WHO’D be a teenager? Attempting to figure out your place in the chaotic and confusing world of adulthood has never been easy. It’s no wonder so many of us veer off down the wrong path, lost in a search for identity and meaning. How then does a 17-year-old enter into prizefighting with such an air of certainty, brimming with the wisdom of an old-timer, and with a blueprint for his career already mapped out?
“I believe in myself a lot,” declared Puerto Rico’s teenage sensation, Xander Zayas.
“I’m not trying to be arrogant, I really do believe in the skills that I possess and the hard work that I put in. My signing with Top Rank helped me with that.”
In March of last year Zayas made headlines as the youngest fighter ever to sign with Bob Arum’s promotional powerhouse when he put pen to paper and turned pro at just 16 years of age. Having captured 11 national titles as an amateur, competition for his signature had been understandably fierce. Convincing his family of his intentions was a long process, their blessing a requirement due to his age. When news of Top Rank’s latest acquisition was finally made public Zayas received it in uniquely innocent circumstances.
“The day that they announced the signing I was actually on a trip with the school,” he told Boxing News. “I’m eating my lunch and I did not expect it. One of my friends said, ‘Hey Xander, you got signed!’ I didn’t know what he meant. Then he showed me, and everyone started clapping!”
The self-assured teenager cuts a contrasting figure to the timid child who first tiptoed nervously into his local gym. At just six-years-old, Zayas was tormented by neighbourhood bullies, prompting his family to take action.
“My mum decided to put me into boxing just to learn how to defend myself. When I first walked in I was like, ‘What is this? What am I getting myself into?’ But the first day I started hitting the bag my coach told my mother: ‘Hey, this kid has talent. He’s gonna be something special.’”
His love of boxing began the moment he threw his first punch, though his conviction was tested by the financial hardship his community was facing at the time: “We didn’t have access to everything we have here in the US. I used to spar without a head guard because they didn’t have one in the gym. My gloves were all busted up, we couldn’t get new gloves. It’s a humble life but very hardworking and we push ourselves to the limit.”
Zayas’s first fight quickly followed and the six-year-old’s bout took place in front of none other than the great Felix Trinidad. It was an experience to savour as the youngster saw the adoration that surrounded a local legend. The fights then came thick and fast as he honed his skillset on an unforgiving circuit. But Zayas wasn’t just boxing, he was winning. His first national title came before his 20th fight. At 11 he and his family moved to Florida, but still the victories mounted up.
He says, “Once I won I knew that I had something special. I just had to keep working hard, stay focused, and dream big. I said, ‘I want this and I’m gonna go get it.’”
Gold medals in the 2017 and 2018 US National Championships followed, though any hopes of Olympic glory were cut short when a new age requirement meant he’d have had to wait until 2024 to fulfil that dream. With his amateur dream lying dormant, professional boxing, and Top Rank, came calling.
“They’ve built the best boxers in history,” gushed Zayas. “I’ve got a great team around me, with great matchmakers. I’m really thankful to all of them. It’s been a great journey and I know that it’s gonna continue.”
Thus far the transition into the paid ranks has looked seamless, with three of his four wins coming by way of stoppage. The person least surprised by such rapid development is, of course, the Puerto Rican youngster himself, who points to the quality of the sparring he’s experienced since turning pro with the likes of Ivan Baranchyk and Daniyar Yeluessinov.
“I’ve been sparring pros since I was 14 years old,” he declares. “They never take it easy on me but I never take it easy on them. We work hard, we push each other. I’ve never been scared or intimidated by someone older than me in sparring who’s trying to take my head off. I started working with them early because it shows me that if I can hang in there with guys older than me by ten years, or someone bigger than me, then I can hang in there with someone my weight and my age. It’s all about what you put in your mind, it’s all about the mind games. If you know that you’re serious and you work hard your mind should be in the right place to dictate what you want to do inside the ring.”
With Zayas’s fifth professional contest scheduled to take place on September 4, the eve of his 18th birthday, he knows that many fight fans will be keen to see what the prospect has to offer. Zayas thrives on such expectancy.
“I want to be a great boxer, not just for Puerto Rico but for the whole world,” he concluded. “I want to be a champion in multiple divisions. I want to be an example to young kids and an inspiration for every person that follows me and looks up to me. I just want to be the best that I can be each and every day.”