The words thunder in James “Jesse” Leija’s ears even now. His father, always his protector as well as his trainer, had words of advice for his son throughout his boxing career.
“One of his favorite sayings was, ‘You don’t have to be a tough guy in the ring,’” Leija recalled. ‘“Tough guys get hit a lot. Just because you’re a fighter doesn’t mean you have to get hit. You have to be smart.’”
Son heeded his father’s words of wisdom. They helped Leija enjoy a successful pro career that saw him win a world title and become San Antonio’s most accomplished prizefighter ever.
Jesse Leija died at his home in San Antonio on Wednesday from complications of Parkinson’s disease. He was 80.
“It’s the first time anyone in my immediate family has passed, so we’re having a tough time with it,” Leija, 53, said, adding that his father was first diagnosed with Parkinson’s 30 years ago. “The last year of his life the disease really took over and made it hard for him to do things.”
Jesse Leija enjoyed his own amateur and professional boxing careers, going 16-11-1 with 14 knockouts as a pro from 1958-71, fighting mostly as a featherweight at such venues as Municipal Auditorium and Freeman Coliseum.
He became a local attraction because of his scrappy style and punching power.
But he was best known as the trainer for his son. Jesse Leija worked his son’s corner for all 57 bouts and 380 rounds of his 17-year pro career, from Atlantic City, N.J., to New York, Las Vegas and Melbourne, Australia, against such opponents as Oscar De La Hoya, Gabriel Ruelas, Azumah Nelson (four times) and Arturo Gatti.
Leija beat Nelson in their second meeting on May 7, 1994, at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas to win the WBC 130-pound, super featherweight title.
“We spent almost every day together for 20 years,” noted Leija, who didn’t begin his amateur career until 1995 at the age of 19. “But there was never a business side to our relationship, not for my dad. I was always his son, and it was comforting to know he was always there.
“We traveled the world together. He was always a happy man.”
Leija said a friend of his, Mike Bernal, summed up his father perfectly.
“He was a man’s man,” Leija said. “He was funny and also sincere. He was quiet and didn’t say a lot. But he was very wise.”
In addition to his advice on boxing, Leija said his father imparted other words of wisdom regarding life in general.
“He would say to me, ‘Tell me who you hang out with and I’ll tell you who you are (as a person),’” Leija said. “He also told me that if I worked hard good things would happen. He was right. Those are things I tell my kids and fighters I train today.
“I became a world champion not because I was a great fighter but because of my father’s teachings.”
Jesse Leija worked full time in the maintenance department at a downtown hospital in addition to his duties as his son’s chief second.
Lester Bedford of Fort Worth, Leija’s longtime manager, noted that Jesse Lejia was the first San Antonio amateur to make it all the way to the national Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions in Chicago.
Bedford said the late Dan Cook, fomer sports columnist with the Express-News, once told him the feat “was the biggest thing to happen in San Antonio in years.”
“He gave James a great foundation in boxing technically and fundamentally,” Bedford recalled. “There was a point in James’ career when he needed help defensively if he was going to become a world champion. We brought in Ronnie Shields to be head trainer for a while and Jesse was behind it 100 percent. He never complained about anything.”
Jesse Leija was inducted into the San Antonio Boxing Hall of Fame in 2014. His son has enjoyed a sterling reputation outside the ring as well as inside it over the years, something he credits to his mother and father.
“My parents always taught me to be thankful and give back,” Leija said. “My dad always told me to love my family and work hard. He did everything for his wife and kids.”
Jesse Leija is survived by his wife of 59 years, Connie, three children, three grandchildren and one great grandchild.
Funeral services are pending.