The final image from the fight was Jordan Thompson sliding down to the canvas in round four and clutching desperately at Jai Opetaia’s shorts.
Thompson was not leaving that ancient Wembley ring until he could absolutely fight no more; the debate might be that he should have never been in the ring. Let’s park the righteous howls and deal with the nine minutes and twenty seconds of fighting. It’s not the fighter’s fault that so many flimsy conventions can get trampled in our business; it needs looking at.
Opetaia was very special, and Thompson never had a chance, but he had a go. Sure, that is not enough, but it is something in an age when better fighters than Thompson have taken the money, taken the safety route and then shrugged their shoulders at the end. Thompson went down swinging, dazed, confused, defiant and bloody.
It was Opetaia’s first defence of his world title, a bauble won in a truly savage scrap with Mairis Briedis last summer; that fight left him with rods on both sides of his jaw. It also meant he was the best cruiserweight on the planet. The severe damage to his jaw interrupted his progress, but at Wembley his timing and judge of distance was exceptional. His ring rust was a myth. He never left the gym and it showed.
Thompson has the same passion as Opetaia, make no mistake, but he lacks the fundamental grade, so often the difference between good fighters. It was obvious from the opening ten seconds that the fight would be short and that it would be hard; Opetaia connected to body and head with a slick straight southpaw left again and again. It was a form of control that involved more than just power – Opetaia’s feet were quality, his hands loose, his focus chilling. He was prowling from the start, intent on damage. He overwhelmed Thompson from the very first bell.
Thompson was confused, he had never in a thousand rounds of sparring and fifteen professional fights been hit so easily and so often and, probably, so hard. The fight was less than a minute old when fear took over. And that is not a criticism, it’s a fact. Jordan Thompson simply had no idea what to do.
Just before the bell to end the opener, Opetaia caught Thompson high on the side of the head and Thompson’s legs stiffened. He survived until the bell, but was stuck in the corner, frozen for a moment and he struggled to sit down. He was hurt.
In the second, Opetaia let Thompson recover by trying too hard; Opetaia was too eager, and Thompson not only regained his senses, but he started to move and let his hands go. It was not a comeback, most of the punches missed, but it was defiant and at the bell, Thompson could walk unassisted back to the corner. Tony Sims, in the corner, looked a bit happier.
The story before the fight was simple: Jordan lacks the experience, but he can punch, and he is available. All true and in the modern game, all weak credentials for a crack at a title. It was a fight that he simply could not refuse when it was offered – every fighter I spoke to agreed.
In round three, Thompson connected with a clean right cross and Opetaia never shook. The same punch has left a dozen men falling all over the canvas or sleeping. Opetaia decided, it seemed, that enough was enough after the solitary right hand. He was vicious, accurate and getting closer and closer to taking Thompson out cold. Thompson was wobbling, falling back into the ropes, trying to cover up and still trying to let his hands go. Thompson did touch down; it was ruled a count. He had been caught too often. He was finished at the bell to end the third. Opetaia was just warming up.
“One more round,” Tony Sims told him. Sims is not a brave trainer, and he must have had some faith, or he would not have let Thompson out for the fourth. It was a big call, it’s what real trainers have to do in real fights. All the silly talk about “never pull me out” and “never throw in the towel”, becomes just wild fantasy when a seasoned trainer must make a call. It is what separates the big boys and girls from the kids.
At the start of the fourth, Thompson came out to his end. He took a deep breath and started to throw his last punches of the night. It was Opetaia’s left again and again, and then a lazy right hook that sent Thompson on a stumbling fall. It was stopped 20 seconds later, Thompson somehow tangled between the referee, Howard Foster, and the grip he had on Opetaia’s shorts. He was down, he never wanted to be down, and it was over: Opetaia is back.
Opetaia retained his various glittering belts and Thompson retained his dignity. He was hurt and a bit broken in the dressing room after. He was also realistic and understood the risk he took. It was an impossible job in the end and Opetaia was far better than we expected.
Hopefully, Opetaia will be back in a British ring. There is a line for him; Mairis Breidis was a ringside guest and believes he deserves a shot. “I’m his nightmare and he knows it,” he told me. Chris Billam-Smith was part of the Five Live ringside team, “I know how to beat him,” he told me. The rest of the British cruisers are circling, but there needs to be a balance of risk and reward; Opetaia is not an easy option for anybody. He fights like a popular guy, an old-fashioned pro. And, please, don’t be fooled by people suggesting that “anybody can look good against Thompson.” That is not true, Opetaia is just very, very special.