Jai Opetaia is now stuck with the decision to keep his title or proceed with his scheduled fight.
BoxingScene.com has confirmed that the reigning cruiserweight champion was never granted permission by the IBF to proceed with a voluntary title defense versus England’s Ellis Zorro. The fight is currently scheduled to be a part of the December 23 blockbuster event in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
However, the sanctioning body has now made it clear that he will be stripped of the title if he proceeded with the fight. Opetaia was previously ordered to honor a mandatory title defense versus Latvia’s Mairis Briedis, whom he defeated last July 2 to claim the crown.
That is the fight that the sanctioning body now expects to next take place and the only one it will approve. Zorro is unranked by the IBF, which further complicated the matter.
Fox Sports’ Ben Damon was the first to report this story.
Several factors stand in the way of Opetaia’s current plans as he meets with his management to determine next steps.
The unbeaten lineal and IBF cruiserweight king was already afforded a voluntary title defense versus England’s Jordan Thompson, when it was learned that Briedis was recovering from an injury and not in position to proceed with the targeted September 30 fight date.
Opetaia (23-0, 18KOs) blasted out the unbeaten but badly overmatched Thompson inside of four rounds for the first defense of his title.
The IBF immediately called for an Opetaia-Briedis rematch. The two sides were unable to reach a deal, which prompted the sanctioning body to schedule a November 21 purse bid hearing.
However, Opetaia’s placement on the December 23 show—featuring Anthony Joshua and Deontay Wilder in separate co-main events—was widely speculated by that point. Boxing Scene learned that it would no longer come versus Briedis, whose team agreed to not object to the fight but who fully expected the mandatory to still take place within the IBF’s imposed deadline.
That concession was made in lieu of false rumors that Briedis was injured and unable to prepare for the fight in time.
IBF rules forbid consecutive voluntary title defenses in events where the reigning champion already has an assigned mandatory challenger.
Boxing fans and media members eager to rail against the sanctioning body have already pointed out the number of exceptions granted to Jermell Charlo in lieu of a long overdue mandatory versus Bakhram Murtazaliev. Charlo was permitted to enter back-to-back undisputed championship clashes versus Brian Castano. Jeison Rosario held the WBA and IBF titles at the time of his approved September 2020 unification versus Charlo, to which Murtazaliev’s team agreed in exchange for a step-aside package that included cash and a non-televised undercard slot.
A similar agreement was afforded the unbeaten Russian for the July 2021 meeting between Charlo and Castano which ended in a draw. Murtazaliev fought twice more on Premier Boxing Champions (PBC)-branded events as he awaited his shot at the full crown.
Charlo was recently ordered to next face Murtazaliev in the wake of his lopsided defeat to undisputed super middleweight champion Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez. The mandatory title fight was due to head to a purse bid before Charlo agreed to relinquish the title, which will now be on the line in an ordered bout between Murtazaliev and Germany’s Jack Culcay.
The circumstances for Opetaia-Zorro pale in comparison.
Zorro (17-0, 7KOs) is ranked number-eleven by both the WBA and WBO. The unbeaten Brit earned the latter ranking with two straight wins in WBO-sanctioned regional title fights. Both were scheduled for ten rounds, having previously never fought more than eight rounds. He has never fought with an IBF regional title at stake or versus the type of competition that would warrant a granted exception to challenge for the division’s top prize.
Opetaia could still move forward with the fight, which would net a far bigger payday than if he were to keep the title and honor the sanctioning body’s ruling. In that event, he would be stripped of the physical belt but could still face Zorro as the lineal champion. For the sake of a trophy at stake, Opetaia could defend The Ring cruiserweight championship versus Zorro, who is not ranked by the publication or any other independent ratings board.
Boxing Scene has not been able to verify if his IBF title status is dependent upon his placement on the December 23 show. For now, Opetaia-Zorro is one of two titles fights on the show. The other pits WBA light heavyweight titlist Dmitry Bivol (21-0, 11KOs) versus Manchester’s Lyndon Arthur (23-1, 16KOs).
Bivol’s team considered at least three opponents for the offered slot on the show, including unbeaten Richard ‘Popeye the Sailor Man’ Rivera who appeared to be the frontrunner. However, Boxing Scene has learned that the event organizers preferred Arthur given his IBO light heavyweight title status.
Should the IBF proceed with its intention to strip Opetaia, a vacant title fight would be ordered between Briedis and the next highest ranked, available contender.
Former WBO super middleweight titlist Gilberto ‘Zurdo’ Ramirez (45-1, 30KOs) is currently ranked number four, one spot below Brieidis. Poland’s Michal Cieslak (25-2, 19KOs) is ranked number-five and has won four straight since a loss to Lawrence Okolie in their vacant WBO cruiserweight title fight last February.
Briedis has not fought since his loss to Opetaia last summer. Ramirez has fought just once at cruiserweight, which came in an October 7 win over Joe Smith Jr. in a bout contested at a contracted weight of 193 pounds.
Jake Donovan is a senior writer for BoxingScene.com. X (formerly Twitter): @JakeNDaBox