The apprenticeship is over for Xander Zayas.
With a co-main event slot against Dan Karpency on Saturday’s Jamel Herring-Shakur Stevenson card at State Farm Arena in Atlanta, the 19-year-old has reached the point where there’s no going backwards. It’s only onward and upward for the frontrunner for 2021 Prospect of the Year, and he’s not complaining.
“I'm just enjoying the moment, enjoying every single step of it,” he said. “I can't complain about life and this boxing career. I'm just living it up.”
For Florida’s Zayas, living it up means fighting as often as possible, something he’s done ever since turning pro in October 2019, fittingly on a Shakur Stevenson card in Reno. And given his activity rate, it doesn’t really feel like two years for him.
“I want to say it has felt like two years, but in reality, no, it hasn't,” said Zayas. “It's been so fast. I'm going into my 11th fight, I will be the co-feature on a world title show on ESPN. It's just amazing. I didn't expect for it to happen this quick, but we're moving fast and we're just enjoying the ride.”
See the megawatt smile and you can tell Zayas is indeed enjoying the ride. And why shouldn’t he? Ten fights (even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic), ten wins, and seven knockouts. And while skeptics might say that keeping a teenager in the gym and the ring is the perfect way to keep him out of trouble, it’s more importantly a way to keep him progressing and evolving, so that when his time comes for bigger fights, he’s ready.
“It keeps me busy, it keeps me focused on what I have to do, and it keeps me in the gym,” Zayas said. “I know I wouldn't get in trouble because I have a great team and great parents behind me, but some people might think about it that way, so maybe it (staying busy) keeps me away from 'getting in trouble.’ But I like being in the gym, there's a good energy all the time. I spend time with my guys there, I spend time with coach, then I get home and I spend time with the family. There's no other way I would rather spend my day than the way I already do it. I like staying busy, I like that Top Rank is trusting me with having fights back-to-back and trusting me by putting me in the co-feature at such a young age and so early in my career. I'm loving it and I will put my all into this. I won't disappoint anybody that believes in me.”
There are a lot of believers at this early stage of his career, more than most hot prospects get because by the time they reach the 10-fight mark, the competition level starts to rise and little in the ring faults are exposed to the naked eye. Zayas has gotten a little flack for some technical blips on the radar, but nothing more than that. If you’ve followed his career thus far, he may not have lost a round yet, and as his opposition gets tougher, Zayas rises to the occasion, making him one of the fighters on the shortlist as a potential world champion. But don’t think he’s reading too much into his press clippings.
“I try to stay away from social media as much as possible,” he laughs. “But also, just having the right team, the right people around you, will keep you humble. They will let you know that we're not even halfway to where we want to be. And that's what my team does for me and what they tell me all the time. I sit down with my mom and my dad and they talk to me and let me know that this isn't even half of the things that I want to accomplish in life. And that just lets me know that I have to continue to work hard, that I have to continue to grind and put my all into this boxing game because that's what's gonna take me to the next level. And I'm willing to do it. I'm willing to take every step to become one of the best in the boxing world.”
Does he feel he’s been tested yet, though?
“There's been a couple fights,” Zayas said. “If we look back at my first fight this year against James Martin, it was a guy that I didn't believe was a tough test, but I knew that he was coming to fight; he wasn't coming to lay down and lose. Also, my last fight (against Jose Luis Sanchez) pushed me because he was a Mexican warrior, which we knew was going to be a tough fight. The fight before that against Larry Fryers, even though I got him out in three rounds, he was a tough opponent. He didn't give up. He showed that he wanted to stay in there. But I believe all my fights have been tough in their own ways. Just getting a guy out of there doesn't mean that they're not tough. They all show me something and make me realize something in my boxing game and that's part of it. I have to continue to grow, and I know for a fact that in the future it will be even better and more exciting tests in my career.”
Pennsylvania’s Karpency may not be that test. At 9-3-1 as a pro, he’s never been stopped, but he’s also 1-1-1 in his last three and coming off a loss to Cody Wilson in February 2020.
Zayas has fought seven times since February 2020.
So let’s just call this the perfect showcase for Zayas’ ESPN debut. He could get some rounds out of Karpency and show his wares, or he could get him out of there early and be the first to achieve that feat. Either way, it’s the next step for a young fighter who is going to be seeing many such opportunities in the future. And after all the media attention and positive notices he’s received thus far, when he does get to the elite level of the sport, he’ll be ready for it all, both in and out of the ring.
“All this will help me by staying calm, by knowing that I've been here before, by knowing that I've had the cameras around me, by knowing that I had the audience and the public around me and by knowing that this is just another step in my career,” Zayas said. “It's just another step that I have to take, another battle that I have to go through, and come out victorious. That's what's going to determine who I am. And I think in five years, when I'm in those big fights, that's what's going to come back to my mind and remind me that I've been doing this for a long time. Then I just have to do what I do best.”