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Tuesday, January 25, 2005
Updated: January 28, 8:31 PM ET
Leija happy to play the spoiler

By Steve Kim

"Jesse" James Leija is a bit amused, but not offended, by all this talk of a proposed June pay-per-view showdown between Arturo Gatti -- whom he faces on Saturday night in Atlantic City -- and Floyd Mayweather Jr.

A Michigan judge and Leija will have a lot to say about that.

"Y'know what? That's business and I've heard all that talk before," said a relaxed Leija. "(Hector) Camacho Jr. was getting ready for bigger and better things -- and I'm not comparing Camacho with Gatti -- Lazcano, all those guys, they were looking past me, which is OK. I like that, I love being the spoiler. I love being the gatekeeper. I love all that stuff.

"That just makes you work and train hard."

But he insists, all these future plans made by Main Events and Top Rank do not provide him any extra motivation.

"It's not (motivation)," he insists. "I don't need that type of motivation; I'm self-motivated. It's my job to be in the best shape I can; it's my job. My motivation is seeing my kids, them not wanting to see me get hurt in the ring, wanting to come back home and be a husband and a daddy to my kids. That's my motivation to train hard and do well.

"I don't need any other motivations but that and that's what keeps me going and that's what keeps me healthy."

It's his solid work ethic and professionalism that has allowed him to compete at the world-class level for the past dozen years. From 130 to 140 pounds he's taken on all comers from Kostya Tszyu, Gabe Ruelas, Azumah Nelson (four times, going 2-1-1 with the Hall of Famer), Oscar De La Hoya and Ivan Robinson, to Micky Ward, Camacho Jr. and Shane Mosley, among others.

He hasn't won them all, but he usually holds his own and puts up a respectable effort. But there's something about Leija that makes him an attractive target. He's either considered too small, too slow, too old, too something or other, that makes him a target to those looking for bigger and better things.

Main Events, which promotes Gatti, has gone after Leija before in the past with up-and-comers like Juan Lazcano in 2000 (where Leija was the victim of a highly questionable 10-round verdict), and this past summer against Francisco Bojado.

But this steppingstone would not be stepped on last July.

"I had so much going against me -- youth, speed, power, the promoter, everything was going against me," Leija says of that bout. After taking a second round knockdown at the hands of Bojado, Leija would rebound quickly and use his veteran savvy to win a well-deserved decision. "After the second round I was like, 'Man, am I going to go through this again?'"

As he hit the canvas, it seemed like Leija's career was finally setting. But in reality, it was the first step in winning the fight.

"Sometimes voices tell you that you've had enough and I don't think anyone would have blamed me if I would've packed it in," said Leija. "But there was another voice in my mind saying, 'Y'know what? You're not going to give up, you're going to keep going, keep pushing,' and I kept pushing and the fight became easy and I won the fight."

And that voice belonged to his trainer, Ronnie Shields, who says, "I felt so much better after he got dropped."


"Oh, yeah," explains the veteran cornerman. "I did, because I told him, 'Look, y'know what? If you jump on him, you'll win the fight. If you sit out and try to box him now, he's going to be so confident, it'll be hard for you to beat him. So you gotta go out the next round and jump on him."

So instead of being in survival mode, the native of San Antonio fought as if he was defending the Alamo and pressed the attack, hurting Bojado with body shots in the middle frames.

"When I saw him backing away from me, I knew the fight was mine," Leija says.

And now Main Events has tabbed him again versus Gatti. To them, Leija is a recognizable name with a solid track record, but one who is safe enough to face before a big fight.

Which is fine by him, because this is the one he's been waiting for.

"The Gatti fight is the one I've wanted for years," he says. "I wanted it six years ago and it never materialized. I wish it would've happened when we were younger, but hey, I'm not going to complain. It's happening now and I'm blessed to be making this type of money."

After he had to call it a day against Kostya Tszyu in January of 2003, Leija was looked upon as a fighter whose warranty had run out, one that was a bleeder and one who couldn't go more than four or five rounds against quality opposition. But the fight against Bojado gave him the stamp of re-approval.

"I always expected James to get that fight. He kept winning and he had to go out and prove himself against a young guy, Francisco Bojado, which you really don't want to have to do at this stage in your career. But he went out and did what he had to do," said his long-time manager Lester Bedford.

"They were concerned he couldn't get through a fight without getting busted up really bad and I think they thought he would quit when he got hurt or that he got to the point in his career agewise where if it got rough in there, he'd just pitch the tent. I think that was a very unfair rap that he kinda had and the Bojado fight put all that to rest."

But like any other business, sometimes it's not what you know, but who you know, that can get you places.

"I think it also helped that Oscar De La Hoya was involved as James' promoter and Richard Schaeffer, being with Golden Boy, that relationship probably helped get the fight," Bedford admitted.

In Leija, Gatti's camp sees a smaller and older opponent in front of them. Despite the fact that they both won titles at 130-pounds, Gatti is thought of as the bigger, stronger junior welterweight.

"They say that only because he gets so big after the weigh-in," points out Leija. "I don't know what he gets up to but I get up to 155 for the fight. I'm not a tall guy, I'm 5-foot-5, but I carry a lot of mass and Gatti's 5-7, 5-8, he's three inches taller than I am."

But Leija points out that most of his foes are taller than he is. And he adds, "He's within reach for me to hit him and that's all I need to know. If he's beyond that, he's six feet tall, I'm gonna have problems."

Another factor that seems to be in favor of the reigning WBC junior welterweight titlist is age -- Leija is 38, while Gatti is just 32.

But Leija, in many respects, is like a well-preserved classic car who has seen some hard miles, but is well taken care of.

"Oh, absolutely," states Shields. "James has really taken care of himself. You got a guy in James Leija who never drinks, never smokes, don't party, lives a straight, clean life and so he doesn't have anything to distract him whatsoever as far as his body is concerned. He took care of his body; he's a young 38."

Shields said he believes that, in general, fighters today age differently in the era of 12-round championship fights. That fighters don't fight nearly as often as their predecessors.

"I think they do," he says. "I think they age a lot differently now. The thing about Leija is that he's 38 but the thing about it is, he didn't start fighting amateur until he was 19 years old. So you gotta go back and figure that you have amateur guys who start at 12, 13 years old, sometimes younger than that."

And with all the grueling fights that Gatti has engaged in throughout his career, combined with his hard-living in the past, despite the age difference, Gatti may be the pugilist with more miles on the odometer.

"Without a doubt," agrees Shields.

But Leija is well-aware of why he's here. He's looked upon as the perfect foil, who is vulnerable. But that's par for the course as Leija has been written off more times than chalk.

"Probably so," said Leija, laughing at the thought. "But what can I say? How can you classify me as a fighter, what type of fighter am I? How is a fighter who didn't have all the talent in the world, a fighter who doesn't have all the power, a fighter who doesn't have the height, a fighter who's fought in four weight divisions and been in the top ten in every weight division he's been in, for years. How does a fighter at 38 keep doing this?

"Y'know what? I'm blessed. The Lord has blessed me and I've lived a clean life and I'm honest and I work hard."