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Leija happy to play the spoiler

1/28/2005

"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."

Really?!?

"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."