Once amateur boxers build impressive accomplishments their Olympic aspirations intensify.
Xander Zayas was no exception. Thanks to a string of national amateur championships that earned him recognition as one of the top boxers in the country, Zayas envisioned qualifying for the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo. Moreover, a poster of Zayas with the 2020 Olympics logo is on display at the Sweatbox Fitness Gym in Davie, where he has trained the past four years.
A cruel twist of calendar fate, however, has dashed Zayas’ Olympic dream. Zayas, who turned 17 Sept. 5, fell 45 days short of the age cutoff for qualification.
Instead of waiting for the next Olympics cycle and putting more mileage to his 136-amateur bouts, Zayas, after consulting with his parents and close boxing advisors, will embark on a professional career.
A Sunrise resident, Zayas will make his professional debut Saturday night in Reno, Nevada. Zayas will face Genesis Wynn in a scheduled four-round welterweight bout.
“I was chasing a goal of mine, going to the Olympics but the age cut didn’t let me for 2020,” Zayas said after a recent workout. “The Olympics is going to be something to remember. Your name is always going to be written in the history of sports if you box in the Olympics.
“But at the same time the window in boxing is really small. When you have the opportunity to turn pro, you have to take it.”
Zayas signed with Top Rank to promote his bouts. The Las Vegas-based company, overseen by Bob Arum, waited for Zayas to turn 17 before scheduling his first professional fight.
“The biggest transition is getting accustomed to the pro style, like placing the shots,” Zayas said. “Overall, everything has been smooth and good.”
Born in Puerto Rico, Zayas took up boxing at age five. “I started my boxing career because I was being bullied,” Zayas said. “My mom decided to put me into boxing and took me to a local gym. I started liking it.
“I became more secure, going out and playing. Not being shy. Having fun. Before I started boxing, I didn’t do that because I was being bullied. Psychologically it helped me because I could defend myself.”
Zayas recalls that he had one last encounter with a bully after he took up the sport. “The guy that started it got a response,” Zayas said. “After that, he stopped messing with me.”
With the bullies no longer an obstacle, Zayas began amassing a wealth of medals, belts and trophies competing in boxing tournaments. Zayas won his first Puerto Rican championship at age eight. “That’s when I decided I wanted to make boxing my career,” Zayas sad.
Zayas and his parents moved to South Florida in 2014. After a brief learning curve, Zayas made quick adjustments to the new boxing and social environments.
“As boxing styles, it was difficult at first because the style in Puerto Rico and the style here is very different,” Zayas said. “I had to adjust to the boxing in the United States. With time I did adjust.
“There were other difficult adjustments. I didn’t speak any English when I first got here. I couldn’t communicate with anybody. My dad was my translator but my dad wasn’t always there. In school he wasn’t there with me. But overall, I learned English in four months.”
And while he prepares for his professional debut, Zayas has not abandoned academics. Zayas is being home schooled with plans on graduating from Plantation High next June.
“He’s young but he picks up things quickly, he’s like a sponge,” said Javiel Centeno, who trained Zayas the final four years of his amateur career and also will guide him as a professional.
Under Centeno’s tutelage, Zayas routinely placed in the top five in national tournaments before his defining amateur achievements. In 2017, Zayas won the national championship in the 125-pound division. The following year, Zayas culminated his amateur career with a championship in the 152-pound class. The consecutive championships earned Zayas the Outstanding Boxer Award of 2018.
Centeno doesn’t expect Zayas’ lengthy ring layoff to affect him. Zayas has not fought after his decision to turn professional late last year.
“I’ve been training a bunch of pro fighters and we’ve kept him in camp,” Centeno said. “We’ve actually flown him out to certain fights so he can feel the atmosphere and know what it takes that week leading to the fight.”
With the Olympic hopes shut, Zayas foresees his amateur accomplishments continuing as a professional. Zayas also is aware of the challenges posed by fighting professionally at a young age.
“My team and my family are very strict with me,” Zayas said. “I have good communication with them and they always keep me grounded. They always say, ‘stay humble, stay yourself and you will accomplish great things.’ I know who always has been there for me and with me.”
▪ Friday (7 p.m., at Miami Dade County Expo Fair, 10901 S.W. 24 Street, Miami): announced 12-bout card, headlined by Melvin Lopez vs. Jose Velasquez, 10, bantamweights; for ticket information call 786-626-9916.
▪ Friday (11:30 p.m., Telemundo-Ch. 51): Mauricio Pintor vs. John Sosa, 10, welterweights.
▪ Saturday (6:30 p.m., ESPN Plus): Shakur Stevenson vs. Joet Gonzalez, 12, for the vacant WBC featherweight title.
▪ Saturday (9 p.m., Showtime): Erickson Lubin vs. Nathaniel Gallimore, 10, super-welterweights.