Exclusive Interview with Xander Zayas: “I want to beat the best to become the best.”

By Boxing News - 08/18/2023 - Comments

By Paul R. Jones!  On September 15th, emerging Puerto Rican star, Xander Zayas (16-0, 10 KOs), takes on Roberto Valenzuela Jr. (21-4, 20 KOs), of Mexico, in a 10-round Super Welterweight bout at the American Bank Center in Corpus Christi, Texas. Zayas vs. Valenzuela is the co-featured bout on an intriguing Top Rank card headlined by reigning IBF World Champ, Luis Alberto Lopez (28-2, 16 KOs), and two-time world title challenger, Joet Gonzalez (26-3, 15 KOs). Lopez and Gonzalez square off in a 12-rounder for the rights to Lopez’s Featherweight title.

Both bouts will air live on ESPN, ESPN+, and ESPN Deportes.

In advance of his highly anticipated matchup against Valenzuela Jr., I recently caught up with 20-year-old Xander Zayas for an exclusive interview on behalf of Boxing News 24. We covered everything from his fight preparations to his thoughts on Spence vs. Crawford, and who he believes are the Top 5 fighters in boxing today.

Here are some highlights from our conversation, edited for length and clarity:

Boxing News 24 (BN24): Hey Xander, I know you have a fight coming up on September 15th against Roberto Valenzuela Jr.  How has training been going? And how excited are you for that matchup?   

Xander Zayas (XZ): “Man, I’m excited! I mean, every fight it’s a new test. A new challenge. And you got to prepare for it.”

“It’s the most important part of your career. And, since day one, I’ve been doing that. I’m going into step number 17, and I’m looking at [Valenzuela Jr.] as if he is the best in the world right now. He’s the number one ranked fighter, and I gotta go through him to be the best.”

“I’m going to be fighting in Corpus Christi for the first time in my career [and] it’s going to be an exciting crowd over there. It’s going to be a war like always between Puerto Rico and Mexico.”

BN24: I noticed that your fight [with Valenzuela Jr.] was scheduled for 10 rounds, which I believe is a first for you as a pro. Do you plan on fighting 10 rounds or more from this point on?

XZ: “No, I feel like we’ve been ready for 10 rounders. Maybe, in the past, it was just misunderstandings with the fighters and contracts, and stuff like that.”

“We were ready for [a 10 rounder] in the last fight. They just gave us short notice that it was going to be an 8 rounder, and there’s nothing we could do about that, you know?”

“But, from now on, it’s going to be 10 rounds. And we’re looking forward to start stepping it up with everything: opponents, rounds, and competition overall.”

BN24: You’re ranked in the Top 5 in the WBO rankings and top 15 in the WBC rankings. I know you’re not looking past Valenzuela, but how eager are you to fight the top guy at 154 [i.e., Jermell Charlo] or one of the interim titlists [e.g., Tim Tszyu, Brian Mendoza]?

XZ: “It’s an exciting division. Now that Charlo, in a way, is moving up to 160, giving us a bit of more room to work with because he’s vacating a couple of belts. So now we can actually start moving in the division. We’ll get more exciting fights.”

“But, like you said, I’m not looking past this guy. I’m gonna put on a show on September 15th, and I’m excited for what the future holds.”

BN24: You’ve been making a splash in boxing and you’re only 20. Can you share a little about your boxing journey, and tell us how you got started?”

XZ:Well, it all started at 5. My mom put me in boxing just to learn how to defend myself and not be a victim of bullying. And it was just to learn, and I never thought of it as a career.”

“At 10 or 11 years old, when I got to the USA, that’s when I really knew that I had the talent and dedication. And I was putting in the hard work.”

“It’s just a matter of time for me to complete all my goals. And right now, I’m doing that.”

“I’m 20, and I signed my first contract when I was 16. I’m living the dream. I’m doing what I love, at the highest level, and I’m enjoying every step of the way.”

BN24: Your boxing style is often described as super energetic, smart, athletic, and powerful. How do you balance being aggressive, while also staying patient and smart during a fight?”

XZ: “Knowing that you got a guy in front of you that is going to hurt you, you always keep that in the back of your head.”

“[And] when you hurt somebody, that doesn’t mean that they are they completely out. You got to be smart about your attacks, countering, and your angles.”

“I feel, just being as patient as possible, gives me that extra advantage. When I hurt somebody, I can really break them down [and] make them. . . go to the corner and [say]: I don’t want to g out of here anymore. I’m done.”

“If the knockout comes, take it. But, be smart about it, trying to break a guy down little by little.”

BN24: Your trainer, Javiel Centeno, isn’t known by nearly as many boxing fans as he should be. His mentor was Hall of Fame trainer, Angelo Dundee. Can you talk about how the two of you started working together, and how learning from him has helped you become a better fighter?

XZ: “When I first got [to the U.S.], I was with another coach. Unfortunately, he passed away, and that’s when I moved with Coach [Centeno]. I was about 11 or 12. And since that day, I’ve been with him.”

“I feel like we’re family: he’s Puerto Rican, I’m Puerto Rican. I’ve met his whole family. So we kind of have that connection, you know, from the island.”

“Just overall the energy, the vibe, the whole family thing, going into the gym is there. And I feel like I’m at home every time I step into the room with him in my corner.”

“I feel safe. I feel like he’s gonna give me the best instructions that he can. And, he’s somebody that I respect, [and] admire a lot. Somebody that I look up to.”

