Arturo Gatti/James Leija: Finally Getting Paid

29.01.05 – By Paul – In past articles, I have questioned whether Arturo Gatti’s skills and accomplishments warrant a spot for him in the Hall-of-Fame. I have always answered in the negative, but qualified it by saying he is one of the most exciting active fighters and is one of few superstars in boxing who I consider underpaid. Arturo Gatti always makes for an exciting fight whether it’s trading with Micky Ward for 90 minutes or sensationally stopping Leo Dorin with a body-shot. Gatti has proven himself one of the true pure warriors left in boxing today..

This Saturday, Gatti and his WBC junior welterweight belt take on another warrior in ‘Jesse’ James Leija from Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City. Gatti, now a household name on HBO, will be paid over a million dollars while Leija will bring home a cool $600,000.

For James Leija, this marks the highest payday of his career. That’s a minor surprise given he’s taken on the likes of Kostya Tszyu, Shane Mosley, Oscar de la Hoya, and Azumah Nelson in the past. Still, I have to agree with the old proverb – “Better late than never.”

Beyond the payday, there’s plenty at stake for both men in this fight. If Gatti wins, he’s most likely looking at a pay-per-view fight against Floyd Mayweather, Jr., one of the pound-for-pound kings of the sport. If Leija wins, he’ll remain in the championship picture at 140 pounds and assure himself of at least one more big check. Whatever happens, I can guarantee two things – they will deserve every penny and they should make for a special and exciting fight (though, perhaps, I should qualify that – it could get stopped on a cut as both men are known to bleed easier than most).

Let’s examine the match-ups a little bit deeper:

Arturo Gatti is a tough-nosed, aggressive fighter, but not nearly as reckless as he was earlier in his career. For roughly the past two years, Buddy McGirt has served as Gatti’s trainer. In that time, Gatti has fought a slightly more cautious style working primarily behind what has turned into a really good jab. As a long-standing Gatti fan, it surprises me as much to say that as it surprises you to hear it. Gatti fought patiently behind his jab in each of his last two fights. I was disappointed by Gatti’s effort against Gianluca Branco a year ago, but there is a little in the way of explanation. First, he seriously hurt his hand about halfway through and fought essentially as a one-armed fighter. Additionally, it’s hard to engage a guy who throws only one punch at a time and focuses primarily on defense. After that fight, I was really critical of Arturo, but after cooling down and watching the tape a few months back, I realized that Branco is simply never the kind of opponent that can make for an exciting fight. Against Leija, Gatti should work behind his jab. He throws a good jab-straight right combination. In close quarters, Gatti has a great short left hook that comes out of nowhere. I can’t say he’s as strong for the weight or technically sound as Marco Antonio Barrera, but both Gatti and Barrera have an ability to really plant their feet and drive short left hooks to the body and head in close quarters.

James Leija has had longevity in the game like few would have expected. He began his amateur career in his hometown of San Antonio, Texas at the relatively advanced age of 19 under the tutelage of the man who now serves as his present-day cutman, Joe Souza (an interesting aside is that Souza – one of the best in the business – usually works in Arturo Gatti’s corner. Nonetheless, there is no animosity from Gatti about Souza’s decision to work in Leija’s corner because of their longstanding relationship; Souza also trained Leija’s father and has known James since he was two, as Leija mentioned in a recent conference call). James Leija turned pro in 1988 and first won a world title over a decade ago in besting the great Azumah Nelson by decision, avenging an earlier draw.

In recent years, Leija’s career has been peaks and valleys. He has had the bad fortune of running into three truly great champions – certain hall-of-famers – during the most dominant periods of the respective careers in Tszyu, Mosley, and de la Hoya. In terms of talent, skill, and power, Gatti is a better match-up for James than any of those other three, but getting a win Saturday is still a lot to ask. James has never been a supremely talented fighter, but has had great success because he refuses to lose. Leija’s greatest strength is his heart although he throws good hooks to the body and has an under-rated straight right to the head. For a shorter, aggressive fighter, Leija possesses better defensive skills than most would lead you to believe. Still, Leija’s skills did not earn him a victory over Panchito Bojado on the Gatti-Dorin undercard; his heart won that fight. After a left put Leija on his rear end in the 2nd, he didn’t quit. By round four, you could tell his younger foe simply did not want the fight as much as Leija did. For virtually an entire round, Bojado stood quizzically with his back to the ropes while Leija whaled on him to the body.

Unfortunately for Leija, the heart factor in this fight is a dead-heat and, honestly, I think this is a brutal stylistic match-up for him. Leija’s downfall at every weight – even 130 – was that he lacked big power. That means, in order to be successful, he needs to be cautiously aggressive and land many scoring blows. That is not going to be easy for him because Gatti moved quite well against Dorin. Additionally, Gatti will not be afraid to trade a little bit on the inside if Leija manages to work his way in. Leija is going to have to walk through a lot of jabs to get his 5’5 frame in a position where he can consistently score to Gatti’s body. Personally, I just can’t see that happening. Gatti stands three or four inches taller than Leija and enjoys that same advantage in reach.

Gatti also has a tremendous size advantage in this fight. He blows up as much as anyone at 140, except perhaps Miguel Cotto. Leija has adequate size for the weight, but really lacks the frame to be effective against a top fighter over 130 given his punching power. Still, there’s one advantage I give squarely to Leija in this fight. Against Branco and Branco’s below-average hand speed, Gatti got consistently nailed with a right-hand to the face. That’s one of Leija’s better punches, so it could prove an asset. To have success Saturday, Leija needs to fight tall. At times, Leija gives up some of his height by crouching too much. This isn’t going to work against Gatti unless Leija thinks he can win by eating a steady diet of jabs. To find success, Leija must show up in great shape and be unpredictable. He must fight tall and try to land his right hand some of the time, while he also needs to get inside and hurt Gatti to the body and try to take his legs away.

Still, that’s a very tall order to ask of James Leija. I think the game-plan for Arturo Gatti is significantly easier to implement – be the Arturo Gatti that Buddy McGirt likes. Work behind your jab; trade when necessary; throw combinations; move around the ring; keep your guard high. I believe Gatti’s strength will eventually become too much for Leija who will have to work to hard to get inside.

I hate picking a winner when I like both fighters so much, but here it goes:

Arturo Gatti TKO 7 James Leija

On the undercard, I like Kassim Ouma to UD Kofi Jantuah though I was lot higher on Ouma a year ago than I am now and a lot lower on Jantuah. Look for that to be a great fight, too.