Leija vs. Ward: A Twist of Fate

By Ted Sares on February 22, 2014
Leija vs. Ward: A Twist of Fate
Ward had been dry-gulched in San Antonio, but that's what they do in the Lone Star State.

Ward’s corner pleaded with Leija to continue, calling him a “warrior,” but Jesse quit on his stool knowing that he had the technical win in his pocket…

“Before the fight, they were saying I was going to be the next superstar, better than my father. Boxing was in love with me. Afterward, the press turned on me. Even in my own city, New York. They called me a coward.”—Hector Camacho Jr.

Camacho Jr. vs. Leija (2001)

Back in July 2001, a streaking and touted Hector Camacho Jr. (32-0 with 18 knockouts) fought the acclaimed Jesse James Leija (42-5-2 coming in) at Key Span Park in Brooklyn. In the fifth round, a cut was opened across Camacho’s right eyelid. At the end of the round, Dr. Robert Polafsky examined the cut which to most ringside observers and television viewers did not appear to be a particularly bad one, much less a fight-ending one. Then, after some fussing and much debate, it was announced that the doctor had ordered the fight stopped when it was ruled that Camacho could not continue after the fifth round of the 10-round super lightweight bout because of a cut over his right eye caused by a clash of heads. The less-than-macho Camacho complained he could not see and a commission inspector, still on the apron, called Polofsky back. After a brief examination, the fight was stopped.

Under the rules, the fight would go to the scorecards. After further confusion and stalling, Camacho was somehow declared to be ahead 49-46 on two of the cards and 48-47 on the third. The technical decision was roundly and raucously booed by a crowd of about 4,000 fans at Key Span Park even though this was Junior’s home town. Leija’s corner went bonkers, claiming that Camacho decided not to continue only after learning from his team that he was leading on the judges’ cards.

“The doctor said he could continue,” said Larry Merchant, HBO boxing analyst. “He said `I can’t see,’ and the doctor said OK.” The doctor, referee Steve Smoger, and the judges were ordered by the New York State Athletic Commission not to talk to the media. Hector Camacho Jr. remained unbeaten, but this victory on a technical decision badly tarnished the image of the WBA’s No. 1-ranked super lightweight. Leija and his manager, Lester Bedford, called Camacho a quitter, and the evidence affirmed that their description was more accurate than not. Leija had badly hurt Camacho in the fight and Junior plainly wanted no more of what the underdog veteran brought to the table. He took the easy, safe, and clearly less than the Macho way out.

Upon protest, the decision was later reversed and called 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.

This time a state commission got things right.

Leija vs. Ward (2002)

“Dickie Cole the Father of Laurence Cole makes sure his ‘sonny boy’ gets all the big boxing gigs in Texas despite the fact Laurence Cole is widely considered among the worst referees in boxing.”—Vegas Vince, November 20, 2010

“Camacho was roundly criticized for his lack of heart after the Leija fight and some of that criticism may have been fair – time will tell with Camacho. We all know Leija has heart. The Ward fight showed that his corner has brains.”—Max Kellerman

Less than seven months later, Leija, apparently believing turnabout is fair play, did the very same thing to Irish Micky Ward at the Freeman Coliseum in San Antonio, TX. Ward had opened a cut over Leija’s eye with a nifty half left hook-half uppercut, but referee Laurence Cole totally missed it and called it a butt. After all, how could a slashing Ward punch cause a cut? The replay, however, clearly indicated the cut had been caused by a punch. When the referee went to Jesse’s corner, the home town fighter complained he could not see and the fight was stopped. It was fortunate for Leija as Micky was clearly coming on and it was only a matter of time before he got his rhythm and started to control matters. The notorious home-state judge Gale Van Hoy had it 49-46 and Ray Hawkins 48-47 for Leija. Duane Ford saw it 48-47 for Ward.

