Jai Opetaia and the year everything changed

By Declan Taylor

ALTHOUGH Jai Opetaia secured by far the most significant victory of his career to date in 2022, he might look back on 2023 as the year that everything changed.

The 28-year-old scythed through Jordan Thompson in a little over three rounds in September and, just 12 weeks later, is back out with another British underdog – Ellis Zorro – his opponent in Riyadh.

It is the first time in four years that he has managed such a quick turnaround during a career affected by injuries and issues outside of the ring. This is also the first time he has ever boxed in back-to-back fights outside of Australia.

Opetaia’s star has been on the rise down under ever since he went to the London Olympics in 2012 as a teenager but few outside the region really knew about his quality until he beat Mairis Briedis last year. However, fractures to either side of his jaw meant a long, painful lay-off which prevented him from capitalising on one of the best victories of 2022.

He eventually spent 14 months out of the ring before his London showdown with Thompson, which turned out to be a showcase for the sort of skills which have marked him out as perhaps the best 200lber on the planet. He performed so well that even Tyson Fury earmarked him as the perfect sparring partner ahead of his undisputed heavyweight title fight with another southpaw maestro Oleksandr Usyk.

But Opetaia, an intensely driven character, was not keen to reflect for too long on that victory.

“Thompson’s done now, eh?” He said when asked how he looks back on that night at Wembley. “It’s in the past and now I’m just looking forward and I’m excited for the next one.

“I was pleased to get the job done the way I did. I got in there, did it quick and even to come out injury free and ready to go into another fight so soon, that doesn’t happen often in my career. So I’m cheering and I’m excited to be a part of such a big card.

“I definitely did exactly what I went there to do but now we have another statement to make on December 23.”

After he was eliminated from the Olympics 11 years ago, Opetaia and his dad Tapu went for their first beer together as father and son and the Sydney-born ace made more memories on this latest trip to Europe,

“We hung out around London for a bit after the fight and then we went to Paris and then Amsterdam,” he says. “It was a memorable trip… well what I can remember. Honestly, it was just great to have my family over there. It was my mum’s first time on an aeroplane flying overseas. Just to see her overseas, being able to enjoy her trip in Europe was a reward in itself. It was like a world title for myself. That is something I’ve always wanted to be able to do, take my family overseas and let them see new parts of the world.

“She was alright on the flight. It freaked her out a bit at the start but we knew we were there for a good purpose. If you look at it in a negative way you’ll get negative thoughts but if you think of it as a positive thing – we are going to Europe – there’s nothing negative about it. It was all good.

“By the time the fight was done, I was just doing what the girls wanted to do, a bit of sight-seeing and stuff. But all I wanted to do was go and sit in the pub and have a few beers and relax. It was more about the family though so we did a few things – it was good to chill and let the hair down.”

But it was not a particularly lengthy break as, by the time November rolled around, the Saudis were already planning a December 23 card which they hoped would build on the success of Fury against Francis Ngannou. This latest event was put together within weeks and it was soon made clear that they wanted Opetaia to be part of it.

“It happened real fast,” he adds. “I got a day’s notice and then they said ‘you have to fly to London tomorrow’ for the press conference. I said ‘sweet as, let’s go’ and packed my bags. Boxing is my life at the moment, I’m on call. If they call me for a fight night, I’m ready, let’s do it. I’m not passing up any opportunities and everybody around me knows that. We get busy and we stay busy. When they made the call my hand was up straight away.

“I wasn’t even sure who I was fighting. I thought I was going to fight Briedis and then he pulled out for the second time. He said he was unfit to fight, whether he was injured or just wanted to get into the festive season early I don’t know and I don’t care. Whoever they put in front of me I have to beat.”

This time, that man is the 17-0 (7) Zorro, who secured the best win of his career in May when he stopped Hosea Burton but has never mixed with the calibre of Opetaia before. As such, the bookmakers have priced him as a staggering 14/1 underdog.

“I’ve watched him a little bit now,” Opetaia says of Saturday’s opponent. “But we overcome, we do what we do, train hard and anything he brings in that ring, we are fit enough and strong enough and prepared to have an answer to anything he brings.

“It was the first I’d heard of him when they secured the fight but being on such a huge card, I wasn’t arguing with nothing, just put my name on that card and I’ll fight anyone. That’s what I said and that’s what happened.

“Working with the Saudis is awesome. They’ve got the money, they say ‘we’ve got this and this’ and then it’s a yes or no answer. That’s what we like. Too much business and politics gets involved with boxing and it goes south. It’s good to have these guys operating like this and I’m grateful to be a part of it. I’m excited to show that I deserve to be there again.”

And if all goes to plan, Opetaia hopes that will come in just eight weeks, when Fury fights Usyk back in Riyadh on February 17.

He adds: “I’m hoping to be on that card in February, that would be awesome to be a part of. If it works out like that I’m sure I could do some rounds sparring with Fury too but at the moment, all my focus is on December 23. I’ve got a job to do, and I’ve got to do it properly. I have not been slacking off one bit, we’ve picked it up even more. I’m excited that I get to end the year well.

“I’ve had a bad run and a lot of things have worked against me in my career so to be able to go back-to-back with some good fights and on some big cards it’s awesome.

“I just stay focused. Focused on myself and my own journey. Whoever they put in front of me, that’s who I have to beat so that’s all I focus on.”

Now it would take a very brave man to bet against him adding one final flourish to the most important year of his career.

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