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Jesse James Leija began his professional boxing career on October 2, 1988, beating Oscar Davis by knockout in round one, in Leija's native San Antonio. On January 1, 1989, he defeated Joe Mitchell by a decision in four at the Trump Plaza hotel in New Jersey. This marked Leija's debut outside Texas. On his fourth fight, Leija beat future Shane Mosley challenger Manuel Gomez in San Antonio, by decision in four, on April 10.
During the early 1990s, Leija began to become famous in the boxing world, winning his first fifteen fights, ten by knockout. His first blemish came on October 8, 1990, when he was held to a ten round draw (tie) by Edward Parker, in San Antonio.
Leija won his next three bouts, and then, he had an upgrade in opposition quality when he met the experienced Miguel Arrozal, on May 31, 1991. He beat Arrozal by an eighth round disqualification. On October 18, he met Steve McCrory, the former WBA world Bantamweight champion, in Houston, beating McCrory by a ten round decision.
Leija got his first championship try on the fight that proceeded his win over McCrory. On March 3 of 1992. he met Jose Luis Martinez for the regional, NABF Bantamweight championship. This fight was held in San Antonio, and it resulted in a nine round technical draw decision.
Leija proceeded to win three bouts, two of them against former world champions. Having defeated Jesus Poll by a decision in twelve rounds and Troy Dorsey by a knockout in six, he was matched, on March 23, 1993, with Louie Espinoza, a former two time world Featherweight champion. Leija won this fight by a twelve round decision, and with this, the NABF title and the right to challenge for the world title for the first time.
On September 10, 1993, Leija participated at The Alamodome's first ever event, when he challenged Azumah Nelson for the WBC world Jr. Lightweight title. What was a star studded boxing card that included the Chavez-Whitaker bout, turned instead into a controversy filled evening: approximately one hour before Chavez and Whitaker boxed to a draw that has been disputed for years by fans and boxing writers alike, Leija had been announced as new world champion by a decision, only to find out, twenty minutes later, that a judge had supposedly miscalculated his scoring card, and the fight was really a draw.
On March 23, 1994, Leija returned to the ring with a third round knockout win over the highly rated Tommy Valdez. Then, on May 7, he got a rematch with Nelson. Leija became the WBC world Jr. Lightweight champion when he defeated Nelson by a twelve round unanimous decision in Las Vegas.
Soon after he became world champion, Leija also became a father, when his wife gave birth to their first baby, a boy. Another outside the ring event happened when a popular Spanish television gossip show mistakenly announced that Leija had been murdered. However, this mistake brought no large consequences, and it was quickly forgotten.
On September 17, he defended his title against Gabriel Ruelas, once again, in Las Vegas. Leija lost his world title, and his record as an undefeated fighter, when he lost to Ruelas by a twelve round unanimous decision.
Leija rebounded with two wins, including one over Jeff Mayweather, and then, on December 15, 1995, he received a chance at becoming world champion for the second time, when he challenged Oscar De La Hoya for De La Hoya's WBO world Lightweight title, at New York's Madison Square Garden. The fight was televised by HBO Boxing, as HBO had De La Hoya under contract. Despite losing by a second round knockout, Leija would soon become a staple of the boxing show's programming, and he remains a popular performer on that television show.
On June 1, 1996, Leija challenged Nelson, who had regained the WBC world Jr. Lightweight title by knocking Ruelas out, for the WBC championship that once had belonged to Leija. Leija was defeated by Nelson when he lost by a knockout in six, in another fight that was televised by HBO. This fight was also held in Las Vegas.
Leija returned to the boxing ring on December 10, outpointing Roberto Avila. After a string of wins against relatively insignificant competition, Leija won the NABF's regional Lightweight title, defeating Joel Perez by a decision in twelve rounds, in San Antonio on January 20, 1998.
After a second round knockout victory over Troy Crain, Leija fought Nelson for the fourth time. In what was Nelson's final career bout, Leija won the IBA's Lightweight title by defeating Nelson by a twelve round decision on July 11. The belt at stake had smaller significance than the bout itself in the fans' eyes, as the IBA is a generally unrecognized "world championship" organization, but Leija and Nelson made a significant boxing rivalry. Leija-Nelson IV was also televised by HBO.
On November 14, Leija had a shot at the WBC's world Lightweight title, when he faced Mosley, who had already beaten Gomez and become a main attraction in boxing. Leija was dropped in rounds six, eight and nine before the fight was stopped, with Mosley retaining the world title by a ninth round knockout win.
Leija only had two wins in 1999: one of them was against Verdell Smith, who, despite having 54 career defeats coming into their fight, had vast experience, having participated in 91 previous bouts. Leija outpointed him over ten rounds, and then, he went on tofight to a five round technical draw with Wayne Bodreaux, a boxer who would later become a significant challenger in the Lightweight division, on December 2.
Leija's first bout of the 2000s came on April 14, 2000, when he defeated Jorge Luis Lopez by a fifth round knockout, at San Antonio's Freeman Coliseum.
On August 5, he fought Juan Lazcano. Although no world championship was involved in this bout, it created genreal interest among Hispanic boxing fans, as Lazcano, nicknamed "The Hispanic causing panic", had become a popular boxer among Latinos. The fight was, once again, televised by HBO. Leija lost a ten round split decision (scores of 94-96, 93-97 and a favorable 96-94) to Lazcano in Uncasville, Connecticut.
Next followed another HBO televised fight, when Leija fought Ivan Robinson, who had twice beaten Arturo Gatti, on November 11 at Las Vegas. Leija beat Robinson by a ten round unanimous decision.
After a victory over Fred Ladd, Leija faced Hector Camacho Jr. in Long Island, July 7, 2001. This would prove to be a very controversial fight: After an accidental headbutt, Camacho Jr. was injured and he could not fight on. Camacho Jr. was initially announced as the winner by a technical decision, but the Leija team formally protested the result with the New York State Athletic commission. Some writers even suggested that Leija should have been given a knockout win, given the circumstances in which the fight ended (Magazine writers claimed Camacho Jr. "gave up"), but the athletic commission decided to declared the fight a five round no contest.
Having beaten Arturo Gatti, Micky Ward was being considered for a fight with WBC, WBA and IBF world Jr. Welterweight champion Kostya Tszyu. On January 5, 2002, Leija and Ward faced off at San Antonio. Once again, the fight was stopped as a consequence of a headbutt, bnut this time, it was Leija who resulted injured. Leija won the fight by a five rouind technical decision, and became the number one challenger in the Jr. Welterweight division.
Leija then proceeded to move to Australia for six months, to get acquainted with the country and it's climate before his challenge of Tszyu, on January 19, 2003. Because of contractual problems, Leija's first fight abroad was televised by Showtime instead of HBO, and by a Pay Per View channel in Australia. Tszyu retained the title when he beat Leija by a six round knockout.
After three wins, Leija faced young prospect Francisco Bojado, by then compared by some boxing fans with Fernando Vargas. Leija and Bojado fought on July 24, 2004 at Atlantic City, and Leija produced what some viewed as a minor upset by beating his much younger rival by a ten round split decision.
On January 29, 2005, Leija got to fight with Gatti for Gatti's interim WBC world Jr. welterweight title as a consequence of Leija's win over Bojado. Fighting once again in Atlantic City, Leija lost to Gatti, by a fifth round knockout.
Leija's record consists of 47 wins, 7 losses, 2 draws and 1 no contest in 57 fights, with 19 knockouts wins.
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