Jai Opetaia on the cusp of global boxing fame ahead of Day of Reckoning

“It’s a jewy. It’s a jewy! No way!”

Roughly one minute earlier, Jai Opetaia cast his lure off The Spit, a breakwall at the north end of the long stretch of beach which makes up the Gold Coast.

“First cast!” he says, as he pulls the fish in and poses for a quick picture before returning it to the water.

“Got it all on camera, too.”

Deep into camp for a fight that could set up his family’s future, the man many consider to be the world’s best cruiserweight explains the appeal of a quick fishing break.

“Someone like me, my mind’s always ticking,” he says.

“But when I’m fishing, all I’m thinking about is catching that fish. 

“When I’m in camp, all I’m thinking about is the fight.

“I’m so switched on and so focused on training and doing enough for the fight and stuff like that. 

“When I go fishing, it’s a real mentally relaxing thing for me.”

After an hour or so on the breakwall, Opetaia heads back to the car a happy man, not least because Sporting News was on hand to witness his catch, then it’s straight back into training.

Jai Opetaia jewfish

(The Sporting News)

The talented Aussie is only afforded the time to go fishing after a planned sparring session was cancelled, saving him the almost two-hour round-trip from Surfers Paradise to Bethania, south of Brisbane.

Such is the gulf in class between Opetaia and most of the big men on the domestic scene, he’s quickly running out of sparring partners.

Nevertheless, he gets some work in on the pads before an afternoon conditioning session on the beach, all under the glorious Queensland sunshine.

“I love results. I love the hard work. I love the grind,” he says.

“Being able to outgrind people, outwork people. I feel like, with my skill and my ability, I can beat any fighter. 

“I’ve got the tools to beat any fighter, it’s just about the fitness and the strength to be able to do what I need to do at a certain time in the fight, or to be able to do it for 12 rounds.”

Opetaia is booked to face Englishman Ellis Zorro in Saudi Arabia on December 23.

The bout will feature on a card stacked with some of the biggest names in boxing, including Anthony Joshua, Deontay Wilder and Dmitry Bivol, all bankrolled by the virtually endless wealth of the oil-rich nation.

WATCH: ‘Day of Reckoning’, live on DAZN

In addition to the Zorro fight, Opetaia has already been sounded out to appear in the Middle East again early next year, putting him in line for a couple of significant paydays.

There’s also the chance to turn in some star-making performances in events with huge global audiences, opening the door for even more big fights down the line.

It’s an opportunity not lost on the 28-year-old.

“My retirement plan is to make millions of dollars fighting and then just fish and look after the family for the rest of my life,” he says.

“That’s the motivation, that’s the dream, that’s the goal.

“I do these couple years right and I sacrifice these next couple years, just boxing and perfecting the craft of fighting, then it will all pay off in the end.”

And what does the pay off look like?

“Security. We don’t come from much where I’m from,” he adds.

“We were never poor – we ate, but just that stressful lifestyle, week-to-week lifestyle.

“Just to be able to sit back and breathe for a bit, let my family breathe for a bit. 

“That’s the real reward that I’m chasing – being able to relax. 

“That’s the big motivation in my life, to be able to do all this hard work and then just be able to look at the smile on my family’s face without the stress of what’s going to happen next week.”

Hard work is something Opetaia has become renowned for, even in a sport where those who don’t are quickly found out.

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After more than a year out following his world title victory against Mairis Briedis in July 2022, Opetaia emphatically returned to the ring in London in September, brutalising the previously undefeated Jordan Thompson on the way to a fourth-round stoppage victory.

The performance, a maiden defence of his IBF and Ring cruiserweight titles, caught the eye of Turki Alalshikh, the Saudi official in charge of organising the “Day of Reckoning” card on December 23.

After the fight came together in a flash, Opetaia jetted off to London for the announcement press conference, before coming straight back into a gruelling two-week program.

“We train abnormally, there’s no hiding that,” Opetaia’s strength and conditioning trainer Mark Mathie tells us.

“We do train hard, we do go to what you might call very dark places. 

“The first two weeks of every camp, we have what we call a ‘drowning fortnight.’ It’s not for the faint-hearted. 

“He’s training three or four times a day. He’s just pushed to exhaustion every day and then he just continues to push every day on top of that. 

