Xander Zayas dreams of becoming the next great Puerto Rican boxer and world champion.
He returns to New York City and Madison Square Garden, where he’s seen his idols, Tito Trinidad and Miguel Cotto, electrify the vibrant local Puerto Rican community and accomplish feats he’s obsessed with mirroring.
As he looks to take another step forward in his burgeoning career, Zayas is turning to the present day for inspiration. If he wants to take over the city as a Puerto Rican star, there’s currently no better example to follow.
The 20-year-old Zayas, who was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico before moving to Sunrise, Fla. as a child, squares off with veteran Alexis Salazar Saturday night on the Teofimo Lopez-Sandor Martin card (9 p.m., ESPN+) in an eight-round junior middleweight bout. He will walk into the ring alongside Mets stud closer and fellow Puerto Rican Edwin Diaz to the tune of “Narco,” the now-famous entrance song Diaz features with the Mets.
“Diaz is a great friend of mine,” Zayas told The Post ahead of the bout. “We actually met through social media, we built a relationship, and I remember around June, they were still in season. They came down to play, I’m here in Florida, they came down to play the Miami Marlins. I went to a Puerto Rican restaurant with my family, just a regular time with the family, and out of nowhere I saw him and [Mets star shortstop and Puerto Rican native] Francisco Lindor walk in. Obviously, I’m a big fan, but I only knew Edwin Diaz at the time. When I saw him he was like ‘what’s up, come out and check out the game tomorrow.’ And so he changed my whole plan for that weekend.”
The two have remained close, and as Zayas now comes to Diaz’s city, are reconnecting.
Diaz captivated New York City during his dominant 2022 season, recording 32 saves with a 1.31 ERA and otherworldly 17.1 strikeouts per nine innings, and was just named MLB’s Reliever of the Year. It was his “Narco” entrance and the excitement he carried as he walked to the mound, however, that launched him into a local superstar. Every entrance turned into a concert, and the whole stadium seemed to stop to turn its attention to him every time he walked on the field.
Amid his quest to replicate a similar stature in the community, Zayas certainly possesses the necessary qualities.
He’s stormed out to a 14-0 record in his nascent career, already breaking out as one of boxing’s most-anticipated prospects with limitless potential. After a dominant amateur career, he signed with Top Rank at just 16-years-old, the youngest fighter to ever sign a pro contract with the promotion. Each fight, and so far in his career, subsequent win, has helped Zayas leap closer to that ultimate vision, and Salazar (24-4) presents him his toughest challenge yet.
Zayas has seen the blueprint from Puerto Rican stars to follow, and now has some of its current architects in his corner. Diaz and Lindor also have provided Zayas financial lessons — Lindor signed a 10-year, $341 million contract in 2021, and Diaz recently inked a five-year, $102 million deal, the richest-ever for a reliever.
“Overall, knowing them [Diaz and Lindor] and being able to speak with them, asking them advice and stuff, they’re very healthy people outside of doing their job,” Zayas said. “Obviously they work hard, we all know that, but the circle they keep, the people that they are around, they’re healthy people. They’re people who help you grow. And just seeing that and knowing that they obviously came from the same places that I came from, it shows me that if I keep a good circle, good people around me, I’ll be able to grow, and I’ll be able to expand. Not just in boxing, but in anything that I want to accomplish in life.”
It will be Zayas’ third fight at Madison Square Garden in the last year. He’s emerged as a local favorite, particularly among Puerto Rican fans, and is keen on making it a hometown arena to return to regularly.
Rich in boxing history, Puerto Rico had been void of superstars and great champions since Zayas’ heroes retired. With every punch, Zayas appears closer to changing that.
“A lot of people think it’s pressure, but I feel like it’s more responsibility. I know the responsibility I have with my fans, my Puerto Rican fans in New York and the island,” Zayas said. “I feel like I represent them every time that I step into the ring. I have to go out there and do the best I can to the best of my abilities to make them proud. That’s the only weight that I have on my shoulders – just make my people proud.”
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