The Obsession: Having emerged from countless dark holes, Jai Opetaia says “physical pain is an escape”

UNLIKE a holiday, which most of us never want to end, some boxers think about leaving the country in which they are scheduled to fight no sooner than their plane has touched down and the seatbelt sign is off.

To leave, after all, signifies more than just a return to home comforts and their family and friends. It also signifies the end of preparation, fight week, and the fight itself, as well as the release of the tension and pressure that had accumulated during the days and weeks they had spent doing all they could to shed their humanity and become something more machine-like.

For Jai Opetaia, the current world cruiserweight champion, the desire to leave is no different. Back in the UK for the first time since competing for Australia here at the 2012 Olympic Games, he is grateful to be welcomed and to be paid to perform – particularly given a recent spell of inactivity – yet nevertheless remains eager for time to speed up and for it all to end. “I’m just keen to get in the ring and get the job done,” he told Boxing News last Friday (September 22), having arrived on the Monday (September 18). “It’s all part of the process and I understand that,” he added, when asked if interviews such as ours were to some degree a nuisance, “but I just can’t wait to get the fight done. I don’t relax. I don’t chill when I’m in moods like this, getting ready for fights. It’s an obsession. I can’t stop thinking about it.

“I just can’t wait to do what I need to do; do what I know I can do. Then I can sit down and relax with my family for five minutes. Because, f**k, it’s been a while, you know, what with so many camps back-to-back. It’s an obsession. Every f**king day on repeat, same s**t; grind, grind, grind. This has been my life, bro. I just want to be able to finish this fight, take a deep breath, and be a bit more present.”

Until then, Opetaia, 22-0 (17), finds himself stuck in that difficult green room between human being and machine. On the one hand, he must try to engage the person with whom he is speaking, answer their questions, and, ideally, give answers consisting of more than just one word or a grunt. Yet, on the other hand, to give too much of himself away – that is, to become too human – would be to undo a lot of the progress Opetaia has made during the weeks he has been preparing for a first defence of his IBF cruiserweight belt against Jordan Thompson, 15-0 (12).

As a result, because the boxer must tiptoe this finest of lines between human and machine, what the interviewer invariably receives in their presence is a master of moderation; a chameleon of sorts. For all the time Opetaia spends being questioned and talking, he will be amiable if not overly friendly or familiar. He will also be insightful if not overly revealing or candid. He will, in the end, then give you as much as he needs to give you and leave you, the interviewer, to take everything else you need from the intense stare and impressive way he maintains eye contact, surely a sign of someone who demands focus and, moreover, someone who, as a child, spent a lot time in the presence of adults. You also note that the only time he laughs is when, having been encouraged to recall his time at the Olympics in London, he says, “I had some pretty fun times. The village was an experience, for sure.”

That answer, a playful wink of an answer, produced some levity at a time during fight prep when Opetaia sees such things as a gift; an indulgence; a luxury. For the most part smiling or laughing will be deemed by him a wasted energy, something he can do without, at least until the fight against Thompson is over and he is back home with his title.

“They gave me Jordan Thompson’s name and I said, ‘Where do I sign?’” he said of Saturday’s (September 30) fight. “I was sick of just sitting around and waiting.

“I’ve watched a bit (of Thompson), just to suss him out. He’s tall, a decent boxer, and has good movement. But I still feel like I’ve got every tool I need to beat him.”

Opetaia in the gym (Getty Images)

In truth, ask Opetaia and he’ll say the identity of his next opponent was largely irrelevant. More important to the 28-year-old was the mere fact he was again booked to fight, defending his belt no less, and that the injuries and delays now seem a thing of the past.

“It has been pretty frustrating,” he conceded. “But it is what it is. I’ve had adversity my whole life. Nothing has ever worked out in my favour. I’ve always had to grind and scratch and claw to get where I am. I’ve been feeding from the bottom of a barrel ever since I can remember. This is just another f**king day in the office.

“Everyone’s got their own little problems in life, though. I’m not going to sit here and sulk about it. If they don’t break you, they make you, and you learn from it. That’s what happened to me. I’ve grown stronger with each and every camp. Even though we haven’t had fights take place in the ring in the last 12 months, we’ve been preparing for fights. We’ve had four training camps before this one. We’ve had lots of good sparring and I’ve felt myself getting fitter and stronger and faster. This whole year has been rowing. It’s not like we’ve been sitting on the couch waiting for a fight. We’ve been training hard.”

As for the extent of Opetaia’s recent injury woes, consider this: so gruelling was last year’s fight against Mairis Briedis, Opetaia, despite beating the Latvian and claiming his belt, wasn’t able to talk much about the performance until many months after the fact, all on account of a broken jaw he suffered during round four. This left Opetaia on the sidelines for far longer than he would have liked. It also left him having to forever – it seems to him anyway – deal with questions concerning a part of his anatomy he is convinced is now not only healed but stronger than before.

“I feel 100 per cent healthy; the injuries are old news,” he said. “I don’t even think about them anymore. My jaw has been fixed for over eight months, I reckon. Even longer. I’ve done multiple training camps, I’ve had all the sparring, I’m ready. People keep asking me about my jaw, but they (the doctors) said the jaw’s stronger now. It’s an upgrade. I’ve got three f**king bars in there. Where the breaks were, they said the bone has calcified and become even stronger. So it does not bother me. I’m not worried about the jaw or any other injuries.

“I’ve always had that mental toughness to get s**t done. Breaking my jaw and coming back is no big thing. I’m still here. I’ll break it again and I’ll be sweet again. It doesn’t matter.”

