Why one of boxing's youngest prospects is finding real challenges in the gym, not the ring

The start of any professional boxing career is typically filled with low-level competition that aims to give the A-side a few rounds and perhaps a small test. At 17, Xander Zayas has fought twice. He has notched two stoppage wins in a total of 3 minutes and 12 seconds of work inside the ring.

The reality is the highly touted welterweight prospect’s most meaningful work is being done away from the public eye — during sparring sessions in training.

Zayas’ training partners carry far more weight than either Genesis Wynn or Virgel Windfield. He has sparred against former IBF junior welterweight world titlist Ivan Baranchyk, 2016 Olympic gold medalist Daniyar Yeleussinov (9-0, 5 KOs as a pro), former 140-pound title contender Amir Imam and unbeaten George Kambosos Jr., among others.

“I would love to show a little bit more of what I can do inside the ring,” says Zayas, the youngest boxer ever signed by Top Rank. “But I feel that in the last two fights the opportunity has been there to win the fights quick and I took advantage of it. But yeah, I would love to show a little bit more of my skills in the ring.”

Zayas has the classic puncher’s physique — a long, lean frame with sinewy muscles — and with his deep amateur pedigree, a solid fundamental base to rely on.

For any young boxer to truly improve and develop their tools, they have to be willing to come out of their comfort zone and not always be the best guy in the building. His next test comes against Corey Champion this Saturday in Atlantic City (ESPN/ESPN Deportes, 10 p.m. ET).

“They don’t improve,” his trainer Javiel Centeno says. “That’s why getting in with these guys that are going to challenge him is important, it’s key.”

Each of Zaya’s sparring partners are not only experienced, but they are diverse in style and technique. So, how can they help him?

Here are Zayas’ thoughts on that quartet:

Baranchyk: “Power puncher — you’ve got to look out for the power punches. I mean, it’s a great experience. He’s hit me before with great punches and I’ve took them, and I feel confident because if I can take his power punches, I feel that I can actually do good against a power puncher. But overall, he’s a great, great fighter. I learn a lot from him.”

Imam: “A boxer, a pure boxer. [Imam is] a guy that is going to teach you how to be sharper, be faster, a little stronger, too. I just keep moving my head and be smart in there.”

Yeleussinov: “Southpaw, great experience. I learned how to control the center of the ring, I learned how to use my angles, how to move around against a southpaw. I learned a lot from him. He’s a great boxer.”

Kambosos: “For me, he’s a short guy, so I’ve got to fight on the outside with him and perfect my jab. I’ve learned a lot from him because he’s explosive, strong and fast. You’ve got to stay sharp and stay smart from the outside.”

It’s a unique dynamic for Zayas, who truly is the little brother in this equation. Just getting his feet wet in the professional realm, his sparring partners are guiding him both personally and professionally.

“He’s a good kid, he’s good at boxing, he’s got all the attributes to become a champion,” says Imam, who came up short challenging WBC junior welterweight world titlist Jose Ramirez in 2018. “He’s got a long jab, fast, strong, and as he gets older he’s going to grow into himself. He’s a very humble kid, cool kid. He’ll be a world champion within due time.

“He’s very smart in the ring, very, very smart. He’s got a boxing IQ, he knows where he’s at in the ring, he lets his punches go when need be.”

Kambosos, whom Zayas says often gives him the hardest time in the ring due to his explosiveness, is effusive in his praise of Zayas.

“He’s an exciting young guy, he’s going to be a future world champion. He’s sharp, he’s got a great jab, defensively he’s very good, as well,” Kambosos explains. “The way he moves, long, rangy style. He’s got a lot of good attributes, and I think as he matures and his raw power starts to really mature. He’s only 17 but at 19, 20, 21, [when] he starts to sit down on his punches, he’s going to be devastating.”

At this time last year, Kambosos was a sparring partner for Manny Pacquiao before Pacquiao’s fight against Adrien Broner. It was an invaluable experience for the native of Australia, who believes that he can have a similar impact on Zayas.

“Having him with me, as I’m getting ready for world title eliminators, big fights, 10, 12 rounders is good for his career, just like I had Pacquiao,” says the 26-year-old Kambosos, who has taken the role of big brother with young Xander.

“He’s not a normal 17-year-old kid. He’s obviously got the spotlight on him now, and he’s got a very good level head.”

Sparring well-known boxers has been the norm for Zayas. A few years ago, when he was much closer to being a flyweight than a welterweight, he trained with newly minted IBF lightweight titleholder Teofimo Lopez when they were both amateurs.

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