You can’t always believe what you read on the internet, so when it was posted that Xander Zayas’ mom took him to the local boxing gym in San Juan at the age of five so he could learn to defend himself from bullies, I figured it must be a typo, because who gets bullied at five years old?
“I was getting bullied at five years old,” he confirmed.
That must have been some neighborhood.
“Man, it was a rough neighborhood back in Puerto Rico,” he said. “I grew up over there and since five I was a victim of bullying, then I learned how to defend myself.”
He also found a pastime that would eventually turn into a career. This Saturday, the 18-year-old will be in Silver Spurs Arena in Kissimmee to look to improve his pro record to 8-0 when he meets Demarcus Layton. And Mr. Zayas doesn’t get bullied anymore, nor did he after he learned how to box. But as far as revenge went, the happiest young man in boxing wasn’t interested.
“I never used it against my bullies because I didn't see the reason why,” he said. “Yeah, they did it to me, but I don't feel like I had to do it back to them. So I didn't use it against them; I just learned how to defend myself and was always ready if somebody wanted to bully me or try to attack me.”
Apparently, he’s not just the happiest fighter in the sport, but the most forgiving.
“It was a lot of discipline I put in the gym,” he said. “I still do, and I believe that when you have discipline, you don't have to show anybody that you're better than them at what you do. You let them know that you're the best with the work you put in the gym.”
That discipline gave him confidence and knowing that he could handle himself if something got physical allowed him to go back to living the life of a normal kid, albeit one who was about to become someone achieving things his classmates could only dream about.
“My confidence was a hundred percent boosted up,” Zayas said. “I didn't want to go out and play and have fun like a regular kid before boxing. But after I knew that I was able to defend myself and I was able to stand up for myself, I went out and I played and I was just a regular kid.”
But what about mom? Was she the type to take after the bullies with her shoe in hand like so many mothers?
“She wouldn’t go running after people with the shoe,” Zayas laughs. “I don't think my mom would ever put her hands on another kid, but she would definitely put her hands on me if I didn't defend myself.”
Yaitza Castro doesn’t have to worry about her son anymore. He’s got this. But in the process of beginning his march to the top of the welterweight division, he’s never forgotten where he came from and what he’s been through. And he doesn’t want any other kid, whether five or fifteen, to suffer the same way.
“Back in May of last year, we made a message with a lot of athletes about anti-bullying, and it's something that means a lot because a lot of people are going through it and kids are losing their lives on a regular basis or not being happy with who they are because of bullies,” said Zayas. “So it means a lot to me to get my story out and let them know that with hard work, dedication and goals, and a lot of support, anything is possible.”
Well, in Zayas’ case, he wants to show that everything is possible as he chases down glory in the ring. This week’s bout is a big one for him, not just because it’s his first fight with fans in attendance since February of last year, but it comes in his mother’s birthday month, as well.
“This fight means a lot to me,” he said. “I'm fighting a tough opponent in my mom's birthday month, and we're celebrating it big, and I want to bring home the victory and let her know that everything is paying off.”
Zayas is keeping his mind focused on Saturday night, but he has expressed a desire to fight for his Puerto Rican fans in New York City in June. Yet with Top Rank boss Bob Arum telling Michael Woods this week that Madison Square Garden is out of the running for their June date, that hope will have to wait. No matter, Zayas will fight wherever there’s an opponent willing to meet him, and he knows if he keeps fighting and winning, he’ll get whatever he wants.
For now, that’s a win this weekend. After that, well he’s got a plan.
“By the middle of 2022 or the beginning of 2023, we should be looking to face the Top 15 fighters,” he said.
That’s the mature response. What’s the response of an impatient 18-year-old? When does he start scoping out the big names in the division?
“I do that right now,” he laughs. “There are fights going on and I see them and I'm like, 'Man, I feel like I can beat this guy.'”
Another smile from the happiest young man in boxing.
“I love what I do, like I always tell you,” Zayas said. “I love doing this, I love training hard and preparing for war. And that's what I've been doing.”