By Thomas Gerbasi
You never forget your first time, and that’s certainly the case when it comes to Jesse James Leija and the Alamodome in his hometown of San Antonio, Texas. Fighting Azumah Nelson in 1993 for the first of four times the two met, Leija recalls being called to the ring for the biggest fight of his life.
“When I first walked out of the tunnel for the fight, I almost got pushed back from the sheer loudness and the wave of cheering itself,” he said. “It felt like a gust of wind pushing me back.”
He pauses, as if picturing it all over again.
“It’s almost like it happened yesterday,” continues Leija, who fought Nelson to a 12 round draw in their WBC featherweight title fight. “It’s hard to explain unless you’ve been there and done that though. It’s almost like a woman telling you how it feels to give birth. (Laughs) No explaining can help.”
Nearly 20 years later, Leija is preparing to go back to the Alamodome, where he competed four times over the course of his 17 year pro career. This time he won’t have trunks and a pair of boxing gloves on; instead, he’ll be wearing a suit as the co-promoter of the Saul “Canelo” Alvarez vs. Austin Trout fight that has sent the cash registers ringing to the sound of 35,000 tickets already sold. Not too bad for someone who has only been in the promotional business for just a year.
“I couldn’t be happier,” said the former junior lightweight world champ of Leija-Battah Promotions. “My partner, Mike Battah, is an incredible businessman and he didn’t really know the game of boxing, but he knew business, and with me knowing boxing and the things that can happen, we had trials and errors, but things have come out great. We’re in our eighth event coming up with Juan Diaz in Corpus (on Saturday), which is our first event outside of San Antonio, and then the big fight with Canelo. Who would have thought that at this point we’d have 35,000 plus at The Alamodome?”
Not many, especially in a sport that several people have been describing as “dying” for years now. But when you mix the muscle of Golden Boy Promotions, an intriguing clash of champions between Alvarez and Trout, and a diehard group of fans in Texas with Leija and Battah, the formula is there for a good night that proves once again that the demise of the sweet science has been greatly exaggerated.
“People are smart,” said Leija. “They know great fights, they know great fighters. It may be dying when a promoter goes out there and puts whatever together and just throws it out there. But you can’t fool people that way. To get everyone involved and interested, you have to put on great fights, and we’ve been doing that. We try to make competitive fights, and if people are aware of that, they’re gonna come out and support it and they’re gonna want to come and see that. And that’s the case with Canelo and Trout. It’s like the (Julio Cesar) Chavez and Pernell Whitaker fight all over again.”
Hopefully with better judging.
“You’re right,” laughs Leija, and usually this is the time where a promoter will put a spin on the sometimes incompetent judging in the sport, but refreshingly, Jesse James is still a straight shooter, explaining that when 25,000 of 35,000 fans are cheering for their favorite, judges can be influenced by what they hear and not always what they see. He’s right, and while that’s not an excuse for the wrong guy getting the nod in a bout, Leija isn’t dodging the tough questions.
That goes for his relationship with the folks that fight for him as well. As a fighter, there is a level of comfort knowing that the man signing your check has been on the other side of the ropes as well.
“When I signed with Golden Boy, I knew that Oscar (De La Hoya) and his team were not gonna come around and try to screw with me because I know the game and it’s a mutual respect,” he said. “And I have respect for every fighter, whether you’re 0-10 or 10-0. I know what it takes to get in the ring, and I want that fighter to make the most money that he can, fairly, and to have respect for himself and respect for us. So it’s a two-way street. You get what you give.”
And having been around the top promoters in the game as a competitor, Leija has seen enough to know the fight business inside and out.
“I’ve been in the game since 1985 non-stop,” he said. “I fought 57 times, and I’ve been around Lester Bedford and seen everything happen. I’ve been with Don King, Main Events, Oscar De La Hoya, Top Rank, America Presents, and all these promoters, so I know what can happen and I’ve seen it happen, so nothing surprises me. And this was one of the reasons I did not want to get into the promotional business, because of the things that can happen. But nothing was happening in San Antonio boxing wise, so we said let’s start locally, see what we can do, try to bring the market up, and San Antonio loves boxing, so we started and things went great. But it’s only going great because I have a great partner in Mike Battah.”
Battah’s not doing too badly with the 46-year-old Leija either, as the popular San Antonio product embraces the role as frontman for his company.
“We’re working it,” he said. “I’m the guy that’s in front, people know me, so I’m in there pushing ticket sales and pushing our fights and that’s hard work. Mike does the business part and I go out and do the selling and bring the awareness to what we’re doing.”
So whether it’s leading press conferences, signing autographs, or even acting as a guest referee in a pro wrestling match, Jesse James Leija is still battling – it’s just a different kind of fight these days.
“You can’t please everyone,” he admits. “But we’re just trying to put on great, quality fights that when people leave our fights, we want them to say ‘I can’t wait for the next one.’”