“We do 14 days straight, he doesn’t have a rest. It’s a bit of a mental toughness week, trying to, what we call, blow the demons out.”

What did Opetaia do on that first day off?

Got out on the water and landed himself a dolphinfish. Obviously.

When it comes to the cruiserweight division however, he is the big fish.

But, not every angler, or fighter, is like Opetaia.

He broke his jaw on the way to winning the title against the most feared man in the weight class, leaving him eating through a straw for several months.

MORE: Unbroken – The story behind one of Australian boxing’s greatest victories

Once fit, it took almost a year for him to make a first defence as multiple opponents withdrew from negotiations as they sought routes which didn’t go through the undefeated southpaw from the New South Wales Central Coast.

Finally, Thompson stepped up.

Although Opetaia’s comprehensive beatdown of the Englishman only enhanced his reputation as the boogeyman at 200-pounds.

It’s a reputation crafted out of sacrifice.

On the day we spend with him, Opetaia reveals he was due to be best man at a friend’s wedding.

He wants to make sure he hasn’t knocked it back in vain.

“I’ll never be able to be at that wedding,” he says.

“That’s the time that I’ll never get back because I’ve got to spend it here. 

“That’s why when I go to the gym – I can’t waste these days.

“I can’t pull out as best man and then go to the gym and train like a p**sy.

“That’s why every session counts, every day counts. 

“I can’t waste my time making these sacrifices for nothing.”

And it’s not just his own sacrifices he’s conscious of, pointing to the small but dedicated team around him.

“These guys are using their time and effort to put into my career,” he adds.

“That’s a massive motivation for me in the gym – I’ve got people that believe in me.

“People that are going out of their way to help me. Who am I to waste that?

“It’s all such a motivation to have such a supportive team behind me and it makes me want to do them proud, all of them.

“That’s why I do work so hard and train so hard. I don’t want to look back one day and go, ‘F***, I wish I tried harder, I wish I trained harder.’

“That’s why, in this moment, right now, these next couple of years, I am just 110 per cent focused on what I need to do for this job.”

After years of graft, the rewards are on the horizon.

“I definitely feel like that fight in London against Thompson really shot off my profile but I feel like it still hasn’t broken through,” he explains.

“I feel like this December 23 fight, this is it, this is a big opportunity, big stage.

“I won the world title ages ago now. I’ve been waiting for ages to break through and get these big-money fights, they’re finally here.”

Yet, in line with much of Opetaia’s career, even this fight hasn’t arrived smoothly.

As IBF titleholder, he was ordered to face Briedis in a rematch next.

The Latvian former champion hasn’t been ready to fight, though, seeing the sanctioning body allow Opetaia to make a voluntary defence, against Thompson.

With Briedis still sidelined, Opetaia is looking to remain active with the Zorro bout, although IBF rules state champions are only allowed one exemption per mandatory defence.

Rather than give up a career-best payday and risk jeopardising future opportunities in Saudi Arabia, Opetaia made the call to vacate the belt.

“These guys are pulling out and they’re holding me back from moving forward,” he says.

“It’s frustrating, I’m the champion, I’ve got the IBF belt that I’m proud of. 

“I broke my jaw in two spots, had four months eating out of a straw.

“The things that I had to do to get that belt and keep it, it’s been a roller coaster and I’ve done nothing but train hard and stay focused and I’ve got people pulling out on me and then I’m not allowed to fight. 

“I’m not allowed to move forward, which is such a frustrating thing.”

All going well, Opetaia will get by Zorro without issue and defeat Briedis, or another opponent in February or March, earning life-changing money and regaining his IBF title along the way.

WATCH: ‘Day of Reckoning’, live on DAZN

Once that’s done, then he’s thinking about how to make it up to his mate whose wedding he had to miss.

“We’ve been trying to plan this fishing trip for a few years now, me, Jarrod and Sam,” he says.

“We go over there, we make our statement in Saudi and then the boys are on – we’re coming to Vanuatu for a fishing trip.”

After that, he plans to set about unifying the division before chasing the biggest fish of all – a world title at heavyweight.

“I haven’t accomplished what I want to accomplish yet,” he adds.

“I still haven’t ticked the boxes I want to tick. I’ve still got a lot more work to do.

“I’m not comfortable yet. I’ve got a big appetite and I’m still ready to do a lot more damage.”

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