Sport

Samoan–Australian cruiserweight boxer Jai Opetaia has been battered and broken but as yet has not lost a professional fight. Next month, the prodigious talent will step into the ring on the undercard of the most anticipated heavyweight bout in years. By Nick Feik.

‘Stronger, faster, sharper’: Aussie cruiserweight boxer Jai Opetaia eyes rematch with Mairis Briedis

Jai Opetaia celebrates victory against Ellis Zorro in December.
Jai Opetaia celebrates victory against Ellis Zorro in December.
Credit: Richard Pelham / Getty Images

Jai Opetaia is a man on the verge – of global boxing stardom, of belts and riches, of fatherhood. He’s 28, already a world champion, ranked No. 1 cruiserweight by The Ring magazine. He has 20 years of hard grind behind him and a big year ahead… and he’s pumped.

Australia has two genuine boxing superstars at the moment. One is Tim Tszyu, famous locally for being the son of Kostya Tszyu but also a great world champion in his own right. The other is Opetaia, who is virtually unknown by mainstream Australia despite his talents and track record, although probably not for long.

But boxing being boxing, it only takes one mistake for a dream to shatter. As middleweight legend Gennadiy Golovkin put it, “One punch – change life.” The art of boxing isn’t so much throwing punches as avoiding them.

When Opetaia steps into the ring on February 17, on the undercard of the most anticipated heavyweight fight in years – Briton Tyson Fury v Ukrainian Oleksandr Usyk – the bell will ring, and it’ll just be him and the other guy, with the world watching.

The judges won’t care about his life story, his dreams and parental aspirations, or that Opetaia’s representing Australian boxing and all the “Polynesian kids” in his community. They won’t care about Opetaia’s months of training or his respect for the sport, or the many trials he has faced. His fans and the press may care and may admire his defensive technique, courage and conditioning, but in that moment all they want is for him to punch his opponent so hard the referee has to end the fight.

There can be only one winner. Boxing is the toughest and loneliest sport.

Opetaia is the youngest boxer to represent Australia at the Olympic Games, having qualified for the heavyweight division when he was just 16 years old. The Samoan Australian is a fourth-generation boxer on one side of the family, third on the other. (He’s also a cousin of soccer icon Tim Cahill.) When he was 10, Opetaia told his mother he wanted to go to the Olympics. Six years later he was selected for London 2012. He learnt his lessons young.

Over the phone, he tells me: “When I won my first ever Australian tournament, I was 14 years old. I was in the final, and winning this fight pretty easy, and I started to showboat a little bit. And my grandfather – he’s my biggest inspiration. I want to be a man like him. I want to be looked at the way I look at him… Anyway, I was swinging my arms around, beating this guy up and everyone in the building was like, ‘Far out! You look so good!’ I walked up to my grandad after, and the first thing that came out of his mouth was, ‘Don’t ever do that again. Don’t ever showboat or disrespect your opponent.’ ”

This stuck with Opetaia. “Your opponent is never your enemy. The way you carry yourself is important.” He has always admired fighters for how they train, how hard they work, their style. “It’s more the science of the sport that I respect.”

Coming from a working-class family, all he’s ever done is box: “It’s what I do,” he says, like a mantra. “I was built for this.”

He won world youth titles, Australian amateur titles (winning the men’s Australian heavyweight title as a boy), and also went to the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games – a “kid facing grown men”, he says today, his tone suggesting he still remembers the fear of it. “I had to learn how to box real smart.”

He turned professional the following year and hasn’t lost since. His story isn’t of a young man destined for success, though. The adversity he’s worked through is almost unfathomable, likewise his discipline and focus. Combined with his skill, speed and power, and his upbringing, it’s hard to conceive of a more perfect model for a boxer. As long as his body can bear the weight of his vocation.

In his third professional fight, Opetaia broke his left hand – his power hand, as a southpaw. He couldn’t afford the $12,000 surgery to fix it until his 20th fight.

“It was hard, aye … I couldn’t throw my left hand with power. It hurt too much. Even when I was doin’ pads and sparring, I could never really let my hands go. I could hit someone with my left hand and it honestly hurt me as much as it hurt them. By the third round [of a fight], I couldn’t even squeeze my hand into, like, a fist.”

