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Xander Zayas, 18, improving with help from world champion sparring partners

Kevin Iole
·Combat columnist
·4 min read
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LAS VEGAS — When Xander Zayas turned professional in 2019, he faced the same issues that every other fighter faces. Boxing is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately sport, and he needed to prove himself over and over.

He had to find ways to improve while handling the myriad out-of-the-ring demands placed upon him, such as making weight and dealing with the media.

Zayas, though, had one problem to contend with that most of his peers did not:

Homework.

Zayas was only 16 when he turned pro and was still in high school. And so while many of his peers at Plantation High School were excited about homecoming and the prom, Zayas had to finish his homework and get his work in.

He graduated last year and is now ready to kick into Phase 2 of his career. A welterweight, Zayas has been sparring with current and former world champions and is making a concerted effort to step up in competition.

He is 6-0 with five knockouts and is regarded as one of boxing’s brightest prospects. On Saturday (10 p.m. ET, ESPN) at the MGM Grand Conference Center, he’ll face his toughest challenge as a pro when he meets 6-1 James Martin.

Zayas still has plenty of development ahead of him, but he’s benefitted from sparring with world champion Gervonta Davis and former world champions Daniel Jacobs, Adrien Broner and Robert Easter.

“He’s very good fundamentally and he has all the basics,” Top Rank matchmaker Brad Goodman said of Zayas. “He’s still very young, but he’s well-schooled and has a good teacher. He’s sparred top-notch guys and I think that will help him a ton. Once he gets older and develops his man-strength, that experience will be even more valuable to him.”

ATLANTIC CITY, NJ - JANUARY 11: Referee Sparkle Lee (r) raises the hand of Xander Zayas after winning a unanimous decision against Corey Champion on January 11, 2020 at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey. (Photo by Edward Diller/Getty Images)
ATLANTIC CITY, NJ - JANUARY 11: Referee Sparkle Lee (r) raises the hand of Xander Zayas after winning a unanimous decision against Corey Champion on January 11, 2020 at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey. (Photo by Edward Diller/Getty Images)

Zayas is a personable and charismatic young man who loses his smile only when the bell rings and he’s in the ring with gloves on his hands. He clearly loves what he does and has that kind of raw appeal which will attract fans to him.

Zayas said being out of high school has made a significant difference in him as a fighter.

“I see things from a different perspective now,” Zayas told Yahoo Sports. “I have a profession now and I’m doing what I love and I’m focusing everything on that. It’s easy doing what I love and now, I don’t have to worry about school and on dividing my focus. Now, it’s boxing, boxing, boxing.

“I can wake up in the morning and go to the gym and train and try to get better. I’ve gotten better already in so many ways since I have done this [full-time]. I have better footwork, better combinations, I’ve added more power to my shots, I’ve increased my speed and improved my defense. Honestly, I think everything has gotten better since I can concentrate on it totally. I study the game every day because I love to learn and I want to be the best I can be.”

When unified lightweight champion Teofimo Lopez was 6-0, he was a few months away from being named Yahoo Sports Prospect of the Year after competing in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Zayas is not quite as advanced as Lopez was at that point, but he’s really just now kicking things off.

Goodman is eager to assess Zayas’ progress. Lopez was older when they had the same number of fights and more physically mature.

If Zayas develops that way, Top Rank will have something special.

“With all of these young guys, you have a tough time judging them until they’re facing the better competition,” Goodman said. “But having the fundamentals and the techniques down at an early age is a good thing. When he matures, we’ll have a better idea of what he is going to become.

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