It is every prizefighter's worst fear, materialized into a harsh reality: the moment when a pugilist has to throw in the towel one final time and forever call it quits. When a boxer is forced to ponder the idea of a life outside of the "squared circle", it can be one of the most solemn days of his entire life.
The "Texas Tornado", Jesse James Leija, remembers that day very well.
"It was really tough," recollects Leija. "The last three years of my career were plagued with injuries. My elbow was shot, which made it impossible to jab, and I had a separated rib, which made taking body shots unbearable."
The former WBC Super Featherweight Champion recalls feeling conflicted throughout his final years of prizefighting.
"When I was preparing to fight Kostya Tszyu in 2003, I couldn't spar for four weeks due to various injuries. Also, when preparing for the late Arturo Gatti in what was eventually my final fight, I wasn't able to spar because of nagging injuries," explains the former 2 division champ. "I remember thinking that I couldn't cheat myself like that any longer. I wasn't giving myself a legitimate chance to win anymore against boxing's top fighters."
Although fighting became extremely painful, Jesse James Leija continued to give it everything he had during his last several fights. He recalls specifically one of his greatest and most fulfilling moments in the sport.
"During my fight with Francisco Bojado, he hit me so many times in my separated rib that I actually considered taking a knee and giving up," remembers Leija. "I thought to myself, one more time and I'm taking a knee...one more time and I'm calling it quits. It was that painful. But I didn't quit and I ended up getting a decision against a fighter who most thought was going to knock me out."
Although he won his fight against the favored Bojado, Jesse James Leija felt that it was becoming too difficult to compete at the top level of the sport.
"In the fifth round of my fight with Gatti, I went down with a left hook to the ribs. I knew my body wasn't going to make it through 12 rounds, so I tried for the knockout and ended up getting caught," describes Leija. "After that loss, I knew my body just couldn't do it anymore at 38."
After 56 professional bouts over a span of 17 years, Leija decided to call it quits.
"For a fighter, giving up is one of the hardest things to live with," states the former champ. "But, looking back on my career, I accomplished everything I possibly could in the sport of boxing. I pushed my body as far as it could go, and I am very proud of my entire body of work as a prizefighter."
While so many prizefighters struggle with life after boxing, Jesse James Leija has found solace in his transition. Just six years after announcing his retirement, Jesse James Leija owns the "ChampionFit Gym" in San Antonio, TX, and continues to teach boxing and fitness to hundreds of people every year.
The former 2 time champion explains how the conversion from performer to teacher came easy to him.
"Although boxing will always be a part of who I am, I realized that performing in the ring was just one chapter of my life. It was time to begin the next chapter," explains Leija. "I really love reaching out to others and teaching the "sweet science" to kids or adults who simply use boxing to get in shape."
Being a mentor and a positive example to others is a position that the former champ whole heartedly embraces.
"I love seeing boxing work in other people's lives," proclaims Leija. "It is so rewarding to help others get into shape and live healthier, happier lives."
Although Jesse James still loves the competition of training amateur and professional fighters, he has found that his true passion is in promoting fitness and good health to everyone.
"Everyone who benefits from my classes approaches me and tells me what a difference my classes have made in their lives and how much better they feel about themselves," states the former champ. "That is more important to me than any belt I could have won."
The San Antonio native also recognizes the fact that a lot of fighters haven't been as fortunate. Many former boxers still struggle with life after prizefighting. Leija offers words of encouragement to those who are struggling with their careers, before and after retirement.
"For the fighters who are just starting their careers, it's most important to keep your name clean," declares Jesse James. "Treat everyone with respect and do the right thing always. After your fight career has ended, there will be people who will want to help you if you've treated people the right way and have kept your reputation intact."
The former WBC champion also measures the consequences of not making the right decisions while being in the spotlight.
"Not only does a fighter hurt his own career by getting into trouble, that fighter also hurts the sport of boxing and possibly damages the chances of other fighters getting recognized as well. A fighter's negative actions could affect sponsorship plans for boxing gyms and amateur programs across the country."
Jesse James Leija feels fortunate to be in his current position. He claims it is attributed to his family values and how he was raised. To the former fighters who continue to struggle with retirement, Leija stresses the importance of humility.
"Don't be too proud to accept the help of others. There are so many people that would love to be associated with a former champion or a former fighter who has given the public their heart and soul in the ring, but a champion has to be humble enough to accept that person's help. The retired fighter has to open the door of opportunity and let others come into their life," explains the former champion.
"Too often, fighters are too proud and should be more inviting. If they shut people out, no one will want to help them. Be an inviting person and doors will open up for you."
Through a strong work ethic and the humility to recognize strengths and weaknesses, Jesse James Leija has overcome adversity both in and out of the ring for 44 years. With 56 professional bouts, including 2 world titles under his belt, Leija has closed the book on a very accomplished career as a prizefighter. Surrounded with his family, Jesse James looks forward to a life which consists of training and assisting others in accomplishing their own dreams and aspirations.
Leija is a living example that generosity and kindness yields a much greater reward than any world title.
Courtesy San Antonio Boxing | Examiner.com