Jai Opetaia eager to defend cruiserweight championship after frustrating layoff
A lot of boxers talk about hunger, but few have truly experienced it. Jai Opetaia is the exception to the rule.
The 28-year-old Australian southpaw has been sidelined for more than a year since his breakthrough win over Mairis Briedis to claim the IBF and Ring Magazine cruiserweight world championship by unanimous decision at the Gold Coast Convention Centre on the Gold Coast in Queensland on July 2 last year.
The victory did not come without its costs. Opetaia (22-0, 17 KOs) had his jaw broken in two places and spent months in recovery, eating through a straw.
“That was a rough four months,” Opetaia told The Ring. “It was a long time recovering after I broke it. I’m willing to do it again if I have to.
“I was blending up everything. I got so sick of soup. By the end of it I was starting to experiment. I was putting KFC in the blender with gravy, I was just chucking everything in there,” Opetaia added with a laugh.
Other circumstances conspired against Opetaia to keep him out of the ring. There was the court battle with former promoter Dean Lonergan, followed by failed negotiations to get top contenders Mateusz Masternak and Richard Riakporhe to face him.
But Opetaia will finally get the opportunity to make the maiden defense of his 200-pound championship when he takes on undefeated Brit Jordan ‘Troublesome’ Thompson (15-0, 12 KOs) at Wembley Arena in London, England on September 30.
“It has been a sort of circus outside of the ring, but if anything, it’s made me more focused,” said Opetaia.
“I’ve had to stay locked in and stay determined. All this sort of outside noise is frustrating, but I’ve used it as fuel. It has made me feel like I must win. I must stay fit, I must stay focused because otherwise, all this is for nothing. I’ve never been hungrier, and I’ve never been fitter or stronger.”
Thompson, 30, isn’t widely known outside of boxing circles in the UK but he is ranked No. 5 by the IBF and has boxed on some big cards, including the Joe Cordina-Shavkatdzhon Rakhimov Fight-of-the-Year contender in April and the heavyweight slugfest between Joseph Parker and Derek Chisora in December 2021.
At six-foot-six and with a wingspan to match, Thompson has the physical dimensions to trouble any 200-pounder. And while Thompson is yet to face anyone near Opetaia’s pedigree, he is an aggressive fighter with a good offensive arsenal who likes to go to the body and has a deadly right uppercut, but in the past he has shown a leaky defense at times.
Opetaia knows that this is a big opportunity for Thompson and has prepared accordingly.
“He’s very beatable,” Opetaia said. “He tries to do certain things that I’m going to capitalize on. I’m just excited to get back in the ring and showcase it.
“I feel like he’s got a gameplan but I’ve got more ammunition than him. I’ve got more tools in my toolbox. And even though we haven’t been in the ring for quite a while, it doesn’t mean we haven’t been working. We are getting fitter, we are getting stronger and I’m getting hungrier.
“I’ve got all this stuff going on outside of the ring and all I’ve been doing is just staying in the gym. I feel like I’ve been put in a cage in this gym and I’ve just been working and working and grinding and on September 30, I get to let out.”
It’s not uncommon for boxers to plateau once they win a world title, but Opetaia insists this is not the case with him. He bristles at the suggestion he now has a target on his back as the man to beat in the division.
“Everyone keeps saying that, that the hunter has become the hunted,” he said. “But I definitely don’t look at it that way. Just because I’ve got the world titles doesn’t mean I’m comfortable. I’m far from comfortable. I’ve been chasing these big fights, I’m chasing more belts. I’ve still got a lot to accomplish.
“So you know what? I don’t even feel like the hunted; I feel like I’m still hunting. This guy is in my way to get where I need to go, so it’s my job to remove that obstacle.”
It’s been feast or famine for Opetaia and right now he is ravenous.