Australian boxing is booming.
Aussie fighters regularly challenge the very best in the world, winning belts and fighting to packed houses at home and abroad.
So it may surprise some to learn that Australia currently has no men’s world champions – although shout out to the two Australian IBF women’s world champions, junior featherweight Cherneka Johnson and bantamweight Ebanie Bridges, for flying the flag.
However, that may change on Saturday night when Jai Opetaia takes on his title challenge against Latvian superstar Mairis Briedis at the Gold Coast Convention and Exhibition Centre.
Opetaia is only 27 years old, but this title recording 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 2012 London OlympicsAustralia’s youngest ever Olympic boxer.
In London, he was narrowly defeated in his first fight by eventual Azerbaijan bronze medalist Teymur Mammadov.
After appearing at the 2014 Commonwealth Games – where he also came up short against eventual medalist Efetobor Apochi of Nigeria, Opetaia rose to the professional ranks and has since racked up 21 impressive wins without defeat, 17 by knockout.
He’s the young cub in this fight, but came across as extremely confident at Thursday’s press conference.
“I did everything right,” said Opetaia.
“I know this is a big step up from my previous competition, but in my last fights I blew them out of the water.
Though he holds a formidable knockout record, Opetaia is a shrewd boxer, a southpaw whose movement makes him an elusive target and tricky prospect for any opponent.
Australian boxer Jeff Fenech considers Opetaia to be one of the most skilled, if not the most skilled great men to come out of Australia.
He has had three TKO wins in his last three fights despite boxing with an injured hand.
Despite having surgery for a rib injury a few weeks ago, his promoter Dean Lonergan said he is the strongest he’s ever been.
“I’ve never seen Jai in better shape,” said Lonergan.
“Right now we have the number one, undisputed number one cruiserweight in the world, sitting in front of us and I think this is the exact challenge Jai needs.
“Every time we put an opponent in front of Jai… he steps up.”
Stepping up, however, is exactly what Opetaia will have to do if he is to become Australia’s newest boxing world champion, promising that he is willing to tread “tough waters” and that the fight will be “a war”.
Standing in the way is 37-year-old Briedis, a three-time world champion who currently has the IBF and The Ring belts in his locker.
Briedis holds a 28-1 record and is recognized as the strongest of the four current cruiserweight world title holders, ahead of Britain’s Lawrence Okolie (WBO), Congo’s Ilinga Makabu (WBC) and French-Armenian fighter Arsen Goulamirian (WBA).
That one professional defeat came in the semifinals of the World Boxing Super Series against Oleksandr Usyk in 2018.
In one of the fights of the year, Usyk claimed a majority decision over Briedis in Latvia, convincing two of the judges to give him a 115-113 point win. The other judge scored it a 114-114 draw.
You must have heard of Usyk.
The Ukrainian previously united all world cruiserweight titles outbox his fellow London 2012 gold medalist Anthony Joshua to become United World Heavyweight Champion last year – titles he will defend in Saudi Arabia on August 20.
Rated as one of the best pound-for-pound boxers in the world, Usyk, who is a southpaw like Opetaia, is the latest fighter to prove that the cruiserweight division harbors serious talent, adding his name to David’s haye. and Evander Holyfield, who both went from undisputed 200lbs to winning a belt in the sport’s glamor division.
Usyk was undefeated in his 19 professional fights and considers his win over Briedis in the 2018 World Boxing Super Series to be one of his toughest matches: “The hardest 12 rounds I’ve ever had in my career,” Usyk said afterwards.
That’s why Lonergan said a win for Opetaia will be rated as one of the biggest in Australian boxing history.
However, he added that it might just be Opetaia’s time.
“Mairis is currently 37 years old, he has come to the end of his reign, he can’t go on forever and Jai is hungry…it has fed him for the past six months,” Lonergan said.
“I know he’s a great fighter, but I feel like I’m the new generation coming through,” said Opetaia.
“Everything he’s done is now a thing of the past. It’s my time now.”
Briedis, meanwhile, cut a relaxed figure at the press conference, wearing a cowboy hat adorned with crocodile teeth and describing the two promoters as two little boys arguing over whose car was the best while making their case for their fighters.
“He has very good technique,” the soft-spoken champion, whose Crocodile Dundee-style stand up is just the last of his dressing up, said Thursday.
“He’s flexible, he’s [got] good speed, he is a left handed and he is 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 that all plans will change when the fighters move into the center of the ring — and once the first punch lands.
When is Jai Opetaia vs Mairis Briedis?
The undercard kicks off at 6:00 PM AEST, but the two fighters will likely walk to the ring much closer to 10:00 PM if not later.
How can I watch Jai Opetaia vs Mairis Briedis?
The fight card will be available on Fox Sports’ Main Event channel beginning at 7 p.m., with the first hour of the card on Fox Sports.
The fight will cost you $59.95 to stream on the Main Event of Kayo.
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