Thursday, July 25, 2024
HomeEntertainment NewsXander Zayas has always been a star pupil | Boxing News

Xander Zayas has always been a star pupil | Boxing News

LIKE plenty of children, every decision made and turn taken by Xander Zayas in his early years was one governed by necessity rather than the luxury of choice. He moved to America from Puerto Rico at the age of 11, for example, simply because that’s where his mother and stepfather wanted to put down their roots. Then, once there, he would learn to speak English within six months because without this ability he would feel even more displaced and alien than he did already. Before that, meanwhile, at the age of just six, he had been dropped off in a boxing gym and subsequently learned to box not because he wanted to but because his mother, concerned about the bullying he was having to endure, forced him down that path as a way of teaching him self-defence. That was, in fact, the first language other than his native tongue Zayas learned as a child: the language of self-defence; the language of fighting back; the language of adjusting to one’s environment.

“She just threw me out there to learn at first and, to be honest, I didn’t want to do it,” Zayas, now 21, told Boxing News. “I didn’t want to get hit. I was already getting hit in the street, so why would I want to get hit for fun as well?

“But that’s how it all started anyway and I remember there was this little girl who used to beat me so bad, man. In sparring she used to handle me. It got to the point where I would just get mad at myself and say, ‘Man, come on! You’ve got to do something about this!’ So I started going back and I started punching back and then I found that I fell in love with it.”

Again, Zayas’ mastering of boxing was neither accidental nor even natural, but instead something forced upon him by circumstance. In this instance, he was forced to learn and improve because of the humiliation of being shown up by a girl whenever his mother took him to the gym in the hope of reducing the humiliation he was experiencing outside the gym. As tends to be the case, one thing then led to another and by the time Zayas was 11 and living in Sunrise, Florida he was at the very least able to look after himself in a way he wasn’t able to before finding the boxing gym. That, if nothing else, gave him the confidence he would otherwise have been sorely lacking when making such a big move at such a young, impressionable age.

“At the beginning it was extremely hard,” he said, “coming from (San Juan) Puerto Rico and not being able to speak the language; not having friends; having to start a new school and find a new boxing gym. It was really difficult at the beginning, but at 11 years old you are like a sponge. You start picking stuff up so quickly. Within six or eight months I was already speaking the language and had a couple of friends. So it was a lot easier.

“I had nowhere else where Spanish was spoken except in my house. Everywhere you went, whether it was to the supermarket or a restaurant, you had to speak English. There is no other way around it. Where I live in the States, there is not a big Latin community, and if there is, they still speak to you in English because they want to push for you to be better.”

In many ways that sentiment could describe much of Zayas’ young life and the journey he has so far experienced. After all, with each challenge faced he has been obligated to come up with a solution and, in the pursuit of this solution, added not only strings to his bow from a practical point of view but also accumulated a wisdom that belies his age.

“Being around so many professional fighters from a young age definitely helped,” he said when praised for sounding so mature. “Since I was 12, I have been sparring professional fighters and training around them. I have been able to see it all. Also, my family raised me to be this way; to be grounded and level-headed. I have been around people older than me all my life and that has taught me how to take care of myself and handle business. Do your job and get out, that’s it. There’s nothing else to do.”

Zayas attacks Roberto Valenzuela Jr. during their fight at American Bank Center on September 15, 2023 in Corpus Christi, Texas (Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

He certainly offers the impression of the typical phenom; or wunderkind. Blessed with not only an eerie maturity and impressive poise, Zayas is also a student, both of boxing and of life, and has been studying others with such a keen eye that it is no wonder he has aped so many mannerisms along the way, whether apparent in his speech or in the ring.

“When I turned 12 or 13 is when I really started watching boxing,” he said. “Before I used to watch the big fights but they were usually on too late and I’d have to go to bed. But from the age of about 13 onwards is when I started watching boxing a lot more. I would watch Miguel Cotto, my favourite fighter of all time, and also Andre Ward and Manny Pacquiao. Who else? The Klitschko brothers (Vitali and Wladimir). Vasiliy Lomachenko. I remember when he was coming out of the Olympics. Sensational.

