The boxer-turned-promoter can’t help but talk basketball. At a news conference to announce a world championship fight card at the AT&T Center, “Jesse” James Leija thanked the media for showing up when a certain team in town is contending for a title.
“We have the San Antonio Spurs,” Leija began, “getting ready to. …” His voice did not trail off. It got swallowed in the sound of whoops and hollers and applause spreading through the Mariachi Bar at Mi Tierra Mexican Restaurant.
The assembled media -- a crush of photographers, a few reporters, many from Spanish-language outlets -- understood Leija even if they couldn’t hear him. It isn’t easy to get coverage for boxing when the Spurs are pursuing a fifth NBA championship.
It was fitting that Leija would assume the task. As a local featherweight and welterweight, he won two world championships. As a promoter, he helped put 39,247 fans in the Alamodome for the Saul “Canelo” Alvarez-Austin Trout fight in April. As a trainer, he helped Tim Duncan lose 25 pounds in the off-season two years ago, and improved the conditioning of Duncan’s teammates.
Now here he was, promoting perhaps the biggest San Antonio card in 20 years, headlined by former two-time world welterweight champion Andre Berto, on July 27. In one co-featured event, interim WBA welterweight champion Diego Chaves faces undefeated Keith Thurman. In another, undefeated Omar Figueroa Jr. of Weslaco battles Japanese southpaw Nihito Arakawa for the WBC Interim lightweight championship.
“We have incredible world title fights we haven’t had in San Antonio in a long time,” Leija said, and he would know. On Sept. 10, 1993, Leija fought Azumah Nelson to a 12-round draw in one of three world title fights at the Alamodome.
Leija retired in 2005 and started training before he started promoting. One of his first clients: The Silver and Black. Leija took a call from someone who said Gregg Popovich wanted him to train the Spurs. Leija and his assistants put players through a series of drills that included jump ropes, heavy bags, boxing gloves and hand mitts.
“I’ve been training the Spurs in the off season for seven years,” Leija says. “Tim Duncan is the biggest advocate. He’s an All Star basketball player. But when we train, he trains as if he wants to be an All Star boxer. If he makes a little mistake, he wants to correct it. I can tell him, ‘Tim, it’s okay. It’s not a big deal.’ But he goes, ‘No, I want to do it right.’ And we keep doing it until he gets it right. His work ethic is incredible.”
Once, Duncan asked Leija to spar outside the Spurs practice facility in the summer heat. “It was maybe 90 degrees and we were in the sun for six rounds, close to 30 minutes, non-stop. Just because Tim wanted to go out there. He didn’t have to do this. He’s already a great player. But he wanted to get better. Tim wanted to work harder. I was like, ‘This guy is amazing. This guy is crazy.’ I know why he’s one of the best NBA players ever.”
The boxer-turned-trainer is no slouch himself. At 46, Leija looks as muscled and fit as he did at 26, like he could go a few rounds with the headliner on his next card, 29-year-old Andre Berto.
Leija takes training the Spurs seriously, wrapping their hands, lacing up their gloves, asking them to deflect punches he throws with mitts, or better yet, just step out of his way. The objective: increase reaction time, enhance focus, improve toughness, build confidence.
“Tim and I bet how many times I’m going to be able to stab him with my mitts and how many times he’s going to make me miss,” Leija says. “He’s getting harder and harder to hit. We’ve worked on angles, on combinations, on moving his legs with the punches, anything you can think a boxer would do, Tim has done it and perfected it.”
Like a true promoter, Leija relishes talking up his next card. “I’m a huge fan of Andre Berto,” he says. “I’m a huge fan of (his opponent Jesus) Soto Karass.”
Like a proud trainer, he loves talking up the Spurs. “Manu Ginobili has incredible power,” Leija says. “I told him, ‘You’re wasting your time as an NBA player. You need to be a professional boxer and win some titles. He started laughing. But Tim was standing there, watching Ginobili hit the double end bag, and he was shaking his head. He couldn’t believe how good Ginobili was. Manu even puts the gloves on and shoots three-pointers and makes them. He’s a phenom.”
On Matt Bonner: “He’s a beast. Bonner has so much power, it’s incredible. I mean, he was hitting our hands and our shoulders were hurting from all the power he had. I was thinking, ‘Man, I would hate to get hit by one of his punches. I’m glad I retired.’”
On Tony Parker: “He’s all speed and finesse. I was really amazed at the size of his hands. They’re small. My hands are bigger than his. But the way he handles the ball with those hands is incredible.”
Leija rattles off the names of other players he’s trained. Kawhi Leonard. Danny Green. Everyone on the roster. He’s even trained Pop who, on one occasion, addressed reporters while wearing a t-shirt adorned with an image of Leija.
A high school football coach once told Leija he was too small at 5-foot-5 to play the sport. The rejection turned Leija to a sport his father loved and his mother loathed. Jesse Leija, once a Texas Golden Gloves champion, enjoyed a pro career and later trained his son. Now the kid trains NBA players, promotes world championship fights, and his reputation grows.
Word once reached former Spurs guard Avery Johnson. When he was coaching in New Jersey, Johnson asked Leija a favor. “Could you train my players?”
Leija politely declined. “I’m sorry,” he said. “But I belong to the Spurs.”