Australian boxing is booming.
Australian fighters regularly challenge the best in the world, winning belts and battling in front of packed houses both at home and abroad.
It might therefore come as a surprise to some to learn that Australia currently does not have a men’s world champion – although I thank Australia’s two women’s IBF world champions, junior featherweight Cherneka Johnson and bantamweight Ebanie Bridges, for flying the flag.
However, that could change on Saturday night when Jai Opetaia mounts his title challenge against Latvian superstar Mairis Briedis at the Gold Coast Convention and Exhibition Centre.
Opetaia is only 27, but this title shot is the culmination of more than a decade of work, much of it in the spotlight.
When he was just 16, he competed in the heavyweight division at the London 2012 Olympics, Australia’s youngest Olympic boxer.
In London, he was narrowly beaten in his first fight by eventual Azerbaijani bronze medalist Teymur Mammadov.
After appearing at the 2014 Commonwealth Games – where he also fell short against eventual medalist Efetobor Apochi of Nigeria, Opetaia transitioned into the professional ranks and has since racked up an impressive 21 unbeaten victories, 17 by knockout.
He is the young cub in this fight, but he came across as extremely confident at Thursday’s press conference.
“I did everything right,” Opetaia said.
“I know it’s a big step up from my past competition, but my last few fights, I blew them out of the water.
Although he boasts a formidable knockout record, Opetaia is an intelligent boxer, a southpaw whose movement makes him an elusive target and a tricky prospect for any opponent.
Australian boxing dean Jeff Fenech considers Opetaia to be one of, if not the most qualified big man to come out of Australia.
He has three TKO wins in his last three fights despite boxing with an injured hand.
Now, despite needing surgery for a rib injury a few weeks ago, his promoter Dean Lonergan says he is the fittest he has ever been.
“I’ve never seen Jai in better shape,” Lonergan said.
“Right now we have number one, the undisputed number one cruiserweight in the world sitting across from us and I think that’s exactly the challenge Jai needs.
“Every time we put an opponent in front of Jai…he comes forward.”
Stepping up is exactly what Opetaia will have to do if he is to become Australia’s last boxing world champion, promising he is ready to step into “difficult waters” and the fight will be “a war”.
On his way is Briedis, 37, a three-time world champion who currently has the IBF and The Ring belts in his locker.
Briedis has a record of 28-1 and is recognized as the strongest of the four current holders of the world heavyweight title, ahead of Briton Lawrence Okolie (WBO), Ilinga Makabu of Congo (WBC) and French-Armenian fighter Arsen Goulamirian (WBA) .
That professional loss came in the World Boxing Super Series semi-final against Oleksandr Usyk in 2018.
In one of the fights of the year, Usyk won a majority decision over Briedis in Latvia, convincing two of the judges to give him a 115-113 point win. The other judge scored a 114-114 draw.
You’ve probably heard of Usyk.
The Ukrainian went on to unify all world heavyweight titles before ousting London 2012 gold medalist teammate Anthony Joshua to become unified world heavyweight champion last year – titles he will defend in Arabia Saudi Arabia on August 20.
Usyk, who is a southpaw like Opetaia, is considered one of the best pound-for-pound boxers in the world and is the latest fighter to prove the cruiserweight division holds serious talent, adding his name to David Haye. and Evander Holyfield, who both went from undisputed at 200 pounds to earning a strap in the sport’s glamor division.
Undefeated in his 19 professional fights, Usyk considers his majority decision win over Briedis in 2018 at the World Boxing Super Series one of his toughest contests: “The toughest 12 rounds I’ve ever had in my career,” Usyk said afterwards.
That’s why Lonergan said a win for Opetaia would be one of the biggest in Australian boxing history.
He added, however, that it might be Opetaia’s time.
“Mairis right now, he’s 37, he’s come to the end of his reign, he can’t go on forever and Jai is hungry…it’s been feeding him for six months,” Lonergan said.
“I know he’s a great fighter, but I feel like I’m the new generation of great players,” Opetaia said.
“Everything he did is in the past now. It’s my time now.”
Meanwhile, Briedis cut a relaxed figure at the press conference, sporting a cowboy hat adorned with crocodile teeth and describing the two promoters as two little boys arguing over which car is better as each pleaded for his fighters.
“He’s got really good technique,” the soft-spoken champion, whose Crocodile Dundee-style outfit is just the latest of his outfits, said on Thursday.
“He’s flexible, he’s [got] good speed, he’s a southpaw and he’s in Australia, his hometown.
“What we see in the ring is different from what we see on TV.”
He also paraphrased Mike Tyson by saying all plans will change when the fighters engage in the center of the ring – and once the first punch lands.
When is Jai Opetaia vs Mairis Briedis?
The undercard begins at 6:00 p.m. AEST, but both fighters will likely head to the ring much closer to 10:00 p.m., if not later.
How can I watch Jai Opetaia vs Mairis Briedis?
The fight card will be on Fox Sport’s Main Event channel beginning at 7:00 p.m., with the first hour of the card on Fox Sports.
The fight will cost you $59.95 to stream on Main Event or Kayo.