Sparring lessons from Fury, Usyk have Jordan Thompson ready for cruiserweight king Jai Opetaia
Jordan Thompson believes he has been conditioned to challenge Jai Opetaia not by the grueling 12-week training camp he just concluded, but by his years spent traveling the world as a sparring partner for Tyson Fury, Oleksandr Usyk, and Maris Briedis.
The 30-year-old cruiserweight reflected ahead of the occasion of his 16th fight – he turned professional in 2015 with minimal amateur experience – on being a significant feature of the training camps that preceded career-best performances for the world’s two leading heavyweights, and perhaps also for former cruiserweight champ Briedis’ finest win.
Thompson helped Fury to prepare for his rematch with Deontay Wilder in 2020, which he won via stoppage after seven one-sided rounds, and Usyk for the unanimous decision he earned when near-punch-perfect in the undisputed cruiserweight championship with Murat Gassiev in 2018. Two years later, with Thompson’s assistance Briedis confirmed that he had succeeded Usyk as the world’s leading cruiserweight when defeating Yuniel Dorticos; after a further three years Britain’s Thompson is convinced that like the three champions he observed and also because of them, on Saturday against Australia’s Opetaia he will have his day.
“What other people call their amateur pedigree, I did through sparring,” he said ahead of the fight at London’s Wembley Arena for the IBF and Ring Magazine cruiserweight titles. “I sparred Tyson Fury; [Mairis] Briedis; [Oleksandr] Usyk. I’ve sparred some of the best in the game and did really well. They speak really highly of me, and it gave me a lot of confidence from those spars – I think that’s all been an amazing part of my development.
“We’ve done a lot of work with Fury; over 100 rounds. They’ve been second to none. He’s been there with Sugar Hill [Steward]; amazing experience from him; good teaching points. I’m learning on the job – when I go into situations like these, I’m a sponge.
“Even one-to-one, [Fury’s] given me some real good advice; shed some light on what he thinks I should be doing; what it feels like; how I should be going about things. Those are things that I have taken into my career and taken into consideration. Those are things that I’m still exercising now.
“[Sparring Usyk] was an amazing experience. Ukraine; Kiev. Interesting; had its ups and downs, but again it was trials and tribulations that you’ve got to put up with. I learned a lot about myself.
“I didn’t see a lot of Ukraine. I was sparring; hotel; sparring; hotel. Pretty simple.
“[Usyk] gave me a lot of lessons in the ring. Part of being me – part of being the fighter that I am now. It was a tough time out there.
“How relaxed; smart; technical; intelligent [Usyk is]. His ring IQ, I remember I thought I’d never been in with someone so relaxed – apart from, funnily enough, Tyson Fury.
“It’s crazy to say, but, world title fight – Ring Magazine fight – I’m gonna be in there and I’m gonna be learning on the job [again]. But again, I’m a winner, and I’m going to win.”
Thompson was presented with the fight with the champion two years his junior when his domestic rival, the more proven Richard Riakporhe, turned it down. His presence in what – alongside Riakporhe, Lawrence Okolie and Chris Billam-Smith – perhaps represents Britain’s most competitive weight division is potentially a further blessing. The cruiserweight division has throughout its existence struggled to consistently appeal.
Thompson’s trainer Tony Sims was absent for some of the final days of his preparations for Opetaia, owing to his needing to be in Orlando for the controversial return to the boxing ring of Conor Benn. In Sims’ absence Kevin Mitchell, a fine amateur and retired professional who challenged Jorge Linares for the WBC lightweight title in 2015, oversaw his training and sparring sessions.
Thompson also continues to lean on what he learned from Sugar Hill Steward – the trainer of Fury, and until Derrick James succeeded him in the most fickle of cultures, the most in-demand trainer in the world.
“Maybe that was just because of the style of fighter that I am,” explained Thompson, who also believes Fury will beat Usyk should they eventually fight. “You’ve got Tommy Hearns – long levers. Gerald McClellan – long levers; big puncher. Lennox [Lewis]; Tyson Fury; so again that might have helped a lot. Seeing what he’s done with other fighters – like what he did with Fury in the rematch with [Deontay] Wilder. There was a big, big difference [in Fury’s tactics and power], and a major part as to why he won the fight, and in the fashion that he won the fight.
“Now I’m on the other end of the sparring where I’ve got fresh sparring partners coming in after a brutal day the day before of S and C [strength and conditioning] or training.
“I didn’t really have time to plan [my career progress], so we had to improvise. When you’ve been blessed with the skill set, and the power, and the speed, and the athleticism that I have, there is no time like the present.
“These are opportunities that you can’t really pass up, and that was made clear to me and my team. I trust my team; I trust myself; so we’re keen to take the opportunity [to challenge Opetaia].
“I have no interest in going to Australia and fighting. I get the whole, ‘You’ve got to travel’, Rocky thing where you’re going into someone else’s backyard, but I just don’t think boxing’s massive over in Australia. They wouldn’t have had that many eyes on it, whereas it is a lot bigger over here.
“Maybe that’s part of the reason why he’s coming over here – maybe to try and build his name. But I do believe he’s got the wrong opponent to come and build his name off.”