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Jesse James Leija vs. Micky Ward: A Dry-gulch in San Antonio

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  • Jesse James Leija vs. Micky Ward: A Dry-gulch in San Antonio

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    By Ted Sares

    Late in his career, Jesse James Leija was involved in two fights that ended in controversy under eerily similar circumstances. The first came in July of 2001 when Leija, a former world title-holder, was paired against Hector Camacho Jr at Brooklyn’s new minor league baseball stadium. Camacho Jr was 32-0 at the time; Leija 42-5-2.

    In the fifth round, a cut was opened across Camacho’s right eyelid. At the end of the round, ringside physician Dr. Robert Polofsky examined the cut, which did not appear to be all that bad to television or ringside viewers.

    Camacho could be heard (at least by this listener) saying ‘I can’t see.” Polofsky agreed with him, as he ordered the fight stopped, and under the rules it went to the scorecards. After much confusion, arguing, consultation, and stalling, the cards were read and unbelievably all three favored Camacho. He was ahead 49-46 on two of the cards and 48-47 on the third. The technical decision was roundly booed by an announced crowd of 6,012, even though Camacho, from Spanish Harlem, was effectively fighting in his hometown.

    The doctor, referee Steve Smoger, and the judges did not to talk to the media. Whether they were ordered to stay silent by the New York State Athletic Commission is open to debate.

    Hector Camacho Jr. remained unbeaten, but his tainted victory tarnished his image as the WBA’s number-one-ranked super lightweight. Leija and his manager, Lester Bedford, called Camacho a quitter, an accurate description to most of the viewers. Leija had badly hurt Camacho in the fight, and it was clear that junior wanted no more of what the veteran brought to the table.

    Thankfully, the decision was later ruled a no-contest. The commission ruled that the bell should not have rung to begin the sixth round. Since the bell rang incorrectly, the official cards should not have been consulted under a New York boxing rule, and there could not be a decision, the panel said.

    But this fight has haunted “Machito” ever since, and his legacy as a warrior was impacted by it. The backlash was vicious.


    Less than seven months later, Leija met “Irish” Micky Ward at the Freeman Coliseum in San Antonio, Texas. Akin to Leija-Camacho Jr, the bout aired on HBO’s “Boxing After Dark” series. And the very same thing that happened to Leija in Brooklyn happened to Ward in Leija’s hometown.

    The Lowell, Massachusetts warrior opened a cut over Leija’s right eye with what replays clearly showed to be a short left hook, but referee Laurence Cole inexplicably called it a butt. When the referee went to Leija’s corner, Leija, despite his legitimate warrior reputation, said he couldn’t see, and the fight was stopped. Ward’s corner was shocked and pleaded with Leija to continue. They appealed to his reputation.

    They might have appealed to the Texas Commission but the head of it was the colorful and beloved Dickie Cole, Laurence’s father, so they passed.

    The outcome was fortunate for Leija. Ward, often a slow starter, was rapidly getting into his rhythm and beginning to land his signature body shots. It would only be a matter of time before he caught up with the fading Leija. But Ward would be ambushed, dry-gulched in San Antonio.

    For some strange reason, this one escaped notoriety and has remained under the radar, but it was every bit as bad as the Camacho fiasco, maybe worse, particularly since Leija was a guy who came to fight. At the very least, it should have been called a no-contest. Ward, for his part, never blamed Leija for what happened.

    Camacho received a brutal backlash; Leija received virtually none, even though this was terribly wrong. Oddly, Leija would retire in his corner once again in his very next fight when his corner pulled him out with a busted eardrum after six rounds against Kostya Tszyu.

    Sometimes things happen for the best. Ward went on to fight and beat Arturo Gatti at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut instead of engaging in a rematch with Jesse James Leija. The rest is rich history.

    After losing to the great Tszyu, Leija won four in a row before losing his final fight to, of all people, Arturo Gatti. Leija was knocked down twice and stopped in the fifth round of their bout at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City. He announced his retirement a week after this fight but would remain in boxing as a trainer.

    Ted Sares can be reached at

    Check out more boxing news on video at the Boxing Channel

  • #2
    "An interesting story, Ted. That brought back some memories -- thanks for sharing.
    I saw Camacho, Jr. fight in Palm Springs early in his career. His dad was the better fighter, but both had great hand speed.
    --Johnny Tango"


    • Kid Blast
      Kid Blast commented
      Editing a comment
      Junior had no chin but he won a lot of fights.

  • #3
    "They might have appealed to the Texas Commission but the head of it was the colorful and beloved Dickie Cole, Laurence’s father, so they passed."

    That's all you need to know.


    • Kid Blast
      Kid Blast commented
      Editing a comment

  • #4
    I worked the first Gatti/Leja fight.
    He dropped Gatti
    when I run my judges seminars I always put
    Bad decision fights up for review.
    My favorite is Pac/Bradley.


    • #5
      "Nice and glad to see you back in the saddle, hope everything went well

      Bob [Mulkey]"

      Thanks for asking. I have had a brutal month,

      Soon as I get the cataract work next week, I’m good to go.

      Last edited by Kid Blast; 04-08-2021, 06:50 PM.


      • Kid Blast
        Kid Blast commented
        Editing a comment
        "Good one, Ted. Welcome back. Robert Mladinich"

      • Kid Blast
        Kid Blast commented
        Editing a comment
        Good to see you back, Sir Ted., Bob Webb
        Glad you are well, Dennis Reardon

    • #6
      Micky Ward really got screwed at the Freeman Coliseum. That’s the savage politics of boxing. Thanks for the reminder Ted. You know though, Micky never let it stand it in his way of overcoming the adversity in his life and making his name in the boxing game. I miss those days of living in Lowell when our guy was on HBO and another of my one-time hometowns was rockin with boxing.


      • Kid Blast
        Kid Blast commented
        Editing a comment
        He got stiffed against Verno Philips when the fight doctor who was working her first fight stopped the fight after he got a small cut above the eye. I gagged on that one. He was always a slow starter and cuts would work against him but once he found his rhythm, it was Katie by the door.
        Last edited by Kid Blast; 04-08-2021, 11:18 AM.

    • #7
      From Bob Trieger:

      "I worked that show as Micky’s publicist. Lawrence call said he didn’t see a punch so he assumed it was a head but. I asked him if he didn’t see a head butt why he didn’t assume it was a punch. We did petition the state commission but never received any satisfaction from his father. No surprise. We would have liked a no contest but this fight was an hbo test for Micky to see if he was good enough to fight Gatti. Before we left the parking lot Lou Dibella told us hbo knew Micky had been screwed and that he was going to fight Gatti. There was almost a riot in the ring because Leija’s fans were booing him and the ref. They knew what had happened. Me and Micky’s manager, Sal LoNano, we’re almost hailed for inciting a riot. When the crowd booed we urged them on until the commissioner threatened to have us jailed. No way two Yankees were going to spend the weekend in a Texas jail. We were out of the ring in seconds. I joked with Micky about him fighting the first two rounds in the locker room before going in the ring because he always started slowly. Two of best cut men worked that fight al Gavin hit Micky and joy Sousa - transplanted mass guy. He screamed loudly that he couldn’t close the cut but only after the minimum rounds to make the technical decision happen. Even leija in the ring after the fight with Micky said he deserved a rematch because he’d been screwed. Leija soon changed his tune and said Micky should have picked up the pace because the cut was so bad everybody knew it wasn’t going to last. I met leija a few times since and he and Micky became pretty good friends."


      • #8
        Great prop from Jim Lampley: " Yup. You have a gift Ted. JL" Feedback like this incents me to write and write and write. At 84, I need all the praise I can get. lol