Jai Opetaia v Jordan Thompson: How British challenger swapped tennis for boxing

Jordan Thompson throws a punch at Luke Watkins during the cruiserweight contest in Cardiff fin April
Jordan Thompson (right) beat Luke Watkins in April to extend his unbeaten record to 15 wins as a professional
Venue: OVO Arena, Wembley Date: Saturday, 30 September
Coverage: Listen to BBC Radio 5 Live coverage from 22:30 BST and live text commentary on BBC Sport website & app from 21:00 BST.

Jordan Thompson’s boyhood fantasy of serving for championship point at Wimbledon never came to fruition, but the cruiserweight from Manchester is just one punch away from becoming British boxing’s newest world champion.

The 30-year-old – undefeated in 15 pro bouts – challenges Australia’s IBF world champion Jai Opetaia at Wembley’s OVO Arena on Saturday.

Thompson is perched on the brink of world honours and the limelight it brings, but tennis was his “first love”.

“I was top 10 in the under-16s and under-18s nationally,” he explains. “I was number one in Lancashire for a while. I travelled the world, up and down the United Kingdom. I loved it.”

Aged 18, however, he retired the racket. It was not for a lack of trying or potential.

“A lot of sponsorship was needed and it was tough to get,” Thompson says. “That was the main reason I couldn’t fulfil my potential – a lack of funding.

“I come from a hard-working family. I never went without food in my belly or a roof over my head, but I didn’t have the luxury of a millionaire funding my tennis career.”

When Neil Diamond’s ‘Sweet Caroline’ is belted out by boxing fans on Saturday, it will be worlds apart from the sound of champagne corks popping at Wimbledon.

But Thompson can draw plenty of similarities between boxing and tennis.

“They are actually very, very similar sports,” he says. “Both do end up in your head a little bit, they’re emotionally volatile.

“You may have your team, but you have to rely on yourself when you’re in battle. The ups and downs, the twists and turns. You can be match point up, have a bad game and then suddenly you’re match point down.

“Same in boxing – everything can be going right and next thing you have taken a shot and you’re on your back.”

‘I literally fell into boxing’

Like many young athletes, Thompson struggled mentally with rejection and the harsh realisation his sporting dreams may be left unfulfilled.

“I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was lost, searching for answers about myself and life,” he says. “I didn’t have a job, I wasn’t working. I was just in the gym, training.”

That was before he “literally fell into boxing” after being told by a friend he could earn a bit of money by competing.

“Boxing just happened to find me, rather than me finding boxing,” he adds. “As I got more and more involved, people told me I had a bit of natural talent and ability.”

Having kept up with the physical demands of tennis, the 6ft 7in Thompson was introduced by family friend and boxing trainer Haroon Headley to a professional gym and embarked on a “two-year apprenticeship” to learn the craft.

“I remember sparring with professional boxers preparing for British title shots when I was an absolute raw novice and still holding my own,” he says.

But Thompson’s foray into pugilism and subsequent success perhaps should come as no surprise.

His parents, Geoff and Janice Thompson, are former karate world champions. Excellence runs in the family, in fact.

His sister is a West End performer currently in the touring cast of Lion King and Thompson’s brother works in finance on New York’s Wall Street.

“We’re a big-time talented family,” he proudly says. “With my mum and dad being in combat sports I was never a stranger to fighting.

“But although there was always a little hint there, I was never that young kid who wanted to become a big-time famous boxer.”

‘Deserving’ Thompson eyes unification bouts

Jai Opetaia throws a right hand at Mairis Briedis during their world title fight in July 2022
Jai Opetaia has been inactive since dethroning Latvia’s Mairis Briedis in July 2022

‘Troublesome’ Thompson – he embraces that nickname – has climbed the rankings since turning pro in 2015, earning 12 knockouts. In his last outing, he stopped domestic rival Luke Watkins.

But a shot at Opetaia, who is unbeaten in 22 bouts, came sooner than Thompson or his team expected.

Poland’s mandatory challenger Mateusz Masternak withdrew from negotiations, Briton Richard Riakporhe withdrew from the purse bids and former champion Mairis Briedis, next in line, was ruled out through injury.

“It was a tiny bit of a shock, but I’ve worked my way up the rankings,” Thompson says.

“I’ve won the IBF international belt, European belt. Whatever happened with the other boxers passing up the opportunity, I was next on the list.

“There are a few people out there saying I’m not deserving of it, but I’ve done what I’ve need to do, won my fights. I feel like the shot has been earned.”

Opetaia, making a first defence of the title he won again Briedis last year, is a strong favourite.

“Nothing great comes from comfort zones,” Thompson adds. “To go in there as an underdog, that means a lot to me.

“I’ve got a load of people to prove wrong, but I also have a lot of people who have stuck by me, so I have those to prove right.”

Thompson feels a win over Opetaia can lead to further, more lucrative, contests – perhaps an all-British unification fight against WBO champion Chris Billam-Smith.

“This is the fight where I can secure that belt and lock in those real big fights, against those big names, domestically or world scene,” Thompson says.


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