BN24: Looking to the future, what’s your biggest dream in boxing? Is there a specific fighter you’d love to go up against or a championship title you’re aiming for?

XZ: “When I get there, I want to fight the best! I want to fight the number 1 ranked fighter.”

“When it’s my opportunity to get a title [and] win a World Championship, I want to beat the best to become the best.”

“I just want to be a world champion in multiple divisions, undisputed in maybe two divisions. But, I’ll be happy with one undisputed championship.”

BN24: Switching gears, apart from boxing, what’s something about you that your fans might not know? Any secret talents or hobbies you’d like to tell us about?

XZ: “I’m a very normal human being. You know, I like playing the PS4. I like spending time with the family, watching movies. I don’t have any other talents outside of boxing.”

“I play sports. I feel like I can try any sport and be competitive. I wouldn’t say the best, but good at it.”

Image: Exclusive Interview with Xander Zayas: “I want to beat the best to become the best.”

BN24: I’d like to finish up with 3 quick questions.  First, who are the Top 5 fighters in boxing today that really impress you? And why?

XZ: “(1) Terence Crawford – the craftiness [and] athleticism. (2) Naoya Inoue – the explosiveness, quickness, sharpness, and strength. (3) Canelo Álvarez – the reflexes, counter attacks and attacks, you know, cutting the ring. (4) Man, I like Jaron “Boots” Ennis – it’s the movement, being able to stay in the pocket, and countering shots. Being able to use the defense and switch left to right. I feel like that’s amazing. And definitely (5) Tyson Fury – his height, and the way that he moves for his height and weight, is just incredible.”

BN24: Speaking of Terence Crawford, what did you think about Spence vs. Crawford and how that fight played out?

XZ: “I didn’t expect that fight to play out like that at all.”

“I thought it was gonna be an even fight, [but] Crawford just showed that he’s an athlete. He showed the best of himself in the biggest moment of his career. And he’s the best pound for pound right now. He shut all the doubters out, and it was impressive.”

“I called it, I had [Crawford] winning. And before the fight started, I was here with my family and friends. And one of my friends said, “I got Spence.” But, I’m like ‘nah,’ Bud is gonna knock him out in the ninth round. The ninth round came on, and my boy’s like, hey, there’s your round. I’m like, “watch” and [Crawford] knocked him out right there.”

And, I’m like, “I told you guys. C’mon, man. This is what I do! This is my job. I know what I’m talking about!”

BN24: There’s been talk about Spence and Crawford moving up into your division for a rematch. Do you think the outcome of that fight changes at all if they run it back at 154?

XZ: “No, I don’t think so. More weight or less weight doesn’t matter when the athleticism . . . pace [and] the IQ is there.”

“There’s nothing that can change that. Just putting on seven more pounds, I don’t think it’s going to help. Because [Crawford’s] gonna get as big as [Spence] when they rehydrate again.”

BN24: People really admire your mental toughness. How do you get your mind ready before a fight, and do you have advice for young athletes on building that kind of strong mindset?

XZ: “For me, it’s kind of like a switch. I’m a very happy person: I like to smile, I like to joke. I like to have fun with my people.”

“But, when it’s time to work is, it’s time to switch. It’s time to get serious to show you who’s the best man in the ring.”

“And when I go in there, you’re not my friend. I don’t know you [and] I’ve never met your family. So, I’m gonna show you that I’m just better than you.”

“I don’t want to sound cocky or anything. I feel like, it’s more confidence. Because, at the end of the day, I’m a gentleman. And, after I win, I’m gonna go and give you a hug, and thank you for the opportunity.”

“But, before then, I don’t know you. I’m not your friend. That’s the way I take care of our business.”

BN24: Lots of up-and-coming boxers see you as a role model. What message would you like to share with those young fighters who dream of achieving the kind of success you’ve had?

XZ: “Never quit! Listen to mom [and] listen to dad. Push yourself every time, push yourself to the limit.”

“Doesn’t matter what it takes. It’s gonna be an uphill battle. It’s never gets easy. You gotta believe in yourself and believe in the people you love.”

“And just push every single day.”

BN24: And finally, you’ve talked about your Puerto Rican heritage. And we’re seeing a new era of Puerto Rican Champions in boxing, including reigning champions  Oscar Collazo, Jonathan Gonzalez, Subriel Matias, and Emmanuel Rodriguez. And, in Women’s boxing, we have Amanda Serrano.

Can you talk about what their accomplishments have meant to you? And have those fighters been a motivator for you?

XZ: “Oh, for sure, man! Those guys bringing glory to Puerto Rico means a lot.”

“It brings that happiness back. And us, as fighters, we want to continue that [and] we want to make more champions for Puerto Rico.”

“Now we have five, we want to have 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10, you know. We want to have a World Champion in every division.”

“So, I’m very, very happy for every single champion representing Puerto Rico. And I can’t wait to get my opportunity and be on that list with them.”

BN24: Thanks again for taking time to speak with me, and I wish you all the best for your fight on September 15!

XZ: “Thank you!”

Image: Exclusive Interview with Xander Zayas: “I want to beat the best to become the best.”


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About the Author: 

Paul R. Jones! is a longtime boxing writer and ringside photographer. His articles, photographs, and commentaries have appeared in online and print media, and in scholarly journals. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @boxingepicenter. You can also email him at prjones1@hotmail.com.