All things considered, Xander Zayas didn’t have much to complain about in 2020.
While the world was turned upside down, the welterweight prospect turned 18, graduated high school, and fought four times, improving his pro record to 6-0 with five knockouts.
Not bad at all.
“With what was going on in 2020, I believe and I still think that I did have a good year,” he said. “It wasn't the year that everybody was expecting, but I got a couple good things done and I'm looking forward to 2021.”
The new year begins for the Puerto Rican up and comer tonight in Las Vegas, as he faces James Martin on the undercard of the Berchelt-Valdez event in the MGM Grand bubble. It’s hard for the ever-smiling Zayas to be more optimistic than usual, but when it comes to 2021, he has found a way to feel that brighter days are ahead.
“Things have gotten better in the past couple months, and I hope that by the middle and end of 2021 that everything is way better and that boxing is working and we can get those fans back in the arenas and get those big fights going because that's what's going to get us to that next level.”
Without the COVID-19 pandemic altering the way boxing worked, Zayas believes he would have fought at least two or three more times, had a normal graduation and maybe even fit in a vacation with his family. But maybe the biggest “miss” of 2020 was something he hopes can be rectified this year – a date in Madison Square Garden on the weekend of the Puerto Rican Day Parade.
“Man, I hope so,” he says of a Puerto Rican fighter’s rite of passage. “I'm praying for it and I really want to fight in the Garden. That's one of my goals of 2021 and I really wish that everything is good by June so I can fight at MSG.”
In Junes of the past, you could have renamed the iconic New York City venue Madison Square Tito or Cotto Square Garden given the packed houses Puerto Rican superstars Felix Trinidad and Miguel Cotto used to command, and while he’s still young in his career, Zayas has the talent, potential and charisma to one day make the Big Apple a second home. It’s something that’s been on his mind ever since he went to the Garden to watch Terence Crawford fight Egidijus Kavaliauskas in 2019, and he can’t wait to give the fans what they want.
“That's what us Puerto Ricans do,” he said. “We like to bring everything that we have to make sure the people feel welcome and make sure that we perform at a high level.”
That’s got to be a lot of pressure for your average teenager, but Zayas isn’t your average teenager.
“I wouldn't say it’s pressure,” he said. “It's more about staying focused, keeping my team around me, having a small circle and concentrating on my goals and what I want to do. The love and the support that I've received in Puerto Rico and from America and all around the world has been amazing. It's been a great feeling and I'm very grateful to have such a great fanbase and great support. But I wouldn't say I feel a lot of pressure because at the end of the day, I gotta do my thing. I gotta work hard, I gotta train, I gotta stay focused and everything will happen.”
He's got to win too, but so far, he’s got that part of it down pat heading into tonight’s bout. As far as the rest, Zayas has a maturity beyond his years, and when it comes to his craft, his hard work is supplemented by sparring with some of the best in the business – from Gervonta Davis and Adrien Broner, to George Kambosos and Danny Jacobs, just to name a few.
“I pick up a lot of stuff because they teach me after the sparring,” Zayas said. “They'll tell me to work on this or that and keep doing this or that. I feel very blessed to have them in the gym and working with me because they've been there before. They know what it takes to get there, so for them to give me advice to better as a boxer and as a fighter, I believe it's gonna get me to the next level and I'm very, very grateful to have them in the gym. I'm a young guy coming up and I want to be great.”
It's the perfect attitude for any rising star to have, and Zayas has all the tools. More importantly, he’s not letting all this work and pressure (even if he says it’s not there) affect the way he feels about his day job.
“I'm loving it and I will continue to love it,” he said. “I tell my mom and dad every time that this is what I'm meant to be. I'm meant to be a boxer, I was born to be a boxer and I'm enjoying it, I'm having fun with it, I love it and what else can I tell you? I love what I do.”