Boxing 2022: Jai Opetaia broken jaw; how Nan’s death inspired the fighter’s incredible victory

It’s one of Australian sport’s iconic moments as Jai Opetaia fights for the world title with a broken jaw. But a greater pain motivated him: the death of a family member during the week of the fight.

Jai Opetaia has spoken for the first time about his exploits with a broken jaw and revealed an even more heartbreaking pain – his dead grandmother was buried just four days before his epic world title.

It’s been two weeks since Sydney-born Opetaia became Australia’s newest world champion, somehow overcoming the pain of a broken jaw in two places to stunningly defeat Latvian cruiserweight king Mairis Briedis in a slugfest on the Gold Coast.

In doing so, Opetaia entered Australian sports folklore, emulating South Sydney rugby legend John Sattler, who played 77 minutes in the 1970 grand final against Manly with a broken jaw.

Only now, some 14 days after his shattered jaw was wired, is Opetaia able to properly use his mouth to articulate the agony he endured in order to take on the world and fulfill a childhood dream.

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Such was his desire not to fail against Briedis that he refused to tell his corner about a big crack he heard early in the competition, fearing his coach – or the referee – would take the fight quit, says Opetaia.

“Hearing the words ‘New World Champion’ changed my life,” said Opetaia, who fought 10 rounds with a broken jaw and somehow held on to winning a 12-round war with a unanimous point judgment over Briedis.

“I knew after two laps that it was broken. I didn’t want to say anything because I had in mind that they might end the fight.

“The referee knew in the later rounds it was broken but I try not even to think about it now because it makes me sick to think about the fight could have stopped outside of my control.

“During the fight I wasn’t in a lot of pain because of the adrenaline, but my mouth was a mess.

“I just felt like I had heaps of little stones in my mouth and every time my jaw moved from side to side with a punch, it felt like those stones were slamming together.

“It was a weird feeling.

“My jaw just hung down, it wasn’t connected to my skull at all, so I couldn’t really lift it up. I couldn’t even bite my mouthguard but I just knew I had to finish because I was going to win the fight.”

The 27-year-old vividly recalls the moment his jaw was first shattered – and then shattered again in the championship rounds.

“On the second round he caught me with a good uppercut and I immediately felt the left side of my jaw pop,” Opetaia said.

“It was on lap 10 when I broke it a second time. My mouth was everywhere.

“In the later rounds, he definitely knew my jaw was broken because his corner was screaming, ‘Hit his jaw, hit his jaw.’

“If I had never broken my jaw, I think I would have beaten him comfortably. I dominated the first laps.

“But as the fight went on I felt like I just didn’t need to get hit and I worked a lot on my defense. That’s why I lost the later rounds. It was hard for me to commit because I was protecting my jaw that was moving from side to side.

“Towards the end my corner could see that my jaw was broken. But I would never give up. I would never lose this fight.”

The seeds of stoicism were sown during fight week when Opetaia’s grandmother Elizabeth died after a battle with cancer.

She was buried about 96 hours before a grieving Opetaia faced Briedis for the biggest fight of his life. He’s still disappointed that he can’t attend his grandmother’s funeral.

“Getting started was the most difficult time of my life,” he says.

“I broke my ribs sparring (in April) but I’ve also had a lot of family drama.

“I didn’t talk about it but the week before the fight my grandma died.

“We buried her four days before the fight. I was devastated. I couldn’t go to the funeral because I had to prepare for the fight, so it was worse than the pain of a broken jaw or broken rib.

“Losing her was a huge motivation. I missed my grandma’s funeral, so imagine if I quit or didn’t finish the fight because of a broken jaw… I was like, “F— this, there’s no way I’m going to lose.

“I wanted to win this world title for them – and that’s what I did.”

Opetaia has now usurped George Kambosos, who lost his world titles to Devin Haney in June, as the king of Australian boxing.

There are longer-term plans for Opetaia to break into the heavyweight division, but for now, the stylish Aussie-Samoan southpaw has one burning goal: to become an undisputed cruiserweight legend.

“I want to unify the division,” he said.

“I haven’t seen myself in heavyweight for ages. Maybe I won’t go up at all. If I’m fighting cruiserweight and making good money and there’s no reason to move up, I won’t do it.

“My broken jaw will slow my return to the ring but in about four or five months I’ll be back and ready for my next fight.

“Now that I’ve won a world title, everyone wants to fight me and get paid for it.

“I’ll only get better from here. Winning a world title gave me more confidence. I can’t wait to defend my world title and get more belts.”

Originally published as Boxing 2022: New World Champion Jai Opetaia reveals his grandmother’s death inspired him to keep fighting with a broken jaw Boxing 2022: Jai Opetaia broken jaw; how Nan’s death inspired the fighter’s incredible victory

Nate Jones

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