“Going into high school I then kind of knew, at 13 or 14, that this is what I wanted to do. One of my teachers came in during freshman year – my English teacher – and said that we had to write our main goal in life and say where we all saw ourselves in five years. I wrote that I would be a professional boxer and then we had to throw it away – it was like a game – and somebody picked it up and gave the paper back to me. Less than five years later I was a professional fighter.”

Of course, the big target for any amateur boxer is to appear, and hopefully medal, at an Olympic Games, and in this respect Zayas was no different than any other. He too wanted to call himself an Olympian and represent his country, only a new age requirement of 19 would unfortunately prevent Zayas from accomplishing this at the 2020 Summer Games.

“It was a massive disappointment for me,” he said. “I feel like it’s a disappointment for any athlete when you dream of going to the Olympics to represent your country and then you can’t do it because of some rule or technicality.

“For me, it wasn’t as hard because it was an age-gap thing and I knew I didn’t want to wait until 2024. I wouldn’t be here talking to you right now if I had. So it wasn’t that hard for me when it gave me the opportunity to turn pro. I knew I didn’t want to wait until 2024, which is why I took the opportunity. You then think about all the athletes who were getting ready for that 2020 Games and then got hit by the Covid pandemic. They had to start all over again. I bet it was a lot harder for them than it was for me.”

As for Zayas, he turned the disappointment of missing out on the Olympics into a kind of motivation; a motivation not to try again necessarily but to instead do what he had always wanted to do: go pro. This he did in 2019, becoming, at 16, the youngest boxer to sign a pro contract with Top Rank in the 53 years since its foundation. He only did so, however, after first making completely sure it was okay with his mum.

“We sat down as a family and we talked about it and my mum didn’t want me to do it at the beginning,” he said. “She was like, ‘Well, you haven’t finished school yet. You’re also not a grown man yet but will soon be fighting grown men.’ I then came back to her and said, ‘Look, this is what I want to do. This is my life. This is what I want to dedicate myself to.’ She told me, ‘Okay, so long as you finish high school, you can do it.’ I went into homeschool that same year, the same semester I turned pro, and finished high school online while focusing on boxing.”

The nice thing about staying in high school, aside from all the learning, was that Zayas could remain rooted, human, and in touch, for now at least, with kids his own age. It also meant he would experience the pride of seeing his peers rejoice when learning he was about to take his boxing journey to the next level once he turned 17.

“I remember I was on a field trip and they announced it (him turning pro),” he said. “One of my boys had said, ‘Yo, did you really just sign with Top Rank?’ But I couldn’t say anything. I didn’t know that was the day they were going to announce it. So, I said, ‘I don’t know what you are talking about,’ and then he showed me and said, ‘Look, it’s right here!’ He shows me the story and then suddenly I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, I signed with Top Rank!’ It was amazing. Everybody was really happy for me. I feel like all my friends from high school were good people, so they were all genuinely happy for me.”

Zayas is now 18-0 with 12 knockouts to his name. He headlines his first major show on June 8 at Madison Square Garden, New York, where he will face former WBO super-welterweight champion Patrick Teixeira over 10 rounds. That, without doubt, represents the toughest test of Zayas’ career to date, yet, when considering the hype that has followed him every step of the way, and when described as everything from a “beacon of hope for Puerto Rico” to the “next Miguel Cotto”, perhaps a fight like this isn’t so premature after all. For while Xander Zayas may be young, and still very much in the learning phase of both his life and his career, there are some men – boxers – who hit fighting puberty, so to speak, a lot earlier than others. In the case of Zayas, his voice deepened quicker than his peers. There was hair on his chest no sooner than he removed his vest.

“Pressure will always follow you no matter what you do in life,” Zayas said. “As a young boxer, I feel like I will always have pressure on me. I have a whole country behind me so there will always be pressure. I just have to stay focused, listen to my team and my family, and enjoy what I do; every interview, every workout, every fight.

“I don’t feel the pressure, to be honest. I feel like I’m moving in the right way and in the right direction. The whole team knows the goal and knows what we want. Little by little we’re getting there. I don’t think about being the ‘Next this’ or the ‘Next that’. I just have to be myself. I want to be happy with what I do, have fun with what I do, and make both my family and my team proud. Hopefully I can make everybody who looks up to me and likes me as a professional fighter proud, too.”

Source link



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

- Advertisment -

Most Popular

Recent Comments

Verified by MonsterInsights