“I’m not satisfied at all,” Jai Opetaia admits to Bad Left Hook just weeks after toppling Mairis Briedis (28-2, 20KO) and the odds to become cruiserweight king. “I’m so hungry to get back in the ring.”
But the 27-year-old Australian knows he has to be patient. And it’s not just a hunger to fight that he is battling with. Opetaia (22-0, 17 KO) suffered a broken jaw in two places at the hands of Briedis, condemning the newly crowned 200 lb champion to surgery, rehab, and weeks of sucking food through a straw.
“Oh man, I miss that crunch of good food, too,” he added. “Basically, if it can’t pass through a thick straw then I can’t eat it. I’m actually weighing less now than I was at the weigh-in before the fight! It’s not just the jaw breaks that have caused the issue, my throat got infected during the surgery because of a few cuts I had, so swallowing has been pretty painful.
“I’m still pretty numb, to be honest. My biggest challenge at the moment is trying not to dribble while having a conversation [laughs], but I’m done with my medication and antibiotics now so it’s just a waiting game until I can get back into the ring. We’re not going to rush it – we need to make sure it’s strong and fully healed before we get back to work.”
Opetaia’s gruesome injury grabbed an unproportional slice of the headlines following his win inside the Convention & Exhibition Centre, Gold Coast, Australia. His inability to speak to the broadcast team inside the ring post-fight painted the picture of a Rocky Balboa-esque tale, but he’s clearly fed up of talking about his ailments. His win over Briedis placed him in esteemed company alongside Oleksandr Usyk as the only men to best the Latvian, but even as he sits atop the cruiserweight tree, he assures me he is only just getting started.
“It’s a strange feeling,” he admits. “Sure, it’s the biggest win of my career against a seasoned champion, but I am nowhere near accomplishing what I want to in the sport. As I am sitting here now, I know that there are plenty of guys out there who were just like me before training hard and fast to get themselves a shot at me.
“I’m now the hunted, so I can’t switch that hunger off. If anything it’s made me want to train even harder. That’s the biggest frustration I am feeling at the moment. I want to train but instead I have to just sit here and rest, which, believe me, isn’t easy!”
Despite late pressure from Briedis, Opetaia negated the final rounds of the contest knowing that he had clocked up plenty of rounds earlier on in the fight. One of his two jaw breaks occurred in the second round, but he was able to mask this injury from his coach Mark Wilson until late in the fight, under the pressure of Briedis’ team targeting the face of the victorious challenger.
“There wasn’t too much pain straight away, I guess the adrenaline took over,” he explained. “To be honest, I wasn’t overly bothered; I was just telling myself that I could worry about it the next day. The win was far more important. My corner didn’t notice until I couldn’t shut my mouth properly towards the end of the fight, but that was good as I wanted to try and stay as relaxed as possible about it. I didn’t want my corner or the referee to start stressing about it.
“We were still able to impose our game plan on Briedis and it worked. We wanted to keep the range as we knew how good he can be inside the pocket. When I find my distance I am very hard to beat and I could see him getting frustrated. But a lot of it is about adapting in the ring once the fight has started, being able to react to his mistakes and capitalize on them. I was still able to soak up his best shots on my chin which gave me the confidence later in the fight.
“If anything, I am kind of disappointed as I know I could have done better in that fight if I hadn’t busted my jaw. So at least the next time I fight I will have more eyes on me and I can show the world how good I can really be.”
Opetaia was as big as a 7/4 (+175) underdog coming into the contest on home soil and was written off by a large portion of the boxing community. He understands why: he hasn’t been given the platform previously to showcase his talent.
“Now everyone knows what I’ve always known,” he adds. “I am at the elite level and I’ve proven it. Everyone I have been in with I have beaten comfortably, even if people haven’t been able to see it. I think us Aussie guys get written off a little too easily sometimes because we are pretty detached from the rest of the world. You see guys like [George] Kambosos upsetting the odds too, but we have so much talent and are beginning to get noticed. We’re raising the bar.”
If breaking his jaw in two places during the biggest fight of his life wasn’t a big enough hurdle to overcome, Opetaia also revealed that he lost his nan close to fight night and was forced to miss her funeral just four days before the opening bell. But sacrifice is part and parcel of the boxing vocation and, despite the heartache, he knew how he could make her proud.
“Man that was fucking tough. Not being there for my family was horrible, but I know she wanted me to get the win. That’s another reason why I found it so easy to get up off the stool despite any pain. Anything physical is always going to be temporary, it’s nothing compared to the emotional pain of losing someone so close to you. But hey, I like to think of her up there dancing.”
Now, Opetaia is using this down time to recover and, just as importantly, fish. He’s got himself a new rod, a new boat and time on his hands to kick back. And what is he looking to catch? “Lawrence Okolie (18-0, 14KO) is a fight I want down the line,” he concluded, diverting back to boxing. “I’ll hopefully be able to return to the ring by the end of the year and I want them all. This is only the start of my next chapter.”