Jai Opetaia vs Mairis Briedis, who is Opetaia, background, 2012 Olympics, next fight, when is it, highlights, broken jaw
Before Saturday, most of Australia couldn’t have told you who Jai Opetaia was or what he does for a living.
Hit the fast forward button for 24 hours and the 27-year-old became an overnight “rock star” thanks to 36 minutes of hard yakka, and that’s putting it lightly.
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Opetaia wrote himself into the Australian sporting history books when he defeated Mairis Briedis on Saturday night to become the new IBF cruiserweight champion of the world, becoming the sole Australian male boxer to hold a belt and improving his record to 22-0 (17KO).
What makes the feat even more remarkable is the fact he competed for around 30 minutes with a broken jaw.
It was a herculean effort that proved Opetaia is cut from a different cloth.
It also served as further evidence that there’s just something a little bit special about the 27-year-old.
You only have to ask his mother to know as much.
Opetaia and his mum shared a heartwarming moment in the locker room before the assembled press pack, as the two embraced in a hug.
The champion’s mum then turned to the gathered reporters.
“Since he was 12 years old, this is what he’s wanted,” she said.
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When asked about the exact moment she knew he was special, she replied: “When he was born. Ask my neighbour, I told her.”
Opetaia was essentially born into a boxing bloodline.
He’s a fourth generation boxer on his dad’s side and a third on his mum’s.
Not only that, but he’s related to Australian sporting royalty: Opetaia counts Socceroos legend Tim Cahill as a cousin.
Such was Opetaia’s boxing prowess that he was called up to the Australian Olympic team for the 2012 London Games.
The catch? He was just 16 years old at the time, making him the nation’s youngest-ever Olympic boxer.
Australian boxing great Jeff Horn was also a member of the London team and knew Opetaia had something about him.
“He was a very good boxer, very talented,” Horn told foxsports.com.au in the lead-up to Saturday’s fight.
“But I knew he had a lot of growth left in him at that point to do some amazing things.”
Unfortunately Opetaia didn’t perform at the Olympics like he had hoped, exiting in the round of 16 to Teymur Mammadov by a narrow scoreline of 12-11.
But the fact he was selected for the games at that age was just another glimpse that Australian boxing had something special on its hands.
Even before he’d gone to the English capital, Opetaia showed why he was picked for the Games.
As an amateur, he won the junior world title in Kazakhstan in July 2011.
His coach for the event was Mark Wilson, the same man who guided him to victory against Briedis on Saturday night.
In 2015 Opetaia had his first professional bout. A unanimous decision victory over Isileli Fa in New Zealand was the first of his 22 wins to date.
But it’s not just his unblemished record that underpins why Opetaia is just so damn good.
Dean Lonergan, Opetaia’s promoter, points out that it is his superhuman ability to overcome every obstacle in his way, no matter the size.
“There’s no boxer who’s come through more adversity than him in the last six or seven years,” Lonergan told foxsports.com.au in Opetaia’s locker room after the fight.
“Five years ago he fought with a broken hand, and he kept fighting because he needed the money rather than stopping. We got that fixed about a year and a half ago.
“We had this fight set, then Briedis got Covid and Jai turns around and gets a unique rib injury that the surgeons had never seen before.
“I thought we had no chance of making this fight night and him being right.
“So for him to come out and perform like that, that’s one of the all-time great Australian performances.
“Reminiscent of what Jeff Horn did five years ago to the day against Manny Pacquiao, but that performance might have even exceeded what Jeff did on that night because Jeff didn’t have to fight nine rounds with a broken jaw.”
Lonergan then draw a parallel between Opetaia and perhaps the greatest to ever do it, further proving just how mind-boggling his victory amid the horrific injury truly was.
“To come through a fight like that with a broken jaw, it’s just incredible. The last guy who did that was Muhammad Ali,” Lonergan said. referenceing Ali’s infamous battle with Ken Norton in 1973.
“I think he (Ali) broke it in the fifth round, in a world title fight.
“So for (Jai) to do that is nothing short of stunningly incredible.”
If there’s one negative that came from the fight, it’s that Opetaia’s broken jaw meant he was unable to speak properly.
He mustered up a scream of relief in his post-fight interview, if you could call it that.
Even in his locker room, the new cruiserweight champ struggled to put words together.
It’s upsetting he wasn’t able to properly articulate his thoughts in that moment due to the injury, but once it’s fixed, Australia will be waiting with bated breath to hear his story.
Lonergan believes Opetaia’s popularity is only going to skyrocket upwards.
“Nobody could take advantage of it like he has in a harder way,” Lonergan said.
“This was Jai’s breakthrough fight and overnight, he’s going to become a rock star. The media on him going forward is going to be incredible as the Australian media starts to understand just how good this kid is.
“This is his breakthrough fight. He grabbed the opportunity with both hands.”
Inevitably, there’s one big question hanging over Opetaia’s head: what’s next?
Briedis asked for a rematch when he went to visit the Aussie’s locker room after the fight, which Opetaia seemingly agreed to.
Lonergan told foxsports.com.au before the fight that if Opetaia emerged victorious, he had ambitions to unify the titles in as little time as possible while also taking a fight overseas.
However, Lonergan believes that once Opetaia has fully recovered from his broken jaw, his next bout will likely be closer to home than elsewhere.
It might even pit Opetaia against a man who played a key role in his preparation for the Briedis bout as one of his sparring partners.
“As soon as it’s right, my preference would be that we fight in Australia against an Australian,” Lonergan said.
“The most obvious guy would be Jason Whateley. He’s up there and qualified, he’s in the top 15 in the world, he’s had 10 pro fights and he’d be a great fight for Jai, but we’ll just wait and see.
“At the end of the day, it’s going to come down to what Jai wants. We’ll just talk through about what he wants and we’ll go from there.”