17-year-old boxing prodigy has what it takes to be the next Canelo or Floyd

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist
Xander Zayas. (Mikey Williams/Top Rank)

After signing a slew of the world’s best fighters in the last year, including lineal heavyweight champion Tyson Fury, unified bantamweight champion Naoya Inoue and unified super lightweight king Josh Taylor, Top Rank may have the most talented roster of any promoter in the sport.

Top Rank also promotes champions Vasiliy Lomachenko, Teofimo Lopez, Jose Ramirez, Terence Crawford and Artur Beterbiev. They’re among the greatest fighters in the sport.

But perhaps the most talented, and the one with the greatest potential to be the next Canelo Alvarez or Floyd Mayweather, is a 17-year-old whose afternoons are spent not in the gym but behind his computer completing his high school studies.

Xander Zayas isn’t just a guy with a lot of talent, he’s got the personality, poise and charisma to also become a major ticket-seller. 

He’s 2-0 as a pro and on Saturday in Atlantic City, he’ll fight Corey Champion in a four-rounder (6:30 p.m. ET, ESPN+).

He could easily be preparing for the Olympics now, but a rule change increased the qualifying age to 19, meaning he is too young. And while he’d be old enough for the 2024 games, when he’d be the ripe old age of 21, his manager, Peter Kahn, thought there was too much risk involved in waiting.

“We could have said, ‘OK, let’s be patient and wait for 2024 and prepare for that,’ but let me ask you a question: Are you certain there will even be boxing in the Olympics in 2024?” Kahn said.

It’s a good point, as boxing was on the chopping block for the 2020 Olympics, so there are few guarantees for 2024. Besides, Zayas had already had 136 amateur fights and Kahn and his team weren’t sure what the benefit was to adding a couple of hundred more.

Everyone who saw him, from trainer Javiel Centeno to Kahn to Hall of Fame matchmaker Bruce Trampler, believed him to not only be physically ready for the professional game but mentally and emotionally ready, as well.

Trampler is arguably the best in history at developing fighters, and he earned his Hall of Fame stripes by building Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather. Kahn felt there was no one better to pick the right fights for Zayas than Trampler and fellow Top Rank matchmaker Brad Goodman.

Trampler is not one to effusively praise a young athlete before he or she has accomplished much. But he is in agreement about Zayas.

“I really like his chances,” Trampler said. “[He] could turn out to be very good.”

He’s fighting at welterweight now, but Kahn thinks that when he’s physically mature when he’s 20 or 21, he’ll be a middleweight.

Zayas wants to pattern his career after his idol, former world champion Miguel Cotto, which is not a bad choice. Cotto is one of the great fighters in modern history and will soon be immortalized in the International Boxing Hall of Fame, but Zayas has a charisma that Cotto lacked.

“He’s a kid who checks all the boxes,” Top Rank president Todd duBoef said. “He’s at the intersection of ability, marketability and opportunity. You can equate him to a start-up [business]. We like what we see, we love the potential, we think there is enormous potential for him, but there’s risk associated. Look, he’s 17 years old. A lot of people in other sports have tried to project how a 17-year-old is going to be at 21, 25 and it’s inexact. It’s so hard to do because there are so many variables.

“But this is a kid with a lot of ability and a physicality about him, but he’s got great humility and a very, very mature presence.”

Zayas is home schooled and learned to speak English in just six months, when he moved to Florida to pursue his boxing career. He trains from 8 a.m. until noon, then gets home and does his schoolwork.

There were few Spanish speakers around him and so he adapted quickly.

“When I first came to the United States, I didn’t speak English and it happened pretty quick for me,” he said. “I believe a part of that is because I had no place to speak Spanish except at my house. My gym, everyone spoke English. At school, it was English. I had no choice and it was a good way for me to learn the language.”

And what it has done is helped broaden his potential audience. Media is interested because of his immense potential and because of the reach Top Rank provides. By being bilingual, he can reach a bigger audience.

There is no one-size-fits-all method when it comes to making a star out of a fighter, but Zayas has a pretty good head start on it.

“He’s got such a great mind and he’s very mature for his age,” Kahn said. “ ... He wants to model himself after Cotto and Canelo and be known as a guy who puts in the work, is always prepared, competes hard and is always respectful.”

If he fulfills his potential, he’ll be a boxer-puncher, a guy who is fast enough and slick enough to make you miss and powerful enough to finish you when he gets the opportunity.

He’s got that secret sauce that not many have.

“I get such great support,” he said. “The people understand that I’m learning and they’ve been great. I just want to fight for the people, to show them respect by always being prepared, to bring them joy, to make them proud and to be excited to see me fight.”

More from Yahoo Sports: