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Leija Comes Full Circle

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Back on September 10th, 1993, Jesse James Leija faced future Hall-of-Famer Azumah Nelson at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas. Leija would come up just a bit short in his bid for the WBC junior lightweight crown as he and “The Professor” fought to a draw in the first of four meetings over five years. But what Leija really remembers from that night is he fought in front of over 63,000 rabid fans, who had come to see this card and its main event, Julio Cesar Chavez vs. Pernell Whitaker.
 
This venue doesn’t usually get crowds that big for the annual bowl game it hosts.
 
For Leija, becoming a world champion by besting Nelson the following May remains his career highlight.
 
“You can’t explain how it felt. When I walked out of the tunnel, the noise was so loud, it almost pushed me back,” he told Maxboxing last week. “It was that loud; it was crazy. And I took my time to get to the ring because I knew this was something I would never forget in my life and I wanted to enjoy it. It was incredible. It’s almost like a pregnant lady who gave birth trying to explain to you how it felt. She can explain all she wants; you’re not going to realize how it felt. That energy went right through me. Even when I watch it on video now, I look at it and I’m like, ‘Oh, my God.’ I remember that feeling of what it felt like. It was incredible.”

This weekend, when Saul Alvarez and Austin Trout unify their junior middleweight titles in this same building, there will be nearly 40,000 patrons in attendance. And promoting this card locally for Golden Boy Promotions is Leija, who started his promotional company with his friend and local businessman Mike Battah last year.
 
Leija retired from the ring in 2005 after being halted by Arturo Gatti in five rounds. Promoting was the last thing on his mind, post-career.
 
“I did not have any plans at all of getting into the promotional business. What I wanted to do was to train fighters. I opened up my gym and maybe one day, I could train some great fighters and I’ve been training fighters and your normal white-collar person. Mike Battah was one of my clients for the last seven years or so. He loves boxing and he said, ‘James, you’re retired and nothing’s really happening in town. Sure, your ‘[Julio Cesar] Chavez’ shows up once-in-awhile, every two years or whatever. That’s not enough. Other than that, we had mediocre bouts in San Antonio. Let’s promote some fights,’ and I said, ‘Man, I don’t know. I’ve been in this fight game a long time. I know it can be a mess.’”
 
This is absolutely true and many former fighters struggle on the business end of the fight game because they simply have no real concept or understanding of business principles. But Leija said of Battah, “He knew the business of business, not the business of boxing.” Their strengths and weaknesses complimented each other perfectly.
 
And with that, Leija Battah Promotions was formed.
 
“We’re learning as we’re going but if you work hard at anything and you’re successful at other things and you put that determination and the same work ethic that we have, how can you not be successful?” said Leija. They promoted their first card (in association with Top Rank) on March 31st of last year at the Illusions Theater in San Antonio, featuring Kelly Pavlik on a card televised by TV Azteca.
 
Battah, who’s in the distribution business, says, “From there, I asked for other fights. Nobody would respond. I guess I was going through a few layers and then I saw Mike [Miller] and I said, ‘Take me to Oscar [De la Hoya]. Let’s get something going here. I’m hot with a couple fights. I don’t want to stop and Oscar said, ‘I’ll give you whatever you want.’” Miller was Leija’s attorney during his days as a fighter and now represents several Golden Boy-promoted fighters. Golden Boy CEO Richard Schaefer says of this outfit, “They are absolutely terrific. We started with them 18 months ago. Jesse James Leija and his partner, Mike, came to our office in Los Angeles and they discussed with us that they wanted to really become a promoter in and around San Antonio and they grow it into Texas. I asked them how they would go about it. They had great plans focusing in on the local market before covering the entire state of Texas.
 
“James, we promoted some of his fights. He’s always been a polite, smart guy, comes across very well. So it was our pleasure to start working with them and we did some of the Fox shows with them - I think four of them - they hustled. They worked very hard. They always delivered whatever they promised they came through with and when the opportunity came up here with ‘Canelo’ Alvarez, it was an easy decision to make, of course, to stay with them and we told them, ‘When we have a big fight, we’re going to bring it to you,’ and we delivered and they delivered. It’s a great, great partnership. We will do many more events with them.”
 
Battah is a big thinker. As this fight was announced in March, he wanted to open up the whole building. Not only was Alvarez-Trout a legitimate fight, but ‘Canelo’ insisted on 10-dollar tickets. Everyone else wanted to be a bit more cautious in their approach and go with a 30,000-seat set-up.
 
Immediately, they knew they had underestimated the popularity of not only Alvarez but this fight.
 
“After two days,” admitted Schaefer, who had right around 15,000 tickets out of the box-office within 48 hours of them going on sale to the public. Unfortunately, with the configuration and prices already been set for certain vantage points, it made it difficult to add more seats. Eventually, they played around with the feng shui of the Alamodome and added some bleacher seats. Schaefer said that as of Monday afternoon, 38,054 tickets were accounted for (with very few being comped) and the gate will be approximately $3 million, a substantial figure for a non-casino event. “I have no doubt we could have had sold 50,000 to 60,000 seats. The demand is unbelievable but I don’t want to complain. I don’t want to cry about it because these days for any sporting event, other than maybe an NFL game and a baseball game to sell 35,000 tickets is quite an achievement, so I’m happy about it.”
 
It should be quite a week in San Antonio, which is also holding its annual “Fiesta.” Leija, a lifelong resident of the city, says, “It’s going to be hectic.”
 
But this weekend is just part of a bigger picture. The “Lone Star State” has a solid boxing history and has traditionally done well at the gate with big fights. Back in June of 1998, De la Hoya played to nearly 50,000 fans at the Sun Bowl in El Paso. Last year, Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. fought in front of more than 30,000 partisans in two fights against Marco Antonio Rubio (in San Antonio) and Andy Lee (in El Paso). Juan Diaz consistently drew big crowds during his championship days in Houston. San Antonio could be its epicenter. Its population is just right around 1.4 million, has a high percentage of Latinos (http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/48/4865000.html) and its location is ideal to stage cards on a consistent basis.
 
Battah states, “Where is the best fight town in the United States? San Antonio. Why? Because every border city, Laredo, Harleton, McAllen, Austin, Houston, Dallas, Monterrey, Guadalajara, drives to this point. It’s a central point.” OK, so maybe Dallas isn’t a “border town” but you get his point. But Texas does have a built-in boxing culture with gyms, local fighters and a strong fan-base. “We have the best area in the whole United States for boxing and I want to push that with us getting the real fight fans to come to the fights at an economical price. Then that brings boxing back.”
 
Last weekend, Leija Battah Promotions staged the return of the “Baby Bull” in Corpus Christi. And this outfit won’t be just television-packaging in Indian casinos. They seem diametrically opposed to such a business plan. “What do they do in a casino?” asked Battah, rhetorically. “The comp half of the business, right? Are those real boxing fans? No, they’re not. That’s what’s hurting it.” He added, “Look, I’m a salesman and I want to put people’s asses in the seats, like they say, and I look at fights all the time and say - in my language - what the f**k are they doing there? Nobody’s in the Goddamn fights. Why? Because they don’t give a sh*t. All they care about is the Goddamn money from television and their Corona [sponsorship] and what the casino is paying them.”
 
Yeah, don’t look for them to stage any cards in Chumash anytime soon. This will be a local business with local fighters and local fans, for the most part.
 
“Mike and I work hard,” said Leija. “We made phone calls. We just don’t put the fighters on and hope they’re going to sell tickets. No, we got and sell the tickets ourselves. We’re making phone calls. We’re making trips and driving to different businesses and customers. We’ll go into these different oil companies that are out here and we sell them tickets for their workers. We’re out there hustling. No other promoter does that. Other promoters hope the fighters sell tickets. They call their sponsors and that’s it. We’re calling everyone we can think of.”
 
So less than two years after their maiden voyage, they are helping stage what just might be the most well-attended boxing event of the year in the States. The rapid rise has taken Leija by surprise.

“I never would’ve thought about it and, obviously, we want to thank Golden Boy for that opportunity,” Leija says with gratitude, “but I think we earned that opportunity by putting on great fights for them and people had been talking about us, the fights that we do, the type of events that we have. And we don’t just have fights; we have events. When people leave and they’re walking out the door, they always say, ‘We can’t wait for the next one,’ and we’ve been building our clientele ever since.”
 
FIGHT TOWNS
 
With its association with Leija Battah Promotions, Golden Boy certainly considers Texas a key market going into the future. And it’s part of a bigger movement that will see more fights take place in non-casino markets in the near future.
 
“If there was such a definition in the dictionary of a ‘fight town,’ then, of course, what comes to mind is Las Vegas,” said Schaefer, who then points out, “but Las Vegas is not really a ‘fight town,’ per se. They are a big event destination. But when it comes to the real meat for the fight fans - the real fight fans - you would have to say San Antonio. San Antonio is a terrific market, like Houston is a great market as well. San Antonio’s probably slightly better. El Paso is a very good fight town as well. Unfortunately, from an economical point of view, they’ve been hit a bit harder than other markets in Texas. So I think San Antonio definitely becomes a destination which we will continue to go back to.
 
“As I said before, this is not like we suddenly just showed up, Golden Boy, in San Antonio,” continued Schaefer. Back in 2003, this city hosted Manny Pacquiao’s thrashing of Marco Antonio Barrera in the Alamodome. “We did a number of fights with Leija Battah in San Antonio, so in a way, we cultivated that market, we kept it ready, we built up the fans, kept them wanting more and now we delivered with the ‘Canelo’ fight and I think that’s important, by the way, that you do deliver to those markets once in awhile, a big event.”
 
SECURITY
 
With the horrific events that took place at the Boston Marathon earlier this week, any events with a sizable audience, whether it be a sporting event or the “Fiesta,” will have increased security concerns. The fight this weekend is no different and the organizers have had internal discussions regarding this issue.
 
“We have to see a little bit more, what exactly transpired in Boston. I don’t think they have yet figured out who is exactly responsible for it. So obviously we have a close eye on this and are working with the city, as well, to ensure the utmost safety for the spectators,” said Schaefer on Monday, who recommends that fans get to the arena early as possible. “Absolutely, there’s a big festival  in San Antonio, as well, so they already are on heightened alert anyway. I think this is for all sporting events, whether it’s boxing or the basketball games. I think anywhere there’s large crowds, everybody should be extra cautious and should allow enough time.”
 
Stephen Espinoza, head of Showtime Sports, says of these conversations, “They are taking place and obviously, this is all unfolding hour by hour. But I think probably ever mass gathering in the near future is going to look at this very closely and the San Antonio event will be no different.”
 
HUMP DAY FLURRIES
 
Word is that “’Mile High” Mike Alvarado is a leading contender to face Manny Pacquiao in Macao in early October. I’m told he has accepted the fight (which doesn’t mean it’s a done deal) and he and his reps will meet with Bob Arum in Las Vegas on Thursday...So does that mean we’ll get Juan Manuel Marquez facing Tim Bradley in September?...Tickets for the Gennady “Goodboy” Golovkin-Mathew Macklin fight at the Foxwoods are on sale at Foxwoods.com ($300, $200, $90 and $45)...Leaving for San Antonio today, should be a fun week covering Alvarez-Trout...R.I.P. to Pat Summerall, who was the absolute perfect partner for John Madden…I can be reached at k9kim@yahoo.com and I tweet at www.twitter.com/stevemaxboxing. We also have a Facebook fan page at www.facebook.com/MaxBoxing, where you can discuss our content with Maxboxing readers as well as chime in via our fully interactive article comments sections.


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