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How Jai Opetaia overcame broken jaw to win world title

“I am telling you right now, I was willing to die in that ring.

“It doesn’t bother me. Dying is the easy part, it’s living – waking up every single day, trying to do the right thing for years and years – that’s hard.

“Making one split-second decision to go out like a soldier, that’s nothing.”

“My jaw wasn’t even connected to my skull.”

Jay Opetaia

In the lead-up to the fight, Jeff Fenech was telling anyone who would listen that he had never seen anyone with a chin of granite quite like Opetaia’s, having seen it hit while sparring opponents up to 20 kilograms heavier. However, nobody expected it would be tested in such dramatic fashion against a raging favorite whose only professional loss was a close points decision to heavyweight champion Oleksandr Usyk.

“It was either the second or third round, one of the earlier ones,” Opetaia says of the first break. “He got me with an uppercut and busted the left side of my jaw – I felt it break straight away. I knew straight away, I thought, ‘Here we go’.

Scans of Jai Opetaia’s jaw, which was broken on both sides.

“I was trying to bite my bottom jaw into my mouthguard so it was more solid, but the left side of my jaw was out of place. Just because my jaw couldn’t bite on the mouthguard, it was all loose and then it broke on the other side.

“It was a shitty experience. Now that I look back on it, it really makes my stomach curl. It felt like I had a mouthful of small pebbles; every time I would move or get hit, the pebbles were moving around.

“It is not something I want to do again.”

Opetaia knew his jaw was broken but didn’t tell his corner, fearing he would “stress out” his handlers and bring the injury to the attention of the ring doctor, who would likely stop the contest.

“When Mark Wilson, my boxing coach, was talking to me, I can’t remember what he was saying, all I was thinking about was my jaw,” he says.

“The first side was my left side. As the fight went on, it was getting worse and worse. By the 10th, 11th and 12th round, my jaw wasn’t even connected to my skull.

“When I was in the hospital later, I probably shouldn’t have but I shook my head. My jaw of hers was like ‘ooooowwww’. Even now it’s very painful.”

Opetaia is a South Sydney fan. He remembers watching Rabbitohs captain Sam Burgess take the opening hit-up of the 2014 grand finale, resulting in a sickening head clash with Canterbury counterpart James Graham. The collision resulted in three fractures of Burgess’ eye socket and the prospect of losing the eye altogether if it was hit again. The forward played on and won the Clive Churchill Medal.

Opetaia watched on with his mates, thinking Burgess was a lunatic.

“I’m a massive Souths supporter and Sam Burgess was my favorite player,” he says.

Jai Opetaia lands a punch on Mairis Briedis at the Gold Coast Convention and Exhibition Centre.

Jai Opetaia lands a punch on Mairis Briedis at the Gold Coast Convention and Exhibition Centre.Credit:Getty

“Watching him take that hit-up and break his cheekbone and then play the whole game, that to me was like ‘woah!’

“Now they are putting my jaw in that same category. You don’t even think about it. I’m not thinking I’m playing with a broken jaw, I’m just thinking I’ve got to get it done.

“I watched Sam Burgess. We talk about it with mates and say, ‘How crazy is this guy?’ And then it just happens to you and you just get it done.

The surgery scars from Jai Opetai's rib injury.

The surgery scars from Jai Opetai’s rib injury.

“That’s the mentality in the ring, kill or be killed.”

Opetaia was taken to the Gold Coast University Hospital for the jaw operation. He ended up in the same hospital room he had been in 10 weeks earlier for another operation, to repair ribs torn off the cartilage after a sparring session went wrong. The surgeon left two distinct scars on Opetaia’s chest – the damage couldn’t be repaired with the initial incisions from above, so he came at the problem again from below.

The scars presented a clear invitation for Briedis, a renowned body puncher.

“It definitely was a target,” Opetaia says.

A year earlier, he had surgery on a troublesome hand to correct issues stemming from multiple breaks and fractures. The recovery process was so slow and painful that the Central Coast product feared he would be forced into premature retirement.

“I thought my career was over,” he says. “Now 12 months later, I’ve won the world title.”

As if that wasn’t enough to overcome, his grandmother, Elisabeth Johnston, passed away just before his big moment.

“A lot of people don’t know this, but I lost my nan,” he says. “She died a week before the fight, we buried here and I was unable to get to the funeral. Her funeral for her was four days before my fight – that was pretty difficult.

“It wasn’t even an option of not getting off the stool, going through things like that. It just made it easy.

“No matter what pain I was going through, I was going to finish that fight. I fight for my family, to put food on the table for my loved ones. I’m willing to sacrifice or do whatever it takes for that to happen.”

Jai Opetaia breaks down in tears after winning the world title.

Jai Opetaia breaks down in tears after winning the world title.Credit:Getty

Fittingly, the victory was secured five years to the day since Brisbane teacher Jeff Horn produced a stunning boilover of his own against hall-of-famer Manny Pacquiao.

“It would have to be one of the toughest things I’ve heard of in boxing,” said Horn, who was a boxing teammate of Opetaia’s at the 2012 London Olympics.

“I’ve heard of broken hands, I’ve had broken hands, but definitely not a broken jaw. And he had two breaks. I’m stoked for him.”

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Tim Tszyu was also struggling for superlatives to describe Opetaia’s courage.

“How good. What a machine. So much respect there,” Tszyu said.

“We both went to nationals and were in the same titles team. I always thought he was talented and I knew, I could see him in his eyes, the way he approached this fight that he really wanted it and would win it.

Opetaia isn’t content. His next goal from him is to unify the cruiserweight division, preferably at Central Coast Stadium, not far from where he grew up.

“All I want to do in life is win world titles, look after my family and do a lot of fishing.”

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