the disparity in the weight category, height, or even the fighters reach. Jesse James always fought with a victorious mindset. In looking over old tapes of his fights, it was truly inspiring to see that he fought through it all regardless of a cut eyelid, a perforated eardrum, separated ribs, bad elbow, weariness, or even a bloody nose. Not once did he say this is it, I’m done. Jesse James was known to fight until there was no fight left in him and God knows that this was never the case.

So as we comfortably sit and chat for the interview in his newly-built gym, his second one, located in his hometown of San Antonio, Texas in a very chic shopping center by highway 1604, it is difficult to think that a man this humble was once the WBC Super Featherweight champion of the World after he defeated Azumah Nelson in a twelve-round

unanimous decision. This small-framed man sat next to me with an air of humility telling me his life story, and yet after leaving his gym and as he waved goodbye to us, Jesse James Leija seemed 8 feet tall to me. We heard boxing story after boxing story, the wear and tear of the sport after 25 years in the ring and the toll it took on his life, but not once did he say he regretted a single instance of his career. Every fight, every bell, every hour spent in the ring training, every opponent, every cut, every stitch and every cheer made it all worthwhile to him.

One of Leija’s most honored opponents was Azumah Nelson, and one of his most memorable fights against Nelson was a rematch in Las Vegas, Nevada on May 7, 1994, in which Leija got a twelfth-round unanimous decision that made him the WBC Super Featherweight Champion of the World. Yet, surprisingly this wasn’t enough for him, only 4 months after winning the title, he fought against the number one contender, Gabriel Ruelas and subsequently lost. I asked him why he had agreed to fight so soon after working so hard to win the title and he answered, "my promoter Don King set up this fight for me and yet this fight has been one of the biggest mistakes of my life because I fought so hard and trained so much to become the World Champion, that when I finally reached the mountaintop, I relaxed. Well, I relaxed for too long and then only had about 8 weeks to get ready for the next fight against the number-one challenger. Well I wasn’t ready mentally or physically and he beat me that night. So since then my motto has always been to never be satisfied with what you have in life, regardless of what job you have or how much money you’re making, or what car you drive, or how you look, don’t ever be satisfied because as the saying goes, ‘show me a satisfied person, and I will show you a failure.’ So now I live by the creed that I will never be satisfied, I will always look for more."

That night, that loss against Ruelas, could have been avoided in Leijas’ mind, but it is something that has given him a different perspective in life–to him self-satisfaction will always be one step further and will forever be a life-long fight to obtain it in the ring of life. Jesse James Leija is clearly representative of what a true champ should be modeled after: he knew when he was in his prime and didn’t sit on his titles, he fought, and when the day came to set it all aside and move on, he accepted it and retired. His final bout came on January 29, 2005 when he fought hard, but lost against Arturo Gatti. The time to move on had arrived and Leija decided that it was time to retire.

Chicano Channel Magazine wanted to know the Champ’s thoughts on some issues and the following is what he told us:

    Jesse James on Politics

"At one point I thought I wanted to be very involved in politics, maybe as a political candidate, yet I think I am able to do more on the outside of it all, than

on the inside. I have so many friends that are in the political scene. It’s a touchy subject really because I don’t call myself a Republican or a Democrat, I sometimes say I’m a ‘Republicrat’, but I just like to help people that are most likely going to help the community. I just like having the right person in office, and to me it doesn’t’ matter whether they are Republican or Democrat, just like it doesn’t matter whether they are Black, White, Hispanic, Chinese, or of any specific color or race. To me what truly matters is– who is truly going to do the right job for the people, and not for themselves."

Jesse James on Community Service 

"We have a baseball league for special-needs kids. We feel like they deserve the opportunity just like any other kid out there, to be a part of a sport that they love. Whether a special-needs child is either mentally or physically disabled, we offer them this league where they get to play as if they were a part of CYO or any other City baseball-league. This is what we offer with The Miracle League of San Antonio. You know, it’s a true miracle to watch those children practice and play their hearts out even when they were probably told by science and every other team out there that it would be an impossible task for them to do so. Yet when you see them out there, you notice that to them, there is no impossible task."

Final Thought

Jesse James Leija is the epitome of what one of the greatest boxers in the world once said, "Champions aren’t made in the gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them– a desire, a dream, a vision." ~Muhammad Ali

Desire: Jesse James Leija desired to be the best and turned out to be one of the biggest legends in his division.

Dream: He dreamed of becoming the WBC Super Feather Weight Champion of the World one day. That day became a reality on May 7, 1994.

Vision: He had a vision that after retiring, he would make a difference in the lives of the people within his community to help them get in the shape of their life through boxing. On May 2005 he opened his first ChampionFit Gym and has since then been making a difference in the lives of those around him.