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 saw his idols Tito Trinidad and Miguel Cotto enliven the local Puerto Rican community and perform mirror-obsessed feats.
As he looks to take another step in his burgeoning career, Zayas looks to today for inspiration. If he wants to take over the city as a Puerto Rican star, there’s no better role model right now.
The 20-year-old Zayas, who was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico before moving to Sunrise, Florida as a child, will face veteran Alexis Salazar on Saturday night’s Teofimo Lopez-Sandor Martin card (9 p.m., ESPN+) in an eight-round junior middleweight bout. He’ll be in the ring with Mets stud and fellow Puerto Rican Edwin Diaz to the tune of Diaz’s now-famous intro song, “Narco,” with the Mets.
“Diaz is a great friend of mine,” Zayas told The Post before the fight. “We actually met through social media, built a relationship, and I remember in June they were still in season. They came down to play, I’m in Florida, they came down to play the Miami Marlins. I went to a Puerto Rican restaurant with my family, just a simple time with my family, and out of nowhere I saw him and [Mets star shortstop and Puerto Rican native] In came Francisco Lindor. Obviously I’m a big fan, but I only knew Edwin Diaz at the time. When I saw him, he said “what’s up, check the game tomorrow”. So it changed my whole plan for that weekend.”
The two have remained close and are reconnecting now that Zayas is in Diaz.
Diaz took New York City by storm in a dominant 2022 season, posting 32 saves with a 1.31 ERA and 17.1 strikeouts in nine innings, and was just named MLB’s Reliever of the Year. It was his entrance into Narco and the excitement he generated as he walked to the mound that made him a local superstar. Every entrance became a concert, and every time he walked on the field, it was as if the entire stadium stopped to pay attention to him.
As the community seeks to replicate a similar status, Zayas certainly has the necessary qualities.
He posted a 14-0 record during his rookie career and became one of boxing’s most highly anticipated prospects with unlimited potential. After a dominant amateur career, he signed with Top Rank at just 16 years old, the youngest fighter ever to sign a professional contract with the promotion. Each fight and the subsequent victories of his career thus far have helped Zayas get closer to that ultimate vision, and Salazar (24-4) will present his toughest challenge yet.
Zayas saw the plan of Puerto Rican stars, and now some of his current architects are in his corner. Diaz and Lindor also taught Zayas a financial lesson — Lindor signed a 10-year, $341 million contract through 2021, and Diaz recently signed a five-year, $102 million deal, the richest contract ever for a reliever.
“Knowing them in general [Diaz and Lindor] and being able to talk to them and ask for advice and stuff, they’re very healthy people outside of their work,” Zayas said. “Of course they work hard, we all know that, but the circle they’re in, the people around them, they’re healthy people. They’re people who help you grow. And to see that and to know that they’re definitely coming from the same places that I’m from, that if I have a good circle, good people around me, I can grow and grow shows. expansion. Not just in boxing, but in anything you want to achieve in life.”
This will be Zayas’ third fight at Madison Square Garden in the last year. He has emerged as a local favorite, especially among Puerto Rican fans, and is eager to make it a home arena he returns to regularly.
Rich in boxing history, Puerto Rico has been without superstars and great champions since Zayas’ heroes retired. With every shot, Zayas looks closer to changing that.
“Many people think it’s pressure, but I feel it’s more of a responsibility. I know the responsibility to my fans, to my Puerto Rican fans in New York and on the island,” said Zayas. “Every time I step into the ring, I feel like I’m representing them. I have to go out there and do my best to make them proud. This is the only weight on my shoulders – just make my people proud.