By Thomas Gerbasi
If the idea of fighters turned promoters has grown tired, give former world junior lightweight champion Jesse James Leija a listen, because if his answer to a question about the difficulties of working the other side of the ropes is any indication, he may just break the stereotype of the scheming and dishonest promoter.
“The difficulty is not knowing if people are gonna show up to the fights,” said Leija of his first show on March 31st at the Illusions Theatre at the Alamodome, located in his hometown of San Antonio, Texas. Working with Top Rank, Leija’s new company with local businessman Mike Battah, Leija / Battah Promotions, put on an event that was a clear success, drawing approximately 2,000 fans while featuring the return of former middleweight champion Kelly Pavlik and a rousing main event between Evgeny Gradovich and Francisco Leal.
Leija can breathe easy now, well at least for a moment, as a May 5th show at Cowboys Dance Hall in San Antonio is just around the corner, but when he had just three weeks to put together his March event, his first thought is what you would assume any promoter would think – what if no one shows up? But that’s Leija being Leija, and even during the course of his 17 year pro career, he was always a favorite for his candor and no nonsense approach. That will serve him well again in his second boxing life.
But back to March and having three weeks to put on a televised event in a town that had plenty of boxers and boxing fans, but not nearly enough shows. In fact, ask Leija, and he’ll tell you that the club scene had basically dried up in what was once a thriving fight city.
“I have two boxing fitness gyms here in San Antonio and we have about 100 clients at each one and we’re doing really well with it,” said Leija, 45, who has been retired since a 2005 defeat to Arturo Gatti. “I train a lot of people and train some amateur boxers, but there are no pro fights going on in San Antonio. When I was fighting, we had fights here quite a bit. But since I retired, there hasn’t really been much. The only thing that happens is (Julio Cesar) Chavez (Jr.) comes here once a year or every other year and a half, but there are no other major fights. So my partner (Battah) said we should promote fights, and I said ‘we should.’”
Now they just had to get everything done in a matter of days. But amazingly, the team pulled it together and pulled it off.
“It was such a short time that you have to market yourself, market the event, and we were on every TV and radio station and we were really hustling to get people to notice,” he said. “But we had a great turnout, the atmosphere was good, and we changed a few things. We made it more of an event than just a fight, and people really enjoyed it. Everyone that was there was so happy about the event, so we’ve just got to build up our clientele again.”
And for Leija, the key is to make their shows memorable for not just the fights, but for the entire event. That includes music, giveaways, and a feeling that you’re showing up for something that you’ll be talking about long after the final bell has rung.
“We want to make events,” said Leija. “When people leave we want them to think ‘oh my God, we can’t wait for the next one,’ and that’s what happened with the last one, so we’re on the right track.”
But no promotion lasts long without good fights, and along with Leija and Battah, one of boxing’s hidden gems, highly respected matchmaker Chris Middendorf, is on board to help make sure that the product in the ring is as exciting as the atmosphere outside of it. And when it comes to knowing what fans want, there is no better expert than Leija, who has seen it all, both good and bad, over the years. So while one of his goals is to give local fighters the opportunity to stay active and learn their craft, he also wants them brought up the old school way.
“I think what we’re offering a fighter is an opportunity to make money, and the opportunity to take them to the higher level where he wants to be at,” said Leija. “And I’m willing to work hard for that fighter, but he has to be willing to work hard for himself as well. I understand that the only guys that are gonna make it are the guys that really work hard in the gym and sacrifice on a daily basis and not just expect the promoter to give them easy fights every time. A good promoter and a good manager are gonna teach their fighter that you have to learn from every fight and build yourself up, and not just take easy opponents.”
Leija, who retired with a 47-7-2, 1 NC (19 KOs) record, speaks from experience, as he had one of the best guiding his career in manager Lester Bedford. The two were a rarity in the fight game – a team that stuck together from beginning to end, through good times and bad.
“I thank Lester for everything he’s done, and one thing he always said was ‘James, I could never fight for you; you gotta do the fighting,’” recalled Leija. “But businesswise he did the fighting in negotiating, and Lester got me the right type of fights. I was having tough, tough fights early on, but that’s how I learned and that’s how I got better. I think fighters would be in the game longer and make better money or have a better business if they had a manager that managed him well, and not just managed him for the quick buck. I fought for 17 years, 57 professional fights. That’s saying a lot in the mid 90’s and early 2000’s.”
He never backed down from anyone either, fighting the likes of Troy Dorsey, Louie Espinoza, Azumah Nelson, Gabriel Ruelas, Jeff Mayweather, Oscar De La Hoya, Shane Mosley, Juan Lazcano, Ivan Robinson, Hector Camacho Jr., Micky Ward, Kostya Tszyu, Francisco Bojado, and Gatti. In other words, we call that a Who’s Who of his era.
But his greatest accomplishment wasn’t being a world champion; it was making it out of this often brutal sport with his health intact and a future in front of him. Ask him how he was able to have one of the game’s true happy endings, and it’s almost as if he doesn’t want to jinx it.
“I don’t know,” said Leija. “You never say that because you don’t know what’s gonna happen later on, but I’ve been retired going on seven years. And I don’t like to say this sometimes because I don’t want younger people to get discouraged, but I think the reason I was okay, and I could be wrong, was that I didn’t start fighting until I was 19. I didn’t take beatings from when I was six, seven, eight, nine years old. But that’s not everyone because De La Hoya started that young and he’s fine. And Shane Mosley did and he’s fine. So maybe it’s just the person. But one thing I’ve always done is that I’ve always read everything I could and tried to keep the brain fresh, and I’ve always tried to learn things. I always did something besides boxing. Or maybe it was my dad always teaching me the art of defense. He would always tell me anyone can get hit. It takes a special guy to make a guy miss and make him pay. So we always learned about defense - keep your hands up. I got hit and I got cut, but I never got hit a lot, and I think that was one of the reasons why I was able to stay in the game for so long.”
Now he’s back. He could have done anything, but Jesse James Leija wants to give back to the sport and open doors for fighters who, just like himself, want to wave the Texas flag proudly, not just at home, but around the world. And he’s not afraid to get his hands dirty.
“If you’re gonna make something work, you better go out there and do it yourself,” he said. “And you have to have a great staff, which we do. We have a great team, and I have a partner, and if they see both leaders going out there hustling, they’re going to hustle as well. We’re gonna try to stay busy with this and get fighters from San Antonio an opportunity to make something out of themselves or maybe win a world title. We want them to have more opportunities to fight and make money.”