For the average boxer a career may only last a few years, but Jesse James Leija is far from average, and amazingly he remained near or at the top of the boxing game for most of his 16+ year career. He won 2 World Titles, had 9 World Title fights, defeated 15 World Contenders, 3 Olympians and retired with a record of 47-7-2 with 19 knockouts.
For 16+ years, he brought civility and honor to a sport that rarely offers any of it. Very few in boxing history can claim to have won them all. In today’s era, very few attempt to fight them all. Leija can take great pride in the fact that he can at least subscribe to the latter.
Born and raised in San Antonio, Texas, Leija was practically born into the boxing game. His grandfather and uncle were pro fighters, as was his father, a former Texas Golden Gloves champion.
Despite this pugilistic pedigree, Leija’s parents didn’t allow him to box until he graduated high school.
When a coach told Leija he was too small to play football at Harlandale High School, he became a boxer. He was then told that he was too small to be a boxer, so he became a world champion.
As a boxer, in addition to being too small, they said he didn't have enough power to ever amount to anything. All he did was last 16+ years and make millions.
He's short, but that wasn't his biggest shortcoming in the ring. He never seemed mean enough to be a fighter, but in the end maybe that was a good thing.
And in San Antonio, he became a hero and symbol of hope, particularly on the South and West sides where boxing always has been a desirable outlet for aggression and a way out of the barrio.
Boxing was Leija’s ticket out, too. But it came at a price.
He took up the sport at age 19, much to the concern of his mother. As an amateur, the first time Leija came home with a broken nose, he expected warmth and words of encouragement from his mother.
Instead, his mother told him to give up the sport; she wanted her son to become a physical therapist.
But he wouldn't be discouraged easily, he already had wrapped himself around a dream — to become a world champion prizefighter — and wouldn't let go.
He started out as an amateur, competing in the Golden Gloves and early on, Leija showed himself to be a top prospect. Boxing fit like a second skin.
Compiling a 23-5 record in a short amateur career, despite his relative inexperience, he won a San Antonio Golden Gloves title and earned a spot in the 1988 Olympic Trials, where he lost a razor-thin decision to two-time world amateur champion Kelcie Banks.
With his Olympic dreams derailed, Leija turned to the pro ranks, the victories began piling up at an alarming rate. He won his first 17 bouts, 10 by knockout.
On October 2, 1988, Leija won his 1st professional fight by stopping Oscar Davis in a single round. 14 consecutive wins followed before Leija and Edward Parker fought to a disputed ten round draw in October of 1990.
He set the standard locally for how to conduct a career. With few exceptions, Leija kept the same team together from beginning to end.
He overachieved but was under appreciated for his ring skills. He was a thinking fighter, first and foremost.
He carried bravery in his heart.
He was substance over style, character over charisma.
Leija approached boxing as an athletic contest — he touched gloves with an opponent before every round in a sign of sportsmanship — not a life-and-death struggle. Other fighters sometimes didn't like that about him, but they faded long before Leija.
He wasn't considered an A-list fighter, but he fought virtually all the big names in four divisions. Oscar De La Hoya. Azumah Nelson. Gabe Ruelas. Kostya Tszyu. Shane Mosley. Arturo Gatti. World champions, all.
He knew how to fight, and how to retire. During his retirement speech, the only person he didn't thank was the doctor who brought him into the world.
He went out the right way. Not in leg irons and handcuffs. Not cursing and claiming he was robbed. Not penniless and picking up cans along the side of the road.
Now retired, he is already turning his attention to life after boxing. He is soon to open his ChampionFit Gym (a boxing gym/fitness center), he is endorsing his own line of sausage and chorizo that is soon to be available throughout Texas and one of the projects he seems proudest to be involved with is a program called the Miracle League. The program allows handicapped and underprivileged children to play baseball.
Content in his new role as entrepreneur and businessman, Jesse James Leija’s record will show that he lost his last fight, but he went out the same way he came in — a winner.
"I fought the best guys in the world, I not only beat some of them, we were trying to kill each other inside the ring, but afterwards I became friends with a lot of them. They brought out the best in me.”
"When you look at Jesse James Leija, he overcame every challenge in front of him not only in boxing, but in life, and he faced them with courage and determination. He dared to be great. There are not many fighters who do that,” – Lester Bedford, Leija’s manager throughout his pro career.