Tim Tszyu vs. Tony Harrison: Jai Opetaia tipping another Australian to join world champion ranks

Australia’s only current male world champion believes he’ll have company in the form of Tim Tszyu next month.

Tszyu fights Tony Harrison for the interim WBO super-welterweight world title in Sydney on Sunday, March 12 and Jai Opetaia sees similarities between his victory over Mairis Briedis back in July.

Opetaia won the IBF and Ring Magazine cruiserweight titles when he defeated the Latvian via unanimous decision, famously hanging on to reach the final bell with a badly broken jaw.

The 27-year-old went into that fight with strong credentials on the domestic scene but doubts remained about his ability to match it with one of best cruiserweights of all time.

Opetaia told The Sporting News he expects Tszyu to continue to elevate Australia’s fighting reputation.

“I feel like it is a step up for Tim but that’s what they said about me and Briedis,” Opetaia said.

“I hadn’t fought someone like Briedis, he was the best in my whole division.

“I believed in myself, I knew I could do it and I rose to the occasion and that’s what I see Tim doing.

“Boxing’s second nature to us, people like myself and Tim, boxing’s all we know.

“With his past fights, he’s only had to fight as good as he has to win those fights.

“He’s only fought to that level because they only pushed him to that level, but if he fights someone even better, he can rise and that’s where you see what champions are made of and who belongs there.”

Harrison, the only man to have defeated the division’s current undisputed champion, Jermell Charlo, has been particularly dismissive of Tszyu’s skill level and the quality of his past opponents.

Opetaia believes it’s representative of wider attitudes towards Australian boxing but insists, like it or not, the rest of the world is beginning to get on board.

“I hope he bashes Harrison. Even Harrison, the way he talks, they just underestimate us Australians and it f***in’ grinds my gears,” Opetaia said. 

“The way they talk down to us. We’ve got to show these guys.

“I want them to look at Australia like we’re one of the best boxing countries in the world, and we’re not far off it. 

“We’ve got some good fighters coming out of this country. The females are killing it.

“These other countries better watch out because Australia’s evolving.

“Because we’ve always been put in this box of, ‘They’re not good enough for the international level’, I feel like, in the back of our minds, a lot of fighters have believed it.

“Now we’re starting to be like, ‘F*** these guys, we’re good enough to fight these guys.’ 

“That’s what we have to feel like, that’s what we have to believe. We’ve got to believe we’re the best.”

Jai Opetaia

Despite his victory over Briedis, Opetaia feels he still isn’t given the respect he’s earned from his rivals.

That’s partly down to injuries – the jaw and a recent shoulder surgery – have prevented him from parlaying the momentum of his championship win into more big fights, but now back in full training, the southpaw is ready to remind the division who’s boss.

“I feel like I’m a problem for all of them. I feel like they’re underestimating me still,” Opetaia said of the other champions at 200-lbs (90.7 kg).

“I feel like I’m looked at as the underdog, only because we’re here in Australia and they’re all over there but I feel like they underestimate us. 

“It’s exciting, I love the feeling of being the underdog.”

Opetaia will have his first sparring session since before the Briedis fight this weekend, with a view to returning in late April or early May against the mandatory challenger for his IBF belt, Mateusz Masternak from Poland.

Masternak defeated Australia’s Jason Whateley in a one-sided unanimous decision back in October to earn the right to take on Opetaia.

“We’re just making sure that we’re training hard and staying fit, so when that call does happen, we’re ready,” he said.

“We’re looking at fighting Masternak from Poland. He’s my first mandatory challenger.

“He’s a tough opponent, he’s a good fighter but we’re looking forward to it.”

“We want to fight him, get him out of the way- we’re not taking him lightly, he’s a difficult fight but if we train hard, prepare properly, we get it done and then we go on to fight for more belts.

“Now that I’ve got the world title, they can’t run anymore. I’m up the top and they have to fight me now. I’m at the head of table.

“It’s exciting, every fight we have from now on is a world title fight.”

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