He fought like this for five years, adapting his style. Having only one good hand didn’t stop him from winning three-quarters of his fights by knockout.

He was still relatively unknown outside Australian boxing circles, having never fought overseas as a professional, until he got his hand fixed and challenged IBF world champion Mairis Briedis in July 2022. Opetaia was an underdog coming up against a Latvian beast who’d only lost to current world champion heavyweight Oleksandr Usyk – and even that was by split decision.

The Opetaia–Briedis bout was one of the greatest fights in Australia. Opetaia, recovering from a rib injury at the time, demonstrated from the start that he deserved to be fighting for the world title. He was sharp, brutal, moving like a dancer, with every conceivable punch on both sides – and a chin of granite. Or so we thought.

It later emerged that Briedis had broken Opetaia’s jaw in the second round. Opetaia just fought through it. In the fourth round Opetaia broke Briedis’s nose. Opetaia’s jaw was broken again – on the other side – in the 10th round. He finished the fight with his jaw hanging onto his face only by skin and muscle. He just kept going. It was unimaginable.

 

“Clearly,” wrote Joyce Carol Oates in On Boxing, “boxing’s very image is repulsive to many people because it cannot be assimilated into what we wish to know about civilized man. In a technological society possessed of incalculably refined methods of mass destruction … boxing’s display of direct unmitigated and seemingly natural aggression is too explicit to be tolerated.”

But this is where its meaning, its drama, resides for boxing fans. Life is tough, it’s often cruel and unjust, but at least there’s still a place where being courageous, strong, talented and hard-working is rewarded; where a person can work to overcome adversity, and triumph. It’s tragic theatre, as Oates called it, and the pain and suffering is all too relatable. Ukrainian former heavyweight champion Vitali Klitschko used his fame and profile to go into politics, and subsequently declared, “Politics is a dirty game. We have our rules in boxing. In politics, no rules.” Unlike many sports, boxing offers working-class kids a fair shot. That’s the fantasy, anyway.

 

Opetaia won the Briedis fight by unanimous decision, became the IBF champion and spent the next year in recovery. He couldn’t do interviews because he couldn’t speak properly, which partly explains the lack of publicity about his achievement. He couldn’t eat solid food for four months (“I was eating my dinner through a fuckin’ straw”). He had two plates inserted in each side of his jaw, fought infections and needed his teeth realigned. The recovery, he says, was harder than the fight. Not that he dwells.

When he returned to the ring as champion, in London, he destroyed his first challenger, the undefeated Englishman Jordan Thompson, in four rounds. Three months later, in December 2023, he knocked out another undefeated Brit, Ellis Zorro, in the first round.

Now Opetaia has the world’s attention, a new hand, new jaw and new shoulder – “I consider them upgrades” – and is on a string of injury-free fights for the first time in years. Opetaia’s become a fan favourite, too. They love that he doesn’t trash-talk, doesn’t brag and will take on anyone. He honours the sport and anyone who commits to it.

“I know how lonely the road is, to be the best – in any aspect of life … Doin’ the stuff you hate for the results you need. You shouldn’t always love it. It should be torture. When it starts to hurt, it starts to count. Chasing pain, not running from it.”

And he’s getting better. “Stronger, faster, sharper,” he says, “I’m just getting started.”

That must be a scary prospect for a division of opponents who have already started dodging him (with so many belts, broadcasting platforms and promotional arrangements now warping fight schedules, nominal champions can avoid the best other fighters). Enter the Saudis and their oil money. They have recognised Opetaia as the great cruiserweight talent, and this week announced they have lined up the biggest possible fight for him: a rematch against Mairis Briedis. Everyone in global boxing knows the history and understands the risk for Opetaia.

“I want to be known as one of the greats,” he says. “I want to make millions of dollars, look after my family, and then when I’m retired I just want to fish and train for the rest of my life.” Train? “I like staying active. It feels good to be healthy and fit.”

When I ask what the threats to these ambitions might be, I’m thinking of broken bones. Of that one punch every boxer is hoping to evade. The motivation-sapping exhaustion. He replies: “My only fear is that when everything is said and done, I look back and think, I wish I trained harder. I wish I put in more effort.”

If there’s a moral to the story, it’s this: you have to be like Jai Opetaia to become a world champion. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 20, 2024 as "Unbeaten knack".

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