Xander Zayas: Heir to the Puerto Rican throne?

The island of Puerto Rico has been desperately looking for their next young star to carry their colors to the ring, into a jam-packed arena with his name being chanted by the crowd. Many believe that fighter is 21-year-old Xander Zayas (16-0, 10 KOs) from San Juan, Puerto Rico. The great Miguel Cotto was the last one to carry such honor and, although Amanda Serrano does it to a certain level, the entire island seems to be gravitating towards Zayas to bring back that feeling. It could be the qualities that Zayas shares with the great ones from Puerto Rico: good looks, a big smile, a warming personality, and a connection with the people. Whether it’s one or all of them, the people are starting to really get behind Zayas.

What comes with the honor of representing Puerto Rico is the enormous amount of pressure associated with it. It doesn’t seem to bother Zayas. As he told ProBoxTV, “Overall, I’m just enjoying the process, living day by day and trying to do my best to bring glory to Puerto Rico and Latin America.”

“Pressure” seems to be the buzzword around Top Rank as they built a shoulder program around it and featured both Zayas and Brooklyn’s own Bruce ‘Shu Shu’ Carrington (9-0, 5 KOs). Unlike most fighters who sign a major promotional deal that has the time to develop, Zayas, whether or not he wants to admit it, was given an enormous amount of pressure early on in the process as he signed his deal at 16 and became the youngest fighter to ever sign with Top Rank. Once that happened, he had no choice but to grow up quickly before our eyes, as there was no room for error. Instead of succumbing to the pressure, Zayas welcomed it and was able to stay grounded while utilizing the people around him, like his family and team, to help him navigate through it all.

“I feel like we took every step necessary. We were able to have the time to transfer from the amateurs to the pro game. We took every fight and step necessary to keep winning and improving now that we're going more rounds with experienced guys. Definitely, the timing or the fighting range is going to change a little bit, but we still want to stay as active as possible”. Zayas continued: “Well, it's been amazing, surprising, and just crazy to think about. In 2019, I only had 8,000 followers. Now I'm going into 220,000 followers, I think, so it's changed a lot. Personally, I am definitely a bit more comfortable with my family and with myself.”

Zayas crushed through his opponents at welterweight, but his body grew quickly and he was forced to move up to junior middleweight towards the end of 2021. Since then, Zayas’ fights have become more challenging as the fighters at 154 pounds are much bigger. He can no longer rely on one-punch knockouts and quickly learned that with the bigger fighters, it required more game planning and breaking them down instead of looking for a single shot. Nevertheless, Zayas showed after each fight that he was ready for the next step and to maybe even take the position of Puerto Rico’s next great fighter.

Zayas and his team felt like June 2021 was the moment when he would take that step towards being the island’s next star by fighting on the Puerto Rican Day Parade weekend in NYC. Everyone knows that if you want the top spot, you have to own the ability to sell tickets and do so in NYC on the weekend, where the island is celebrated to the fullest, capped off by a parade in midtown. It was all set up for Zayas’ moment until he came down with an illness that forced him to pull out of the fight. He was devastated and put out an emotional video apologizing to his fans.

They say everything happens for a reason, and with Nuyorican super middleweight Edgar Berlanga signing to Matchroom, Zayas no longer had to share the push from Top Rank, which led to him getting his moment three months ago on his own at the Hulu Theater inside the Madison Square Garden. Zayas defeated Ronald Cruz by unanimous decision on the Puerto Rican Holiday weekend, leading to his also earning the Miguel Cotto Award. The stamp was officially placed on Zayas, but when you ask him, he was cool, calm, and collected that night, which allowed him to showcase his talents. ”You know, honestly, I didn't (feel the pressure of fighting that night in June). I didn't think of it that way. For me, it was another night, another venue, another fight. I had to perform and do my best to follow the game plan and have fun. So I feel like I did that very well that night, and I was able to come out victorious.”

Zayas finished the weekend by riding on a float the next day during the Puerto Rican Day Parade, which was a lifelong dream. Although he had to wake up early after fighting eight rounds the night before, Zayas said he had a great experience and got to spend time with his fans.

Three months after his fight with Cruz and riding down midtown on a float, Zayas returns on September 15 against Roberto Valenzuela Jr. (21-4, 20 KOs). It’s a quick turnaround, but Zayas has felt sharper so far and started training shortly after his last fight. Zayas feels calmer and more mature in the ring, which he says will result in the fans seeing it all on display that night. Valenzuela Jr. has had only one fight that he won go to the scorecards, so there has to be a belief that he will push Zayas to his limits. Zayas isn’t making any predictions or talking smack about his opponent, as he isn’t that type of fighter. “I don't want to make any promises. I'm gonna go out there, have fun, follow the game plan and come out victorious. That's what I can promise,” said the 21-year-old junior middleweight contender.

Zayas is well aware of the junior middleweight title scene, which plays right into the timeline he and his team have been planning. He’s eyeing the middle or end of next year as the moment he would be “knocking on the door for a world title shot.” Zayas has an aggressive timeline, and although the title is desired, there shouldn’t be any rush as he is just starting to get his man strength and there is plenty of time for him to earn all the things he desires to add to his legacy. For now, you’ll have to tune into ESPN on September 15 to see if this young Puerto Rican contender is ready for the next level or if he will require more development.