Max Kellerman had this to say about the “headbutt” in an ESPN article dated January 9:

“One more point about the fight, and an important one – I did not see any headbutt from Ward open any cut over Leija’s eye in any of the replays. What I did see was a grazing Ward left uppercut that just nicked Leija. After that punch, the blood seemed to appear over Leija’s right eye. If this was the case, and the referee indeed blew the accidental headbutt call, then it should be said that Ward got the short end of the stick. After all, if the ref rules that Leija’s cut was caused not by Ward’s head but by a punch, then Ward is the winner by TKO at the time of the stoppage. At any rate, this fight deserves a rematch. I’d love to see it.”

Ward’s corner pleaded with Leija to continue, calling him a “warrior,” but Jesse quit on his stool knowing that he had the technical win in his pocket. He had learned well from the Camacho fight. Team Ward played with the idea of a protest, but when they realized that the person who would be hearing the facts was none other than referee Cole’s father, Commissioner Dickie Cole, they quickly flew back to safer confines of Boston.

Irish Micky had been dry-gulched in San Antonio, but that’s what they do in the Lone Star State and with shocking regularity. This one was every bit as bad as the Camacho fiasco but for some strange reason it escaped the same notoriety and remained under the radar.

The backlash against Camacho Jr. was lethal and reverberated throughout boxing; it defined his career. Jesse James Leija escaped a similar fate even though he did the exact same thing against Ward. A curious double standard was at play here but I could never reason it out—unless it had something to do with a subconscious dislike for the flamboyant elder Camacho or maybe the fact Jesse James had been a former world champion.

The impact of this bungling was to deny Ward a chance to go up against Kostya Tszyu for a world title challenge.

Divergent Paths (2002-2005)

“Going in and fighting Leija and kind of getting screwed the way that I did, I think that HBO probably said, ‘Let’s give this guy another chance.’”—Micky Ward

Leija then moved to Australia for six months to get acquainted with the country and its climate before his challenge of Tszyu for the WBC and IBF light welterweight title and the WBA super light welterweight title scheduled for January 19, 2003. Tszyu retained the title when he beat Leija by a six-round knockout. Leija would again quit on his stool claiming to have suffered a perforated ear drum, but nevertheless fought four months later and kept fighting and winning until he was retired by KO by Arturo Gatti in 2005. Jesse’s segue from the Ward fight was ultimately not a winning one but it did earn him solid paydays. Today, he continues in boxing as a successful trainer and promoter. As part of his championship legacy, Jesse can claim, among other things, of having gone 2-1-1 with the great Azumah Nelson (1993, 1994, 1996, and 1998).

Leija remains a popular personality in the San Antonio area where the City Council ordered the San Fernando Gym, a boxing landmark, renamed in his honor. Leija has also opened his own gym—ChampionFit, and he is involved in Mixed Martial Arts promotions in the San Antonio area, as well as local charity athletic efforts involving handicapped children.

As for Micky Ward, on May 18, 2002 in Uncasville, Connecticut, he decked the late Arturo Gatti in the ninth round and went on to win a majority decision in the first (and best) of what would be their epic trilogy, but it might not have happened had it not been for the bad-luck ending in his previous fight with Leija. But it did happen and the rest is history. In an understatement, Ward said I knew that it (the first Gatti fight) had the potential to be a great fight. “Did I know it was going to be as great as it was? No. But I knew it had the ingredients to be.”

“I used to wonder what would happen if I fought my twin,” Gatti said. “Now I know.”

“The two of them together created history. Neither one could have done it by himself. But together, they became iconic.”—Kathy Duva, Gatti’s promoter

“It’s specific to combat sports like ours. Arturo and Micky became something like blood brothers and it was beautiful.”—Jim Lampley

Ted Sares is a private investor who enjoys following and writing about boxing, and considers himself an advocate for reform. A member of the Elite Powerlifting Federation, Ted actively competes in the sport throughout the US and Eastern Canada and holds several state records for his age class.

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  1. dollarbond 02:14pm, 02/26/2014

    Nice effort on this one Ted.  Always nice to read about homeboys.