Mental toughness can of course be a by-product of many things. It can, for the most unfortunate, be attributed to some sort of trauma or difficult set of circumstances. If not that, it can instead be attributed to maturity and emotional intelligence or simply seeing the world differently than how others see it.

In Opetaia’s case, and speaking in more general terms, one suspects mental toughness can be attributed to a combination of things. Professionally, though, his toughness would appear to be the result of being a boy in a man’s world for so many years.

“I grew up with boxing and boxing is all I know,” said Opetaia. “I’ve just been waiting for these opportunities – these world title fights in big stadiums. I always knew they would one day come. I made the Olympic Games at 16 and I was just a young kid. Every single person on that team was a man. They were talking about family matters and houses and mortgages. I just wanted to fight so I could go back home and chill with my family.

“I’ve always been the younger one doing all this s**t. Even winning the world title, I won it at 27. All the guys at the top right now, I’m four or five years younger than them. Jordan Thompson’s 30 and even he has been fast-tracked to this world title. If things didn’t fall into place for him here, he would still be waiting for one. I’ve been ready for a long time, though. I’ve always been ready for this s**t. This is what I do.

“The first time I travelled (overseas) I was 15 years old and went to Kazakhstan. That was for the junior world championships, my first ever international tournament. I had four fights and won a gold medal. That showed me I belonged on the world stage.”

It also showed Opetaia was willing to make sacrifices, even at a young age. Indeed, while his friends were presumably out discovering what it was to be young and human, Opetaia was leaning the other way; leaning more towards his obsession and what it would take for this obsession to one day bear fruit; leaning more towards machine.

“I’m sacrificing every day – time away from my family, all my good days – just to be in the gym,” he said. “All the celebrations, birthdays, weddings, I spent them in the f**king gym. And then what? That’s where the mental toughness comes from, bro. It’s all the sacrifices I have had to make to do what I need to do. It’s not an option. Otherwise, it’s all for f**king nothing.

“This is my f**king ticket out of this s**thole of a stressful life.

“I wouldn’t say being a kid fighting grown men made me fearless – because everybody has that fear and doubt in the back of their head – but it helped me know what to do with it. You don’t f**king listen to it, do you? You just keep on going.”

Jai Opetaia lands on Mairis Briedis in Australia (Photo by Peter Wallis/Getty Images)

This attitude we saw on display during his breakout performance against Breidis last July. That night, when fuelled by home support but debilitated by a broken jaw, Opetaia refused to feel sorry for himself, let alone give up, and was duly rewarded for having kept on going.

Yet even that experience, despite its gruelling nature, is not what Opetaia means when he speaks of dark places and the need to persevere. In fact, it is only the more fortunate boxers who speak of hardship in terms of what they experience in the ring. The less fortunate ones, meanwhile, have fought and perhaps continue to fight far greater battles, either outside the ring or simply inside their own head, and are, if anything, relieved to show up on fight night to face a tangible threat and opponent they can, providing they do everything right, ultimately defeat.

“My biggest enemy is myself,” Opetaia said. “I can do whatever I push myself to do but sometimes you find yourself stuck in those little deep holes. I’ve had to drag myself out of those holes a few times over the years, especially with these injuries and the road back. It’s f**king lonely, bro. There’s nobody there to hold your hand and do it for you. You’re by yourself. Your coaches are there in the gym, yeah, but, f**k, when you go through these lonely roads, all you see are dark holes up ahead.

“Now, though, having got past all that, you can’t hurt me. You can’t hurt me more than I’ve been hurt up here.” He pointed to his head with his finger upon saying that, then jabbed at it and added: “The physical pain is an escape.”

At its worst, Opetaia even considered retirement. The hole, for a time, appeared that deep.

“I did (injured) my hand, and had a hand surgery which kept me out for nine months,” he explained. “When I was out for all that time, I put on a lot of weight and I honestly thought, during my first training session back, that my career was over. Then just over 12 months later I won a world title.

“But I know those dark places are not gone. I’ll probably fall down them again in the future and I’ll also climb back out of them again. We’ve been there before. It’s f**king life.”

For now, Opetaia’s life is one consumed by boxing; thoughts pertaining to it, a need to make it work, a hunger to remain number one. It requires not only the best of him, both in the gym and in the ring, but then asks him to stay when he wants to go and fight when he wants to chill and be something closer to a machine when he really just wants to be human. It is in those moments, when the obsession threatens to submerge him completely, Opetaia needs reminding of the fact that he serves a purpose other than just giving and taking punches.

“I feel like I’m surrounded by a good team,” he said. “They send me home (from the gym) sometimes because they know that if they don’t I will just stay there and chew and chew. It’s good because we’ve got that relationship. I don’t need motivating; I need holding back.”

True retreat only arrives afterwards, of course. That’s why Opetaia, despite having only just touched down, can’t wait to leave England, and that’s why the thought of soon fishing, a pastime about as far removed from hand-to-hand combat as one can possibly imagine, is something Opetaia has to put to the back of his mind until the violence currently coursing through his veins has once and for all been drained from his body.

“I love to just go fishing, kick back, and have some family time,” said Opetaia, whose family have travelled overseas to watch him fight for the first time. “I had to move to the other side of Australia to get the best out of my training camps and be around the right people to bring the best out of me. I’ve given myself this short window to make something of my life and that means that everything I do is very important. When the fight is done, though, I like to have time with the family and my fiancée and I like to fish. Every chance I get, I’m fishing. I love it. Family, fighting, and fishing. That’s basically my life, bro.”

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