Even with all the talent in the world, Xander Zayas’ journey becoming a pro boxer was not an easy one.
Before he was Top Rank’s youngest signee at just 16 years old, he was a pre-teen living in Florida without knowing any English. He was born in Puerto Rico, where Spanish was the primary (and in most parts, only) language spoken there.
The initial months dealing with the language barrier were not easy.
“At the beginning, it was very difficult. I didn’t speak any English and I couldn’t communicate at all. I’m always needing my dad to help me in the gym, but in school, I was alone. It was difficult at the beginning, but once I started to catch on to it, it was easier and able to communicate and express myself. It was hard, but six or seven months, it got easier,” Zayas said.
However, it was those tough months that strengthened his character and helped him as he soon became a pro boxer.
From that point onwards, Zayas had to adjust with everything that came with being a highly-touted prospect signed by one of boxing’s biggest promotional entities. Media commitments, traveling across the country to train and fight, competing in front of thousands of fans in attendance and even more watching on television were just a few of the things he had to get used to.
It wasn’t easy at first, but as with all things, it got better with time. All it took was him reminding himself of one important thing.
“Something I told myself was, ‘Just be yourself and speak from the heart and things are going to come out good. Say it from the heart and have fun.’ That’s what I’ve been doing lately… Now I have more fun in interviews. I enjoy going to the gyms, doing interviews and enjoy traveling for fights. At the beginning, I was nervous because I didn’t know how to speak to the media and just little stuff that people don’t see,” Zayas said.
Now considered a future star in the sport and with a 6-0 record, Zayas is more than ready for what 2021 has in store for him. Having fought twice during the pandemic last year, Zayas’ upcoming debut in Top Rank’s Bubble wasn’t completely uncharted territory. It was a new experience for sure, but the biggest battles he would likely face outside the ring was boredom.
“I’ve talked to [unified lightweight champion] Teofimo Lopez. He told me it was a little boring not getting to do much but it was a good experience,” Zayas said.
Zayas will face James Martin on February 20 in a bout streamed on ESPN+. On paper, this will be Zayas’ toughest test in his young career.
However, Zayas isn’t just confident of his victory, but also of what is to come. After being in the gym for months with fighters such as Adrien Broner, Daniel Jacobs, Gervonta Davis and Robert Easter Jr., Zayas believes he is coming into this fight better than ever before. The advice he got from fighters who had already reached the top of the boxing world was priceless, according to him.
That confidence allows him to map out what he hopes to be the best year of his pro career.
“I would love to fight at least six times and by the end of the year, fight eight-rounders, put myself in a position and the last one being Prospect of the Year. I think it would mean a lot to me. I’m going to work hard and dedicate myself to make that happen,” Zayas said.
But his goals don’t just stop with this year. Like many Puerto Rican boxers, Zayas dreams of one day headlining a boxing card at the famous Madison Square Garden. It is a venue that carries a rich boxing history closely affiliated with Puerto Rico.
Zayas’ favorite fighter is Miguel Cotto, who proudly represented Puerto Rico throughout his illustrious career, including multiple trips at the Garden. To carry on that legacy and be the next Puerto Rican star to fight at Madison Square Garden would be nothing short of magical.
“It would be a dream come true. It’s something that I look forward to doing. I would love to headline at Madison Square Garden and bring all the Puerto Ricans there and have them wave the Puerto Rican flag all over. It’s something I’m working hard to make it happen and it’s a dream of mine,” Zayas said.
Such lofty goals often carry a level of pressure that not everyone can handle. Even at only 18 years old, Zayas has already accepted that pressure and is unfazed by it. Zayas knows the road to stardom and championship gold will be a long one, but one that he can stay on so long as he stays true to himself as he often tells himself.
“At the end of the day, I have one job and the job remains the same. That is to go in there, execute the gameplan, get the victory, get down and go back to my family. I didn’t have any pressure to show how good I was because my skills are going to show up for me. I work hard, put in the dedication and wake up every morning and tell myself that I want to be better than yesterday. That’s all I need is to wake up and to be better than I was yesterday. Other than that, I put the work in and the hard work and dedication shows up in the ring,” Zayas said.
Zayas vs. Martin takes place February 20 in Las Vegas and air on ESPN+.
Video Interview: https://youtu.be/l3ljyb2w_M8