  2. Ted 10:02am, 02/24/2014

    Hauser is ironic.

  3. John 09:04am, 02/24/2014

    ” Boxing, more than any other professional sport, is rife with conflicts of interest.” This quote by Hauser (re the insurance issue) is a bit ironic.

  4. Ted 04:58pm, 02/22/2014

    Yes. Cole has improved greatly.

    Here is the link on Hauser re Cole. http://www.secondsout.com/columns/thomas-hauser/the-insurance-issue1

  5. kid vegas 03:53pm, 02/22/2014

    I thought you liked Cole? What gives? Didn’t Hauser expose him about his insurance company or something. Maybe it was Jay Nady.

  6. Clarence George 01:03pm, 02/22/2014

    I’ll try to research it, Ted, ‘cause I just don’t remember.

  7. Ted 11:52am, 02/22/2014

    Agreed. Same with Tapia in his second fight with Ayala. That cut him to the bone.

  8. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 11:11am, 02/22/2014

    Ted Sares-These decisions matter and in fact they can change lives….I’ll go to my grave believing that Frankie Crawford beat Saijo in their first fight (I’ve never said Frankie won the return bout)....the referee allowed Sho to rabbit punch repeatedly throughout the fight and although Saijo would swarm from time to time Crawford’s defense was especially good that night and Frankie hurt Saijo several times during the fight. One Japanese judge had it a Draw (think about that for a minute), Nick Pope being a good guest had Saijo by a point and the patriotic referee who also scored had it lopsided for Saijo. If Frankie had become World Champion that night I will always believe that his life wouldn’t have had the tragic end that it did.

  9. Thresher 11:04am, 02/22/2014

    Irish, I have never been a fan of the vastly overrated Smoger and only now am I being vindicated by his numerous and recent blunders.

  10. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 10:41am, 02/22/2014

    Ted Sares-“Hybrid hook/uppercut”.... indeed…. that Micky used to set up that unGodly paralyzing hook to the body…...which reminds me…..Smoger shafted Micky in the Diaz fight when Micky finally caught Diaz after some brutal back and forth with an overhand right in the ninth round that hurt him and Mr. Oblivious decided at that very moment to do some housekeeping and wipe up the canvas giving Diaz time to steady himself.

  11. Ted 10:04am, 02/22/2014

    CG, Not Gurrero was it? Against the Indonesian guy?

  12. Ted 10:03am, 02/22/2014

    Dan, you are spot on. It was a hybred hook/uppercut.

  13. Tex Hassler 10:02am, 02/22/2014

    I would like to be able to defend what goes on in boxing in my state but I cannot because Mr. Sares is correct in his evaluation. It is a disgrace any time a fighter is cheated out of a win. This is actually harder for a fighter to get over than a real defeat.

  14. Big Walter 08:20am, 02/22/2014

    Again, great attention to detail and memory. Ward got stiffed in a good way.

  15. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 08:06am, 02/22/2014

    Ted Sares-Thanks for re-opening this Micky Ward cold case file (yes, in my mind it was just that serious)....I guess when you’re a Mexican “warrior” even when you quit it’s not counted against you. Aside from the outright corruption I’ve often wondered if at times Larry Cole hasn’t been half drunk when carrying out his officiating duties…...he certainly has that puffy faced visage that I’ve come to recognize through years of close up study of some of my old drinking buddies.

  16. Clarence George 07:54am, 02/22/2014

    Can’t remember his name, but there was a boxer who quit on his stool, claiming he couldn’t see out of one eye because of a blow.  He was obviously lying, and everybody knew it.  He was gambling he’d get the decision…he didn’t.

  17. Dan Cuoco 07:28am, 02/22/2014

    Ted, am I correct that the replay showed the cut Lejia sustained was from a punch. The Ward camp protested the result, but the Texas Commission headed by Dickie Cole upheld Leja’s TD win.

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