Despite his status as one of the top prospects in boxing, sometimes you get a reminder of how young Xander Zayas is, and it’s a jolt.
Case in point, as the 19-year-old Zayas prepares for his Madison Square Garden debut this Saturday against Alessio Mastronunzio, the topic of conversation turns to great performances turned in by the Puerto Rican greats of the past at the Mecca of boxing. I mention a recent story I did on the Felix Trinidad-Ricardo Mayorga bout.
Then I realize that when that fight took place in October 2004, Zayas had just turned two years old a month before.
We both laugh.
“I didn't watch it live, but it's a fight that I like to look up on YouTube,” he said, making the old man not feel so bad. “After seeing all the trash talking from Mayorga and seeing Tito backing it up in the ring and showing him who was the best in that era, it meant a lot, not just to me but to all the Puerto Rican fans. It was amazing.”
Now it’s Zayas’ turn. For a Puerto Rican fighter, getting to fight in MSG is a rite of passage, one that hopefully leads to headlining gigs down the line in a city that is home to more Puerto Ricans than San Juan. That reality is not lost on the teenager.
“It's exciting fighting for the first time in Madison Square Garden,” Zayas said. “It's a dream come true. At 19, I didn't expect to be fighting there, but it's happening and I'm excited about it. And second of all, it's the most important fight of my career up to now and I have to go out there and put on a show, showcase my talent and keep showing the people that I keep improving and keep getting better.”
So this one has a little extra on it?
“I feel like all of them have a little extra on it, but this one, because it's in Madison, I know a lot of Puerto Rican fans are gonna be out there and in the future I'm gonna make it my house. This one being my first fight, I want to make it a special one.”
Zayas will be expected to win this weekend, but it’s how he wins that determines how 2022 looks for him. It’s been a spectacular 2021 thus far for the Florida resident, who has gone 5-0 with three knockouts to improve to 11-0 as a pro, and it was in his most recent win over Dan Karpency in October where Zayas’ talent and charisma was shining the brightest under the pressure of being a co-main event on an ESPN-televised card.
But he didn’t feel the heat of having all eyes on him.
“I did not feel pressure at all,” Zayas said. “I was having a lot of fun that night and I was really locked in on the goal, which was to show improvement, show that I can make adjustments in camp, and overall, I was just super locked in and having a lot of fun in there and I was able to see everything that my opponent was throwing. I was countering, listening to the coach, listening to my whole corner. Even in the locker room, I was dancing before the fight and after the fight.”
Must be nice to see it all and be one step ahead of an opponent all night.
“It is beautiful,” he laughs. “It was like the Matrix. I was seeing the bullets going by me and they're not hitting me. It was an amazing experience.”
That fourth-round stoppage solidified the junior middleweight as one of the top talents in the game, and his poise at such a young age is as impressive as his talent. Not surprisingly, it’s led him to the big room at the Garden, a place he first visited in 2019 when he watched Terence Crawford and Teofimo Lopez light up the sport’s biggest stage.
“The first time I went there, I was just a 17-year-old kid going into my third fight. I went there on December 11th, the same night when Terence Crawford beat ‘Mean Machine’ (Egidijus Kavaliauskas). That was my first time there, my first time in New York, and seeing the crowd, seeing the environment, it showed me that the fans care about us fighters and they want to see us fight. It excited me a lot. I was like, 'Man, I can't wait to be in here. I can't wait to be the main event and show love to the fans.'”
Zayas hasn’t had many opportunities to do that thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic that kicked in when he was just 4-0. Luckily through the Top Rank bubble he was able to stay busy, albeit without crowds, but when fans did start getting back to the fights, they’ve been impressed. And when he’s gotten out to mingle and take everything in as a fan, he’s gotten a taste of a reception that he hopes to receive one day.
“When I went and saw Canelo fighting here in Miami, man, the atmosphere was something,” said Zayas of Alvarez’ win over Avni Yildirim in February. “Him walking out with J.Balvin, him going into the ring, people were going nuts. I was sitting in the third row, and people from other rows were coming to my row just to see him walk. It was amazing. It was a great experience and it's amazing how fans show love to us when we're doing good and staying focused.”
Zayas is doing both, dismantling everyone put in front of him in the ring, and avoiding any distractions as he climbs up the 154-pound ladder. If this continues, he may have a date in New York City every June before the Puerto Rican Day parade.
“That's the goal,” he beams. “We just have to stay focused and stay dedicated. I want to put on a show and show the fans that I'm coming and I'm the future.”