That’s what ‘Jesse’ James Leija told me earlier this month as we walked out of the Alamodome around midnight. Worn out not from pulling an ill-advised Roy Jones/Evander Holyfield return to fighting inside the ring. Leija prefers life outside the boxing ring these days. Being the fight night promoter means you are the ringmaster, in and out of the ring. That sure beats needing a cut man to stop the kind of bleeding 12 rounds of boxing produces on your face.
That still doesn’t make it easy.
“As a fighter you have control of what you do in the ring,” says Leija. “As a promoter, you don’t have too much control because you are hoping on the fans to come out and support your events.”
4,126 fans showed up to the Dome for Leija’s latest boxing promotion venture on August 11. A 28-bout fight card headlined by the Sergio Mora/Bryan Vera rematch was the third boxing event in San Antonio put together by Leija-Battah Promotions. Mike Battah partnered with Leija to bring back the boxing scene San Antonio fight fans long for. But it’s a new age fight night, complete with a DJ playing ‘Move It’ music between rounds that Go-Go dancers on side stages gyrate to.
Call it boxing with a bang.
“I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t work at fights,” says Leija. “I know what I want to see as a fan. The key is to make it an event that is fun, upbeat, and not just a fight.”
“James is loved by everyone in SA, and respected all over,” says Battah. “We’ve got a great opportunity is here in San Antonio. Our future plans call for a card every two months.”
It was January of 2005 when Leija stepped into the ring as a fighter for the last time. Arturo Gatti’s 5th round KO convinced James his time to hang up the gloves had arrived. But it wasn’t time for Leija to bid farewell to the fight game altogether.
“He always wanted to stay in boxing when his career was over,” says longtime Leija friend and adviser Michael Miller. “He thought about training, like he does now with some young fighters. But the best deal, money wise for him is getting into promotion.”
Like Oscar de la Hoya has shown with his Golden Boy Promotions business, boxers can go from fighting WITH fighters, to fighting FOR fighters. Unlike Don King (Don King Productions) or Bob Arum (Top Rank Boxing), boxers have no fear of getting a raw deal when dealing with former fighters. Especially ones with stellar reputations in the boxing community.
“It takes someone who has been down the road like James and Oscar, who have been in the ring and know how hard it is to train and make money, to cut special deals with fighters to make it worth their time,” says Miller. “The last thing they want is to be accused of stealing money from a fighter, or even being on the wrong side of a business deal with a fighter.”
“I’ve learned a lot in my 25 years in boxing,” says Leija. “These fighters, you can’t give them easy fights. If they are going to be world champions, they have to do it the tough way, not the easy way.”
There’s never been an easy way for one of the few REALLY good guys in the fight game. Longtime SA Express-News Boxing beat writer John Whisler told the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) this about James:
“I always say that James threatens to give boxing a GOOD name.”
Wait, why was the reporter Whisler being interviewed by the minority rights organization? Because Leija was the 2012 recipient of the NCLR’s Roberto Clemente Award. According to the NCLR website, the honor is given out “to an individual or organization renowned in the world of sports, as well as committed to the advancement of Hispanic Americans.”
That’s what happens to good guys who do good things. Eventually people start to notice. The work of the ‘Jesse’ James Leija Foundation impacts hundreds of lives in SA. James is also one of the driving forces in the Miracle League of San Antonio, where any kid with any handicap gets to play baseball. For free. Leija organized a SA Celebrity Boxing Night which raised more than $100,000 for the South Texas Hispanic Fund.
But the fight game is what fuels Leija’s inner fire. At either of his two ChampionFit gym locations, you will find a social mish-mash of San Antonians going through boxing workouts: teenagers, 20-30-somethings, mid-life crisis battlers. And of course, you see actual boxers training for actual fights. All will hear something of this nature coming from Leija when he is commandeering the training sessions:
“Relax your mind… Calm mind, calm body!”
Leija made a career of keeping a calm mind in a fight game that is more likely to make you lose your mind. Now his boxing second act has him staying sane on the promotions side. Build the business of Leija-Battah Promotions, and Leija also ends up leading the business of reviving San Antonio’s long history as the boxing headquarters of the South.
“James’ interest in promoting is keeping boxing alive in SA. James isn’t trying to become a Don King or Bob Arum or anything like that,” says Lester Bedford, Leija’s longtime manager and fight promoter based in Fort Worth. “There have been good big fights, but the local scene has been lacking. This is good for boxing, having fight cards here in the Alamodome, the AT&T Center, or the Freeman Coliseum. James and Mike are having good success already. Right now, the odds of their success are 100% because I say they’re doing very well.”
Doing very well, and ready to keep it rolling. De la Hoya and Golden Boy Promotions were so happy with the August 11 card that the next fight date partnership with Leija-Battah Promotions has been set for October 27, back in the Alamodome. A possible main event would pit Rocky Juarez of Houston vs. Antonio Escalante of El Paso, who landed a vicious right hand KO on the Vera/Mora 2 under card. What’s even better: Golden Boy is talking about bringing an HBO fight to the dome. Just the kind of traction a new boxing promotion business needs to keep its momentum flowing.
“SA is hungry for good fights. You get HBO or Showtime here, and you get 10,000 to 15,000 thousand here,” says Miller. “So you wet their appetite with good fight cards, then a couple of times a year you bring in a really big fight? San Antonio will blow up. And it will be James and Mike who will be leading the way.”
One step at a time. One promotion at a time. That’s the way James prefers to see things.
“Golden Boy is excited about how we do things and how committed we are to the sport. So I think we’ll stick around for a while,” Leija says with a smile. “You’ve got to build it small to make it big.”
Sounds like a calm mind at work while taking care of the business of boxing.