There’s a buzz around cruiserweight champion Jai Opetaia.
Australia’s 28-year-old IBF titlist recently swept through an overmatched Jordan Thompson in four rounds in London, and he could be on course for a rematch with Mairis Briedis, whom he defeated in July 2022.
He took some days off after Thompson, spending some time in Europe, before returning home and his goals remain the same as they were before Thompson, to unify the titles.
And Bournemouth’s WBO cruiserweight champion Chris Billam-Smith is at the top of his wanted list.
“For sure,” Opetaia said. “This is nothing personal against him, he’s a respectful fighter and I respect his journey, but I want that WBO title around my waist. I want that belt and he’s in my way.”
The fight, however, is not straightforward to make. Opetaia signed with Matchroom ahead of the Thompson contest and Billam-Smith is one of Boxxer’s flagship fighters. The politics clearly bother the Australian star.
“It’s ridiculous,” Opetaia snapped. “I feel that it’s a fucking joke that people get to dictate… “Me and Chris Billam-Smith are both world champions, we should both be able to unify and fight each other. The best fight the best. I don’t know why other people have to get involved and just do stupid shit. It’s wrecking the sport, but unfortunately that’s how it works and there are a few little cloudy areas with the sport but I’ve heard a few rumours, is he still with Boxxer?
[NB: Boxxer said Billam-Smith is still with them and he will fight in December.]
“If he’s not going to fight me, then why be at the fight [Opetaia-Thompson]? If you’re there, you’re there for a reason. Let’s fight.”
But it is not just Billam-Smith who Opetaia wants, he wants to collect all of the titles at 200lbs.
“I’m locked in on belts,” he continued, when asked about Artur Beterbiev recently saying he could see himself moving up from 175lbs. “All I want to do is unify, unify this whole division. If somehow he [Beterbiev] fights someone and wins a belt, then bring him on. That is my mindset. I’m on a mission to collect all these belts and I’ll fight whoever I have to to get them.”
Heading into the Thompson bout, Opetaia had been frustrated. He’d broken his jaw against Briedis and then suffered a shoulder injury as he prepared to return to the ring after that.
“It's been a rollercoaster to get to here; so many injuries, so many setbacks, even outside the ring in life, I feel like so much in this journey has been trying to stop me from getting to where I’m trying to go, but I’m still here,” Opetaia went on. “And I’m still going. And I’m still young, hungry, and I just cannot wait for the next fight. I don’t look back, I look forward. Jordan Thompson was a fight, we got it done, who’s next? I want to fight for more belts.”
And while that last fight was at Wembley, Opetaia is keen to start building momentum at home.
“We will see what happens,” Jai continued, of where he might fight next. “I’d like to have some big fight nights here for Australia. I’d love to give a platform for fighters like me coming through the ranks. We’re not given an international platform here in Australia, so we’re really underrated I feel. All my fights growing up and coming up through the ranks, they were all just on Aussie cards that no one watched internationally, so I feel me fighting here gives them a platform and builds up our country, and that’s what I’m really proud to be about.”
Even if Briedis is next, Opetaia’s reluctant to plan too far ahead, given his recent past issues with injuries.
“There’s little talks about Briedis and stuff, but going off my track record I don’t really like to talk about a fight until a contract is signed,” Opetaia said. “So many things have fallen through, but I think the IBF are going to demand Briedis and then we will see if he wants to fight and we will go from there. I’m going to be ready for whoever they put in front of me.”
Many said that Thompson was not ready for what he faced in Wembley. Southpaw Opetaia was too good. The former Australia Olympian started to take Thompson apart from the first round. It will be a long way back for Thompson, but Opetaia felt like he had to take his shot.
“I feel like he’s 30-years-old, you know. If he’s not ready now, he’s never going to be ready,” Opetaia explained. “It is what it is. There’s levels to this sport, and nothing personal to Jordan. I feel we could be mates and there was mutual respect after the fight, but if he’s not ready, then when? It’s like what they said about me before I fought Briedis… I’d not fought anyone at that level, blah, blah, blah… But you rise to the occasion and that’s what I did. It’s the difference between champions.”
Beforehand, Opetaia had adopted a kind of siege mentality. Thompson was a Matchroom contender and the show was a long way from Australia. Opetaia, who is also with Matchroom, was not expecting any favours.
“I was coming to enemy territory and that’s how it should be,” Jai added. “If an Englishman was coming over here and fought for the world title, or fought another Aussie, I’d be backing the Aussie 100 per cent. That’s what you’re meant to be like. That’s what you’re meant to do. And that’s what I knew I was coming in to. I said it many times, I come to earn respect, not disrespect. I knew what I was walking into, and I knew I would leave with every single person’s respect in that arena, and I said that in many interviews. Fighting’s what I do. All these interviews and all those press conferences and stare offs, they mean nothing. Once you’re in the ring, that’s my world.”
Opetaia has subsequently taken a call from Team Fury to spar with Tyson ahead of the proposed unification contest with Oleksandr Usyk. It is an experience which could serve Opetaia well, as he has his own ambitions to move up in weight after collecting more silverware 200lbs.
“Definitely,” he said, of an inevitable move up to heavyweight. “My goal is to unify the division as a cruiserweight and then win a world title as a heavyweight. We’re very professional in camp. I don’t struggle too much to make the weight at all, but I feel like I will be able to add size to my body, with the training and stuff like that, doing more weights and with my diet, eating more. I’m very professional with what we do now. We’re not fighting in local and domestic fight nights anymore, we’re fighting for world titles and I do everything properly. I train hard, I eat clean. I’m ticking every box and that’s why I make the weight and if I was to move to heavyweight, I’d change the boxes that I’m ticking. I feel I could make that exchange pretty well.”
While he is preparing to go to camp Fury, Opetaia is far more relaxed and without the intensity he carries with him in the build-up to a fight. But he is growing impatient already. He wants to fight again soon and he’s certainly excited about the Fury assignment.
“I feel a lot more chilled out,” he said, after getting to travel around Europe, “When I’m in camp, I really flick a switch and zone in. I’m not far from flicking the switch back on. I’m back home, I’ve had my little time in Europe, and I’m ready to earn it again. I can’t wait for the next one.”