Mairis Briedis puts his IBF cruiserweight title on the line this Saturday against Australia’s unbeaten but unproven Jai Opetaia. Will the Latvian prove himself to still be the king of the cruiserweights, or has his time passed? Luke G. Williams previews the action…
As surreal contextual sidelines go, this Saturday’s IBF cruiserweight title fight between Latvia’s champion Mairis Briedis and Australian challenger Jai Opetaia takes some beating.
When Briedis arrived at this week’s press conference clad in a Crocodile Dundee style hat, a longstanding debate concerning who exactly the inspiration was for Paul Hogan’s iconic Aussie film character was reopened.
“The hat is from the movie, Crocodile Dundee, the original guy is a fellow from Latvia,” Briedis announced, referencing the theory – beloved of his countrymen and women – that a man born within their borders named Arvid Blumenthal was the ‘original’ Crocodile Dundee. In contrast, most Australians claim one Rod Ansell as the model for Hogan’s wildly successful 1986 movie.
For his part, 27-year-old Opetaia doesn’t care. He just wants to get in the ring. “Bro, all these fucking crocodile hats, the suits, it doesn’t mean nothing to me,” the Sydney born pugilist of mixed Samoan and Australian European heritage snapped. “All that matters is that fucking title. All this little shit, I don’t care about it, it’s all stupid.”
It’s a point well – if crudely – made. After all, Saturday’s fight won’t settle the debate about who the original Crocodile Dundee was, but it will settle – for now at least – the question of who is king of the cruiserweight division. Briedis may ‘only’ hold the IBF cruiserweight crown, but due to his victory in the 200lbs World Boxing Super Series tournament back in 2020 most sane observers very much regard him as ‘the man’ at the weight.
That engrossing WBSS tournament climaxed with Briedis masterfully dissecting Cuba’s Yuniel Dorticos in the final, a bout that earned him recognition from ‘The Ring’ magazine as cruiserweight champion, adding credence to his claims to be regarded as the division’s new lineal ruler, after undisputed 200lbs king Oleksandr Usyk’s move up to heavyweight.
Briedis – of course – gave Usyk by far the toughest test of his pro career so far, dropping a slender majority decision in the white-hot atmosphere of the Arena Riga is his homeland back in a 2018 fight of the year contender. It remains the only blemish on the Latvian’s 28-1 (20 KOs) pro ledger.
However, for all his accomplishments since turning pro in 2009, there are significant question marks hanging over Briedis as this weekend’s clash against the hungry and undefeated Opetaia at the Gold Coast Convention Centre approaches. Now 37, it seems reasonable to ask whether the Latvian may be in decline. He has certainly been concerningly inactive, this being just his fourth fight in four years.
The Australian fight fraternity are certainly talking up Opetaia’s chances. “When I first saw Jai spar I thought to myself, ‘Wow.’ I’d never seen a skill level like it,” Aussie boxing legend Jeff Fenech told Sporting News this week. “It was just second to none, he had everything. Don’t write him off, he’s an amazing talent. Anybody who’s saying that Briedis is too big, too strong and stuff, they don’t know Jai Opetaia.
“They don’t know the hunger that he’s got, they don’t know the skill level that he’s got. I’ve been around it for years, I’ve watched him closely. Don’t be surprised at all. We’re going to have the cruiserweight champion of the world, I’m very confident of that.
Fenech may be right but on the basis of his 21-0 (17 KOs) career thus far, Opetaia’s true pedigree is almost impossible to discern, such is the paucity of even semi-recognisable names on his record. The case for an upset victory is therefore flimsy, resting on Opetaia’s amateur accomplishments, which were decent enough, incorporating a junior world title at heavyweight and an appearance in the 2012 Olympics at heavyweight, where he was edged out in the first round by eventual bronze medal winner Teymur Mammadov of Azerbaijan in a tournament eventually won, aptly enough, by Usyk.
If Briedis has indeed begun to decline then maybe Opetaia can spring an upset, but it is far more likely that the Latvian’s class and experience will tell, with him prevailing via a late stoppage or wide points decision.