Xander Zayas hits the books, and opponents, in his young pro career
Puerto Rican welterweight prospect Xander Zayas is still only 17 years old, but will try to steal the show in his third pro fight, today. That bout, a four-rounder on the undercard of the light heavyweight grudge match between Jesse Hart and Joe Smith, Jr., takes place at the Etess Arena inside the Hard Rock Casino in Atlantic City, N.J., and will be broadcast on ESPN+.
New Jersey is one of only three states where Zayas can be licensed to fight professionally, with Texas and Nevada being the other two. Zayas won’t turn 18 until September. Age is an important factor here as the highly decorated amateur opted to forgo waiting for his turn at Olympic glory to sign a lucrative contract with Top Rank instead. The minimum age to qualify for the Olympics is now 19 meaning Zayas would miss Tokyo in 2020 and would have to wait until 2024, which is not something he nor his team was willing to do.
“I am just very thankful to Top Rank and my team for giving me this opportunity,” Zayas told The Ring. “The key for me right now is to learn everything I can and get the experience I need to improve.”
Zayas (2-0, 2 knockouts) is the youngest boxer to ever sign with Top Rank, and it is not lost on the young prodigy that his idol growing up in Puerto Rico, Miguel Cotto, also fought for Top Rank. Life changed almost immediately for Zayas when the ink on the contract dried as he decided to be homeschooled in Florida to pursue his boxing career, rather than attend classes with his peers or to drop out altogether.
“When we signed the contract I promised my mother I would finish high school,” Zayas said. “That was when my mother agreed to let me become a professional. I love Top Rank and what they have done with their boxers and thought if they can do that for me too I would be in a great position to go far in this sport.”
Zayas misses the daily routines of going to school and hanging out with friends but he is keenly aware that this is a unique opportunity to change his family’s fortunes for generations if he maximizes his talents and realizes his full potential.
At Top Rank’s last show in December in New York City, Zayas was ringside and toured the locker room area to watch promotional stablemates Terence Crawford and Teofimo Lopez pick up huge wins at Madison Square Garden. Zayas was blown away by the atmosphere.
“I had a blast and it was my first time ever in New York,” Zayas recalled. “Watching Crawford prepare for his bout was amazing for me. His locker room was calm, he was cool and calm. It taught me a lot about staying relaxed because my first two fights I definitely had anxiety going into the ring.”
Zayas has stopped both of his opponents thus far, including a first round finish of Virgel Windfield last November. It was the bout with Windfield however that reminded Zayas that he is not fighting in the amateurs anymore regardless of how overmatched the opponents are.
“Windfield hit me with a jab and I was like ‘oh that’s right I’m not wearing headgear anymore,’” Zayas laughed. “I have to continue to make adjustments so I am happy they are keeping me active. It’s the best way to learn I think.”
Now that two back-to-back camps are behind him, Zayas hopes he can finally catch up on quality time with family, which he missed while training through the holidays. There is also some overdue schoolwork which has piled up that Zayas is anxious to wipe out. The good news is while he was sacrificing in the gym he was able to study professional fighters such as Amir Imam. Zayas credits his work with Imam as helping him adapt to the pro style quicker.
“The speed and timing is completely different from what I was used to in the amateurs,” Zayas said. “Amir has been great at showing me things in the gym that was helpful. He helped me prepare for my last fight so once I was done I went right back to the gym to help him for his fight on January 18.”